An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter
The Transfiguring Accident
Cesar Aira is an Argentinean writer who has written over seventy books, often no more than a hundred pages, and whose reputation rests not on the importance of one book or on the significance of his name, but on a low-key creativity that works in the shadow of literature rather than in its light. While Kundera, Garcia Marquez, Roth and McEwan produce whether with frequency or irregularity a work that announces itself to the world, the combination of immense productivity and a reticent authorial presence makes Aira a writer of casually subversive purpose.
Subversive is a word that comes up a lot in Aira commentary. "The dramatization of these subversive ideas" says Marcela Valdes in NPR Books. "His agenda is subversive, but his brutal humor and off-kilter sense of beauty make his stories slip down like spiked cream puffs", says Natasha Wimmer in the New York Times. Quarterly Conversations talks of an "inventive subversion of reality" His method certainly suggests rejecting the norms of craft and polish. NPR notes that "unlike many contemporary novelists, who pride themselves on carefully polished stories, Aira incorporates chance and improvisation in his work". He writes only one page a day and never revises. In Quarterly Conversation Marcello Ballve says, "thanks in part to Aira's conscious image-making in interviews and essays, he's seen as a kind of mad creator who refuses to edit his manuscripts, publishes compulsively, and ups the bet on his own penchant for absurdity with each new novel."
Yet at the same time as we are saying Aira is so prolific no work stands out, and so productive that the literary launches would be too frequent to pass for cultural event, we might observe that some people see Aira as an imposing self-promoter. Ballve says, "Aira has not only succeeded in building a larger-than-life image for himself, leading some to accuse him of being an inveterate self-marketer. As an idiosyncratic editor and critic Aira also has worked doggedly to subvert the entire Argentine and Latin American literary canon, toppling reputations and erecting monuments to new literary heroes." Ballve adds, "his Dictionary of Latin American Authors (published in 2001 in Argentina) is a mammoth exercise in this sense." Ballve also reckons there is a great Aire novel, saying, "in my opinion, An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter is one of the great works of world literature from the last 25 years of the last century, as good if not better than W.G. Sebald or Roberto Bolao." However, while it is An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painterthat we want to focus upon here, its importance isn't as a monumental work of fiction, more like a marvellous piece of precious driftwood: an accidental work of genius rather than a work made to stand out. One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Atonement and The Human Stain are, whatever we think of them individually, big unequivocally fictional works - novels that announce themselves. An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, which is eighty seven pages long on the NDP edition, however, might not initially seem like a work of fiction at all.
The book is based on Johann Moritz Rugendas, a nineteenth century German landscape painter who went to Latin America determined to capture the scenery in an original manner. "For some years Rugendas had been experimenting with a new technique: the oil sketch. This was an innovation and has been recognized as such by art history." The narrator adds, "it was to be exploited systematically by the Impressionists only fifty years later; but the young German artist's only precursors were a handful of English eccentrics, following Turner. It was generally thought that the procedure could only produce shoddy work. And in a sense this was true, but ultimately it would lead to the transvaluation of painting." Mixing fact with fiction, Aira shows an obsessive artist and his assistant (fellow painter Robert Krause) intent on capturing fresh images in a new way.
Aire's interest here however rests less in documenting the episode, than fictionalizing the events as he generates both a dramatic story and a pertinently textured theme. A quarter of the way through the book Rugendas wonders whether he would be able to make his way in the world. "...if his work, that is, his art, would support him, if he would be able to manage like everyone else...So far he had, and comfortably, but that was due in part to the energy of youth and the momentum he had acquired through his training at the Academy and elsewhere. Not to mention good luck." But later on it looks like he wants to test his good fortune and, hearing about the earthquakes that would visit Mendoza in north east Argentina, he goes there hoping he has the chance to witness one. "Rugendas would have liked to depict an earthquake, but he was told that it was not a propitious time according to the planetary clock. Nevertheless, throughout his stay in the region, he kept secretly hoping he might witness a quake, though he was too tactful to say so."
