May 16, 2011

Surrounding me in the subway car are three readers: a Jodi Picoult, an H. G. Wells, and one avidly taking in corporate-business-speak. A woman’s bag resembles a cover from the Writings from an Unbound Europe series published by Northwestern University Press. The other day I saw a woman reading José Saramago’s The Elephant’s Journey, and I’d had the urge to follow her from the subway onto Forty-second Street, to confirm whether she truly was the professor I’d imagined her to be during the ten minutes we’d ridden the N together. Two weeks ago I watched the film José y Pilar, which chronicled Saramago’s last years writing The Elephant’s Journey and his memoir Small Memories, as well as the exhausting touring he did alongside his inexhaustible wife to whom all his books are dedicated.

One afternoon I sat down at my desk composing a letter about César Aira to César Aira. No, the letter was to a friend, who in my head was named César Aira but who in reality is named something else, something equally concise and direct. Their literary sensibilities are close, at least in my eyes, and one night this friend and I walked twenty blocks discussing how Aira—specifically How I Became a Nun, whose young narrator is named César Aira—had affected us. I had seen her in my mind’s eye while I’d read Nun, not as somebody with whom I was having a conversation about the book but as a muse or as the inscrutable cipher. In this mind’s eye she had sat in a chair or on my shoulder and watched me read Nun. It was as though she were waiting for me to finish so we could have this conversation about it, though at the time she hadn’t yet picked it up, not until I had finished it and recommended it to her with warmth, confidence, and awe. Tonight I wrote to another friend a little about the value of such communication. There is communication in the gaze and in silence, no matter how structured or unstructured. A desire for narrative will always live, then, whether arising from Picoult’s world of domesticity, Wells’s moon-flying scientist, a businessman’s lingo, Saramago’s languorous journeys, or Aira’s multipled, multiplied, multiplicitied Césarita.

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