cover image Birthday


César Aira, trans. from the Spanish by Chris Andrews. New Directions, $13.95 trade paper (128p) ISBN 978-0-8112-1909-9

In this profound memoir, Aira (The Linden Tree) turns 50 and sees this benchmark as an opportunity to make changes in his life. A casual conversation with his wife leads him to a darker contemplation of youth wasted, a diminishment of artistic authority in his work, and his potentially bleak future. By exploring these fears in a series of loosely organized reflections and anecdotes, Aira comes to terms with his standing as an artist, his achievements, and his future. Immersed in his identity as a writer, he admits to a fetishistic attachment to stationery and pens, and to his struggles with life outside writing. In his early 40s, he began a grand project, a conscious departure from his “little novels,” which he sees as marginal. He calls it the Encyclopedia, envisioning it as a comprehensive book of knowledge. But at 50, all he has is a collection of sketches and plans, with not a single page of manuscript, and it’s unlikely that this ambitious project will be finished. There are thoughtful anecdotes about Ludwig Wittgenstein, a waitress (and budding writer) whom he meets in a café, and Evariste Galois, a brilliant young mathematician killed in a duel in 1832. The reader gradually realizes Aira’s seemingly feigned self-deprecation is actually clear-eyed honesty, and the ostensible simplicity of the volume carries powerful and incisive ideas about life and aging. (Feb.)