It is as if the good luck he needs to keep working, he is willing to test by hoping for a great misfortune to befall the community. His life demands that fate deal him a kind hand, but that will deliver Mendoza a cruel one for the betterment of his art. Here is a painter following the ideas of Alexander von Humboldt, but who also wants to expand them too. According to Humboldt, "the excess of primary forms required to characterize a landscape could only be found in the tropics. In so far as vegetation was concerned, Humboldt had reduced these forms to nineteen: nineteen physiognomic types...The Humboldtian naturalist was not a botanist but a landscape artist sensitive to the process of growth operative in all forms of life." Further on we are told: "It was obvious how well he [Rugendas] painted, primarily because of the simplicity he had attained. Everything in his pictures was bathed in simplicity, which gave them a pearl sheen, filled them with the light of a spring day. They were eminently comprehensible, in conformity with the physiognomic principles." An earthquake would change that simplicity, and give his work a new force, a force the landscape generally demanded.
But instead of the earthquake he seeks that would be external and bring bad luck to the whole community, the accident that takes place is personal and will later alter his way of capturing the world by what the event will do to his own perceptual processes. In the empty terrain between Mendoza and San Louis, Rugendas and his horse are caught by lightning and as the horse bolts off the prostrate Rugendas goes with him, his foot still attached to a stirrup. Aira makes this episode the core of the book (it happens shortly before the halfway stage). It is a proper set-piece that the writer offers with descriptive relish, and that is matched shortly afterwards by the vivid account of Rugendas's suffering as he recovers from the disaster. "The first twenty four hours were one long howl of pain. All the remedies they tried were useless." "He woke in the hospital, just as they were stitching him up, and had to be given a double dose to keep him quiet." "He would never have imagined that his nervous system could produce so much pain."
In the process Rugendas has also become deformed: "A large scar had descended from the middle of his forehead to a piglet's nose, with one nostril higher than the other, and a net of red streaks spread all the way to his ears. His chin had been shifted to the right, and transformed into one big dimple, like a soup spoon." But what has also been transformed is his art. "After all art was his secret. He had conquered it, although at an exorbitant price. He had paid with everything else in his life, so why not the accident and the subsequent transformation?" This is especially evident late in the book. "The proof of his achievement was that while conversing silently with his own altered state (of appearance and mind), he continued to see things and, whatever those things were, they seemed to be endowed with 'being'." The narrator adds, "some might say these altered states are not representative of the true self? So what? The thing was to make the most of them!"
It is this event that Aira makes vital to the book, as though trying to understand the important moment in the life not finally as a transition but a transfiguration: what can change not only one's life but also how one sees existence itself? Though Aira describes the accident in great and brilliantly descriptive detail, what interests him still further is the space for disquisition it allows him. "People can get used to any deformity, even the most frightful, but when it is accompanied by an unaccountable movement of the features, a fluid, senseless movement, habit has no stable base on which to build. Perception remains correspondingly fluid." Thus, though these altered states may not be representative of the true self, is this important? "At that moment he was happy. Any drunk, to pursue the comparison, can vouch for that. But for some reason, in order to be happier still (or unhappier still, which comes to the same thing, more or less) one has to do certain things that can only be done in a sober state. Such as making money (which more than any other activity requires a clear head) so as to go on purchasing elation." Just as Rugendas suffers horribly as perception is reconstructed, so Aira more gently utilises the events in Rugendas's life to offer a book that doesn't just provide biographical fact, but also speculative fiction: the work can be found, for example, as part of a collection of three novellas, with the other two Ghosts and The Literary Conference obviously passing for the fictional, and where there is no suggestion that An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter should be read differently.
There are numerous examples of course where writers take a moment from an artist's life and speculate upon it in fictional form (from Coetzee's book on Dostoevsky, The Master of Petersburg, to Bruno Arpaia's on Walter Benjamin, The Angel of History), and the question worth asking is why do we take certain works as fictional and others as imaginative biographies. Peter Ackroyd is a novelist whose biographical work is viewed as fact: books on Dickens, Turner and Eliot for example. The works are taken seriously partly because they are biographical volumes offered with a novelistic sensibility, but they are not seen as taking place within the realm of the fictional. Perhaps central to the former is that they are not accounts of a life, but much more an episode in a given life. There is not the burden of evidential proof a biography requires, but instead the expansion of creativity in relation to a moment. One might think of the titles of some of Jay Parini's work: John Steinbeck: A Biography and Robert Frost: A Life indicate the biographical; The Last Station: A Novel of Tolstoy's Last Year and Benjamin's Crossing: A Novel the obviously fictive. The former books cover a lifetime; the latter an extended moment.
