Friday 5 August 2016

The Literary Conference & An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter

The Literary Conference (translated by Katherine Silver) & An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter (translated by Chris Andrews) - by César Aira
"In my case nothing returns, everything races forward, savagely being pushed from behind by what keeps coming through that accursed valve. This image, brought to its peak of maturation in my vertiginous reflections, revealed to me the path of the solution, which I forcefully put into practice whenever I have time and feel like it. The solution is none other than the greatly overused (by me) "escape forward.""

Having started a long translated novel and lost interest as it seemed opaque to me (perhaps the original, perhaps the translation, perhaps just me) I decided that I would reread the César Aira novellas I had read and enjoyed last year but never made it to a blog post apart from a listing in my Books of the Year. This would allow me to contribute something further to SpanishLitMonth..

I started with The Literary Conference as it was the one that had left the greater trace. I had really enjoyed both books but neither had left as much of an impression as their companion in the three novella set I had purchased Ghosts. This may have a lot to do with the fact that I had posted on Ghosts. It is as if blogging has become an essential part of fully digesting a book I've read and committing it to memory.
I quickly picked up on the plot of The Literary Conference and started to remember it piecemeal but it defies memory with it's cavalier plotting, humour and oddity. The switches from section to section are bravura, and would, I am sure, strike some readers as silly. It's as if Aira had taken one of those compendia of Adventure Stories from the fifties and segued each story into the next. Our hero is a writer and a scientist and finds the secret of a quasi-mystical device used to hide buried pirate treasure. He has also made some huge breakthroughs in the area of cloning, although the practice, he finds, is subject to the vagaries of chance. He is then caught up in an invasion of giant blue worms who blindly crush all before them.

No time is spent trying to convince of the reality of any of these scenarios nor does Aira involve himself in setting out any of the theoretical background to the science involved. Indeed he laughingly brushes aside the need to explain..
"I won't go into the whole explanation here, because it would take many pages, and I have imposed upon myself a strict length limit for this text (of which this is inly a prologue) out of respect for the reader's time."

The narrator is, naturally, a classic mad scientist with megalomaniac tendencies when the story requires him to be. But he decides to reverse part of the classical plot, and to clone a genius so that he can take the role of "the bootlicker, the heinous clown." His plan requires him to become the sidekick. "To clone a genius! This was the decisive step. This would set him firmly on the road to world domination (because, among other reasons, he'd already covered half of it)."

The plot is fun, and so are the constant stream of asides on all subjects that the plot races past. During the course of the book there is a production of an early play of the narrators, which allows him to elaborate on his aesthetic. "I didn't know how to resolve the difficult problem this plot line presented. Because if Adam and Eve were, respectively, the only man and the only woman on the planet, then Adam's wife - the absent wife whose existence prevented him from living out his love with Eve - couldn't be anybody other than Eve herself. The idea (very characteristic of me, to the point that I now believe it to be how I conceive of literature) had been to create something equivalent to those figure that was both realistic and impossible, like Escher's Belvedere, figures that look viable in a drawing but could not be built because they are but an illusion of perspective. Such a thing can be written, but one must be very inspired, very focused. I fail because of my precipitousness, my rush to finish, and my desperation to please."

Aira manages to make the very flippancy and even apparent failures of his work into a keystone of it's success. The world is an absurd and meaningless place but it must be taken seriously as we are stuck inside it, for better or worse. It is easy to see what drew Bolaño to him. He too, took. the absurd seriously without being serious. Life is contingent, and the things that make our voices individual may be as slight as the books we've read but nevertheless we all have small idiosyncrasies which mean that we can never be fully certain that we do not have something valuable to contribute to the world. (See, he almost has me spouting positivity!)

An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter is a very different book. It occupies a similar position in the Aira books I've read to that The Elephant Man did in the early films of David Lynch, being possessed of a quasi-realist narrative and featuring a genuine historical character and some genuine historical facts. However, as you might expect, Aira doesn't stop with the facts, and indeed it is difficult for one so unversed in the actual history as I am to tell where facts end and fiction begins.

This is not just in terms of the life story of the Landscape Painter, Johann Moritz Rugendas, but the descriptions of nature and of things like the carts that transport goods across the pampas to Buenos Aires seethe with the fantastical eye of Aira: "The ends of the shafts seemed to disappear among the clouds; their length can be deduced from the fact that they could be used to hitch ten teams of oxen. The sturdy planks were reinforced to bear immense loads; whole houses, on occasion, complete with furniture and inhabitants. The wheels were like fairground Ferris wheels, made entirely of carob wood, with spokes as thick as roof beams and bronze bulbs at the centre, laden with pints of grease."

