01 October 2011

The spontaneous realism of César Aira

In the late Portugese novelist José Saramago's Memorial do Convento ("Annals of the Convent", 1982), which appeared in the English version by Giovanni Pontiero as Baltasar and Blimunda (1987), a liberal priest, with the help of a maimed former soldier and a clairvoyant woman, attempted to construct the Passarola, a flying machine that could soar into the sky, fold the spacetime (perhaps), and basically help them escape the sweet embrace of the Inquisition. Their success on this fairy-tale project would depend on the accumulation of "human wills" that would generate enough power for the Passarola to fly. These "human wills" would have to be harvested by the clairvoyant woman from the human bodies and somehow funneled into the machine. That's the general idea. Whether the conceit works in theory and in practice depends on the suspension of both belief and disbelief.

The preceding paragraph may have nothing to do with the rest of this post. The post is supposedly about the novel The Seamstress and the Wind (translated by Rosalie Knecht, 2011; La costurera y el viento, 1994) by César Aira, "micro-novelist" (which is to say, a prose stylist with a predilection for precision, for scientific or near-scientific details, and a predisposition to short-length novels). I decided, while in the middle of reading the book, that I should start my post on it with a description of the Passarola in Baltasar and Blimunda. And then see where it leads me. One foot in front of another. One word placed after another. I'm superficially borrowing Aira's method of writing: never revising much of what one wrote, never planning ahead what one is going to write, and simply writing whatever comes to mind. Where the story leads is anybody's guess. Where it ends up is where it will.

In a recent interview, he said that not revising is not a deliberate choice for him, "it just seems to me like the natural way of doing it." When starting to read and correct what he wrote months before, he's "overcome with laziness, or with self-deception, and I leave it as it is." The slacker.

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.

Of all the translated fiction by Aira to date, each of which is a singular specimen of absurdity, The Seamstress and the Wind had the most patchy or sketchy of plots. It was essentially all over the place. Whims alighted on a variety of objective ideas - lunar tidal effects, the dessicated landscapes of Patagonia, particle physics. More like a draft outline than a complete natural story. Instead of a synopsis of the plot, an enumeration of the elements (characters, more like chess pieces) would best serve to communicate its radical senselessness. There's a writer writing in a Parisian café, a 'kidnapped' child, his seamstress mother who ran after him, his father who ran after her, a truck driver, a levitating wedding gown sewn by the seamstress, the betrothed teacher who ran after her wedding gown, a 'Paleomobile' made from an ancient animal shell, a powerful talking wind, and a monster. The plot, in other words, is mayhem.

The best way to read The Seamstress and the Wind is as a parody of a César Aira novel. At this point, where a paltry half a dozen of the novelist's six or seven dozen books has so far been translated, "what a César Aira novel is" is still a working theory. There are, however, many symptoms. The novel is something "polymathematical", a constellation of ideas, forged in a method free of linearity and driven by superfluity. Some of its novel qualities are: (i) contradiction - or maybe, a willful opposition - let's say, the constant sending up of what was said or what had just occurred ("I have always venerated work above all else; work is my god and my universal judge, but I never worked, because I never needed to" [23]); and (ii) spontaneity - let us say, the elimination of the plot's "scriptedness", its built-ness, and hence, its predictability. But to put it simply, the elimination of plot. Or rather, its studied outline, its "studied-ness". Instead of thriving in epiphanies, the novel goes for metamorphosis after metamorphosis after metamorphosis. Perpetual transformation and emergence of scenarios and character pieces sucked in by dynamic space and time. An attempt to describe the "Airaesque" has been made in someone's rabid rambling review of The Hare (which might as well be titled "How I Became a Fan").

The Airaesque is the deliberate and conscious flouting of logic and literary conventions. It is a representation of a literary search for meaning, without due regard for whatever methodical means are used to justify the obscene ends. Where the act of disruptive writing is a reflection of chaotic reading. The Airaesque is artistic gestation nipped at the precise point when the story is just about to escape absurdity, in order to re-enter absurdity. The Airaesque is the climax and ending that resist further epiphanies. The Airaesque is the obsessive-compulsive order.