Can we go further and say this is a useful definition of the creative act as fictional process: that the fictional writer is interested in what cannot be reduced to the necessity of a life but instead in the nooks and crannies of existence? Is there a biographical cause and effect and a novelistic cause and effect that are quite distinct? If Emmanuel Carrere's fine book on Philip K. Dick, I am Alive and You are Dead, is still a disappointment next to his true account of a man who murdered his entire family after lying to them for many years, The Adversary, perhaps it resides in the former still being held together chiefly by biographical expectation, while the latter takes on the shape of novelistic purpose. It isn't the life in the latter that is detailed, but the event constantly opened up and out. When the central figure starts lying to friends and family, this allows the book to become a complex web of parallel logic, as if Carrere's purpose isn't to 'biographise' the life, but to map the important elements of an existence from a moment in it.
That is exactly what Aira does here. The accident in the Andes is the significant event in Rugendas's biography, but Aira's purpose is to find the way in that will make this clearly so not only as a personal tragedy but as a creative revelation. We don't so much have the life of Rugendas but instead the speculation around the birth of a certain type of creativity. What matters is to describe well rather than footnote avidly. The book itself functions a little like the shift that took place in Rugendas's work, with Rugendas the documentary realist painter giving way to a more impressionist style, and the moment being documented by a writer who sacrifices biographical exactitude for an impressionism of his own. There is no letter quoted that will talk of the awful headaches, the deformity of the face and the nervous exhaustion. Aira will certainly talk about letters but that is different from quoting them, even if there is the occasional epistolary acknowledgement. At one moment von Humboldt is quoted at length. But mostly the purpose has been to avoid going directly to the source. "As his letters have been preserved, there is no shortage of documentary material for his biographers, and although none of them tried, it would be perfectly possible to reconstruct his travels day by day, almost hour by hour, following every moment of his spirit, every reaction, every scruple." "The treasure-trove of his letters reveal a life without secrets, yet somehow still mysterious." Aira doesn't want to reconstruct precisely Rugendas's daily life, but he is interested in capturing the mysterious aspect of it.
In an essay on another painter, Francis Bacon (that most 'accidental' of artists), Milan Kundera in Encounter asks: "What is left to us when we have come down to that? The face; the face that harbours "that hidden diamond" that is the infinitely fragile self shivering in a body; the face I gaze upon to seek in it, a reason for living the "senseless accident" of life." In Aira's account there is the senseless accident within the senseless accident, but it is as though the book wants to explore a twofold determination within the accidental. The first is Rugendas making sense out of this accident that is our existence, and how we choose to shape it into something meaningful, as Aira gives us a great deal of detail about Rugendas's purpose and ambition, but a purpose and ambition that seeks order and unity. As Aira says: "Rugendas was a genre painter. His genre was the physiognomy of nature, based on a procedure invented by Humboldt. The great naturalist was the father of a discipline that virtually died with him: Erdtheorie or La Physique du monde, a kind of artistic geography, an aesthetic understanding of the world, a science of landscape." Here we have an ambitious young man with a regular income and a stable aesthetic vision, no matter if Rugendas worried about his future. "And what if painting failed him? He had no house, no money in the bank, and no talent for business." Out of his accidental birth, he has, however, achieved a meaningful life, no matter the lack of money and security. But what comes out of the second accident? "He had never seen better in his life. In the depths of that mantled night the pinpricks of his pupils woke him to the bright day's panorama. And powdered poppy extract, a concentrated form of the analgesic, provided sleep enough for ten reawakenings per second." Rugendas is no longer the dutiful artist capturing a scientific perception of nature, but a visionary. Before "direct perception was eliminated by definition. And yet, at some point, the mediation had to give way, not so much by breaking down as by building up to the point where it became a world of its own, in whose signs it was possible to apprehend the world itself, in its primal nakedness." It is as though the first accident that was his birth led to the orderly exploration of a contained notion of the real; the second, that could have lead to his death, leads to a reconfiguration of perception.
