Saturday, October 17, 2015

Whether he had meant it as a joke - Aira's "Cecil Taylor" - She is not a story.

I doubt I was the only one who did this.  Roberto Bolaño had called César Aira’s “Cecil Taylor” (1987, I think) “one of the five best stories I can remember,” so even though it was not available in English I had to see for myself even if I could not exactly read it.  What I wanted to know was if the story was actually about Cecil Taylor, the thorny jazz pianist, one of the inventors of free jazz – he broke free from chords – and one of the few surviving giants of the 1950s.  One of two, I am afraid, along with Sonny Rollins.

Yes, the story is in fact about Cecil Taylor and his struggles early in his career not to be understood but just to be heard.  César Aira has now published something like ninety little books, sometimes producing three or four a year, but in 1988, well, I suspect there is some strong identification of the author with his subject.

His experience at Cooper Union was even less gratifying.  They used a blackout as a pretext to stop him halfway through; there was vigorous booing, and from what he heard later, his performance left the audience wondering about the limits of music, and whether he had meant it as a joke.  (349)

“Cecil Taylor,” now available in English via Chris Andrews in The Musical Brain and right here, was at that time only accessible in a 1992 collection called Buenos Aires: una antología de nueva ficción argentina (which someone should translate in its entirety).  Each story in the anthology was preceded by a new preface from the author.  How I wrote it; how I thought it up.  Aira prefaced “Cecil Taylor” with this (not in The Musical Brain):


The genie, outside of the bottle, tall like a twenty-story building, briefly instructed the young man:

“You will have in your life a beautiful woman who you will have at your whim.”


“More than you can imagine.  And helpless, without resources or friends.”

“For me?”

“For you alone.  She will be yours.  But there is a condition,” advised the genie with severity, “Do not think for an instant that she is an example or a metaphor for some other thing.  She is reality.  She is happening right now.  She is not a story.”   (my translation)

The nature of personal pronouns in Spanish tempts me to translate the last sentence as the Diderot-like “It is not a story.”  A Musical Brain features several genies; Taylor is himself described as a genie:

His continual changes of address protected him; they were the little genie’s suspended dwellings, and there he slept on a bed of chrysanthemums, under the shade of a droplet-laden spiderweb.  (346, tr. Andrews)

I know too little about the actual Taylor’s biography to know much about what in “Cecil Taylor” is fact and what is plausible guesswork, but this bit, I assume, is taken from life.

Here you can see Aira meet Taylor earlier this year, when Aira was in New York to promote The Musical Brain.

To hear Taylor, please sample anything from Cecil Taylor in Berlin ’88, which is what Taylor was doing when the story was written, not what he was doing in 1956.  His early innovations have been so thoroughly absorbed that Jazz Advance (1956) or, even better, The World of Cecil Taylor (1960) now just sound like jazz.

A conventional musician, [Taylor] thought, is always dealing with music in its most general form, as if leaving the particular for later, waiting for the right moment.  And they did pay [Taylor]: twenty dollars, on the condition that he would never show his face there again.  (351, Andrews).

That is how Aira’s non-story ends, but In Berlin ’88 and The Musical Brain tell me what happened when these artists kept showing their faces, again and again.



    El genio salido de la botella, alto como un edificio de veinte pisos, aleccionó brevemente al joven:

    - Habrá en tu vida una mujer bellísima de la que podrás disponer a tu antojo.

    - ¿Bellísima?

    - Más de lo que puedas imaginar. Y desamparada, sin recursos ni amigos. No podrá sino entregarse a vos.

    - ¿A mí?

    - A vos solo. Será tuya. Pero hay una condición –advirtió el genio con severidad-: no pienses ni por un instante que ella es una ejemplo o una metáfora de alguna otra cosa. Es la realidad. Está sucediendo ahora mismo. No es un cuento.

  2. Jazz, surrealist paintings. He seems to like exploring various forms of "spontaneous" art and correlatives to his literary tendencies.

  3. Does Aira introduce some element of the fantastic in all his works?

  4. The story "The Two Men" digresses into a substantial essay about appreciating conceptual art. "Cecil Taylor" is to some degree genuinely about innovation in jazz. But then the stories are about innovation more generally, conceptual art more generally. Aira's attempts to describe what he is doing.

    Guy - good question. Strictly speaking, no; substantially, yes. The line I quote above from "Cecil Taylor" is the only such line in the story, which makes it easy, perhaps imperative, to take it as metaphor, but still, there it is.

    1. Thanks. I'm going to try another.

    2. Aira is deliberately writing in a manner and tradition that fights against chronology, quality, "where to start," "Aira's best book," and similar notions. Which is fun, if sometimes frustrating. Yes, try another.

    3. Sometimes I wonder if Aira and Eric ("El Che Bilardo") Chevillard are the same writer (nobody has seen them in the same room at the same time; just saying...).

    4. Ah, Chevillard. Yes, the one I read was awfully Airish. Or the other way. I should try two or three more.

  5. Such a great story. Glad it's finally available in English.

  6. Aside from my early attempt at "reading" the story, a kind reader of Wuthering Expectations sent me a translation several years ago. But it was like the story was a secret.

  7. What conceptual artists like Cecil Taylor or Aira do to their audience's expectations is like what a lady of the night does when she bangs on a glass behind which a cat is about to swallow a mouse, scaring the cat away, and thus disappointing and aggravating a large audience of hoodlums waiting to see the predictable conclusion to the confrontation between the two animals. Or something like that, it's not supposed to be a metaphor after all.

  8. No, it is reality.

    I didn't even hint at that intro. Well, I linked directly to the story.

  9. The presence of the Cecil taylor story has certainly swung a sale of The Musical Brain, previous mentions of it having primed my interest.