With each decision you make, with each action you engage in, you create a ripple effect consisting of counter-choices and counter-actions, and you create, for yourself and others, new realities, while simultaneously discarding an infinite number of potential realities. I hope that is clear, but if it isn’t an example would probably help. Imagine that you are walking down the street, and you could turn either left or right. In making your decision, whether left or right, you have created a reality that will have [perhaps good and perhaps bad, more likely both] consequences in terms of your life and the life of others, and you will have discarded a reality, or existence, which would have sprung up had you made a different choice. The conclusion one draws from this is rather banal, which is that life is unstable. This is not, however, the same as saying that it is chaos, because there is a sophisticated order involved in our relationships with each other and with the world, such that it is as though we are tied together with invisible string, not only to everything that exists in the present, but in the past also.

Cesar Aira’s An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter is, as the title suggests, concerned with a brief period in the life of an artist. That artist is the German ‘documentary painter’ Johann Moritz Rugendas, a real man who was born 29th March 1802 and died on 29th May 1858. Despite being under one hundred pages in length, Aira’s novel is decidedly complex. The Argentine author provides the reader with a sizeable amount of background information in relation to Rugendas, and he discusses at length his artistic process and aims, the most significant of which is the desire to capture the physiognomy of nature or, in other words, the characteristic traits of a certain place.

What this suggests to me, and in fact what all art suggests to me, is actually a desire to stabilise the world, to fix it, to explain it, to make it understandable, to impose order upon it. Indeed, more than once Rugendas asks himself whether he would be able to capture in a painting an event, a moment, such as, for example, a landscape being stripped bare by locusts. Therefore, even though he doesn’t say so, the artist is himself obviously aware of this stabilising urge, because he fears, he laments, that some things are so unstable that they may not successfully be reduced to an image on a canvas.


While all this is fascinating stuff, what really excited me was how Aira uses the details of Rugendas’ life to further explore the notions of instability and order. At the beginning of the novel we are told about how one of his ancestors lost his right hand and so was forced to give up the family business of clockmaking. This man started to use his left hand, and took up painting instead, a profession subsequently taken up by following generations. Consider another example, due to Napoleon’s victories there was no call for painters of battle scenes, and so Johann was forced to paint other things, resulting in him becoming a landscape artist.

What we see here are those ties, those strings, and that sophisticated order that I was discussing in my introduction. Life is unstable, yes, but it is not chaotic. Towards the centre of the book Rugendas, while staying in a village in Mendoza, is asked whether he will ever return, and he says no, or that he might one day in the distant future. However, in no time at all, he is back in Mendoza, now a completely different man, as consequence of an apparently freak accident, which occurred due to a choice he made. In that moment, when he made his choice, he discarded a reality, and created a new one, a new life, a new Rugendas.

So, what Aira has done is give us a man whose profession involves an attempt to stabilise the world, an artist whose work is, moreover, easily comprehensible and possessed of a ‘simplicity of style,’ but whose life is absolutely unstable, while being simultaneously perfectly ordered. Ha! Outrageous. Does any of this make sense? Oh, I fear not. The upshot of all this is that An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter is itself like a work of art, like a painting. For the subject, Rugendas, living each moment, one to the next, everything is random, but the novel actually allows you – the reader – to step back and appreciate the totality, the whole, the patterns, etc.

“It was not really rain so much as a benign drizzle, enveloping the landscape in gentle tides of humidity all afternoon. The clouds came down so low they almost landed, but the slightest breeze would whisk them away… and produce others from bewildering corridors which seemed to give the sky access to the center of the earth. In the midst of these magical alterations, the artists were briefly granted dreamlike visions, each more sweeping than the last. Although their journey traced a zigzag on the map, they were heading straight as an arrow towards openness.”

I have devoted more of this review than I intended to discussing these ideas. Certainly, it is not all that the book has to offer. One could, of course, read it as a straightforward adventure story, and it works wonderfully as just that. It also, in ways that, as an Englishman, I don’t think I am qualified to fully understand, has something to say about Argentina, and the Argentinian landscape. We are told that Rugendas had a particular interest in the country, especially the mystical, vast emptiness to be found on the open plains. Only there, he thought, could he discover the other side of his art. Therefore, Argentina, and what is particular to that country, in terms of its physiognomy, is special, is a challenge. Indeed, there is much in the book – as noted in relation to the locusts – about failure of imagination or the limits of art. Rugendas, Aira suggests, wanted to break through those limits, and create a new kind of art, when in fact what he creates, as previously mentioned, is a new Rugendas.

