31 October 2011

Celebrating José Saramago


Margaret Jull Costa's profile of José Saramago can be read "online only" at Granta. What caught my eye was her quote of Saramago in an interview, discussing the point where he realized a way to proceed more effectively with his storytelling, the very point of his transition to a "non-punctuated style".

I was already at the twentieth section of the book [Levantado do chão (Raised from the Ground)] and not very happy with it, when I realised how it could be written. I saw that I would only be able to write it if I did so as if I were actually telling the story. That could not be done by putting so-called oral language into writing, because that’s impossible, but by introducing into my writing a mechanism of apparent spontaneity, apparent digression and apparent disorganisation in the discourse. I say ‘apparent’ since I am only too aware of how much work it took to ensure that it turned out like that.

I underlined "apparent spontaneity ...". It described a realistic style which I find very absorbing, a style in which method is closely tied to content and form. It's the same spontaneous style one can also detect in César Aira and Javier Marías. Spontaneity in these writers can be a result of a desire for "authenticity" (I use this term loosely, as it has many pitfalls).

Margaret Jull Costa analyzed this writing style (which is closer to that of Marías whom she also translated):
In reducing punctuation down to commas and full stops, in letting a sentence follow the natural digressions of thought, Saramago cuts himself free from the straitjacket of conventional realistic literature, allowing himself, as narrator, to carry the reader along on the wave of those thought processes, those digressions. [...]

One cannot help but see this egalitarian approach to both punctuation and narration as an expression of Saramago’s declared anarcho-communism and atheism, as cocking a snook at orthodoxy and authority, be it God or Government, and as a way of privileging the spoken voice, the ordinary human voice. [...]

Read more here.

Image sources: Asymptote and The New York Times, from Small Memories; prae.hu

Cross-posted from Bifurcaria bifurcata.

27 October 2011

Max's maxims

It’s always gratifying to learn something when one reads fiction. Dickens introduced it. The essay invaded the novel. But we should not perhaps trust ‘facts’ in fiction. It is, after all, an illusion.

It’s good to have undeclared, unrecognized pathologies and mental illnesses in your stories. The countryside is full of undeclared pathologies. Unlike in the urban setting, there, mental affliction goes unrecognized.

There has to be a libidinous delight in finding things and stuffing them in your pockets.

The collected maxims of W. G. Sebald can be found in the fifth issue of Five Dials, a magazine of his UK publisher Hamish Hamilton. The issue (at this link, in pdf) was mostly dedicated to Max. There's an "A to Z" guide on him where one reads, for instance, under "X":

Coincidence, the point where paths cross, is at the heart of Max’s writing – and the X at the end of his name always seemed emblematic to me. When I asked him once about the role of coincidence he said that whatever path he took in his writing he always, sooner or later, came across another path which led quickly back to some detail from his own life. He also said that the more one was attuned to look out for such things, the more frequently they occurred.

Five Dials is a recommended online literary resource. You can subscribe to the magazine here.

(via Vertigo)

25 October 2011

November is German Literature Month

November is German Literature Month. Caroline of Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy of Lizzy's Literary Life will host.

My reading list will include the novel Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated by Susan Bernofsky, and The Silent Angel by Heinrich Böll, translated by Breon Mitchell. Böll's posthumously published novel is also part of Caroline's "Literature and War Readalong 2011", slated for 26 November.

If there's still time, I might be able to squeeze in Anna Funder's Stasiland: Stories From Behind the Berlin Wall. The book was winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-fiction. I've already read a couple of chapters. Already, the beginning is quite compelling.

Giveaways abound in this reading challenge. In fact, I already won something wunderbar from last week. The prize: All the Lights by Clemens Meyer. I can't wait to receive that one.

German literature is something I really want to explore more of. Two of my all-time favorite writers wrote in this language – W. G. Sebald and Thomas Bernhard. Since I started blogging in 2009, I've reviewed a handful of translations from German. Here are the review links for reference.

Perfume by Patrick Süskind
Wittgenstein's Nephew and Yes by Thomas Bernhard 
The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald
          Chapter I; Chapter II; Chapter III; Chapter IV
          Chapter V-VIII; Chapter IX; Chapter X        
On the Natural History of Destruction by W. G. Sebald
          Air War and Literature, 1; Air War and Literature, 2
          Against the Irreversible; The Remorse of the Heart
The Stalin Front by Gert Ledig
Journey Into the Past and Chess by Stefan Zweig
Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald

23 October 2011

Test post

I'm having problem with my Blogger layout, here and in my other blog. The sidebar has moved to the bottom of the page. I'll try to work on it.

