Novels Defeat the Law of Diminishing Returns


Arts & Culture

César Aira. Photo: Nina Subin.

You can’t write a novel the night before dying. Not even one of the very short novels that I write. I could make them shorter, but it still wouldn’t work. The novel requires an accumulation of time, a succession of different days: without that, it isn’t a novel. What has been written one day must be affirmed the next, not by going back to correct it (which is futile) but by pressing on, supplying the sense that was lacking by advancing resolutely. This seems magical, but in fact it’s how everything works; living, for a start. In this respect, which is fundamental, the novel defeats the law of diminishing returns, reformulating it and turning it to advantage.

This law, which I’m always referring to, can be explained in the following way: imagine there’s a steel spring, a yard high, standing on the ground. We put a three-pound weight on it, and it goes down thirty-two inches, so now the spring’s just four inches high, but to make it go down another inch, you have to add a weight of three hundred pounds. And then to make it go down another fraction of an inch, you have to pile on tons … The same thing happens in intellectual work, not because there is some necessary relation between the intellectual and the physical, it just happens to happen—analogy wins out. Somebody opens up a new field of artistic or intellectual endeavor and in that initial impetus occupies it almost entirely. The classic case is Euclid: once he had the fundamental idea, he was able to complete his book within a few days, or perhaps a few hours, and geometry was done. In the two thousand years that followed, an innumerable legion of geometers, dedicating their whole lives to the field, could do no more than add a few superfluous details. This, of course, is not an example. It’s what actually happened. The fact that something similar happened in other cases (Freud, Darwin) shows that the law of diminishing returns is valid, but doesn’t reduce the protagonists to examples because each particular case is, by definition, a historical whole. That totality is reconstructed each time an artist discovers his or her style. To discover a style is to realize it, in a complete and finished form, and after that there’s nothing left to do except to go on producing. Since artists generally reach this point while they’re still young, they spend the rest of their lives in an atmosphere of futility and disquiet, if not outright anxiety in the face of what seems a colossal task, which would require ten lifetimes to complete, and even then would yield very meager fruit: compressing the spring another fraction of an inch, taking one more step after leaping a thousand leagues …

I thought I had found a way out of this trap, a daily, livable solution, in the writing of novels, since they keep putting off the artistic consummation that serves to justify them. Kafka must have been thinking along these lines when he complained about interruptions and said that a story would spoil if he couldn’t get the whole thing written in one sitting. But for him, writing novels was not a solution, because they became unfinishable. I solved the problem in my own way, by taking the fine art of botching to a new level. I was so bored and ashamed by what I was doing, I felt that I might as well die as soon as the novel was done, but not before, because no one else would know how to finish it. So I would rush on to the end, always arriving sooner than I’d expected (sacrificing quality, it’s true), and then as a mark of relief, I would inscribe the date at the foot of the final page. 

Not only is it impossible to write a novel the night before “the distinguished thing” (Henry James); in reality, in practice, novels are rarely written in the weeks or months or years leading up to it. Novelists tend to retire well before that. I did, a few years ago, although I have maintained a respectable semblance of activity. It happened gradually, and at first I didn’t even notice that I was no longer writing novels. I wrote first chapters, gave up, set them aside for later, had a better idea … And all that remained was a feeling of dissatisfaction and impotence.

Eventually I realized where the problem lay: in what has been called “the invention of circumstantial details,” that is, precise notations concerning the place, the time, the characters, their clothes, their gestures, all the things that set the scene. It began to seem ridiculous and childish, this fussiness in the realm of fantasy, this information about things that don’t really exist. But without circumstantial details you don’t have a novel, or you do but it’s abstract and disembodied, and what’s the point of that? When I became aware of this block, I began to look for a solution, because I don’t really want to give up writing, but I can’t see any way around it. Perversely and predictably enough, the only plots that occur to me now require the abundant invention of circumstantial details. Faithful to my “flight-forward” procedure, I tried to turn the problem into a theme and write about it, but by its very nature this is one of the trickiest things to thematize.

Actually, I have nothing against circumstantial details. There’s nothing wrong with them; on the contrary, I am grateful to them for the major part of my readerly pleasures over the years. They have always been used in the writing of novels, and I still admire good novels, as much as I ever did, or more. The author invents a character, and for that character to do things in the unfolding daydream of the novel, he has to walk down a street or sit in an armchair, enter a house, follow the flight of a fly, feel cold or hot; then a dog barks, or a rooster crows, the window is ajar, or wide open, or shut; the character’s tie is … green … okay, okay. All that and much more. It has to be done, there’s no alternative. But why does it have to be done by me? There’s a reason why reading is more fun than writing. Why can’t someone else do it? Why can’t they have done it already? Circumstantial details are not so bad when you think of them as ready-mades. Once written down, they take on an air of necessity, almost like real things. But in the moment of inventing them, they’re so childish, so silly … Just thinking about it fills me with an invincible despondency.