This formulation highlighted more the tic than the tendency. Let us assume for a moment that a unique writing method is but a manifestation of a more general genre of writing, perhaps a literary movement, concerned not only with the method but with the worldview that springs from that method. Assume for a moment that the Airaesque is but a specific instance of this genre of writing. Assume that there exists a type of writing that deliberately plunges ahead into the story, accessing the stock of imagination, and transcribing imagination's past and present memory to write the future. The result, if the method is applied successfully, is another working theory, of questionable validity but a vital step toward completion of a thinking thought. It operates or propagates in what the micro-novelist referred to as the "continuum" (a word that probably appears in Aira's books just as often as the word "abyss" appears in Roberto Bolaño's).

The genre can take a convenient name, announced by this post's title. Spontaneous realism - that genre of writing that is ... self-explanatory.

Assume that it arises, spontaneously, from the need to float ideas that may or may not flow and gel into unity. The plot trajectory (the surface story) zigzags and digresses with minimal regard for smooth transitions. Underneath the plot surface, the graph approximates an average trend, new underlying patterns emerge, establishing a fresh set of narrative principles propelling the story into an ending that is immaterial to the whole. In the process of writing, form is built up and discovered.

The result is "live writing", writing alive with potential interpretations. Its only constraints are length and spontaneity (i.e., none) for every novelette has to prematurely end and spontaneity is but a form of daydreaming. In the special and general theories of relativity, the speed of light is the upper limit of the speed of all matter; spontaneous realism requires that the theory of relativity, all existing physical theories in fact, be held in abeyance. The only rule is for imagination, like suspected neutrinos, to travel at a freewheeling speed that exceeds even that of light. (Speed is particularly relevant to The Seamstress and the Wind wherein characters run or flee all throughout the book, speeding up and accelerating faster and faster, reaching supersonic speeds, "supernatural velocity", not entirely relying on the allowable outcomes predicted by Newton's laws of motion, the law of gravitation, and the theory of relativity, but on the unpredictable outcomes of Aira's mutant-like powers of observation.) In principle, existing theories (narrative conventions) are considered unstable, perpetually under construction. The spontaneous realist makes his own relativity rules. Spontaneous realism, where narrative freedom is its own literary (moral) code, where literary experimentation is not the test of the validity of a story, but the other way around.

To quote Pontius Pilate, in one of his several decisive and definitive acts in John's testament - Quod scripsi, scripsi. What I have written, I have written. The very epigraph, in fact, of Senhor Saramago's The Gospel According to Jesus Christ (1993; O evangelho segundo Jesus Cristo, 1991).

Besides Aira, other notable practitioners of spontaneous realism are Portuguese and Spanish language novelists like Saramago, Javier Marías, and (to some extent) Bolaño. Saramago said as much in his interview with his first translator Giovanni Pontiero:

I have no special method or discipline. Words emerge, one after another, in strict sequence, out of a kind of organic necessity, to put it loosely. But there is inside me a scale, a norm, which permits me to control, one might almost say intuitively, the 'economy' of detail. In principle, the logical I is open to all possibilities, but the intuitive I governs itself with its own laws which the other I has learnt to obey. All of this is clearly unscientific, unless as part of another involuntary and inherent science ...

Aira has embraced this similar involuntary and inherent science of spontaneous realism. Marías put it to use in the cosmogony of his late fiction, 'thinking novels' that first emerged as works in progress. He described his writing method, a clear variant of Aira's, in his Paris Review interview:

I lose time in the sense that I very rarely write more than one page per day, sometimes two, which means that I don’t advance very quickly. Until I have finished one page the best possible way and have rewritten it as many times as necessary, I don’t move on to the next. Many writers I know write a first draft and then revise again and again. On page two hundred they realize that it would be better if they had said something different on page one or two. They change page one or page two, but that is precisely what I never do. Even if it would make things easier if I hadn’t said this or that on page five, I won’t change it. If I wrote that something would happen or be said by a certain character, then on page two hundred I must stick to it.

