An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter


 A landscape by the man himself, public domain via wikimedia

This is the most realistic, low-key Cesar Aira novel I have read yet.  A strange thing to say about a story that has an Indian raid and a man struck by lightning.  Other than the immediate effects of the strike, though, there’s nothing that approaches the fantastic coincidences, ghosts and B-movie monsters of his other novels.  The main character is even a real person.

In the early nineteenth century, German landscape painter Johann Moritz Rugendas is making his second trip to South America.  He has already published a successful book of engravings of Brazil.  Under the influence of Alexander von Humboldt, he intends to make a more systematic record of the forms of the natural world.  He diverges from his mentor, however, in being drawn from the profusion of the tropical jungle to the vast emptiness of the Argentine Pampas.  As Rugendas descends from the Andes, heading eastward into the plains, Aira writes suggestively of the shocking volumes of empty air, and of great wagons carrying goods from Mendoza to Buenos Aires which travel so slowly that to the traveller they seem to move backwards in time.

In Varamo, Aira purportedly constructed a day in the life of a civil servant so disastrous and improbable that it inspired a modernist poem of the utmost genius.  Episode is a more complicated version of artistic inspiration.  Rugendas’ mastery and dedication to his art are emphasized from the beginning.  Also, from the beginning we are prepared for a crucial turning point in the artist’s life, a catastrophe.  After being struck by lightning, dragged by his horse, and badly disfigured, Rugendas is afflicted with horrendous migraines and becomes dependent on opium.  And yet, he remains the artist.  Things seem to go on almost as before.

I read this very fast and can’t pretend to give a totally coherent explanation.  Clearly, Aira is commenting on the artistic life in general.  Rugendas faces constant uncertainty and challenges from both within and without.  It’s interesting that he writes a great deal in the aftermath of his accident; it’s not creative writing, but in merely corresponding with his patrons and relatives, he describes the same events in ways that don’t seem to be the same.  It’s hard to pin down Aira’s tone, and I’m sure his sufferings could be read as brutal satire rather than some kind of tribute.  Some later scenes of the novel are more like the madcap Aira I had been used to, but the stage props are more down to earth, such as a mantle or veil with which Rugendas protects his dilated pupils. 

The more I think about it, the more I can imagine returning to this book ahead of Aira’s others, not because it’s immediately more enjoyable, but because the plot seems to conform more closely to his philosophic preoccupations.  On the whole, An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter reads like some type of fantasy art history (not a real genre as far as I know), or like reports of the lives of explorers and soldiers which astound us with their violence and heroism while maddening with their laconic dignity.


Arch-pirates choose the Loeb Classical Library

I started off reading Livy in Penguin editions, but the last volume of their set is apparently abridged, so when I recently started back up on the history of Rome Ab Urbe Condita, I started borrowing the Loebs.  The Loeb Classical Library is well known for its red and green volumes of Latin and Greek text with facing translations.  It’s sometimes criticized for prosy or out of date translations, and it would be a bit of a stretch for me to claim that the original texts are really any use to me.  But here are some wonderful words and phrases I would have completely missed out on if it weren’t for the Loebs:

“superos inferosque deos”


“magistro elephantorum”

“sed rerum natura”

“Quid autem, si vox libera non sit, liberum esse?”

“cogitatoque hiemis quam longa siet.”


“Superos inferosque deos” means “gods above and below”, “inferosque” being cognate to “infernal”, I imagine.  The -que is a suffix meaning “and”, which often adds a poetic ring, as in “arma virumque cano”.

“Archipirata” should be obvious: pirate captain.  This turns up in an interesting and nasty conflict between two Rhodian captains during the war with King Antiochus of Asia.  The Greek island of Rhodes had an excellent navy; they were allied to the Romans but one of their exiled nobles was admiral for Antiochus.  This exiled captain pretended that he wished to defect, and promised the leader of the Rhodian allies, whom he hated, that he would let the fleet under his command grow slack and give them up.  Livy reports how the allied captain became every bit as slack and unwary as the man he hoped to bring in.  In an action involving the “archipirata” as well as the Rhodian exile, the Roman fleet was badly mauled and the credulous admiral killed.

“Magistro elephantorum” is another obvious one, the master of elephants.  War elephants, in this context.  Livy pulls out the stops describing the Battle of Magnesia, where Antiochus’ power was broken.  Some fifty elephants are said to have worn head armor and carried towers holding four men each.  They didn’t save the king, however, and the treaty he made with the Romans specified that he would give up all of his elephants, which must have made him very sad.

“Sed rerum natura” echoes the title of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, meaning On the Nature of Things.  Here it means something like “but that’s the way things are”, but it obviously sounds much better.  If I remember correctly, this was uttered by the more democratic Greek allies of Rome who began to make awkward demands with regard to another Roman ally, King Eumenes.  Democrats and autocrats can never really get along, it’s the nature of things.

“What, pray, was free, if there was no free speech?”  In a similar situation, Greek cities complained that Philip of Macedon, once defeated and now a Roman ally, was infringing on the freedoms guaranteed by the Romans themselves.  It sounds great but in other places Livy is rather contemptuous of this kind of thing.  Somewhere else he describes Athenian ships so laden down with decrees praising the Romans and attacking their enemies that they could hardly move.