The artist moves from a quest to codify nature according to an aesthetic based on the systematic methodology of Alexander von Humboldt towards a quest to find a less trammelled vision of the world. He also considers the production of his art as a career, as an aesthetic pursuit and in the way it bears upon his own emotional and intellectual life. "How could he be sure that the physiognomic representation of nature would not go out of fashion, leaving him helpless and stranded in the midst of a useless, hostile  beauty? His youth was almost over in any case, and he was still a stranger to love. He had ensconced himself in a world of fables and fairy tales, which had taught him nothing of practical use, at least he had learnt that the story always goes on, presenting the hero with new and ever more unpredictable choices."

I felt while reading this that Aira had a vision of the novel complete when he started out and the wild imaginings are all in the service of a journey from craft to vision as Rugendas almost literally, absorbs the landscape into his own body and cuts some of the strings that tie him to 'civilisation' and allow him to enter more fully the world of the monstrous and savage...

And once agin he raises the question of what the value of life, and work is:
"Why this obsession with being the best? Why did he have to assume that only quality could legitimise his work? In fact, he could hardly even begin to think about it except in terms of quality. But what if he was making a mistake? Or indulging in an unhealthy fantasy? Why couldn't he be like everybody else (like Krause, for example), simply painting as well as he could and giving more weight to other things? That kind of modesty could have considerable effects; for a start it would allow him to practice other arts, should he wish...or all of them. The absolutist ambition came from Humboldt, who had designed the procedure as a universal knowledge machine. But that pedantic automaton could be dismantled without giving up the array of styles, each of which was a kind of action." There are echoes of Frankenstein in this 'pedantic automaton' and further echoes in the transformation of Rugendas himself.

But perhaps there are even more present echoes of another book. Krause, his companion and a lesser painter, is reminiscent of Sancho Panza and Rugendas of the long, gaunt knight. Both have to struggle to escape how they mediate reality, and when Rugendas immerses himself fully in the moment he finds that "Reality was becoming immediate, like a novel."

A perfect paradox on which to end. I firmly recommend these two novellas and their partner in the slipcase edition I own - Ghosts. And having gone through the process of blogging on these two novellas I find that my opinion has shifted and I find Landscape Painter to be the equal of Ghosts while remaining enamoured of the oddness of The Literary Conference.

Now to decide which Aira novel is to be next. Suggestions welcomed. And to get around to writing that novel.

"Argentine soldiers under Indian attack" by Rugendas



  1. I'm glad you found the time to write about these novellas, Seamus. As you may recall, I have struggled to connect with Aira in the past, stumbling over the mid-section diversion in Ghosts in spite of being rather intrigued by the rest of the story. I think I like the idea of reading him more than the actual the experience itself (if that makes any kind of sense). Still, I am encouraged by your commentary on Landscape Painter - the quasi-realist nature of the narrative certainly appeals.

    1. Hi Jacqui, I do think that An Incident... would be a good Aira novel for those who don't connect with the more brazenly unrealistic works.

  2. Séamus, I love the comparisons of An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter to The Elephant Man and Don Quixote. How interesting! Don't know if you ever saw this post of mine on another Argentinean classic - http://caravanaderecuerdos.blogspot.com/2015/03/una-excursion-los-indios-ranqueles_15.html - but it includes a different version of that Rugendas painting which explains one of Aira's inside jokes at the end of the novel you review here. In any event, for your next Aira do think about his short story "Cecil Taylor" (maybe the best thing he's ever done) or his gender-bending novella How I Became a Nun. Happy reading!

    1. I paid a visit to the salmon painting and yes, it explains the inside joke. I will hunt down Cecil Taylor and Nun.

  3. whatever you read next by Aira, I suppose it will be just as confounding since each plot is different from each other. the aesthetic philosophy and the momentum of the writing are perhaps the things preserved.

    as for the 'white salmon' ... yes, that must be the white salmon referred to.

    1. Glad to hear they re all different, Rise. I'm in Dublin today and will call in to my favourite second-hand bookshop to see if they have either Nun or the short stories.

  4. They're not all 100% different in plot. The Hare is recognizably a cousin of Landscape Painter. And then - no, that's it, those are the only two that seemed similar to me.

    I'm three behind on Aira-in-English, in part because the prices for the new paperbacks seems so ridiculous. But secondhand, grab anything.

    Too bad no one is doing English versions like some of the originals, the ones that have hand-painted covers cut out of cardboard boxes.

    1. That link is fantastic! I need to write a book just to publish it like this. Perhaps this is the way to escape that feeling that nothing is worth writing, which I think is the question that Aira is, Houdini like, addressing across his body of work - at least the small sample I've read.
      no luck in finding any Aira's yesterday but I did find a few Spanish translations that extracted money from my pocket. Hasbún's Affections, Bolaño's Secret of Evil and one that is probably most in your area, a Penguin classic picaresque double of Lazarillo De Tormes and The Swindler. (Has Hasbún's time passed already? Spellcheck insists he is 'has been'.)

    2. Oh yeah - Siglo de Oro picaresques - now you're getting to the good stuff!

    3. I may go picaresque after I finish my current read. I liked the early English picaresques that I read way back when studying but I never went back to the 'originals'.