Delia Falconer celebrates a new series of small books brimming with big ideas
surveys some attractive little tomes
T’S amazing to think that 15 years ago it was difficult to buy good-looking very short books, unless you went somewhere such as Melbourne’s Collected Works bookshop, which specialised in offbeat small press editions, such as my copy of Peter Handke’s essay from Pushkin Press: black and not much bigger than my palm.
Now attractive little books are everywhere. You can buy Thomas Browne’s 17th-century essay in a narrow white edition from New Directions, with an introduction taken from W. G. Sebald’s to boot, or Charles Dickens’s essays on his night walks, plucked from
in a sexy geometric black-and-grey binding courtesy of Penguin Great Ideas.
Large print runs of small books began to appear around the mid-1990s. Like and many were samplers, best-ofs from larger works: a single Gabriel Garcia Marquez story, for example, or Kafka’s aphorisms. These were like singles from albums: anticipating, interestingly, the shift digital downloading would bring to music, but also channelling a surprising nostalgia for the physical book itself.
As I recollect, it was Penguin who first began to realise the revenue potential of cheap, miniature volumes with series such as its
Now, without being a book collector, and without searching out old series such as Jonathan Cape’s 1920s it’s easy to have beautiful shelves of interesting short works. Many series come in boxed sets that make old writing suddenly desirable again: it’s hard to go past the warm loveliness of Penguin’s or deep-hued romance of Part of the joy is making new discoveries.
As the market for little books grew, the format began to offer not just a means of repackaging often out-of-copyright work, but interesting new opportunities for authors as the short form became a valued genre: Canongate, for example, commissioned writers including to Jeanette Winterson and Margaret Atwood to write on ancient myths, while a longtime favourite of mine is Bloomsbury’s Writer in the City series, in which Edmund White writes on his beloved Paris or John Banville on Prague. Local instances include Black Inc’s and Melbourne University Publishing’s Big Themes series.
By Cesar Aira, 112pp Anguli Ma: A Gothic Tale By Chi Vu, 128pp The Recluse By Evelyn Juers, 128 pp Wildlife By Eliot Weinberger, 128pp Wild & Woolley: A Publishing Memoir By Michael Wilding, 144pp All published by Giramondo, $24 each
This is the context for Giramondo Publishing’s entry into the marketplace with its series of Shorts. Attractive square shapes in a crisply designed, generic cover — white with diagonal bars of colour — these little books look desirably smart. They are also smart in the sense of sharp-eyed, innovative, and exciting.
There are five books, fiction and nonfiction, in this first selection: Cesar Aira’s Evelyn Juers’s Chi Vu’s
Eliot Weinberger’s Michael Wilding’s and Wilding are Australian; Weinberger American; Aira Argentinian (translated by Australian Chris Andrews). This mix reflects how this series is in a way a logical follow-on from the sadly now deceased literary journal edited by Giramondo publisher Ivor Indyk, which was dedicated to a worldly mix of the best of local and international writing.
The series takes its motto it is time perhaps to cherish/ the culture of shorts’’ from Les A. Murray’s poem
which of course refers to a different variety of shorts entirely. This clues us in instantly to the wit and intelligence of its selections.
Aira, author of 70 novels, is probably the highest cachet writer showcased: this is his seventh in English translation. While it would be unthinkable to create a career as a novella writer in Australia (Gerald Murnane comes closest), countries such as France (Marie Darrieussecq), Belgium (Amelie Nothomb), Japan (Yoko Ogawa) and Argentina have a lively and long-established tradition of honouring the short form.
Aira has been celebrated by contemporaries such as Roberto Bolano for dense, playful, idea-packed novellas with titles including
drawing on the South American fabulist tradition, in which the absurd is often yoked to the political and the act of storytelling is turned into a fetish.
reads as if a Gogolian Russian novel of petty bureaucracy had been transported to a seedy-steamy tropical city and gone feral. In 1923 Panama, a public servant, paid his salary in counterfeit notes, succumbs to a kind of existential panic. This is the starting point for a series of increasingly surreal adventures that culminates in Varamo accidentally writing the great classic of Central American poetry, The Song of the Virgin Child. Presenting itself as a literary history, Aira’s book creates an often mocking, sometimes serious commentary on the contextual, haphazard nature of writing:
It can be said that any art is avant-garde if it permits the reconstruction of the real-life circumstances from which it emerged.’’
has moments of striking tenderness and originality, but you either love the selfreferential vigour of the postmodern Spanishlanguage novel or not.
Writing as wonder is also Weinberger’s project, but his emphatic poise is the exact opposite of Aira’s. His essay cum prose poems, paragraphs often floating in blank space, range across astonishingly wide, often pre-modern, terrain. Weinberger’s skill is to take facts’’ (a loose term, in the case of the impressively various ancient texts he often plunders) and place them one after the other so that by sheer proximity they acquire a compelling, almost mythic, resonance to make the world seem newly re-enchanted. It’s not surprising to learn that he is also a translator of Jorge Luis Borges, as the pieces in are most reminiscent of the gnomic fantastic fictions co-authored by Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares.