March 2, 2013
Varamo by César Aira waited for me, not of its own volition, since objects have no volition aside from that anthropomorphizing imposition of the human mind that tends to think of objects (especially those that are in some way dear) as possessing a level of consciousness and a degree of personality. I know that books don’t wait in the sense of their being aware of their idle persistence, but by their very nature they are ready to be present as an extension of the mind of the writer. Even though Aira does not know me, his letter was delivered into the world (as if in a bottle which floats to destinations unknown over restless seas) with the intention that there would be a reader. My identity (as a reader) is unimportant. But what is essential is that I rise to the challenge of also being present when I take the object in hand and retrace (even if only lightly) the thoughts that the writer saw fit to put down on the page.
I occupied my reading week with a novel by my good friend David Branson called The Siege of La Rochelle. Don’t bother looking it up yet, David is still working on the book; it’s a work-in-progress. He sent me the draft last weekend and I leapt into the book with a disposition of determination and optimism. I was determined to read the book before its author arrived at my house the following Saturday (which is today, by the way), and optimistic because I had already the first three chapters and so primed, curious to see how Asher’s story (Asher is the main character) would play out. Probably because David’s novel is a work-in-progress I approached my task (that of reading) in much the same way that a mechanic approaches a half-assembled car. I’ll not press the analogy too far, but I felt that I had more license to say how the final book should be put together than I would if the novel had been presented fait accompli. Last Tuesday afternoon, I wrote out pages of notes for my novelist friend, notes which (in the end) I realized would be utterly useless. What I was doing was writing my own book, rather than reading David’s.
Once I’d thrown off the persona of that hydra beast, the critic-editor, I assumed the role of humble reader and allowed the storyteller to draw me in. My shift in attitude changed my impression of the novel. Instead of a malleable thing like clay, what I had in my hands was a finely crafted object, shaped with skill, and fired to perfection in the artist’s kiln.
A contributing factor to my elective shift in perspective was the realization that I was applying standards to David’s text that were not appropriate. I assumed that David’s intention was to write a normal novel. What I mean is a novel that most readers would recognize as participating in that time honored tradition of books which present the stories of their protagonists as a kind of journey where obstacles must be surmounted, problems solved, dragons slain, and elixirs brought back from the magic realm to heal the wounds of the masked fisher king. Of course, he wasn’t writing a fantasy, but we readers know the form, we know the structure of the hero’s journey. When I realized that David’s intent was (more likely) to present an almost documentary-like portrait of real character, I began to see the text something akin to a film by Éric Rohmer. The narrator of the novel plays the role of the camera and Asher is the subject, an actor playing a real person finding his way through life. David's treatment of his subject was sensitive, sympathetic. The result is a book which constructs a place and populates it with characters who the reader would readily count among the number of his own friends.
Back to Varamo, the book I picked up after finishing David’s The Siege of La Rochelle. The first evening (Thursday, I think it was) I read half of Varamo and would have pressed on to the end if sleep had not overtaken me. Aira’s fiction didn’t put me to sleep, I should point out, just that it was late and my body and mind were in need of rest.
My experience of reading Varamo was quite different from that of reading David’s book. I didn’t know what to expect from Aira’s tale. I was open to anything. And since Aira’s book was not a work-in-progress, but a finished work, the text had the quality of solidity, like a crystal. As I approached my task (reading) I did so with the eye, not of a mechanic, but of a scientist, a researcher, a student. What I wanted to learn was how Aira performed the trick, how he implemented his process of creation, a process described in several interviews. Because of my attitude, one of curiosity and openness, the book quickly pulled me in. I took the bait willingly and swallowed the hook.
This morning I was surprised to find some negative comments about Varamo one of the bookish web sites I frequent. Admittedly the comments were subjective, and the commenter made no attempt to disentangle his personal taste and preference from his review. At first I questioned my own assessment of Varamo. Had I not been critical enough? Is there a fault in my own literary taste? I survived these fleeting moments of self-doubt and decided that I didn’t need to worry about the negative comments. They were as much value to me as the criticism of a blind man who condemns a painting for being blue.
Then I recalled the complaint which Anaïs Nin voiced in her book, The Novel of the Future. Of course, she lived in a time before blogging and sound-bite critiques, but she still understood the problem of a culture placing too much weight on the opinions of the ignorant. She writes, “We train and screen men for all professions except that of book reviewing. Anyone is allowed to write about books. The destructive consequences of this negligence are incalculable.” [p. 104] A few paragraphs later, she continues, “My advice to young writers is to disregard critics until one is mature enough to distinguish what is objective and what is subjective.” And then on the next page: “The critic should be the intermediary, the interpreter. His personal likes and dislikes are of no value to anyone.”