21 October 2011

The Savage Detectives Group Read

Just leave a comment to join.

Every book in the world is out there waiting to be read by me, says one Juan García Madero. A book is the best pillow there is, says Roberto Bolaño.

Richard of Caravana de recuerdos and I think one of these notable pillow books could be Bolaño's cult object Los detectives salvajes (The Savage Detectives, translated by Natasha Wimmer). We are hosting a group read of this novel in January 2012.

All are cordially invited – rebels, poets, bloggers, slackers. It's not poetry reading but it could have the same effect.

Savagery or previous experience as detective isn't required to participate. Nor is one expected to be a member of an avant-garde group like the visceral realists.

All one needs to do is sleep on the book and maybe join in on the discussion. Readers become "salvajes" in their own right.

Bloggers may post reviews and impressions anytime in January but "official" discussion starts on the last weekend of the month (Jan. 27-29). We'll link to your reviews.

About the book. At around 600 pages, it's a hefty pillow. We can't promise a wild poet chase, but wildness and unwieldiness shouldn't be in short supply. (Here's an excerpt.)

This early announcement should give readers plenty of headway. It's probably best to start early with the detective work. Or you can wait till All Souls Day, when our narrator began to write his adventures. Or the new year. It may turn out to be a firecracking yearstarter.

You can read this as part of the Bolaño Reading Challenge. It's supposed to end this year, but we'll count this toward your future Godzilla status.


Amateur Reader (Tom), Wuthering Expectations
Scott, seraillon
Frances, Nonsuch Book

(Image design by Jenny Volvovski) 

12 October 2011

Trese 4 (Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldisimo)

Last Seen After Midnight (Trese, #4)Last Seen After Midnight by Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldisimo

BLAM! BLAM! BLAM! After 17 cases of supernatural crime/mystery, the Filipino graphic novel Trese still seethes with its trademark edginess and darkness. The latest volume in the series again exhibits a nuanced manipulation of its source materials. Budjette and Kajo’s execution is still top form. As we’ve come to expect, the stories are tight, well crafted. The artwork, a work of art. It’s amazing how the interest is sustained and how the telling of stories shows remarkable restraint in their emotional effects. By the last case ("Fight of the Year"), the deliberate branching out to pop culture stretches and expands contemporary reality to accommodate the fluid concept of heroism. Heroism as an absolute masochistic self-sacrifice and as a complex of materialism and messianism. Ever since my mouth fell open at the first case (Murder on Balete Drive), I was a happy vampire, sated after every spanking new version of Pinoy lower myth. Arguably the franchise is even prophetic, as shown by the previous collection Mass Murders (still their best), which describes a cultural origin of violent crimes. Relevant in what it can say about the culture of violence and cruelty, in the South and elsewhere. I think I can read 13 more collections like this, maybe more, and still dig it. For sheer entertainment, visual fun. For its impassioned engagement with the underworld’s underbelly.

04 October 2011

Third quarter reading, 2011

I finished 18 books from July to September, averaging 6 books a month. Here's the rundown, with a brief description and link to review, if any, of each book.


26. Poems New and Collected by Wisława Szymborska, translated by Stanisław Barańczak and Clare Cavanagh

A forty-year harvest of poems, 164 in total, translated from the Polish language, this is the most substantial of Szymborska's poetry in English. It overlaps with the one hundred poems from the previous selection View With a Grain of Sand. A very fine translation, informed with the voice of a true witness to the cruelty and crimes of humanity. 

27. Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald, translated by Anthea Bell (review)

One of my favorite reads this year.

28. The Fall by Albert Camus, translated by Justin O'Brien

While reading this, what came to my mind was the self-portrait David With the Head of Goliath by Caravaggio. Go figure.

29. Chess by Stefan Zweig, translated by Anthea Bell

A world chess champion is aboard a ship sailing from New York to Buenos Aires. Chess aficionados try to engage him in a game at a high price (the arrogant champion will not play them unless they pay him a large fee). In the middle of the game that is as good as lost, a passenger whispered to them the move that will wrest advantage from the champion and at least force him to a draw. This passenger has not played chess for 20 years. Who is he? And more importantly, what is his story?

This novella is a political and psychological thriller about Nazism and the perverted nature of genius - what makes for an "expert" of something like a game of chess. Zweig's writing has captured the suspense of the game which is more than a battle between Black and White. It's also a play between sanity and madness.