What is to be done, then? “What is to be done?” (Lenin.) That is what I spent my life doing; it’s all I know how to do. And now I don’t want to do it. Maybe I should change direction, find a new activity. I’ve often thought about it; and perhaps this is the time to act, prompted by my aversion to one of the art’s essential technicalities. But I really don’t know how to do anything else, so if I stopped writing … What would I do? Live? That’s the classic answer. Which presupposes that I haven’t been living up till now. “Living” would be what lies ineffably beyond all renunciations and relinquishments: illumination, the Grand Prize. But no, I can’t believe that. It’s ridiculous, an adolescent cliché. I can’t believe I ever took it seriously, even for a second.

And yet the formula that I keep repeating to myself as incantation and talisman is: “I haven’t lived.” Really? What did I do then? What did I do in fifty years? I could draw up a fairly long list because, after all, I’ve done a lot, and yet I insist: I haven’t lived. Thousands of things have happened to me, but not the things that should have happened. For example (except that it’s not an example), I have never spoken with the dead, unlike the waitress I met in Pringles. That’s why I can’t hold up my end of a normal conversation. I have to keep quiet, listening to what the other person says, and later on, wandering around on my own in the labyrinths of my fantasy, I come up with something I might have said or done and promptly note it down, and then I wedge it into the unfinished novel that I have conveniently at hand, whether it fits or not. That’s where “circumstantial details” come from, basically. No wonder I’ve ended up loathing them.

I can’t talk with a dead-brother-Jesus because I’m not a believer. I’m the sort of person who doesn’t believe in anything. Which is nothing to be proud of because not believing is a sign of immaturity or inexperience. If things had happened to me, I would have no choice but to believe in them. Except that I’m a maximalist and I say: Even if I saw it with my own eyes, I wouldn’t believe it. If the Virgin appeared to me in all her splendor, my disbelief would find a firm footing, and I would become a true unbeliever. This seems to me the only honest position, since to be skeptical in a provisional way, while waiting for a miracle, is the height of credulity.

I have been tested in this respect by a kind of miracle in reverse, a bad miracle: losing the two dearest friends of my adult life. Osvaldo and Jorgito died young: at forty-five and fifty-four respectively. In both cases, when it happened, I took refuge in the most intransigent denial. Under the illusion that they were still alive, I planned our reunions, imagined how we’d laugh at the misunderstanding … This is a common reaction; it must be a natural defense mechanism. It takes a while to get used to the idea. “I can’t believe it … ” Perhaps the sole purpose of belief in general is to prepare its own negation and thereby help us through hard times. But the thing is, I still don’t believe it. I can’t believe that Osvaldo is dead. I can’t believe that Jorgito is dead. I just can’t. I remember Osvaldo saying: “I can’t believe that Perón has died.” He must have come round to it in the end, because he was normal. And the waitress in Pringles said that she didn’t believe in the death of her brother, but she was refusing to believe in one thing in order to believe in another, using her disbelief as a springboard. She was normal too, at least more normal than I am. In the end you believe in things because they have gone beyond the phase of their invention and actually occurred.

I once wrote, in all sincerity, that I take no measures to preserve my health or safety, because it isn’t worth the trouble. To treat a life like mine as precious would be inelegant; or, to put it another way, the only elegant thing to do with such a life is to hold it in scorn, or at least to remain perfectly indifferent to its continuity or interruption. If I think about it, I have to conclude that there are two cases and only two in which I would look after myself: if I were a genius or a millionaire. Only then would I be able to do everything (in my hallucinations or in reality, respectively: either would be fine) and that would give me a reason to want what almost everybody wants: to go on living indefinitely, because to do everything, or anything at all, you have to be alive. By an amazing coincidence my two friends fulfilled those conditions, and I wonder now if that’s why they were my friends: Osvaldo was a genius, Jorgito a millionaire. Literally, not metaphorically. They died, and I survived.

If I stopped writing, I would feel there was nothing left; it would be like demolishing a bridge that I haven’t yet crossed. If I go on living, I’ll certainly go on writing. I’ll work out some way to do it. But not if I die tomorrow. Tomorrow, of course, I’ll have finished and dated this book. I’m hurrying to finish it today, rushing on blindly and deafly; the only thing that matters to me at this point is getting to the end, and actually there’s nothing to stop me doing that right now.

If I had to sum up, I would formulate the problem like this: all my life I pursued knowledge, but I pursued it outside time, and time took its revenge by unfolding elsewhere. That’s why experience taught me nothing, and knowledge remained on the plane of hallucination. And now I find that even that plane is abandoning me, folding up and vanishing … In a good novel the illusion is achieved by accumulating circumstantial details, which is a task that requires belief. You have to believe the day before you do it, and the following day, you have to have believed.

I say “day” because I’m immersed in this day, on which I will finish and date a book. And because death also happens on a particular day. I could say “years” or “decades.” But my years and decades have already gone by. To write, you have to be young; to write well, you have to be a young prodigy. By the time you get to fifty, much of that energy and precision is gone.

July 18, 1999

—Translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews


Nominated for the Neustadt Prize and the Man Booker International Prize, César Aira was born in Coronel Pringles, Argentina, in 1949. He has published at least ninety books and was most recently the creator and curator of a limited-edition art piece, The Valise, for MoMA.

The poet Chris Andrews teaches at Western Sydney University in Australia, where he is a member of the Writing and Society Research Centre. He has translated books by Roberto Bolaño and César Aira for New Directions.

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 Corp.