This method is quite a risky one and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone because the final result can be disastrous. But I write my novels according to the same principle of knowledge that rules life: If you do something when you are fifteen or twenty, you can’t change it. When you are forty you may wish you hadn’t done this at fifteen or twenty, but you have and you can’t change that. Some people try to change it, some people try to forge a past, some people become imposters, some people hide the things they did, but in fact you cannot undo what was done. You have to stick to what happened. Much of what I write in the beginning of a novel occurs by chance. Once I finish a page, it goes to the printer. Later, I force myself to make things match, to make necessary what was whimsical. If you come to think of it, it is quite absurd to do this in a novel, because in a novel you do have the chance to change everything—until it is published.

Surprisingly, one or two pages per day is the same amount of daily writing that Aira and Saramago committed themselves with. Saramago also never revised too much and never made detailed plans of his writing. Here's his method, also in The Paris Review:

I do not force myself to work a certain number of hours per day, but I do require a certain amount of written work per day, which usually corresponds to two pages. This morning I wrote two pages of a new novel, and tomorrow I shall write another two. You might think two pages per day is not very much, but there are other things I must do—writing other texts, responding to letters; on the other hand, two pages per day adds up to almost eight hundred per year.


Once I have reached the end of a work, I reread the whole text. Normally at that point there are some alterations—small changes relating to specific details or style, or changes to make the text more exact—but never major ones. About ninety percent of my work is in the first writing I put down, and that stays as is.


Yes, I have a clear idea about where I want to go and where I need to go to reach that point. But it is never a rigid plan. In the end, I want to say what I want to say, but there is flexibility within that objective. I often use this analogy to explain what I mean: I know I want to travel from Lisbon to Porto, but I don’t know if the trip will be a straight line. I could even pass through Castelo Branco, which seems ridiculous because Castelo Branco is in the interior of the country—almost at the Spanish border—and Lisbon and Porto are both on the Atlantic coast.

What I mean is that the line by which I travel from one place to the next is always sinuous because it must accompany the development of the narrative, which might require something here or there that was not needed previously. The narrative must be attentive to the needs of a particular moment, which is to say that nothing is predetermined. If a story were predetermined—even if that were possible, down to the last detail that is to be written—then the work would be a total failure. The book would be obliged to exist before it existed. A book comes into existence. If I were to force a book to exist before it has come into being, then I would be doing something that is in opposition to the very nature of the development of the story that is being told.

I don't have an idea about his writing method, but the gravely ill Bolaño for sure had limited time to revise his works as he wrote book after book in his last years. And his fiction sometimes have the quality of a ramble or an outpouring.
Success or failure of these writers' fictional enterprise - enterprise being a more apt term for what they do, as opposed to fiction writing - is meaningful only if assessed on their own terms: the degree to which spontaneous realism perfectly matched the requirements of the story. An excerpt from The Seamstress and the Wind:

   In the summer I woke up very early, with the birds, because the dawn was very early then, much earlier than now. Time didn't change according to the seasons then, and Pringles was very far south, where the days were longer. At four, I think, the chorus of birds would begin. But there was one, one bird, the one that woke me up on those summer mornings, a bird with the strangest and most beautiful song you could imagine. I never heard anything like it afterwards. His twittering was atonal, insanely modern, a melody of random notes, sharp, clean, crystalline. It was special because it was so unexpected, as if a scale existed and the bird chose four or five notes from it in an order that systematically sidestepped any expectations. But the order could not always be unexpected, there is no method like that: by pure chance it would have to meet some expectation, the law of probabilities demands it. And yet, it did not.
   In fact, it was not a bird. It was Mr. Siffoni's truck, when he turned the crank. In those days you had to turn a crank on the front of a car to make the engine turn over. This was a really old vehicle, a little square truck, a red tin can, and it wasn't clear how it kept running. After the marvelous trill came the pathetic coughing of the engine. I wonder if that wasn't what woke me up, and that I imagined the previous. I often have, even today, these waking dreams. [20-21]

So much for the bird, poor bird, whose beautiful poetic existence was music for no more ears. It wasn't a bird, it was a truck, okay? The methodology can be rude sometimes.

