Argentina’s César Aira has written and published over seventy novels (though no one seems certain how many there actually are), few of them longer than a hundred pages. He was first introduced to Anglophone readers in 1996, and five of his works are now available in English. Roberto Bolaño has called him ‘one of the three or four best writers working in Spanish today’.
Kill Your Darlings contributor Samuel Rutter asked Aira about his writing practice, the unique freedom of writing, and literature, the queen of the arts.
Please describe for us a day in the writing life of César Aira, author.
At around ten in the morning I go to a nearby café with a notebook and a pen (I have a huge collection of fountain pens from all the famous brands, and I’m always buying strange or elegant notebooks) and order an espresso. I write for a while, never more than an hour, and I never end up with more than a page. Back at home I type it up and then print it. That’s it. I dedicate the rest of the day to reading, watching films at home, meeting up with friends or riding my bike.
You are renowned for never revising your novels, and for following the thread of a story without retreating. Do you consider this to be a methodological process or an aesthetic position?
It’s not deliberate; it just seems to me like the natural way of doing it. Once I’ve finished something, I put it away for a few months, after which I pull it out with the utmost intention of correcting it, but when I start to read the piece I’m overcome with laziness, or with self-deception, and I leave it as it is. In any case, it’s difficult for one to write better than one actually writes.
Your works are very short – usually no longer than one hundred pages, and nearly always contain only a single scene or storyline. They are also very numerous; no one seems to know exactly how many there are, but the consensus appears to be between eighty and a hundred. How important is brevity in fiction? And exactly how many books have you published?
I don’t know how many books I’ve published. There must be more than eighty of them. But half of them aren’t really books so much as ‘plaquettes’, ten or twenty pages long. If I weren’t so impatient, or if I didn’t have so many friends in publishing who print these little books, I would wait two or three years and collect those pieces in a normal-sized volume.
With respect to the maximum of one hundred pages in my ‘long’ books, it came about naturally over the course of time. I began by writing novels of conventional dimensions (I think I even got to four hundred pages once) but I ended up downsizing to those hundred pages, which are the ideal format for the type of stories that occur to me.
I said once that these days, the thicker a book is, the less literature it contains. I maintain that position, and when someone counters with Proust or Tolstoy, I respond that I was referring to our times, not to the past.
Due to their shortness and your use of a sole storyline, some critics have described your works as ‘novellas’, as opposed to what they might consider fully-fledged novels. Are such distinctions still useful today?
Only an academic would care about that. The one thing I’m sure about is that I don’t write novels, an anachronistic genre that exhausted itself in the nineteenth century, experienced all of its posthumous transformations in the twentieth century, and today only retains its relevance in ‘commercial fiction’. What I do might be labelled ‘short stories’ or ‘fiction’, or, more precisely, ‘Dadaist fairytales’.
You have cited Osvaldo Lamborghini as an important influence in your formation as a writer. He was part of the literary avant-garde in Argentina, and although his work is now more widely appreciated, he did receive much critical or popular attention during his lifetime. You, on the other hand, continue to publish ambitious books that are nonetheless widely celebrated by the press and the literary community. Is this a sign that avant-garde literature is more appreciated in our times? Does the literary avant-garde even exist?
According to my own personal definition, the avant-garde’ is whatever does not accept the established values (of quality, or readability, of order, of beauty) and proposes the creation of a new set of values. There will always be someone who proposes them, and so there will always be the avant-garde in literature and in the other arts. And they will always be very few, because it’s very bad business.
You once said that you don’t consider yourself a writer as such, but as an artist whose medium happens to be the written word. What draws you to literature in particular, over other arts such as music or painting?
When I was twenty years old I wanted to make music or cinema, or be a plastic artist. For music or the plastic arts one needs a bare minimum of natural talent, which I didn’t have and still don’t have; and to make cinema in those days (in the 1960s) was very difficult. So I wrote. I believed, and continued to believe for many years, that I had chosen literature out of desperation, because I couldn’t do anything better. Only now have I become convinced that literature is the queen of arts, the most difficult and the art that contains all the others. And I see that when I wrote I was practising those other arts.
How important is the issue of identity in your work? There is often a very blurred line between the ‘I’ who narrates your novels and the ‘I’ who is César Aira, author. I’m thinking in particular of How I Became a Nun, where the protagonist shares your name and much of your personal history, but where there is a clearly fantastical diversion from biography into fiction.
It’s one of the many games allowed by fiction, and I allow myself all of them. In this like in everything else, I follow my whims; I follow the spontaneous decisions made in the moment. For serious deliberation and sensible decision-making there’s real life, where I conduct myself like the most proper middle-class family man. Writing is my freedom, where I receive orders from no one, not even from myself.
It’s notoriously hard to find some of your older works – you have published books in Argentina, Spain, México and Chile, often in small publishing houses and small editions. You now have dedicated readers living across the globe, and this arguably makes you an ideal candidate for electronic publishing. What are your thoughts on e-books? Is it something you’d consider pursuing in the future?
For me, all the pleasure of writing a book ends once I’ve written it. What happens afterward (publication, translation) hardly matters to me, because I’m already writing another book, and I’m focusing all my attention and my libido on that. In that sense I could also accept electronic publication, although for the moment I consider it phantasmal, as everybody else my age surely does.
Several blogs and literary reviews in the United States have greeted the decision by New Directions to publish your work in English by calling you ‘the next Roberto Bolaño’. What do you make of the Bolaño phenomenon in the USA? Do you think his success has changed the way Latin American fiction will be received in the 21st century?
I’ve hardly read Bolaño. He’s not my cup of tea. What’s more, I come from a time when success was suspicious. I’ll always be marginal. I’ll always have readers, but I’ll never have an audience.
Your translator into English is an Australian, Chris Andrews. How much collaboration is there between yourself and Chris in the translation process?
Chris is an excellent poet, and that in itself is a sufficient guarantee. Generally he sends me a series of questions, and generally I have no idea about how to answer them, so he figures them out himself and he does so very well.
We’re very pleased to have you here for the Melbourne Writers Festival, where you’ll be participating in two sessions: one in English with Chris Andrews and the other in Spanish. Do you plan on attending other events in the festival? What do you think of Melbourne, a UNESCO City of Literature?
I’ll definitely go to see something, but I’m more interested the country itself, which I’m visiting for the first time; in the city, the views, the bookstores, the museums. Travel is good nourishment for a writer; there’s always something from a journey that ends up in a book. I didn’t know Melbourne was a ‘UNESCO City of Literature’. For me all cities are cities of literature, as long as they have good bookstores.
César Aira will be a guest of the 2011 Melbourne Writers Festival. Aira will appear in conversation with his translator, Australian Chris Andrews: in English, 4pm on 27 August; or in Spanish, 2:30pm 28 August. Or celebrate 75 Years of New Directions, publisher of Aira and experimentalists Dylan Thomas, Ezra Pound.
Samuel Rutter has studied at the PUC University in Chile and recently returned from a year working in Spain. His fiction and poetry can be found in journals such as Kill Your Darlings, Island and The Big Issue, and his criticism has been published in journals in Chile and Venezuela.