Tuesday, January 27, 2009

To: Cesar Aira, RE: "An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter"

Mr. Aira,

Books like this rarely get written in the United States, I think perhaps due to our literary obsession with some fictional thing called "The Great American Novel", one of the stupidest concepts my country has come up with. I Googled the phrase "book with 87 pages" and these are the titles that came up: "Mormonism and Masonry" by E. Cecil McGavin, "Sculpture" by David Smith (a book of photography), "Learning and Doing Mathematics: Using Polya's Problem Solving Methods for Learning and Teaching" by John Mason, "How to Build a Bugproof Room" by Angus Glas, "Denim Redesign" by some organization called "Indigo Junction", "The German Aircraft Power Against English Naval Power" no author and in Romanian, and "The Embroidery of Roses", also with no author. None of these sounds like a memorable read. (Though "Angus Glas" is a name I may appropriate for a character someday, and I am a little bit interested in the connection between Mormonism and Masonry...) Perhaps my search function was crude, but I think my conclusion is sound. Anything under 150 pages inevitably gets thrown into some kind of larger collection of stories, and that novella length (90 pgs I was taught in high school, perhaps around the time I read "Billy Budd"), at least to me, has been generally discouraged. I also can't see my fiction professors approving your story arc: basic background information on the painter Rugendas, followed by poetic descriptions of his horseback trip through the Cordilleras, an in-depth depiction of him being struck twice by lighting, his recovery and disfigurement, and ending with his painting of an Indian raid. True, the lightning strike changes Rugendas, falls almost exactly at the middle of the story, and divides his youth from his adulthood--beautiful symmetry; but nothing is resolved about Rugendas, or his relationship with Krause. The story, as the title explains, is an episode, though I imagined if it were part of a serialized TV show about Rugendas, it would be split into two episodes: Lightning, Indians. And it would be expensive to produce, if any effort were made to reproduce the descriptions you provide of both (1) the "real" landscape and (2) Rugendas' depiction of it; in fact, one of the points you made to me is that there is no difference between the two. At various points, the painters feel that what they're seeing is too fantastic to be considered "realistic" once transferred to canvas, and they opt to almost dumb down their paintings. "We should draw it, they said. But who would believe it?" (p. 15)

There's a real vitality to the descriptions that is anti-Hemingway: "The company of volcanos gave the sky interiors. Dawn and dusk were vast optical explosions, drawn out by the silence. Slingshots and gunshots of sunlight rebounded into every recess. Grey expanses hung out to dry forever in colossal silence; airshafts voluminous as oceans." (p. 14) With some books I have trouble really envisioning the places being described. Instead, I simply graft them onto something I already know. For instance, in Tom Perrotta's "Little Children", I kept imagining the playground scenes happening in the South End in Boston, at the playground closest to my sister's home. All the images I had reading your book were utterly new to me, and that's an amazing gift. I'll end with some other passages of yours I couldn't help jotting down:

"What the world was saying was the world." (78)
"They wondered at the assembly of silences and air." (?)
"The morning was truly glorious, perfect for a raid." (60)
"As for the landscape, it remained indifferent. The catastrophe simply came in one side and went out the other." (77)

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