(The metamorphosis of plot was put into greater effect in the hallucinatory novel How I Became a Nun (2007; Cómo me hice monja, 1993) - I think my most favorite flavor of Aira's ice cream. In it, the kid narrator had the same barbaric precocity, the same feral intensity, as the narrators of other excellent novels where kids are the main protagonists. Here's an unsolicited reading list: Henry Roth's Call It Sleep, Helen DeWitt's The Last Samurai, J. M. Coetzee's Boyhood, Thomas Bernhard's Gathering Evidence, Amélie Nothomb's Loving Sabotage. All featured a highly intelligent child, who was at the same time a "problem child". The last three books in this list, like Aira's, were autobiography or autobiographical. The only difference is that Cómo me hice monja completely overturned the concept of the "coming-of-age" tale. La costurera y el viento was made a companion volume to Cómo me hice monja in the Spanish edition, and in another omnibus comprising the same two novellas alongside a short story featuring the young César and Omar the 'kidnapped kid'.)

In reading a novel of spontaneous realism, one is on the lookout for the hard details, for the whims and asides and digressions, for the meta-structural descriptions made through authorial interventions. One keeps reading between the lines. The story often seems to loop back on itself, to reference itself, as evident in key passages and digressions. One is never lacking for things to ponder; the key is to keep on reading.

Spontaneous reading. Read now, think later. The criticism will take care of itself.

... she came out somewhere completely different, in a dark and intricate jumble of metal. She was helplessly caught in its twists and turns. As if the inertia weren't enough, she insisted on continuing forward, sticking a leg in, and then another, an arm, her head ... [90]

With emphasis on the "insistence" to continue moving forward. If one tried to brave the bramble of Aira's nonsense, then the jumble of metal could melt into the alloy of joke. One might suddenly find oneself in a happy place. Disneyland. Or a magic toyshop. It shouldn't be a mystery why Dr. Aira writes the way he does. He's having so much fun.

I read this for Ficciones: 2011 Argentina Reading Challenge. For more interviews with Aira and his translators, see the César Aira page in the Bolaño Challenge blog.


  1. I felt as though I were listening to an extemporaneous speaker in a literary conference (wink, wink) while reading this. [Applause]

  2. Rise - what a thoroughly enjoyable post. I'm relieved that someone has finally taken up defense of Aira's much-discussed method - I've never understood why he gets criticized for it (I mean, Faulkner wrote "As I Lay Dying" in six weeks, and no one raises an eyebrow about *his* method). I was unaware of the similar approaches taken by Saramago and Marias, and am particularly surprised by the Marias comments, as his novels seem as though poured out in one sleepless sitting. That term- spontaneous realism - is certainly a handy one. I couldn't help thinking of those amateur sculptors who balance rocks at the beach, one stone on top of another, sometimes achieving completely improbable, gravity-defying balancing acts - that leave zero room for revision.

  3. He he. Salamat, Aldrin! But I confess. I edited a bit. Or stammered in my speech. Hard not to. The speaker consults his notes, bookmarked sites. But I think I share that novelist's surname in that conference.

  4. Scott, among the arts I also think sculpture, installation art, and also painting, and to some extent documentary filmmaking, are most receptive to spontaneous realism. As for music, maybe not. Marias is a great practitioner, I think, because however much he digressed his novels achieve tight unity at the end, mostly as a result of repetition and the build up of suspense. I can believe that for "As I Lay Dying". It's short enough and Faulkner must have finished one short monologue a day at a time.

  5. Rise, I guess spontaneous realism must be a really powerful and fluid thing if Europeans like Marías and Saramago can be included amongst its most important Latin American practitioners as you maintain above! :D Anyway, greatly enjoyed this breakdown of Aira's style and those interview snippets from Marías where he describes his own writing methods. Always nice to get a peek behind the curtain to see how one's favorite authors say how they approach their writing.

  6. Shrek! One of my groups is currently reading books from Iberia. So how could I miss that?! Thanks for correcting my spontaneous error, Richard. What these writers produced with their methods are certainly a breath of fresh air from the usual dogmatic fiction.