A review of

An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter

by César Aira

Central question: Can you withstand an aporia?
Format: 120 pp., paperback; Size: 5" x 7"; Price: $12.95; Publisher: New Directions; Editor: Laurie Callahan; Print run: 3,000; Book design: Semadar Megged; Typeface: Bembo; Author’s inspiration for writing the book: “research done for previous art book on Argentinean ranches.” Representative passage: “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.”

From the torrid landscapes of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Romantic writing to the angels garlanding Rilke’s twentieth-century poetry, the notion of the sublime was useful to both the generation and discussion of art. But with the advent of modernist writers like Joyce, followed by the aftershocks of World War II, this concept lapsed into disrepair as the smart set withdrew into the interior lives, narrative puzzles, and dystopias that infused much of what passed for urgent literature. Possibly not since Cormac McCarthy’s blood-sprent work has there been a contemporary novel such as the Argentine writer César Aira’s An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter—one that stresses the sublime without falling back on the props of magical realism. This fictional take on an actual historical figure is not without its surrealist touches, but such elements arise as a result of, as opposed to being imposed on, the setting itself.

The German artist Johann Moritz Rugendas (1802-1858) won acclaim for his landscape paintings and ethnographic depictions of South American cultures. Then, while traveling through the Andes in 1837, Rugendas fractured his skull in a riding accident, which left him disfigured and neurologically impaired. Reimagining the incidents surrounding this misfortune, Aira depicts Rugendas as a man who, acting against the recommendation of his advisor, the naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, is derailed by his conviction that only in Argentina would he “be able to discover the other side of his art.”

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

To read the full piece, please visit our store to purchase a copy of the magazine.

—Christopher Byrd

Christopher Byrd is a frequent contributor to the magazine.

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