by César Aira (2014)
translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver (2020)
New Directions (2020)
82 pp

In times like these, it seems kind of beside the point to write a post about a book. At the very least, it can be hard to muster the energy. But I also think that at times like these it can be a balm to look to art, and some art, in this case a book, might be particularly helpful. Today you can order one such book, the latest to come to us in English from the great César Aira: Artforum.

Artforum is a strange little book, even for Aira (by which I guess I mean it is also just what one might expect from Aira). Apparently, though his life Aira has been a fan of the magazine Artforum. This book is a series of short pieces (all seem autobiographical, though it’s clear that in at least a few — like one where he dies just as he is about to get the copy of Artforum he’s been waiting for — are Cleary elaborations). The first, entitled “The Sacrifice,” was written in 1983, and it serves as a nice introduction to this strange little volume:

My favorite was Artforum, to which I have been faithful for years, and recounting my adventures to acquire it would fill a book.

And that’s what this book is: a recounting of Aira’s adventures acquiring the magazine in Argentina. Aira is, as always, comical and philosophical as he explores the human heart and mind that seeks this magazine as an object of (though he’d deny it, at times) obsession.

Here he is waiting for the mail to arrive, daily, eternally:

So, every time he rang my bell or stopped me in the street to give me an envelope (because I walk around the neighborhood almost as much as he does), my heart would beat wildly, and I would believe that the moment had arrived . . . And because it didn’t arrive, that moment was all moments. I continued to receive all kinds of correspondence, and it occurred to me that there was a genius trickster who was transforming the envelope I wanted to receive into another one that contained a bill or an advertisement for a pizzeria.

And here he is suddenly aware that the arrival, if/when it happens, is not necessarily all it promised to be:

Like everything you’ve waited for for a long time, when it becomes real it loses a large part of its reality, had been shedding reality in strips along the tortuous path of desire.

But the arrival of the next issue is still in the future, and so the cycle never ends, desire never ceases. Here is the beginning of “Melancholy.”

Artforum hasn’t arrived yet. A state of deep melancholy has taken hold of me. I see the world through a gray veil, not even the best of jokes can exact a smile from me. I could die right now and I wouldn’t notice the difference. Or maybe I would.

It might seem like nothing. After all, nothing horrible has happened to me; but I don’t need to compare my problems with those of so many people who have really serious ones. There is, however, always a lack of proportion when it comes to the human soul. Moreover, melancholy as an effect is neither great nor small, important nor insignificant, serious nor frivolous; its more like nothingness. It’s not so mjuch that it doesn’t have any attributes as that it dilutes all of them in an impenetrable fog.

With beautiful passages and insights like this, Aira really starts to fly, examining the purpose of waiting, what it covers up.

That’s where Artforum entered my life, vicarious to the second degree, a place to hide under double lock and key the secret of nothingness.

This is a wonderful book. It’s short, but I’ve already read it three times, and I’ve loved it more each time. I’ve also discovered more riches each time, though I am never prepared for them in a book about a man’s love for a magazine. I suspected it was perfect before this pandemic started. Now I’m just about certain.

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