“Cogitatoque hiemis quam longa siet.”  “And remember how long winter lasts.”  This last is from Cato the Elder’s work on farming, giving advice on storing fodder for animals.  Elm leaves were good, apparently.  I’m reading Cato because he shows up in Livy around this time, 200 b.c., as an all around formidable guy, and his one surviving book is one of the oldest Latin prose texts in existence.  He would definitely have gotten along with the Starks.

And if you’ve read along this far, I’ll tell you that on page 329 of volume eleven, the Romans held a council “at Clitoris in Arcadia”.  This is not how the place name is rendered in other translations.

What do you think, should the Loeb Classical Library give me a sponsorship?

I Bought a Dictionary

I’m kind of ashamed of this one.  Let’s face it, print dictionaries are pretty pointless now.  This is a big one, guaranteed to become a burden at some point in my future; it weighs around five pounds and is of a size that only suggests similarly obsolete items, like a VCR or a desktop computer.  Yes, it’s a Webster’s New International Dictionary, second edition, unabridged.  The worst thing about this purchase is that I already own one.

My dictionary, open to the plate

In my defense, it was absurdly cheap.  I’m not one to get alarmed over the state of books and reading, but something profound does appear to be happening to the market when reference works of this quality go all but discarded.  The W2, as they call it, came out in 1934, and is still sometimes seen propped open on tables in good libraries.  The first printings of W2 contained the famous “dord” error: a slip reading “D or d” as abbreviations for density was misconstrued, given a pronunciation, and printed as a word.  The W3 came out in 1961, occasioned some controversy for including words like “ain’t”, and remains the last of its line. 

The one I just bought is on India paper, meaning it has about half the thickness of one printed on ordinary paper, and its binding has held up correspondingly well.  My first W2 is one of the thickest books you will ever see.  It’s almost a cube.  I went so far as to make a lectern shelf with a sloping top, but the book has been well used and the state of the binding made me afraid to let it stay there.  It has sentimental value as well, and is also a dord dictionary.  The new one isn’t a dord, and so I’m happy to study the long term effects of my lectern on the binding.

I’ve put it to decent use so far.  Some smart guy used the word “diuturnal” in an article I was reading.  Other words I’m keeping secret for use in games of dictionary.  The plates alone were worth the price of the book.  I waited weeks before buying it.  Most people just don’t know a great thing when they see it.

The Foghorn


Friday evening I was reading and enjoying the gorgeous view of Boston Harbor at the Piers Park in East Boston.  Some event was going on at the end of the next pier: there was a party tent hung with lights and people inside were clapping.  Mostly this pier seems to be used by pleasure boats and small yachts, but there are also water taxis and big ferries I can only guess are refueling.  Friday night a Nantucket lightship (there were many) was moored at the end next to the tent.  The lightships have been replaced now by buoys; I thought maybe this was a group involved with the boat’s preservation, or perhaps they just rented it for fun.  The party seemed to culminate when they turned on the lights and blasted the foghorn.  It was extremely loud, of course.  The whole park turned as one.  The low, resonant note descended at the end to a rumbling, blatting, obscene pedal tone that was funny but also disconcerting.  There was an answering chorus from boats all around the harbor, but nothing came close.


Then I remembered W. S. Merwin’s poem, “The Foghorn”, from The Drunk in the Furnace.  The poem asks, “Who wounded that beast/ Incurably, or from whose pasture/ Was it lost, full grown, and time closed round it/ With no way back? … What does it bespeak in us, repeating/  And repeating, insisting on something/ That we never meant?”  The voice of the foghorn is our creation, yet somehow it is alive.  It has escaped us and become something we cannot see and would rather not hear, but the alternative is drowning, “always nearer than we had remembered”.  The poem may be about facing death, but it suggests that there is something culpable as well in our attempts to deal with it.  In light (light?) of Jude, verse 13, “They are raging waves of the sea, foaming out their own shame”, the sea is the abode of the damned.


It’s one of a number of sea poems that Merwin wrote early on, poems with titles like “The Eyes of the Drowned Watch Keels Going Over”, “The “Portland” Going Out” and “The Sea Monster”.  The Portland was a steamer that went down in a blizzard off of Massachusetts in 1898.  No one even knows how many people were on board; there were probably more than one hundred, and none survived.  The poem takes the point of view of the last people to see the doomed ship, the crew of a little fishing boat heading home safely with no warning of the storm to come.  These poems are sometimes so gothic that I think critics have a hard time deciding how seriously to take them.  Nicholson Baker, who I think of whenever I write something like “blatting, obscene pedal tone”, seems to think that Merwin wrote all of his good stuff later in life, after he gave up punctuation and capital letters.  Or maybe only his strange alter ego, Paul Chowder, thinks that.

Photos are, top, by Elmschrat Coaching38, CC attribution/share alike via wikimedia commons, middle, author’s photo, bottom, public domain via wikimedia commons and Nantucket Historical Association.