Review: César Aira, a novelist of obsession worth obsessing over

Tyler Malone
The novelist César Aira in Buenos Aires, Argentina.  (Ricardo Ceppi/Ricardo Ceppi/Getty Images)

Sui generis is really the only way to accurately describe César Aira, the Argentine author who somehow manages to write a handful of novels every year. But not only is he unlike any other author; each book he publishes — and there are more than 100 — seems entirely unique. In “Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter,” Aira fictionalizes the biography of real-life 19th century German documentary painter Johann Moritz Rugendas. In “Dinner,” he invites us to feast on a zombie apocalypse. He’s by turns a realist, a magical realist and a surrealist — and therefore not really any of them. Anything can happen in an Aira novel, and almost everything does.

His most recent book to be translated into English, “Artforum,” is about a man in Buenos Aires who loves the magazine Artforum. Ostensibly it is a collection of stories (or a novel? a diary?) wherein each narrative unit (story? chapter? journal entry?) directly or indirectly takes that hip and long-lived American art journal as its subject. But fixated as it is on Artforum, it’s really a book about artforms.

In an attempt to connect Aira to an artistic lineage, Chilean author Roberto Bolaño claimed that Aira’s novels “seem to put the theories of Gombrowicz into practice.” Witold Gombrowicz, the Polish writer who emigrated to Argentina just before the outbreak of World War II, was interested in the dance between form and formlessness, in obsessive but doomed quests for meaning, in ever more expansive webs of intricate (though perhaps imagined) connective tissue. Gombrowicz’s novel “Cosmos” follows a man named Witold who finds a dead bird hanging by a string, a discovery that sets into motion a series of connections and consequences — a minor cosmos.

Like many of Gombrowicz’s protagonists, the narrator of “Artforum” resembles his author, and he too is fixated on the cosmic connections, divine structures and numinous meanings that can erupt from ordinary objects and situations. The narrator gets tips from friends about where to find back issues of the magazine, fishes around in bookstores, signs up for a subscription after years of hemming and hawing, develops a new method for numbering the days while waiting for his sacred treasures to arrive by mail and even fantasizes about creating his own issues.

Throughout the book the narrator waxes poetic on idiosyncratic ideas like “form fatigue” (the “natural wearing away” of forms) and the “divine automatism” of things. Both are embodied by an issue of Artforum that he claims sacrificed itself to save a stack of other magazines from the rain, “like a magical and heroic soldier … taking all the bullets in his body without letting a single one hit his companions.”

Even when his obsession wanes, a random image or sound might bring the magazine back to his mind. The less obvious the connection, the sharper the invocation: “It could be a leaf falling from a tree, the blast of a car horn, some children playing ball in the plaza, the color of the sky at dawn. It came accompanied by a vague sense of futility, which was also futile.”

To him, the magazine is more than the sum of its parts — or rather, the form is what gives the parts meaning. “I realized that if I were offered the entire content of Artforum without Artforum, I wouldn’t be interested,” Aira writes. Over the decades of his obsession, there emerge connections and conjectures, “ad hoc causalities” and “small allusive folklores” — an “entire complex of representation”

Aira is interested in how we create our obsessions and how our obsessions create us. It’s a reciprocal process — for him and for the reader, who must also make webs of meaning out of the odd, ambiguous forms his stories take.

Of the dozens of books Aira has published, few are longer than 100 pages. He has argued that “the thicker a book is, the less literature it contains.” This absurd claim betrays one of Aira’s greatest gifts, which he shares with the narrator of “Artforum”: his “ability to find contentment in small things, in minimums, including minimums of meaning.”

With these intricate miniatures, Aira seems to have invented his own minor artform, an object as distinctive in size, shape and structure as those “almost square” issues of Artforum. His method, which he calls “fuga hacia adelante” (“fleeing forward”), involves never writing for more than an hour a day and rarely going back to revise those bursts of text. Whatever corner he has written himself into, he must improvise a way out of through propulsive improvisation.

In “Artforum,” the narrator describes the same method — writing for an hour and then waiting for the next day: “My work as a writer was a constant repetition of time’s surrender to waiting.” Aira’s fans, too, surrender to waiting — waiting for the next book as the narrator waits for the next Artforum; they come frequently but never frequently enough.

The new novel won’t disappoint those fans, but for the uninitiated, is “Artforum” a good place to start? As with most random issues of a great magazine, it’s as good a place to start as any. It represents the oeuvre while subverting it in idiosyncratic particulars. It may not be Aira’s best, but to speak of “bests” is to miss the point of Aira. His novels are more meaningful when taken together, each a shard of the same symbolic object. “Artforum” is a minor work that creates a minor cosmos, and in so doing feels — like the rest of Aira, and the best of art — major.

Artforum

César Aira

New Directions: 80 pages, $13.95



Malone is a writer based in Southern California.