Argentinian Mischief-Maker Explodes Novel Myths

Imagine you are a publisher of serious literature and you receive a submission for a novel that goes something like this:

“Cesar is a translator who’s fallen on very hard times due to the global economic downturn; he is also an author, and a mad scientist hell-bent on world domination. On a visit to the beach he intuitively solves an ancient riddle, finds a pirate’s treasure, and becomes a very wealthy man. Even so, Cesar’s bid for world domination comes first and so he attends a literary conference to be near the man whose clone he hopes will lead an army to victory: the world-renowned Mexican author, Carlos Fuentes.”

Yet this is the book blurb on the Readings site for The Literary Conference, a short novel by noted experimental Argentinian writer César Aira.

Aira, who will be a guest at the Melbourne Writers Festival this year, is a contrarian of the highest order. He takes a remarkably carefree approach to his literary work. And yet his output, which consists of more than 50 short, surreal novels, has somehow managed to find a small but loyal global audience - not least due to the fact that he has been championed by figures such as Roberto Bolaño. One doubts whether such a writer could publish even a single novel in Australia, but Latin American literature is a very different beast. (Here’s an introduction to the writer at Quarterly Conversation.)

Today we’re republishing an interview with Aira that first appeared in this month’s issue of The Victorian Writer, the magazine of the Victorian Writers' Centre. His ideas about writing as improvisation challenge the dominant aesthetic of a literature that is highly-wrought and oft-redrafted. The interview begins with his notion of the ‘flight forward’, a technique he uses to improvise his way out of tricky situations. Please note that any awkwardness in Aira’s responses are due to the fact that they were written in English.

Can you discuss the processes of your writing? What is the ‘flight forward’ (fuga hacia adelante) style – which seems to suggest that editing works in opposition to the art of writing, rather than to enhance it. Is this the case?

‘Flight forward’ is not a big deal. It is just going on writing and not worrying if it is not as good as it should be. To edit, correct, etc. is an illusion, or rather the abject obeisance to a social mandate of quality in the product. Art is not a matter of products; as I see it, it is a matter of artists. Why do you have to write better than how you write? A writer should be him/herself, and not another one better than him/herself, some kind of ghost. He is enough a ghost as he is.

Besides, flight forward for me is the same as flight backwards, or flight sideways, or not flying at all. I seek freedom and I don’t know any other better way that an artistic practice made by way of escape from commands and conventions. Even if they are good commands or right conventions. It is a completely individual matter.

I have not very much to say about my writing process. It is mostly improvisation and whim, not worthy of as serious a word as ‘process’, and I am not so sure it is ‘writing’, as true writers do. I could never, not even in my wildest dreams, sit and write a whole page. I play (toy) a while, mid-morning every day, in a café, with a pen and a notebook of plain white paper, and jot some words and phrases that come out of the blue sky. And that is all. After some months this adds up to something that looks like a little, strange book and someone wants to publish it.

What feelings/emotions do you seek when you read fiction; where should good fiction take you?

I don’t look so much for feelings and emotions, as for alternative ways of thinking. Emotions happen in life; art should give us instruments to handle them in the most productive way. But it does not do it. Every day I convince myself more, at least from my personal experience, that art and life take parallel roads and do not interact, except thematically, that is, superficially. It may seem nihilistic from a writer, but it is what I think: art has no effect on a person’s life, nor on society, nor on history. It is just a method to occupy time, like crosswords or watching TV, just more prestigious (and better, I can’t deny it).

What fuels your writing? Do you have your readers in mind?

You cannot generalise with the readers because reading – being an act of freedom – is so gratuitous and inconsequential, readers are all very different from one another. If you guess rightly how one reader is going to react, you will be wrong with the next one. So it is useless to think about a reader when you write. But, being useless, it is inevitable too. Writers are also readers, more readers than writers in fact, and the two things – reading and writing – are the same thing in some moments; the most creative moments. I think I create my own special kind of reader.

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