Aira: “the novel is an anachronistic genre”

It’s no secret that I can’t resist a good interview with César Aira – and I’ve found that most of them offer at least a few moments of brilliance. He has a way of answering even rote questions in unexpected, incisive ways. Today’s piece from Kill Your Darlings is no exception. Here’s a taste:

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’.

Dadaist fairytales! Thank you, César. I’ve been looking for that all along. Here’s another good one. The interviewer, Samuel Rutter, cites How I Became a Nun (Cómo me hice monja, 1993; trans. Andrews 2007) but the practice is widespread in Aira’s work (remember The Literary Conference?).

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.

On another note, back in June Harper’s published a piece on Aira by Rivka Galchen. Though I’m pretty sure access is restricted to subscribers, it’s worth a try, nonetheless. Galchen hones in on the way Aira’s reality seeps through into his pithy works of fiction and manages a glimpse of the author’s private world by focusing – paradoxically – on her own.


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