30. Manual of Painting and Calligraphy by José Saramago, translated by Giovanni Pontiero (review)

The novel is narrated by H., a fifty-year old painter commissioned by S. for a portrait. It tells of H.'s difficulties in producing two simultaneous portraits of his client. In order to get around to this problem, or more like to escape from it, H. decided to produce another third portrait of S., but this time the image will be in words. Through sudden impulse or instinct, H. decided to turn into writing (the "calligraphy" in the title).

Saramago's fans, rejoice! This out-of-print book will be finally reissued May 2012 by Mariner Books.   

31. Your Face Tomorrow 3: Poison, Shadow and Farewell by Javier Marías, translated by Margaret Jull Costa (review)

This is the valedictory volume in Javier Marías's spy novel whose prose style represents a calcification of poetic images, symbols, and a very very very very slow motion. We find Jacques Deza, newly separated from his wife in Spain and employed in London as a 'secret agent' under the tutelage of Bertram Tupra, an engimatic and strong character. What starts as a mental blood-battle of spy-wits in the first two volumes ends as a voluble treatise on actual physical bloody violence of recent and modern wars.

32. Toddler-Hunting and Other Stories by Kōno Taeko, translated by Lucy North and Lucy Lower (review)

The stories were originally written in the 1960s and concerned women and their unstable marital relationships. Kōno Taeko, the 85-year old grand dame of Japanese letters, was admired by Oe Kenzaburo and Endo Shusaku. Her genre of writing was classified as "transgressive fiction" owing to elements of sadomasochism and aberrant behaviors. The stories are characterized by odd details and psychological quirks.


33. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

I read this to complete the so-called "Big Three" among dystopian novels that also include We by Yevgeny Zamyatin and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. It didn't disappoint. It's a very well written and harrowing thought experiment.

The other reason I read it is that I will most likely be reading Haruki Murakami's 1Q84 which is published this month. According to Murakami, Orwell's influence on the book not only inspired its title but also its handling of alternate realities.

34. On Translation by Paul Ricoeur, translated by Eileen Brennan

A short (72 pages) book of essays on the philosophy of translation. In the first essay "Translation as challenge and source of happiness", the late French philosopher introduced the concept of translation as a work of remembering and a work of mourning (after Freud). It also introduced the very beautiful term 'linguistic hospitality' to describe the appreciation of translation through the acknowledgment of its limitations, the acknowledgement that there is no total (or perfect) translation: "Just as in the act of telling a story, we can translate differently, without hope of filling the gap between equivalence and total adequacy. Linguistic hospitality, then, where the pleasure of dwelling in the other’s language is balanced by the pleasure of receiving the foreign word at home, in one’s own welcoming house."

35. Between Parentheses by Roberto Bolaño, edited by Ignacio Echevarría, translated by Natasha Wimmer

A book of short essays on books and writers, mostly from Latin America. Bound to increase one's TBR.

36. First Love by Ivan Turgenev, translated by Constance Garnett (review)

Turgenev's story was a linear and controlled exploration of being in love at a young age. It offered a portrait of a transition from youth to adulthood: from the confusion and giddy puzzlement that accompanied the raw feelings of youth to a more luminous perception of reality as one gained more experience. The protagonist was a sixteen-year-old student, a young man of middle class background. The object of his affection was a young princess, older than him by a few years, who with her mother was his family's new house neighbor.

Turgenev created tension in two fronts. First, although members of Russian nobility, the new neighbors were actually on the verge of poverty. Their tenuous hold on their upper class status was endangered by their large debt owed to some influential persons. Second, the beautiful young princess was not entirely a bashful one. She was as carefree as can be and she was surrounded by a lot of suitors who were slaves to her every wish. Into their midst was flung the young protagonist - awkward, dejected, and in love. Soon, the young princess was sending a covert message to the group of young men (our student, a poet, a doctor, a handsome count, and a hussar) around her. She had found someone: a lover who was her match. She, her heart, was already taken. But who among them could it be?

37. Bartleby, the Scrivener by Herman Melville

Never expected this to be such a funny and engaging short story. I read it, online, to prepare for reading Enrique Vila-Matas's Bartleby & Co.

38. The Duel by Joseph Conrad

Very suprising to know that the author of Heart of Darkness and Nostromo can be very funny. A highly recommended novella.

