An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter

rugendas

 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.

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Aira and Watterson

This past year I read two more novels by Cesar Aira, Ghosts, and The Literary Conference.  It’s hard for me to say why, but I felt let down by the first, and then the latter somewhat restored my opinion of Aira.  I may read parts of Ghosts again.  It’s set in Buenos Aires, and was somehow true to my experience of that city, where I had a great time although I found it very different from what I expected.  Perhaps it’s interesting, though, that no examples of an appealing parallel I thought of immediately occur to me from Ghosts.

Over this holiday break I spent some time at home reading old Calvin and Hobbes collections, and I found myself thinking of Watterson when I was copying out passages of Aira.  In The Literary Conference, the mad scientist narrator accidentally creates a swarm of giant blue worms, each one “as lethal as a soft skyscraper come to life”, that attacks an Andean city.  He explains, “if they had been magnified to that absurd size, it was simply because I had set the cloning machine to run in “genius” mode.”  That was when I thought of Calvin’s cardboard box.  Right side up, it’s a time machine, facedown, a transmogrifier, and on its side, a duplicator that can easily be enhanced with a good/evil dial.

Another connection of sorts that occurred to me was the regularity rally that appears in Varamo (an invention, I thought, but apparently real) in which the object is to drive across Panama at as close to constant speed as possible.  Anarchists exploit this event to stage a cunning attack on a high ranking minister, leading, in no straightforward way, to the climax of the novel.  Calvin and Hobbes has not only Calvinball, but a slowness race, “the secret base”, cross country football, and full contact golf.  If any authors should be described as playful, Aira and Watterson are two.  It’s not just creativity, but the blunt and unapologetic way in which the fantastic is brought into everyday life.

Of course I have no reason to expect all of Aira’s work to strike me in the same way; he has a large body of work and it will be interesting to see how it percolates into English.  Though I read just two novels of his this year, I included him on a list of the ten or so defining features of my reading this year.  I guess I’ll have to say more of that another time.

A New Book from Jorge Luis Borges (sort of)

I’ve been getting drawn into A Course on English Literature in spite of myself.  The book is a transcription of lectures given by Borges in 1966, published in Spanish in 2000, and released in English by New Directions last year.  Borges died in 1986, but I think it will be a long time before readers of English have access to all of his works, or even get a real sense of them.  (I do read Spanish, but I haven’t read Borges much in the original.  In Argentina I was daunted by the many editions of his work and by the appearance of a colossal (Boswellian?) memoir by his friend Adolfo Bioy Casares.)

I may be giving myself too much credit but I think there is something essentially hard to grasp about Borges’ work.  I began to read the short stories more than ten years ago.  More recently I’ve read a small number of his essays.  Along the way I picked up This Craft of Verse (a series of lectures given at Harvard) and Seven Nights.  Still, every time I pick up one of these books, I find myself lost, apart from a very few really iconic stories: “The Library of Babel”, “The Garden of Forking Paths”, “The Aleph”, “Funes the Memorious”, “Pierre Menard”, “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”.  The stories, reviews, and essays all blend together.  I actually read a good bit of Seven Nights, a book of interviews, without realizing I had read it years before under a different title.  That may not sound like praise, but it was the book’s evocation of the streets of Buenos Aires, of Borges learning Italian by reading Dante on the streetcars, that sent me to Argentina.

The main reason I was skeptical of A Course on English Literature is that it seemed likely to cover a lot of the same ground as This Craft of Verse.  While it’s true that the section on Anglo Saxon poetry in the new book uses many of the examples already familiar to me (he must have been very fond of “whale road” and maere tungol, “that famous star”), A Course is more thorough and I’m finding a lot that’s worthwhile.  The comparison of Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas with Candide is really interesting.  And he’s actually making me want to read Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, which is saying something.

I wish, of course, that I could say just what it is that makes Borges’ work at once beguiling and ungraspable.  It has something to do with his way with allusion.  His stories teem with great works and authors.  Certainly his famous self effacement could be a way of handling a technique that usually has the subtlety of a blunderbuss, but it also leaves one wondering what, if anything, has been said.  I still recommend This Craft of Verse and I count Borges as a major, though in some ways dubious intellectual influence.