One final thing, before concluding. In Balzac’s Lost Illusions, the rotund, coffee-loving Frenchman was at pains to stress how the world was involved in a process of cheapening, whereby everything that was once well-put together, well-made, expertly crafted, was becoming shoddy. He used examples of paper, of furniture, and so on. I have always been of the opinion that it also applied to literature. I associate modern fiction with badly constructed sentences, dull story-lines, awful, cliched imagery. Based on so many unfulfilling experiences, I now actively avoid newly published writers. So, it was something of a shock, or a pleasant surprise, to find that this book – published in the year 2000 – completely floored [flawed?] me, even though it has drawn from me one of my worst reviews. Sorry Cesar. I know what I wanted to say, but I ended up not saying it in far too many words.



What is in a name?

So said some dude with a beard. Well, the answer is quite a lot, as it happens. I once knew a man with the surname Dicker, and it nearly ruined his life. According to the man himself people mercilessly took the piss, girls were embarrassed to date him, he couldn’t get a job, etc, and as a result he became so ultra-sensitive about it that he lost all confidence in himself. I think it is fair to say, then, that a name can colour how one sees a particular person or thing. I mention this because Patrick White was a man who clearly had problems with naming his novels; indeed, his chosen titles seem almost designed to put you off, to make them seem as unappealing as possible. The Aunt’s Story? Gawd. Riders in the Chariot? Sounds like some made for TV film. Tree of Man? My favourite, that one. If there’s a title more suggestive of pretentious, worthy and dull I’ve yet to encounter it. No one wants to read a book called Tree of Man, just like no one wants to date a dude called Dicker. It is no surprise, in this regard, that White’s most popular, his most famous works, are Voss and The Vivisector. Great titles, those. On name alone, one anticipates that The Vivisector is either going to be great or fantastically ridiculous, or at least entertainingly bad. In reality, it is a little of all three.

Before I finished this book I was convinced that my reading days might be coming to an end. I mean, reading in meant to be fun, right? I wasn’t having fun, quite the opposite. I’ve always chosen books meticulously, but when you spend longer weighing up the pros and cons of reading a bunch of books than you would actually spend reading them from cover-to-cover you know you’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere, mentally. So, as I come to write this review I guess I have to try to understand why I could finish this book and why I liked it, especially as it is not perfect, is not without its flaws. Patrick White could write like a motherfucker, and that helps of course. But my appreciation is based on more than that, because all of his novels are beautifully written and I’ve given up or abandoned a few over the last couple of weeks. In any case, of the White novels I’ve read or sampled, this one, on a stylistic basis, is the least sophisticated, least like it has come from an alien brain.

The problem with, say, something like Tree of Man, which houses prose to die for, is that it suffers from a lack of [essential] humanity, some deftness/lightness of touch. It is too foreboding, too suffocating, too intense. The Vivisector, however, despite its ominous title, boasts, at least in the opening section, a Dickensian charm. Indeed, the plot is straight out of Dickens’ world: Hurtle Duffield is an extraordinary boy born to ordinary [and poor] parents. His mother starts work as a laundress with a wealthy family to whom she eventually sells the boy; this boy grows up to be a famous, and self-absorbed, painter. It is to White’s great credit that The Vivisector transcends this fairy-tale scenario, that he breathes life into most of the [sometimes pretty rote] characters. Yet even when he doesn’t quite manage to do so, as is the case with Hurtle’s biological mother [who is entirely one-dimensional], they are treated with greater warmth and affection by the author than is usually the case. And this is a novel that needs it – that warmth, that twinkle in the eye – because it had the potential to be too scathing, too dour and in love with itself.


[Two Studies for Self Portrait by Francis Bacon, 1977]

My favourite character in the novel is not Hurtle, but Mrs Courtney, the boy’s adoptive parent. She’s a kind of Woolfian heroine: elegant, eccentric, and quietly losing her mind. She, one assumes, buys Hurtle as a kind of substitute for the hunchbacked daughter she herself produced [and there’s an interesting distinction here, the poor parents producing a genius and the well-to-do ones producing a kind of cripple]. This daughter, Rhoda, is a difficult, largely unaffectionate child and Hurtle is expected to better play the role of dutiful offspring, to be a son that his wealthy parents can be proud of. However, Hurtle’s and Mrs Courtney’s relationship has a more sinister or erotic fragrance. From the beginning there was a sense that they were perhaps too close, or liked each other in a way that wasn’t platonic, or simply parent-child. There is a complex dynamic here: Mrs Courtney, who suspects her husband of infidelity, chooses a boy to perhaps please him [as heir]. Yet from her own perspective, Hurtle isn’t only a substitute child but a substitute husband too. Hurtle, on the other hand, is drawn to Mrs Courtney not as a mother, but sees in her, well, art itself I guess, or something exotic and beautiful like art. All of this is brought together in one of the novel’s most memorable passages, the erotically charged scene when Hurtle is shoved by Mrs Courtney into her wardrobe full of dresses. As Hurtle’s senses are overwhelmed, as he has some sort of sensual reverie, Mrs Courtney likens the boy to a dog which must have its nose rubbed in your scent in order for it to know you as its master.

