A review of
An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter
by César Aira
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.”
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