39. Maybato, Iloilo, Taft Avenue, Baguio, Puerto by John Iremil E. Teodoro

A collection of poems in Filipino language. This, Teodoro's second collection, charts a poet's peripatetic life around the Philippines. My favorite section is the "Puerto" poems, where I'm currently based. It's also the same beautiful place that is the subject of Iremil's first poetry book.


40. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Murakami Haruki, translated by Philip Gabriel 

A useful book for those interested in taking up running. It may just be the book to inspire you. But ultimately it's a minor memoir bogged down by clumsy writing. If you're not a Murakami completist you can skip this with a clear conscience.

41. Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters 

In straightforward free verse, the dead people of Spoon River speak from beyond the grave. The ghosts, injured when still alive, can not rest in peace. Some are haunted by their former lives. Full of irony, bitter memories, vindictiveness, melancholy, poetic musings, and comic touches, the stories of the dead are oddly full of life.

42. The Seamstress and the Wind by César Aira, translated by Rosalie Knecht (review)

This short novel is perhaps not the best place to start with the Argentinean micro-novelist César Aira. But there's probably no best place to start with Aira, you just start reading him. It's about a writer writing in a Parisian café, a 'kidnapped' child, his seamstress mother who ran after him, his father who ran after her, a flying wedding gown sewn by the seamstress, a pregnant teacher who ran after her flying wedding gown, a truck driver, a 'Paleomobile' made from the body of a dead armadillo, a powerful talking wind, and a monster who came out of nowhere. In short, the plot is mayhem. 

43. Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me by Javier Marías, translated by Margaret Jull Costa

I'm still reeling from the unexpected ending of this novel. Marías's style is just as suspenseful and addictive as his other books. It is in some ways a companion book to his short story Bad Nature, whose narrator appears as a minor character in this novel.

03 October 2011


by Mark Angeles

BY THE RIVER, the eucalyptus:
                              the stitches
               of self-wood.

                              A rainbow
undying in shifts
               of versicolor.

                              A nobility changing
               into resplendent raiment.

It cannot be beheld
               of inlaid braid.

The dress disappears of its own accord.

               Rips out the husk
                              so as to celebrate
               the verdant green
                              of stained

               to completely reveal
scraps of blue, purple, and orange.

The river freely accepts the fragments   
               streaming forth,
                              partaken as food
               by its cherished creatures;

sucking in raw exudate

                              of things gum-crafted.

BY THE RIVER, a native:
               dipping clear water
                              with hands joined together.

Her face is sunglint broken
               on rip-tides.
                                             The hems of sea-surface  
                                                            scroll away:                                                        
               shrill reverberations in the universal

Witness the vibrating arrows that follow
                              the strike of the bow
                                             in fiery heavens:

                              not fog but conflagration
                                             from burnt petrol.

BY THE RIVER, the eucalyptus accompanied the hymn,
                              music—kumintang—to the rhythms 
                                             kulintang, tagongko, and kapanirong;
                              gurgles of kutiyapi, dayuday, and daguyung.

               The native beguiled by the budyong. Entranced by 

She reached for the kampilan slung from the waist of history.

AGAIN, the eucalyptus shedding its bodice.
               Shedding and shedding.

                                             Incessant rains
                              lashed the ancient river

               but the native stood rooted:

her fixity
               and faith fenced in            
                              by amber light

                                             of eucalyptus resin

               endlessly spilling
                              from shoots to infinity.



Bagras is the local name of Rainbow Eucalyptus or Rainbow Gum (Eucalyptus deglupta), a Philippine tree whose bark peels off all year round. The kumintang, kulintang, tagongko, kapanirong, kutiyapi, dayuday, and daguyung are traditional Filipino songs or musical instruments. A budyong is either a conch shell or a flute while a kampilan is a sword. 

The original of the above translation came from Engkantado (“Enchanter”), a chapbook by Mark Angeles, available at this link (pdf). It is part of the collection that won third place in the 2010 edition of Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards. It also appears in Likhaan Journal 5 of University of the Philippines.

Mark Angeles is former vice president for Luzon of College Editors Guild of the Philippines. He is the author of the poetry collections Patikim and Emotero.

