The best books (or at least the ones I like the most) are the ones that seem to set out with a particular aesthetic project in mind; that is, when you read them you can sense that the writer has set a problem in his or her head and is working it out, piece by piece, as they go along. This could be a narrative conceit, ala Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods (man develops glory hole as anti-sexual harassment strategy, and it somehow succeeds), or it could be a particular stylistic choice, ala George Perec’s A Void (don’t use the letter “e”), but the sense of risk – of posing a difficult problem for oneself, one that entails a real sense of working something out, even if it leaves the reader with a difficult reading experience – seems essential to the best works of fiction.
Of course, one does run the risk of sterility with this approach. For example, when I give my students Borges to read (as I often do, because Borges is delightful) many of them respond half-heartedly; this guy’s obviously very smart, they say, but I didn’t find anything to connect with. Or, others say, it just wasn’t very much fun. I hear that, and I’m open to the criticism that my perspective on great fiction privileges the intellectual gamesmanship of narrative over it’s more emotional rewards. The fiction I like is interesting, but it can also be icy – too cool for its own good.
Which brings me to this novella by Cesar Aira, An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, which manages to both solve a complicated narrative puzzle and explode the constraints of that puzzle, all in ninety-odd pages.
You might call the book’s initial project a pseudo-biographical investigation of a nineteenth-century German landscape painter. In this, it seems like one of Borges’ vignettes, in which a man’s biography is used to interrogate aesthetic and philosophical assumptions. In this case, these assumptions are about the beginning of naturalism, specifically the sort of universal German naturalism of Humbolt, in which a unified field theory of science and aesthetics could lead humanity to higher enlightenment.
At first glance, this seems like a recipe for the kind of over-intellectual coldness I described earlier. In order to be successful at this project, Aira needs to be very scrupulous about adhering to some of the conventions of both biography and art criticism, and in doing so runs the risk of losing some of the more immediate, emotional power of narrative. If we’re too busy describing aesthetics, the character of the painter himself, Rugendas, ends up looking like a cipher; we can’t identify with him as an individual.
What’s so lovely about An Episode, however, is that as soon as it’s managed to establish its aesthetic project, it begins undermining it. As the book progresses, it slowly admits bizarre touches – loved those Indian attacks, and the horse-drawn carts that are too long and slow for reality! – and these bizarre touches complicate the reason and scientific investigation that undergird the biographical project in the first place. The main character, Rugendas, thinks he’s going to the pampas to paint truly “natural” scenes – to implement some sort of artistic “process”, but once he find himself on trackless terrain the gonzo elements take over, making his whole aesthetic process (mimicked by the pseudo-biographical process of the narrative) insufficient, if not totally meaningless. Credit to Aira for making this transition from a certain school of realism to the complete repudiation of any such school subtle and credible. Give him all the Nobels.
At the half point of the book lightning strikes, and the subjectivity of Rugendas gets totally scrambled; this is how Aira manages to both fulfill and exceed my expectations for great literature. Once he pokes a hole in the careful structure he’s created, a flood of visceral imagery overwhelms the reader, providing them with everything they’ve missed in the pseudo-biographical beginning.
The second half of the book essentially undoes the first half. All attempts towards reason (even on the level of the sentence) pretty much go out the window – which is remarkable, considering how successful the initial narrative was at establishing its pseudo-scientific bona fides. Instead the furious, almost demented activity of Rugendas tries in vain to establish some new kind of cosmology in the place of his destroyed aesthetics, and all kinds of wackiness ensues: Indian attacks, stockings worn as a mask to blot out the sun, complete breakdowns of perspective, space and time – heady stuff.
At 88 pages, this novella manages to accomplish and exceed the sort of narrative goals some writers take a thousand pages to accomplish. Are there any other Aira lovers out there? I’ve started reading Ghosts, and so far it hasn’t lived up to the promise of An Episode. Any of his other novels approach the level of this fascinating text?