Aira César

Twelve from the Shelves: My Books of 2009

It’s that time of year again, and as usual there are several titles I’d like to have included but didn’t have room for.  Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke thrilled me with its boldly selective account of the approach to the Second World War; Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener provided a keystone for much of my reading that I didn’t realise I’d been missing; Kafka’s Blumfeld, an Elderly Bachelor ditto, but I left it out since it wasn’t so much a book as a story fragment in dandy packaging.  Probably David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide would have made the cut too, if it hadn’t been a late victim of my inability to blog and be a parent at the same time.  The following titles are listed alphabetically by author.

César Aira: An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter
A strange book which, despite its brisk length, I couldn’t quite get to the bottom of. That it nonetheless stuck in my mind for most of the year must be a measure of its force.  It’s about art, life and more.  “We come up against the words, and before we know it, we are already emerging on the other side, grappling with the thought of another mind.”  Resolution #1 for 2010: read more Aira.

Ronald Blythe: Voices of Akenfield
A bit of a cheat, as this is an extract from the full book (Akenfield), published in the Penguin English Journeys series, but thrilled me so much I had to include it.  It is an exceptional recreation of a world proceeding from one age to another, a magical oral history of time and place.  “People believed in religion then,” says Leonard Thompson, a farm worker, “which I think was a good thing because if they hadn’t got religion there would have been a revolution. Nobody would have stuck it.”

J.M. Coetzee: Summertime
One of those books which first makes you realise that you are in the hands of a master, and then forces you to accept, with a willing sigh, that you are going to have to read everything he has written.  “He had decided he was going to block cruel and violent impulses in every arena of his life – including his love life, I might say – and channel them into his writing, which as a consequence was going to become a sort of unending cathartic exercise.”  The best new novel I read this year.

Simon Crump: Neverland
A book which at first seems ridiculous and laughable – and then seems ridiculous and laughable, but also clever and mesmerising.  Neverland is effective and affecting on the modern subject of celebrity, and its timing, published a few months after Michael Jackson’s death, was spookily apt.  “For a while there was gold, lots of it, and there were cartoons and songs and dance and lunar walking and Motown and I want you back. We fixed him though. Then we fucked him. And we took it all.”

L.J. Davis: A Meaningful Life
Here is the perfect example of the art of the reissue.  A fine, miserable comic novel (a sort of funny Richard Yates) which died a death when first (and last) published in 1971, is given new life by NYRB Classics.  Its misanthropy and set pieces make it a sort of comfort read for me: the tale of a man who realises that his life is not going to get any better.  “He’d found his level, and here he was, on it.”

Hans Fallada: Alone in Berlin / Every Man Dies Alone
Another ‘lost classic’, and for once the hype was justified.   Fallada’s forgotten novel about a personal crusade against the Nazis, written in six weeks, was rough around the edges but compelling and real.  “Danger is somewhere else, but I can’t think where. We’ll wake up one day and know it was always there, but we never saw it. And then it’ll be too late.” The only mystery remaining about its publication is why the US and UK publishers gave us different titles; but to balance that we have the prospect of more Fallada reissues to come.  Goody.

Susan McKay: Bear in Mind These Dead
OK, I have to admit that this is probably not a better book than the titles I left off my list (see intro), but it had a particular revelatory quality for me.  In previous years I would have shunned a book about Northern Ireland’s ‘Troubles’ (too close to home), but this tragic, infuriating account of the victims and their loved ones has a power I couldn’t get over.  “I find it terrible hard to live without him. It is like my own right arm is off me.”

Guy de Maupassant: The Horla
Versions of this short story are available in most selections of Maupassant’s work, but this Melville House Art of the Novella edition is the only one you should read.  It takes three distinct but linked forms of the story and creates a new work of art from them.  The material is compelling, the translation by Charlotte Mandell is perfect, and the impact remains – as you can see – for a long time.  “After mankind, the Horla!”

Dag Solstad: Novel 11, Book 18
The best way of pulling the rug from under the reader is to approach the turning point in an entirely deadpan manner.  In fact, make the entire book as flat and uninflected as possible, then they really won’t see what’s coming.  This book stayed with me longer perhaps than any other this year, not for its ‘twist’ but for its solid refusal to pander to the reader.  “He wanted a novel that showed life to be impossible, but without a trace of humour, black or otherwise.”

Fred Wander: The Seventh Well
The second Michael Hofmann translation in my top twelve, showing that my admiration for his choice of material shows no sign of diminishing.   A new translation of a 40-year-old book which brings a fresh eye, and an elegant prose, to the much-written-about subject of the Holocaust.  “He lost his mind when he saw them killing his mother. A heart like a glass bell, a light crack, and it doesn’t ring anymore.”

