, July 26, 2011
(view all comments by geoff.wichert)
An Episode In The Life Of A Landscape Painter
by César Aira
translated by Chris Andrews
New Directions, 87 pages. ($12.95)
No one is eager to talk about it, but every reviewer faces the dilemma of how much attention to pay to prevailing public opinion. Fortunately, in the case of César Aira�"like Roberto Bolaño and a handful of other wonderful writers�"that’s not a problem, because a critical perspective has yet to crystallize around Aira and the 30, or 50, or according to his latest translator, 70 novellas he’s written in the last decade or so. That An Episode In The Life Of A Landscape Painter is a masterwork of story telling and prose writing cannot be disputed, but when it comes to explaining just what makes it so good, critical voices falter. What seems clear is that Aira’s prose is simultaneously strange, unprecedented, and yet in some important way familiar. His methods remain unpredictable, yet the results quickly come to feel like a part of the reader, as if one has always been reading this book, or isn’t now reading it but hopes to get back to it soon. Like we had been waiting for this experience, and now it’s finally here.
Part of the quality that makes Aira irresistible is sheer talent. He can write the kind of paragraphs that leave a discerning reader hungry to read them again, but out loud, and preferably to someone else. An anecdote early in An Episode hints at how such compelling passages arise. The protagonist’s great-grandfather was trained as a clockmaker, but had to start over when an accident took his right hand. Rather than abandon the skills he’d practiced since childhood, he redirected them into drawing and painting with his left hand. Meticulous training, practical adaptation, and methodical deliberation gave him preternaturally precise draughtsmanship: ‘An exquisite contrast between the petrified intricacy of the form and the violent turmoil of the subject matter.’ Something similar may have happened to an experienced translator�"Aira’s day job�"whose inner, creative turmoil finally overflowed the precise use of language he’d practiced daily for decades.
What makes an Aira novella unmistakably his, in spite of the wildly inventive subjects and plots and the range of sub-literary genres he draws from freely, must be his approach to the actual process of writing. An outspoken partisan of el continuo, his term for constantly forward motion in a story, he has called his own technique fuga hacia adelante: flight forward. Painters among his readers will understand that an artist who meticulously prepares, working from sketches, preparing a ground, and finally filling in the colors, who examines the results and then makes changes as necessary, will get a different result from one who brushes paint on an unprepared canvas and takes directions from the spontaneous result. Aira’s method is similar to the second, or to a brush-and-ink or watercolor process permitting no penitence. Aira composes episodically, supposedly in coffee shops, and should it go badly, he continues to write forward until the problem is resolved. The result, when he’s ‘hot,’ is one of those sections that soars and rushes along, hypnotic prose that generates surgically precise sense impressions that can build to overwhelming intensity. Then when he resumes, he may very well be in a completely different narrative mood, and the result may be a change of direction, a philosophical digression, or (in one of the best-known cases) a sex change for the protagonist that goes un-remarked upon within the text.
Johann Moritz Rugendas (1802�"1858), the landscape painter of the title, was born and died in Germany. The men in his family had been documentary painters for generations, and Aira identifies him as not only the best of them, but the finest documentary painter of all. He is surely one of the most influential. How he became a painter, spent half his working years in Central and South America, and established his reputation on the work he did there forms the introduction to Aira’s tale, in which the novelist shows how Rugendas’ circumstances and his response to them, like his great-grandfather’s response to the loss of his hand, came together to produce a watershed moment not only for him, but for art. Before him, the family business was painting the warrior caste in Europe and their battles. But Johann Moritz had the misfortune to come of age just after Napoleon’s defeat, at the beginning of what he foresaw would be a long peace. Realizing his predicament, he left his teacher and enrolled in the Munich Academy of Art to study nature painting. Then as now, a graduating student was expected to take on a kind of thesis project, though Aira compares Rugendas’ next step to Charles Darwin’s decision to sign on for a sea voyage as the captain’s companion. The failure of Rugendas and his new employer to get along is another deciding circumstance: while the expedition met with disaster in the New World, Rugendas was able to pursue his own interests.
Aira tells this story as efficiently as a summary, but in more forceful prose, bracketing the names of factual objects with evocative adjectives and strong action. I couldn’t help comparing this lithe, fast-moving story telling to where creative nonfiction seemed to be headed before being hijacked by memoirs wallowing in self-regard. A novelist’s decision to take real people hostage as fictional characters can cause a deadening rupture in the reader’s suspension of disbelief. Aira avoids this pitfall by carefully controlling his proximity to the painter. Rugendas took copious notes throughout his travels, which aided him in turning his thousands of sketches into finished works. He also wrote long letters to his family and colleagues. By anchoring his point of view to this documentary record, Aira delivers a convincing illusion that combines the verisimilitude of fiction with the factual accuracy of a biography.
Rugendas returned to Europe and published a journal of his travels that brought him to the attention of Alexander von Humboldt, whom Darwin called the greatest scientific traveller ever, and who is known to us as the father of modern geography. Humboldt had already put forth the goal of setting down in one place everything known about the earth, with his priority on visual presentation as the most direct. He urged his theory on Rugendas and urged him to confine his art making to the tropics, where the density of mineral and vegetable data was richest. But a secret, life-long desire drove Rugendas: he wanted to explore the absolute emptiness that he anticipated finding on the Pampas of Argentine. Attempting to reach it led to the devastating title ‘episode,’ and subsequent events reveal how Rugendas’ character enabled him to translate Humboldt’s process for portraying the rain forest into a model of anthropological study and presentation. It’s not as dry as that makes it sound, and the challenges of carrying fragile art materials in nature and the sequence of sketching, note-taking, and synthesizing images makes for a story that can stand beside the accounts of Monet, van Gogh, and company as they learned to paint al fresco half a century later.
The popular imagination sees the artist as a romantic figure propelled by cyclones of inspiration, but Aira writes two to four novellas a year�"some of them based, like this one, on 19th century history, others set in his neighborhood and full of surreal whimsy�"and Rugendas is important to him because of the way, in the face of adversity, he got back on his horse with his sketch pad and returned to work. When the trackless plains of the Pampas presented him with new battles, this seventh-generation professional was ready to depict them, to rise above the fray and capture truth on both sides. He faces philosophical questions here, but ultimately what matters to Rugendas, as to Aira, is the work. Making art saves Johann Moritz Rugendas, and An Episode In The Life Of A Landscape Painter ennobles César Aira.