I’ve been very late getting this done, I know. This is mainly due to my work on what was the most challenging book discussion preparation I’ve ever undertaken. The book was Paul Theroux’s Deep South. The discussion took place on this Thursday past, and I’m glad to report that it went quite well, mainly due to the lively and insightful comments of my colleagues in AAUW Readers.
Mostly it’s done. And what a sweet relief!
Audiobooks are very vital to me. I only listen to them in my car, and I want to feel a sense of happy anticipation when, belted in and ready to roll, I fire up my current choice. I knew I’d get that good feeling from a work by Alexander McCall Smith, and so I am now listening to the 44 Scotland street series.
Love Over Scotland, the third entry, features a prose passage so moving – at least it was to me – that as soon as I got back home, I downloaded the novel in its entirety.
The excerpt I refer to consists of a letter being written by the artist Angus Lordie to his friend , the beautifully named Domenica Macdonald. Domenica, described as a “freelance anthropologist,” is at that time halfway around the world studying the mores and folkways of a community of pirates inhabiting the Malacca Straits. (McCall Smith’s imagination as usual, ranges freely from the domestic to the remote to the downright bizarre.)
In this missive, Angus gives voice to his feelings upon the loss of a friend in strange and sad circumstances. I’m going to quote the whole thing here:
“My dear Domenica,” he began. “I write this letter seated at the kitchen table. It is one of those cold, bright winter mornings that I know you love so much, and which make this city sparkle so. But the letter I write you will be a sad one, and I am sorry for that. When one is alone and far from home, as you are, then one longs for light-hearted, gossipy letters. This is not one of those.
“Yesterday, as I was painting his portrait, Ramsey Dunbarton, a person I have known for a good many years, died in my studio. He was seated in my portrait chair, talking to me, when he suddenly stopped, mid-anecdote. I thought nothing of it and continued to paint, but when I glanced from behind my canvas I saw him sitting there, absolutely still. I thought that he had gone to sleep and went back to my painting, but then, when I looked again, he was still motionless. I realised that something was wrong, and indeed it was. Ramsey had died. It was very peaceful, almost as if somebody had silently gone away, somewhere else, had left the room. How strange is the human body in death–so still, and so vacated. That vitality, that spark, which makes for life, is simply not there. The tiny movements of the muscles, the sense of there being somebody keeping the whole physical entity orchestrated in space–that goes so utterly and completely. It is no longer there.
“You did not know Ramsey. I thought that you might perhaps have met him at one of my drinks parties, but then, on reflection, I decided that you had not. I do not think that you and he would necessarily have got along. I would never accuse you of lacking charity, dear one, but I suspect that you might have thought that Ramsey was a little stuffy for you; a little bit old-fashioned, perhaps.
“And indeed he was. Many people thought of him as an old bore, always going on about having played the part of the Duke of Plaza-Toro at the Church Hill Theatre. Well, so he did, and he mentioned it yesterday afternoon, which was his last afternoon as himself, as Auden puts it in his poem about the death of Yeats. But don’t we all have our little triumphs, which we remember and which we like to talk about? And if Ramsey was unduly proud of having been the Duke of Plaza-Toro, then should we begrudge him that highlight in what must have been a fairly uneventful life? I don’t think we should.
“He was a kind man, and a good one too. He loved his wife. He loved his country–he was a Scottish patriot at heart, but proud of being British too. He said that we should not be ashamed of these things, however much fashionable people decry love of one’s country and one’s people. And in that he was right.
“He only wanted to do good. He was not a selfish man. He did not set out to make a lot of money or get ahead at the expense of others. He was not like that. He would have loved to have had public office, but it never came his way. So he served in a quiet, rather bumbling way on all sorts of committees. He was conservative in his views and instincts. He believed in an ordered society in which people would help and respect one another, but he also believed in the responsibility of each of us to make the most of our lives. He called that ‘duty’, not a word we hear much of today.
