An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter by César Aira (translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews)

More than once I’ve seen a blogger recommend An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter to readers newly discovering César Aira. I wonder if that’s because the plot appears more straightforward in comparison to his other books? Of the three I’ve read it definitely has the most linear trajectory, moving in a (fairly) straight line from start to finish. It’s easy to track the rise, peak and decline in the action  – not something you can take for granted with this author.

Of course, no story is completely straightforward. A no frills summary of An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter would tell you that it’s a fictionalized account of Johann Moritz Rugendas’, the19th century German landscape painter, visit to Argentina.  A fellow countryman, the naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, suggested he go to paint the Latin American terrain.  And so Rugendas traveled there with a companion, a minor artist  who ultimately proves himself the best of friends. At the story’s climax Rugendas and his horse are struck by lightning. The plot veers, turns in a completely unexpected direction. An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter becomes wondrous. Extraordinary. Grotesque.

The variations revolved around a curious impossibility: how could he communicate the proposition “I am a monster”? It was easy enough to set it down on paper. But transmitting its significance was far more difficult. In the case of his Chilean friends the problem was pressing, and he took particular care over his letters to them, especially the Guttikers, who had already written inviting him to stay at their home in Santiago, as he had before setting out on his journey a few months before. Since they would be seeing him shortly, he felt he had to warn them. The obvious thing to do in this case would have been to exaggerate, in order to diminish the surprise. But it was not easy to exaggerate… He ran the risk of falling short, especially if they were allowing for obvious exaggeration.

I could quote the passage where Rugendas is struck by lightning, which is – quite frankly – beautiful. Or describe what happens afterward. But who am I to deprive readers of those surprises?  Honestly, if I’ve done my job I shouldn’t need to discuss plot points to pique your interest.   Even if it had no narrative substance  – and oh it does! – Aira’s prose is enough of an enticement for any reader.

While the signature writing style is always the same, (introspective, flowing, lyrical) every Aira book still manages to be unique. Ghosts is an avant-garde ghost story set in the present day; Varamo reads like a rambling, paranoid delusion; and An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter is a 19th century painting – all ochre and burnt sienna layered over a rapidly drawn charcoal sketch.

It was not really rain so much as a benign drizzle, enveloping the landscape in gentle tides of humidity all afternoon. The clouds came down so low they almost landed, but the slightest breeze would whisk them away… and produce others from bewildering corridors which seemed to give the sky access to the center of the earth. In the midst of these magical alterations, the artists were briefly granted dreamlike visions, each more sweeping than the last. Although their journey traced a zigzag on the map, they were heading straight as an arrow towards openness. Each day was larger and more distant. As the mountains took on weight, the air became lighter and more changeable in its meteoric content, a sheer optics of superposed heights and depths.

By this time it must be obvious that I can’t get enough of César Aira. Don’t worry.  I’m not alone. The popularity of, and respect for, his work increases in the United States with each new English translation. Currently there are seven books available in English (six through the publisher New Directions & one from Serpent’s Tail), and a short story appeared in the New Yorker just this past December. A new book, The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira, comes out in the Fall of 2012. Needless to say – this man is a ridiculously prolific writer. His extensive bibliography consists of dozens of untranslated works and extends all the way back to 1975. And he is still young – only sixty-three!  Isn’t it  lovely to know that there’s so much material in existence, patiently waiting to be enjoyed by all?

Note:  the New Directions edition comes with a preface by Roberto Bolaño, who calls Aira “one of the three or four best writers working in Spanish today.” I believe, for Bolaño, that qualifies as a glowing endorsement.

Publisher:  A New Directions Paperback Original, New York (2006)
ISBN:  978 0 8112 1630 2

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How & Where: Michael Pollan vs. Witold Rybczynski

The Michael Pollan book I’m reading reminds me of another favorite author of mine – Witold Rybczynski.  Both writers devote themselves to what could easily become unwieldy topics (gardening & cities in these examples),  yet they succeed in keeping the information manageable by dividing it into short, entertaining and self-contained essays.  I found their writing style to be similar, though Pollan is easily the more poetic of the two.  More importantly, both Rybczynski & Pollan display the desire to actively engage the reader’s interest in the topics they, themselves, find so fascinating.

Over a dozen years ago Rybczynski’s book City Life made me care about urban planning.  He introduced me to the concept that cities, like living things, evolve.  American cities are the way they are for a reason; we adapt  where we live to how we live.  And because we live differently from Europeans, Africans and Asians – our cities are different from theirs.

Just like there are layers of complexity to the natural world , the same is true of the man- made.

Rybczynski describes the American city in its many incarnations – New York, Chicago, D.C., Boston, etc.  He discusses how parks, public transportation and civic art came into being.  How the events of history shaped our landscape.  He makes connections that aren’t as obvious to the rest of us.  For example, Rybczynski discusses the famous visit of  Alexis de Tocqueville in 1831  and how the Frenchman did not find the America he had expected.

He had read James Fenimore Cooper’s novels set in the wilderness, and he anticipated that a nation that included pioneering settlers as well as urban patricians would display cultural extremes even more striking than those between the rustic French provinces and the sophisticated capitale.  A travel essay he published describes how a visit to the frontier (present day Michigan) confounded his expectations.  “When you leave the main roads your force your way down barely trodden paths.  Finally, you see a field cleared, a cabin made from half-shaped tree trunks admitting light though only one narrow window only.  You think that you have at last reached the home of the American peasant.  Mistake.  You make your way into this cabin that seems the asylum of all wretchedness but the owner of the place is dressed in the same clothes as yours and he speaks the language of towns.  On his rough table are books and newspapers; he himself is anxious to know what is happening in Europe and asks you to tell him w hat has most struck you in his country.”  Toqueville continued:  “One might think one was meeting a rich landowner who had come to spend just a few nights in a hunting lodge.”

This uniform national “urbanity”, Rybczynski points out, was due largely to the fact that the majority of early Americans dispersed into the wilderness (later into the suburbs) from cities/urban centers.  The reverse was true in Europe – the more established peasant class often making their way into the big cities from the countryside.  So, a defining aspect of the American character and culture is directly linked to how the country was geographically settled.

Pollan & Rybczynski  look at social norms which, for most of us, seem too mundane to question…  tending a garden, mowing a lawn, moving to the suburbs, visiting the park.  In doing so, they cause us to see and understand our lives in new ways.  They lead us to ask questions:  Pollan about how we live with nature and Rybczynski about the way we live among our fellow men.