Hugo Wilcken: Colony
A scandalously overlooked novel from 2007 provided my greatest surprise of the year. A multilayered novel which teases as much as it satisfies, Colony should be a huge hit, but isn’t. The most admirable pleasure in this box of delights is Wilcken’s refusal to try to impress the reader: he creates a complex and memorable work from the most lucid prose.  “Only the past remains obscure. It hasn’t happened and perhaps it never will.”

John Williams: Stoner
A traditional novel in a traditional mode – the story of an ordinary man’s life – Stoner succeeds through the respect it pays to its characters and in particular, the honest and affecting portrayal of its hero (the word is appropriate).  It tells of a man who learns that the love of literature and work can be the match of any other kind of love.  ”It was himself that he was attempting to define as he worked on his study … it was himself that he was slowly shaping, it was himself that he was putting into a kind of order, it was himself that he was making possible.”

Please add your own best – or worst – reads of the year, or a link to your own list, below.  Happy Christmas, and see you again in 2010.

César Aira: An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter

A short review of a short book. César Aira’s An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter (2000, tr. 2006 by Chris Andrews) is a beermat of a book. At 87 small pages, it’s less a novel than a novella, less a novella than a story. I read praise of it by Mark Thwaite on ReadySteadyBook, which was recommendation enough for me.


This is a strange little book which knits known facts about the life of German artist Johann Moritz Rugendas (1802 – 1858) into a spellbinding fiction. But it doesn’t start there: Rugendas was the latest in an artistic line.

It was Johann Moritz’s great-grandfather, Georg Philip Rugendas (1666-1742) who founded the dynasty of painters. And he did so as a result of losing his right hand as a young man. The mutilation rendered him unfit for the family trade of clock-making, in which he had been trained since childhood. He had to learn to use his left hand, and to manipulate pencil and brush. He specialized in the depiction of battles, with excellent results, due to the preternatural precision of his draughtsmanship, which was due in turn to his training as a clockmaker and the use of his left hand, which, not being his spontaneous choice, obliged him to work with methodical deliberation. An exquisite contrast between the petrified intricacy of the form and the violent turmoil of the subject matter made him unique.

Like his great-grandfather, Rugendas was “a genre painter”, inspired by Alexander von Humboldt, “an all-embracing scholar, perhaps the last of his kind: his aim was to apprehend the world in its totality; and the way to do this, he believed, in confirmity with a long tradition, was through vision.” Rugendas believes that for him true vision – “the other side of his art” – can be found only in Argentina, with “the mysterious emptiness to be found on the endless plains at a point equidistant from the horizons.” For him, “travel and painting were entwined like fibres in a rope.”

It is during his visit to Argentina, where Rugendas travels with his friend Krause to paint thousands of scenes of the landscape, that the episode occurs with which this story concerns itself. Rugendas finds himself drawn to certain impulses, “like a satellite in thrall to a dangerous star”, and he suffers setbacks which leave him “fragile, as if perched on stilts, his hands and feet very far away.” If it seems as though I am being unnecessarily circumspect in detailing anything about the story, that is because I believe the best way to enjoy An Episode is to approach it ignorant of its content, as I did.

But how, then, to express why it is worth reading? Because it is unique and unfathomable and, I believe, brilliant. Because it is a short sharp report which also slips down beautifully. Because it exhibits a refreshing directness that I only seem to see in fiction in translation. Aira revels in both unashamed storytelling delight – there is rampant violence and what can only be described as a cracking pace – and intellectual engagement: Aira is concerned with the interconnectedness of art with science, history and life. The book is unself-conscious but highly self-aware.

Aira writes of how Rugendas, in painting Indian raids, brings about “a progression towards unmediated knowledge.”

This is something that happens in everyday life, after all. When we strike up a conversation, we are often trying to work out what our interlocutor is thinking. … What could be more closed off and mediated than someone else’s mental activity? And yet this activity is expressed in language, words resounding in the air, simply waiting to be heard. We come up against the words, and before we know it, we are already emerging on the other side, grappling with the thought of another mind.

“The same thing happens with a painter and the visible world. It was happening to Rugendas. What the world was saying was the world.” And this is why it does not matter to me that I cannot quite quantify this book’s appeal, or reduce its essence into other words. All I need to do is recommend it, and look forward to reading it again, and more of Aira’s work too. What the book is saying is the book.