However, what is this reconfiguration towards, but a more complete comprehension of being through art, well expressed by fellow Argentinean writer Ernesto Sabato in The Writer in the Catastrophe of Our Time? "If by reality we understand as we should, the external reality that science and reason tells us of but also that dark world of our very spirit (infinitely more important, besides, for literature than the other), we come to the conclusion that the most realistic writers are the ones who, rather than concern themselves with the trivial description of customs and costumes, describe sentiments, passions and ideas, the corners of the unconscious and subconscious world of their characters, an activity that not only does not imply abandonment of that external world but it is the only one that makes it possible to define for the human being his true dimensions and scope, since all that matters for man is that which most deeply and intimately relates to his spirit." Earlier in the same essay Sabato invokes painting: "what is important is the personal and unique diagram, the concrete expression of the individual...what is more disturbing than a Van Gogh canvas?" Sabato might not be a compatriot with whom Aira has much sympathy, saying, "and yet it surprises me a little that somebody like him can be taken so seriously. He has very laughable edges, that vanity, the "malditismo," that tragic figure that does not match with his personality." But Sabato was a man trained in science who went through a spiritual crisis that resulted in the switch from the scientific to the aesthetic, from studying in Paris and at MIT, to writing essays and fiction. Of course Rugendas's crisis is less existential and more experiential, as though Aira is a writer finally interested in the problem of the spirit and the reinvigoration of perception through elements that aren't easily in the painter's control: in the horror of the accident and the physiological effects of the morphine he takes.
Yet this key difference is perhaps at the centre of Aira's short book: the question of this transformation coming from within or without, whether it happens to come from a crisis or an accident. When Aira says who cares whether the altered states were representative of some notion of true self, he suggests that what is interesting is not the human crisis that leads someone to generate a new sense of self from the old (which seems to have been what Sabato chose to do), but where one accepts that we are an accident of life upon whom further accidents are visited. Rugendas may have wished for a catastrophe on the community that would allow his own work to evolve, and positioned himself geographically to benefit from the earthquakes that would occasionally hit the area, but the community is left untouched while his own body is badly mangled. The way Aira describes the disfigured painter could be the manner Kundera and others have described Bacon's work. "Bacon's portraits are an interrogation of the limits of the self. Up to what degree of distortion does an individual still remain himself?" (Encounter). John Berger says that in Bacon portraits, "the rest of their faces have been contorted with expressions which are not their own - which indeed are not expressions at all (because there is nothing behind them to be expressed), but are events created by accident..." (About Looking) "In his work, the image of the classical nude body is simply dismissed", says Robert Hughes, "it becomes instead a two legged animal with various addictions." (The Shock of the New) Rugendas might have become an important landscape painter of vision predating Van Gogh, but it was as though Rugendas himself had turned into an image out of Bacon.
Is man made in the precise geometry of nature, or is he a product of an infinite chaos? Was this is the question Aira set himself to explore in An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter? This would suggest a rather more schematic plan than the improvisatory Aira usually seeks. As Ballve says, "according to Aira, he never edits his own work, nor does he plan ahead of time how his novels will end, or even what twists and turns they will take in the next writing session. He is loyal to his idea that making art is above all a question of procedure. The artist's role, Aira says, is to invent procedures (experiments) by which art can be made." (Quarterly Conversation) Yet that is no reason why the result cannot reflect a fundamental idea of being in the world: towards the preconceived or the chaotic, towards order or accident. If An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter is the most intriguing of the three novellas published together, it lies in this question that is explored and succinctly sketched. After all is a creative accident not often the work of the subconscious? Ghosts and The Literary Conference are more wayward works that incorporate the properly fantastic: Ghosts hints at the paranormal; The Literary Conference the science fictional. The former explores a Chilean immigrant family staying in a luxury apartment block in the process of being built, and ghostly presences; the latter is about a mad scientist where the narrator wants to clone Carlos Fuentes. An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter is a great book not least because it finds in a particular existence the problematic it explores, and balances well the search for order and the problem of chaos; the need to live a determined existence, and at the same time to explore an accident that might have been perversely wished for, but must be called an accident nevertheless. Is it a fictional biography as confession at one remove: as if Aira's own work is a search for the accidental as creative endeavour?
© Tony McKibbin