At least in the first part of the novel, it is the development of an artistic consciousness that is White’s greatest achievement. From a very young age Hurtle is different, precocious; he notices things that one would not expect, and comes to find some outlet for his feelings and observations, his acute interest in the world, in what he calls ‘droring.’ In the first 150 pages there are numerous clever and wonderful scenes involving his awakening as an artist, like when he covers the walls of his room with paint, or his fascination with the Courtney’s ‘shandeleer,’ itself a work of art. If you’re ever been artistically or creatively inclined, then these passages will likely touch or interest you a lot.

“They walked on rather aimlessly. He hoped she wouldn’t notice he was touched, because he wouldn’t have known how to explain why. Here lay the great discrepancy between aesthetic truth and sleazy reality.”

The second half of book, based on reviews I have read, is where many readers fall out of love with White’s work. Once Hurtle grows up and moves away from the Courtney’s the book is certainly less charming, less likeable [not necessarily less enjoyable]. I’ve used the word pretentious a couple of times, and it’s a word, an accusation, frequently levelled at the book. I don’t quite get that. I think it says more about the reader than White or his characters. Adult Hurtle takes his art seriously, of course, but pretentious he isn’t, quite the opposite: he struggles with his work, criticises it, and often believes that he fails to realise his vision. I think people throw the word pretentious around simply because Hurtle is an artist, and it makes a certain kind of person’s toes curl to read about the artistic process or to read discussion of art. My advice on that score would be for these people to, uh, avoid books about artists in the future.

“It was you who taught me how to see, to be, to know instinctively. When I used to come to your house in Flint Street, melting with excitement and terror, wondering whether I would dare go through it again, or whether I would turn to wood, or dough, or say something so stupid and tactless you would chuck me out into the street, it wasn’t simply thought of the delicious kisses and all the other lovely play which forced courage into me. It was the paintings I used to look at sideways whenever I got the chance. I wouldn’t have let on, because I was afraid you might have been amused, and made me talk about them, and even more amused when I couldn’t discuss them at your level. But I was drinking them in through the pors of my skin.”

I would say that Hurtle’s position as supersized bastard is overstated too. Nearly every review wants to make a point of what a See-You-Next-Tuesday he is, and I don’t really get that. Cantankerous? Maaaaybe, but, no, not really. I’d say he has a fairly healthy bullshit detector. His greatest character flaw, if it is indeed a flaw, is his inability to emotionally connect with other people. He abandons the Courtney’s without compunction, he fails to respond to his lovers in any way other than artistically, and never appears to be greatly touched or upset by their suffering [suffering they seem to cultivate, it is fair to suggest]. If you wanted to label him, then, I’d say you could possibly call him sociopathic, or even autistic, but I think evil, or horrible or detestable are too strong. I will confess, however, that I saw myself in him at times, so perhaps I’m sticking up for myself here.

Before concluding I’d like to come back to that title. What is its significance? It refers to Hurtle himself, of course, and how he approaches relationships with other people. The idea, voiced by many of the characters, is that Hurtle uses other people, particularly women, for his art. People are inspiration, they are there to be taken apart, understood, and used for your own ends; this is, I guess White is suggesting, what it means to be an artist, and he would have seen himself, as a writer, in the same way. However, I think that the title has a broader significance, certainly in relation to God, who is described as the divine vivisector. I don’t have the patience [and you don’t want to read it, I’m sure!] to explore that fully. It is worth noting that almost everyone in the novel uses other people, not just Hurtle [in fact Hurtle is perhaps the most honest person in the book]. Off the top of my head: there’s the Courtney’s who buy a son, and the parents who sell one; there is a couple who collect cats and a child, but who drown the moggies once they get bored of them and also give back the child to her mother; there is a woman who sets Hurtle up with her married friend in order to enjoy, I dunno, the composition [for her the union is something to look at, to experience, like a work of art], there is a husband who uses his wife as decoration and so on and so on.

To sum up then, The Vivisector isn’t easy to love [certainly beyond the first section], contains characters who are not especially likeable [if you want that sort of thing], and does meander towards a conclusion for the last two hundred pages. However, if you are patient, if you’re interested in art or artists, if you like big books with challenging ideas and themes, if you like serious and sometimes ridiculous literature, or if, like me, you’re often accused of being an irascible prick who is at odds with the rest of the human race then you’ll probably get a big kick out of this.