Sunday, July 05, 2015

disagreeing with César

I recently completed César Aira's 3 Novels and thoroughly enjoyed it, particularly the first two books ("Ghosts" and "An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter"). The way he maintains genuine page-turning momentum via digression, unpredictability and linearity (the narrative always chasing ahead, never chasing its tail) has analogues with other things I have read (Bolaño of course, but even – in "An Episode" – Sebald) but isn't quite like anything else. It's exhilarating, and, over the course of the three books, leaves one with the unmistakable impression of having encountered a proper writer.

I'm not so sure, though, what to think of an article entitled "The New Writing" and available online at The White Review. Aira outlines a narrative in which the professionalisation of writing has left the form of the novel "congealed", has "shattered the form-content dialectic which makes art 'artistic'." Hence the novelist is left with "two equally melancholy alternatives: to keep writing the 'old' novels in updated settings; or to heroically attempt to take one or two more steps forward", which is an exhaustingly heroic undertaking producing diminishing returns. The third option is to use the strategy of the avant-garde, which for Aira means to highlight procedure over product. He uses Cage, and specifically the Music of Changes, as his exemplum.

I have sympathy with some of the feelings expressed here – "Who needs another novel, another painting, another symphony? As if there weren't enough already!" – but much of the argument treads ground all-too-familiar from long-exhausted debates in literature and visual art going back, as Aira acknowledges, at least as far as Duchamp. Of course, Aira is too sly to be easily trapped. He is really talking about the context in which one makes work and the means one uses, and so admits at the outset of the essay that the idea of the avant-garde is a myth. What is important, for him, is that the "myth of the avant-garde came about to restore the possibility of making the journey from the origin again". I agree with him when he says that "the healthiest aspect of the avant-garde, of which Cage is the epitome, is its placing action back on centre stage, regardless of whether it appears frenetic, ludic, directionless or indifferent to the results", but not with his following comment that "in order to keep on being action it has to be indifferent to results". Cage was certainly not indifferent to the results of his procedures, his pronouncements to the contrary notwithstanding.

The fact that Music of Changes "sounds intensely like 1951, like the work of a North American disciple of Schoenberg" does, it is true, tell us something about the relationship of psychological processes during composition to our impression of its outcome – but it also tells us that how you set up the roulette wheel is crucial. The piece sounds that way not because Cage removed his personality and tastes but because his personality and tastes are very much involved in the way the procedural machine is set up in the first place, in the types of possibilities it is constructed to allow. It also sounds this way because of the way hierarchy and syntax work in Schoenberg's music and that of those influenced by him: Music of Changes is an analysis, and perhaps even a parody, of integral serialism. It is really not true that Chopin's Nocturnes could have been written using the same method, even with the preparation of tables ad hoc "in order to maintain tonality, or metre". Tonal composition is not merely the creation of a succession of syntactic units, the selection of each of which adjusts the range of possible options for the next unit. Any computer model for tonal composition that did not build in an architecture of structural hierarchies far more complex than Cage's procedure for Music of Changes would be an abject failure.

The elephant in this particular article's room is Aira's own compositional methodology, which I have read described elsewhere as follows: he writes a page each day, improvising his way out of the narrative corners he deliberately paints himself into. We may be sceptical as to whether there is really quite so little forward planning, but the flavour such a strategy feels authentically represented in the novels I have read. For me the freshness and contemporaneity of this method comes about precisely because it does not reduce the work to "a kind of documentary appendix which serves only as a means of deducing the process from which it arose". Knowing something about the process heightens our curiosity as we read, allowing us, if we wish, to project ourselves into an imagined version of the author and to wonder what choices we would have made in his situation. But this is only one way to read and Aira's novels are just as rich if read for their characterisation, their narrative, their imagery, their philosophical ideas – all those old bourgeois notions of reading for the content. In short, I don't think that the old form-content dialectic is shattered quite so easily, and Aira's works – despite his comments in this essay – are powerful arguments that we should be glad that this is the case.

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