02 October 2011

Pan (Knut Hamsun)

   I lie closer to the fire and watch the flames. A fir cone falls from its branch, and then a dry twig or two. The night is like a boundless deep. I close my eyes.
   After an hour, all my senses are throbbing in rhythm, I am ringing with the great stillness, ringing with it. I look up at the crescent moon standing in the sky like a white shell and I feel a great love for it, I feel myself blushing. "It is the moon," I say softly and passionately, "it is the moon!" And my heart beats gently towards it. Several minutes pass. A slight breeze springs up, an unnatural gust of wind strikes me, a strange rush of air. What is it? I look about me and see no one. The wind calls to me and my soul bows in obedience to the call, I feel myself lifted out of my context, pressed to an invisible breast, tears spring to my eyes, I tremble—God is standing somewhere near looking at me. Again some minutes pass. I turn my head, the strangely heavy air ebbs away and I see something like the back of a spirit who wanders soundlessly through the forest. [107]
I'm very much taken by the poetic expressions in this novel. In James W. McFarlane's translation from Norwegian, Knut Hamsun's Pan (1894) is ringing in one's ears with its lyrical presentation of man's inner nature. The beauty of the natural world is teeming in the forest and Hamsun is too wise not to use its beauty for his own ends. Pan fairly anticipates the sensuous and erotic works of D. H. Lawrence and the spiritual confessions of Rainer Maria Rilke. Ostensibly the journal entries of a soldier hunter who inhabited a hut in the woods of a rural community, the short novel otherwise relies on the resonance of various storytelling registers—folktales, legends, testimonies, monologues, daydreams, prose poetry.

Hamsun depicts a fierce battle of the sexes, a battle to the end between the narrator, Lieutenant Glahn (a man with an irresistible "animal look"), and his object of love, the fickle beauty Edvarda. Despite their obvious passionate feelings for each other, they enact a savage choreography of power and dominance. Each one will not yield submission to the other. Their pride blinds them from reality and brings them to the precipice where the only thing that sustains them is pure hate.

The novel proceeds in swift chapters, each mostly running for two or three pages. Glahn's first person journal tells of his hermit-like existence in the woods and of his intimate relationship with Edvarda, in a voice that at first is romantic and then becomes more and more vengeful, vindictive, and vicious. Its language is incantatory, as if delivering poetry reading after poetry reading on the subject of mountain, sea, forest, moon, birds, and beasts. A deliberate sense of the lofty and sublime tends to mar books of similar themes, but in this the sublime subtly refracts Glahn's confusion, baseness, and naiveté. It is a bold and posthumous sublimity.

Hamsun's achievement is in portraying extreme and conflicting psychological states in one man and one woman—compassion-cruelty, love-rage, reason-madness, intelligence-delusion. These states fluctuate according to their perceptions of each other's lust and ruthlessness. The situations, both exaggerated and muted, allow the characters to display their violent gestures and subtle rejections. The desires of the characters are never really restrained, being transparently drawn from an assumed complex interiority, and this only serves to make the characters seem like pawns to their own pretenses and schemes. One has the sense that their abrupt and absurd decisions are a product of inevitability. Their tragic sense of reality deserves close observation and sympathy.

Pan also appears in a recent translation by Sverre Lyngstad. But I think McFarlane's version is not yet dated and is even brilliant for its mapping of a man's spiritual descent into the heart of darkness, for producing a rousing mad poem of love sickness.

   "A toast, you men and beasts and birds, to the lonely night in the forest, in the forest! A toast to the dark and to God's murmuring in the trees, to the sweet, simple harmonies of silence upon my ear, to green leaf and yellow leaf! A toast to the sounds of life I hear, a sniffing snout in the grass, a dog snuffling over the ground! A rousing toast to the wild-cat crouching with throat to the ground and preparing to spring on a sparrow in the dark, in the dark! A toast to the merciful stillness over the earth, to the stars and the crescent moon, yes, to it and to them! ..."
   I stand up and listen. No one has heard me. I sit down again.
   "I give thanks for the lonely night, for the hills, for the whispering of the darkness and the sea ... it whispers within my heart. I give thanks for my life, for my breathing, for the grace of being alive tonight, for these things I give thanks from my heart! Listen in the east and listen in the west, but listen! That is the everlasting God! This stillness murmuring in my ear is the blood of all nature seething, is God weaving through the world and through me. I see a gossamer's thread glistening in the fire's light, I hear the rowing of a boat in the harbor, the Northern lights rise against the northern sky. Oh, I give thanks by my immortal soul that it is I who am sitting here! ..."
   Quiet. A fir cone falls with a dull thud to the ground. I think: a fir cone fell! The moon is high, the fire flickers among the half-burnt embers, about to die. And I stroll home through the late night. [103-104]

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.