Delia Fal­coner

Delia Fal­coner cel­e­brates a new se­ries of small books brim­ming with big ideas

The Weekend Australian - Review - - CONTENTS -

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.