Diary: On the occasion of his birthday, novelist César Aira makes a plan

I used to write with the sole aim of producing work of high quality: good novels, better than others, etc. The reasons for wanting to do this are psychological; in other words, they can be found somewhere in a vast and ill-defined jumble that offers something to satisfy every taste: ambition, adaptation, inferiority complex, megalomania, compensation … Good arguments could be found for each of these hypotheses, and I find them myself, in my meditations. But the only thing I know for sure is that my aim in writing was to do it well and become a good writer, which was all that mattered to me. As opposed to most decisions in the life of an individual, which are determined by an innumerable variety of causes, this aim of mine was something of an idée fixe. Not that I think it was “mine” exclusively; the general idea must be common enough, though perhaps not universally shared. You want to do something well, so you sacrifice everything else to that objective, obscurely aware that once it is attained, everything else will be thrown in for free. Excuses will always be found for a good writer; for a bad one, no excuse is valid.

Anyway, at a certain point, having published about twenty books, I had to get down to some serious thinking. You can’t go on learning indefinitely, whatever people say. I mean, it’s true that you go on learning, but bad habits also become more deeply ingrained, and the bad offsets the good. Hoping starts to lose its pertinence: the true object of hope is always something new; even those who want to go back to the past are imagining a new past. In literature above all, the good is identified with the new; but I think that in my most lucid moments what I wanted to write was not so much something good as something new, something that had never been written before. And the new is subject to the law of diminishing returns, which I revere. What didn’t work out on a first attempt is less and less likely to work out.

Also, after the happy recklessness of youth, when things get done, if they do, in spite of the doer’s aspirations, it’s counterproductive to persist in striving for quality. I have always subscribed to the idea of High or Highbrow Culture, Art with a capital A. And art is not something that should be done well. If doing it well is what counts, it’s craft, production for sale, and therefore subject to the taste of the buyer, who will naturally want something good. But art creates its own paradigm. It isn’t “good” according to preexisting standards; rather, it sets the standard for what is to come (the crafts of the future). That’s the difference between creation and production.

So what happened five or six years ago is that I began, in a typically defensive way, to distance myself from the old habits of my youth. I began to shift the focus of my attention to a totalizing project for which my literary works would serve as preparatory steps, advertisements and teasers. I came to think of my little novels, which I went on writing—partly out of habit and partly to perfect my alibi—as marginal documentation, and the process of writing them as a means of understanding my life. The life of the author of the Encyclopedia.

Because that is the key name for this grand project: the Encyclopedia. And that’s what it is, too: a kind of general compendium, containing everything. The aim of a whole life is to acquire the whole of knowledge. The final record of that quest is the Encyclopedia.

I have a big folder full of preliminary notes, on which I work intermittently. It’s clear from the totalizing premises that this is one of those infinite projects whose completion date is irrelevant because it can’t actually be completed. Which is ideal for me. It allows me to rest. I have spent my life rushing to finish tasks, so as to be able to die in peace; but the Encyclopedia incorporates my death as a “glorious failure,” so I can go on writing as I please without having to worry at all.

The first novelty of my Encyclopedia is that it will be the work of a single person. The second is that it will not be limited to the general but venture into the particular. All encyclopedias do this, in as much as they include historical facts; mine will also treat the general as so many particular cases, because a generality is always a construction, so it too is a historical fact, anchored in a time and a place. The third novelty is a complicated game of equivalences, ensuring that each cultural-historical complex includes all the others, in varying forms but always reconstructing the same system of functions. Thus each particularity can subsist without the support of generalization. But enough. I’m in no rush to explain myself here, because it’s all in that big file of notes. I’m not going to end up having to scribble “I’ve run out of time” in the margin; I made sure of that from the start.

What I have in the file, of course, are sketches, plans and programs, the theory of the Encyclopedia; I haven’t written  a single page of the text itself. By this stage, I wouldn’t know where to begin. The further I advance in the epistemological prolegomena, the further I leave the actual beginning behind. The genre of “preparatory notes” has its own aesthetic, its own kind of finish, and I’m becoming more susceptible to its charms as I reread Mallarmé’s notes for Le Livre and Duchamp’s for The Large Glass and the notes that Novalis made for his encyclopedia … Given the premises of my project, the only particular case that I could begin to write about is my own. I am the point at which the particular is particularized and the historical historicized. The sum of knowledge reverts to the individual, in his role as author of the Encyclopedia.

This month marked the seventieth birthday of the Argentine novelist César Aira. For the occasion New Directions has published a new translation by Chris Andrews of a book he wrote to mark his fiftieth, Birthday, which he had anticipated as an opportunity for renewal: “I had very bright hopes, if not of starting over entirely, at least using that milestone to shed some of my old defects, the worst of which was precisely procrastination.” In the event, the day came and went without much ado. So he wrote a book about renewing oneself instead, from which this passage is drawn.

(Attentive readers will have noticed that we featured a photograph of Aira meeting his hero, pianist Cecil Taylor, at Greenlight Bookstore in our recent post on the vitality of American bookselling.)

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Photo by Nina Subin

By César Aira, translated by Chris Andrews, from BIRTHDAY, copyright © 2001 by César Aira, translation copyright © 2019 by Chris Andrews. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation