On Saturday Ernesto told me that a used bookstore on Avenida de Mayo was selling off part of Ruth Benzacar’s library: catalogues, art books, magazines, above all, magazines.
“A lot of them are old issues of Artforum ...”
“Really?” I looked at my watch. It was five in the afternoon. “Can we go now?”
He thought for a moment. He knows the hours of all the bookstores in Buenos Aires.
“No, it’s closed. It’s open Monday through Friday.”
“I’ll go on Monday.”
“Good. Don’t wait. I don’t think they’ll last long.”
“When did you see them?”
I felt a twinge of irritation. If he had called me immediately, I could have gone on Thursday, or on Friday. Now we’d lost two days, and who knew if everything had been laid to waste. But I didn’t utter a word of reproach. I didn’t want to be unfair with Ernesto, to whom I owe so many of my joys as a reader. There had to be an explanation for his lack of urgency, for example, that he didn’t think buyers would rush there, or maybe that he didn’t fully appreciate the extent of my fanaticism. I didn’t give it any further thought, out of disgust for that kind of paranoid psychologizing of behavior, but now that I’m writing this I have to admit that these are not satisfactory explanations. Ernesto knows very well, and better than anybody, that you cannot count on a rare find, no matter how rare it is, staying on the shelves of a bookstore for a day, or even an hour. Just a few weeks earlier this had been confirmed for us. He had seen a complete edition (eleven volumes) of Pepys’s diary, he told me, we went together the next day and it had been sold! How many readers are there in Buenos Aires who are interested in that monumental work? And of them, how many have the money to buy it, on the spur of the moment, during our period of crisis? And of those, how many would find out that it had shown up in a little-known bookstore on Avenida Sarmiento? Nevertheless, there was the result: it was gone. Considering that Artforum has more of an audience than Pepys’s diaries, and that those issues would be sold at a derisory price, and that they were at a much more visible and popular bookstore, there was very good cause for alarm.
As for the other argument, i.e., that he hadn’t taken the full measure of my interest in Artforum, this was a good reason for perplexed outrage. Did he not know me at all? He was my confidant, the only person I hid nothing from! Or at least that’s what I thought. Because one thing is the sincere intention to tell someone everything, and another the efficacy with which one makes oneself understood. In that respect it could have been my fault. Because of qualms about elegance, I might have given the impression that my interest in this or that, and in Artforum, stood merely on the threshold of passion, as if passion were something vulgar, far below the likes of us. Had I deceived him so effectively? Or, better said, had he allowed himself to be so thoroughly deceived? Because I’d learned that kind of elegance from him, and I made him my confidant because I knew that his dandyism would prevent him from taking me too seriously ... In any case, I think the blame was shared, mirrored.
Once we established that there was nothing to do for now, and that I would go on Monday to the Avenida de Mayo, I asked him, more relaxed now, how he had found out that the library had belonged to Ruth Benzacar. He said from a few dedications. A renowned gallery owner (we both knew her, though superficially), Ruth had died, still young, a few months before. She must have left a good art library, which would remain in the hands of her heirs. For some reason, probably because of lack of space, they got rid of magazines and catalogues. The issues of Artforum were from the Eighties.
I made a firm decision to go on Monday morning. But on Sunday Juan Pablo called me, and we made a date to meet at Café Tortoni on Monday at four in the afternoon, and since this bookstore was a mere hundred meters from Tortoni (and about half an hour from my house), it wasn’t worth it to make two trips. Or was it? I reasoned in the following way. In the morning and early afternoon some, or many, of the issues of Artforum could be sold. But I wouldn’t know about them. I would be satisfied with the ones I found in the afternoon, and I wouldn’t even need to blame myself because the others might have been sold on Friday. Whatever the case, I lived those two days in a state of delicious anticipation.
On Monday at three in the afternoon I entered the bookstore. I went directly to the Artforums, which were on a cart close to the door. There were a lot: half a meter of magazines stacked vertically, which I began to look at one by one. “I have this, I don’t have this, I have this, I don’t have this ...” I recognized the issues I had with one glance at the cover. I didn’t care about the dates. For me, Artforum is always new. I lost count of the issues I didn’t have. Decades of searching for them with great effort where there were none, of being happy with only one whenever luck put it within reach, had poorly prepared me for this abundance. So poorly that at a certain point I thought I’d buy two, or three, or at the most four. But how to choose which ones? From the content, obviously. But for that, I was even more poorly prepared. I had always bought Artforum from just looking at the cover and making sure I didn’t have that issue at home; it had never occurred to me to look inside to see if it contained material that more or less interested me. What kind of material might that be? I could almost say—and I would if I weren’t afraid of being misunderstood—that I didn’t care a bit about the content.
Fortunately, I reacted in time. Something inside me said, “I don’t want to have regrets for the rest of my life.” I would take them all. For once, I would do something crazy, I would get away with it, I would indulge myself ... But what was so crazy about it? The price wasn’t a problem: they were very cheap. The space they would take in my house wasn’t, either (we had just rented another apartment, upstairs from the one we occupied, for books). The time it would take me to read them was even less of a problem, because I had no intention of sitting down and reading them systematically. What, then? Why did that sensation of “crazy” persist?
Probably because there was something demented about buying so many magazines at the same time. Magazines appear periodically and are bought one by one. In some haphazard and fortuitous and anachronistic way, I had been doing this with Artforum over a period of many years and decades. You can buy two magazines together (or three, or even four) if you have missed a previous issue for some reason. But who buys many issues together, let’s say ten or more, of the same magazine? A collector. And I am not a collector, not at all. Also, a scholar or an archivist might do it, someone dedicated to recuperating the “lost time” of contemporary art. This was a little more like me, but the margin of irony was too wide for me to really be able to identify.
Leaving aside such subtleties, or digging deeper into them, the craziness of buying all of them resided in the excess of pleasure, or at least gratification. I had had a stroke of luck, there they were in my avid hands, as incredible as they were undeniable, material, tangible. We always count on having strokes of luck, but on a different and fluctuating plane in time, not in the present. Now it was the present. The present and Artforum, which expressed it, now coincided. That was enough to make me slightly giddy with incredulity.
There was also something crazy about the imprudence. Isn’t it dangerous to be too happy? Wouldn’t it have to be paid back afterward? Wouldn’t it be a better idea to save something for later? The answer is: No.
I simply separated out the ones I didn’t have and took them to the counter in the back, in two trips. The salesperson started to count them—I hadn’t—and I told her that while she did that I was going to see if there was anything else that interested me. This made sense. The truth was I didn’t want anything else (what more could I want?), but one never knows. Not every day does the library of a renowned gallery owner appear in a used bookstore—even though it was the extra and rejected part of the library, it could offer opportunities that would never come again. For my part, it was more than anything a gesture of normality: I was not, nor did I want to be, a compulsive or blind buyer of my favorite magazine, but rather an educated reader with a wide range of tastes, one who believed, rightly so, that art doesn’t begin and end with Artforum. And there was something else, something more fundamental: Artforum was not an end in itself. I will not fully develop this idea because it would lead me too far astray. In the end, of course, it was the art. Artforum was the first step along the road that led to that end, the eternal, immense, and marvelous first step. Afterward came all the other steps, one of which, very close to the first (I would say it was the second), was paved with the books by critics who wrote for Artforum, or those about artists who appeared in Artforum ...
That’s why I went back to the tables. But I was in too much of a rush to leave with my treasure to carry out a systematic search. I didn’t see anything. My normality didn’t stretch that far.
Nevertheless, I did add something. Nothing very well thought out. An impulse buy, something simply beautiful, attractive, strange, that anybody in my place would have bought. But afterward, when I thought about it, I noticed that my choice had some significant features. It was a small orange book, hardcover, exquisitely printed on glossy paper, full-color reproductions on every recto page and text on every verso page, the catalogue of an exhibit of miniature art (At the Threshold of the Visible: Miniscule and Small-Scale Art, 1964–1996, Independent Curators International, New York, 1997).
Moreover, I didn’t have much time: time had also shrunk: when I looked at my watch it was already four o’clock, so I paid and left, carrying two large bags. Juan Pablo was waiting for me in Tortoni. I showed him my finds. He had been friends with Ruth Benzacar and had worked for years in her gallery. He told me that Ruth’s apartment on Calle Talcahuano had just been sold, which explained the liquidation of part of her library. Then followed a few melancholic reflections on the void left by that energetic promoter of Argentine art, on the brevity of life, and on how unpredictable destiny was, after which we moved on to another subject.
Juan Pablo is one of those men who is very attentive to the preferences and obsessions of others, perhaps because he is always willing to incorporate them into his own repertoire. Years before, when we first met, he found out about my weakness for Artforum, and he also began looking for it and buying it, and since then, every time he saw one in some bookstore or museum shop or in one of those magazine brothels on Avenida Corrientes, he would call me or write to me to let me know. He did the same thing when he found out about my passion for pens. Here I must say that pens are my only other passion that can compete in my soul with Artforum. I never have enough of one or of the other.
The purpose of this meeting in Tortoni was ostensibly to offer a toast and take stock of the work we had done throughout the year, and to say goodbye for the rest of the summer because he was going to Córdoba for vacation. One detail that shows his mimetic nature: when the waiter came, I hesitated for a moment and then ordered a whisky. Although it was early, the euphoria I felt from the purchase of the magazines and the feeling that I could not expect anything more from the day made me think that the occasion deserved something special. He ordered the same, and when I told him that he should not feel obliged to accompany me he said that he had, in fact, also felt like having a whisky, and he had been afraid I would order a coffee, in which case he would not have dared to order alcohol. Because he expresses himself with a bit of exaggeration and bombast, he painted this fear as an anguished panic, and the good fortune that my wishes had coincided with his own was a relief befitting a condemned man who receives a pardon at the very last moment. We toasted.
Knowing him, I should have anticipated that the toast was merely an excuse for something else. In fact, the surprise happened quickly. It was a gift. He had no reason to give it to me, except for that pleasure, which I know so well, of leaving a material trace of moments of friendship. Something tangible, independent of memory. It was a pen. I lifted it over my head. Someday I will create a catalogue raisonné of my pens.
This one was rare and beautiful. A perfectly cylindrical tube made of gold and porcelain. The cap, very short, and the base were made of gold, as was the nib. The rest was black, white, and gold porcelain in wavy veins. Total simplicity, except for two tiny round buttons of opaque black coral, one on the cap and one on the barrel, and Juan Pablo told me that he hadn’t figured out their function. I also couldn’t see any, and assumed they were decorations. Some time later I understood: they were there to prevent the pen, covered or uncovered, from rolling and falling off the edge of the table onto the ground. They were really useful, because I’ve had this kind of accident more than once.
The porcelain and the unusual shape seemed to defy true elegance, whose essential requirement is simplicity and not calling attention to oneself. But in this case they were justified because they turned an object that otherwise would have been only ostentatious and expensive into a curiosity. The eccentricity compensated for the expense, and in Juan Pablo’s language of good manners, it meant something like: “I saw it as so strange that I couldn’t resist the temptation to bring it to you.”
The day ended with a few other small gratifications, not the least of which was showing my trophies to my family. It was December 6, 2002, one of those days that makes you think that life would be perfect if all of life were like that. Twenty-four issues of Artforum (because there were twenty-four, I counted them when I arrived home), a difficult record to match, and on top of that, a beautiful pen. One can say that these are only material objects, that other things bring true happiness. But would that be true? There always has to be something material, even love needs something to touch. And in my proceeds of that joyful day, the material was so entwined with the spiritual that it transcended itself, without leaving off being material. I won’t talk about the pen, I would get too carried away. But that transcendence was pretty obvious in the magazines. They were paper and ink, and they were also ideas and reveries. They reproduced the dialectic of art, with as many attributes as art itself, or more. Before, I spoke about the “material trace.” They were more than that: the word is “luxury.” Material made of spirit is the luxurious border where reality communicates with utopia.
Translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver
César Aira has published more than a hundred works of fiction and nonfiction. His story collection Artforum will be published in March by New Directions.
Katherine Silver is a writer and award-winning literary translator. Her recent and forthcoming publications include works by María Sonia Cristoff, Daniel Sada, César Aira, Julio Cortázar, Juan Carlos Onetti, and Julio Ramón Ribeyro. She is the former director of the Banff International Literary Translation Centre and the author of Echo Under Story. She does volunteer interpreting for asylum seekers.
Photograph by Sarah Palmer, January 2020.