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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

An Episode in the Life
of a Landscape Painter

César Aira

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter

Title: An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter
Author: César Aira
Genre: Novel
Written: 2000 (Eng. 2006)
Length: 87 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter - US
Un episodio en la vida del pintor viajero - US
in Three Novels - UK
An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter - Canada
An Episode In The Life Of A Landscape Painter - India
Un épisode dans la vie du peintre voyageur - France
Eine Episode im Leben des Reisemalers - Deutschland
Un episodio en la vida del pintor viajero - España
  • Spanish title: Un episodio en la vida del pintor viajero
  • Translated by Chris Andrews
  • With a Preface by Roberto Bolaño

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Our Assessment:

B+ : short, powerful portrait

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 4/3/2004 Hans-Martin Gauger
The Guardian . 24/7/2015 Jane Housham
Harper's . 8/2006 John Leonard
The LA Times . 2/7/2006 Mark Doty
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 24/12/2003 Steffen Richter
The NY Rev. of Books . 13/1/2011 Michael Greenberg
The NY Sun A 31/5/2006 Benjamin Lytal
San Francisco Chronicle . 16/7/2006 Ilan Stavans
Die Welt . 10/1/2004 Georg Winckler

  From the Reviews:
  • "Das Buch selbst ist auf eine nicht leicht zu greifende Weise faszinierend. Es beginnt (...) wie ein schön geschriebenes Sachbuch, gleitet aber unmerklich ins Fiktive hinein und wird, auch durch seine Intensität im Narrativen, die sich dem Exotisch-Fremden hinzufügt, beinahe magisch, auch etwas metaphysisch, ohne doch unrealistisch zu werden. Es bleibt eine Schilderung." - Hans-Martin Gauger, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "César Aira's strange and arresting novel An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter is a meditation on the act of representation and the methods we use to study and fix the world around us. (...) Part historical work, part aesthetic philosophy, part meditation on the frailty and persistence of the body and how it is sustained by the force of ideas, Aira's novel is a memorable performance, whose tone and oddly compelling vision are distinctly his own." - Mark Doty, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Mr. Aira oversteps the bounds of realism, forcing the world to live up to his imagination. (...) His thrilling meditations on art, the act of capturing a battle on paper, in real-time, in spite of and mediated by his physical limitations, entrap the reader in ecstatic, even tumescent attentiveness" - Benjamin Lytal, The New York Sun

  • "More than fiction, it is an imaginative chronicle based on Rugendas' correspondence and other historical sources from the era. To which Aira adds the novelistic touch: el beso de la fantasía -- the kiss of fantasy." - Ilan Stavans, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Am Anfang schlägt der Argentinier César Aira den Ton des unbestechlichen Chronisten an, später wird er immer mehr zum märchenhaften Fabulierer. Novellistische Ökonomie und ausufernde Imagination sind aufs Wunderbarste vereint. César Airas Kunststück wird man so schnell nicht auslesen." - Georg Winckler, Die Welt

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter actually offers more than a single episode -- indeed, it covers quite a bit of the life of Johan Moritz Rugendas. Rugendas is an historic figure, a well-known 19th century painter (he lived 1802-1858), born in Germany but best known for his South and Latin American paintings.
       Aira begins with an introduction to the painter, and specifically his approach to his craft. Inspired and admired by Alexander von Humboldt, Rugendas' painting was "physiognomic". For Humboldt:

rather than isolating images and treating them as "emblems" of knowledge, his aim was to accumulate and coordinate them within a broad framework, for which landscape provided the model.
       Rugendas apparently did this very well, so much so that Humboldt dubbed him: "the founding father of the art of pictorial representation of the physiognomy of nature." He took two extended trips to the Americas, and he was -- to Humboldt's dismay -- particularly drawn to Argentina, and:
the mysterious emptiness to be found on the endless plains at a point equidistant from the horizons. Only there, he thought, would he be able to discover the other side of his art ...
       An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter recounts his (ad)venture "towards the dreamed-of center" -- which he reaches "momentarily" -- but warns early on that the price he had to pay was exorbitant.
       The account tells of his painting-expeditions, together with another German painter, Robert Krause, beginning in 1837. Rugendas wants to go beyond where the human touch has reached -- difficult, since even "the farthest wilderness was steeped with sociability". When they do set out for the wild they get more than they bargained for: they follow after locusts have passed through, eating all in their path, and then Rugendas is confronted with nature at its most overwhelming. He survives, but barely.
       He survives, but barely. The episode is shattering (and pretty spectacular), and Rugendas only slowly recovers. Drugged up to dull the pain, he nevertheless still has his artistic ambitions, and Aira nicely spins out his continuing efforts, culminating in the capturing of one of the events Rugendas had been eager to witness first-hand.
       An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter is more an extended chapter in his life, and Aira's atmospheric and evocative writing (and some pretty good action) make for a compelling little novella. Setting the scene, and then following through with a sharp description of these particular events, Aira here offers an impressive work -- and yet there's a feel that it could be part of a larger work, as readers surely wonder (and would like to know): what happened next ? Still, despite this slightly open-ended feel to it, well worthwhile.

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An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter: Reviews: Johan Moritz Rugendas: César Aira: Other books by César Aira under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Argentinian author César Aira was born in 1949.

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© 2006-2022 the complete review

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