“There is a thoughtless tendency in Scotland to denigrate those who have conservative views. I have never subscribed to that, and I hope that as a nation we get beyond such a limited vision of the world. It is possible to love one’s fellow man in a number of ways, and socialism does not have the monopoly on justice and concern. Far from it. There are good men and women who believe passionately in the public good perspectives. Ramsey was as much concerned with the welfare and good of his fellow man as anybody I know.
“People said that he had a tendency to go on and on, and I suppose he did. But those long stories of his, sometimes without any apparent point to them, were stories that were filled, yes filled, with enthusiasm for life. Ramsey found things fascinating, even when others found them dull. In his own peculiar way, he celebrated the life of ordinary people, ordinary places, ordinary things.
“I suspect that Scotland is full of people like Ramsey Dunbarton. They are people whose lives never amount to very much in terms of achievement. They are not celebrated or fêted in any way. But there they are, doing their best, showing goodwill to others, paying their taxes scrupulously, not cheating in any way, supporting the public good. These people are the backbone of the country and we should never forget that.
“His death leaves me feeling empty. I feel guilty, too, at the thought of the occasions when I have seen him heaving into sight and I have scuttled off, unable to face another long-winded story. I feel that I should have done more to reciprocate the feelings of friendship he undoubtedly had for me. I never asked him to lunch with me; the invitations always came from him. I never even acknowledged him as a friend. I never told him that I enjoyed his company. I never told him that I thought he was a good man. I gave him no sign of appreciation.
“But we make such mistakes all the time, all through our lives. Wisdom, I suppose, is seeing this and acting upon it before it is too late. But it is often too late, isn’t it?–and those things that we should have said are unsaid, and remain unsaid for ever.
“I am heart-sore, Domenica. I am heart-sore. I shall get over it, I know, but that is how I feel now. Heart-sore.”
He finished, read it through, and then very slowly tore it up. He would not send it to Domenica, even if he meant every word, every single word of it.
I’d never heard of Cesar Aira until I encountered him in a review in the Wall Street Journal written by Nathaniel Popkin. Popkiin was actually reviewing a novel called Zama by Argentine writer Antonio Di Benedetto. In the concluding paragraph, reference was made to Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter by Cesar Aira, Di Benedetto’s fellow Argentinian.
Two things about Episode immediately piqued my interest. First, there was the fact that the protagonist was a painter; his name is Johann Moritz Rugendas. Secondly, Rugendas had been encouraged to travel to South America in order to find new and exotic subjects with which to fuel his artistic impulses. The individual urging him on this course of action was none other than the great explorer and natural scientist Alexander Von Humboldt. Early last year I read The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf. Von Humboldt’s “New World” became my new world – what an absolutely terrific read this was! Had it been up to me, Andrea Wulf would have won every existing literary award and then some.
The following is from Aira’s novel:
Rugendas was a genre painter. His genre was the physiognomy of nature, based on a procedure invented by Humboldt. The great naturalist was the father of a discipline that virtually died with him: Erdtheorie or La Physique du monde, a kind of artistic geography, an aesthetic understanding of the world, a science of landscape. Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) was 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 conformity with a long tradition, was through vision.
And so I read Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter. Though slight in length – more a novella than a novel – it is one of the most unusual and powerful works of fiction I have ever encountered. Johann Moritz Rugendas was an actual historical personage, a German artist of the early nineteenth century who traveled to South America in search of new vistas to paint. But although this novel takes Rugendas’s life as its starting point, it diverges significantly from his actual biography. This is nowhere more true than in regard to the episode in the title. Actually, ‘episode’ is a misleadingly innocuous term to describe what actually happens to Rugendas shortly before the novel’s midpoint. I don’t want to say anything more about it except this: it haunts me.
I do think I can say that for me, this novel is about two things: the courage that individuals are capable of in extreme circumstances, and the sustaining devotion that one friend freely gives to another.
The writing is extraordinary. Kudos to Cesar Aira for his intense lyricism and meticulous descriptions, and to Chris Andrews, the translator.
At a recent book club discussion I attended, some readers expressed impatience with descriptive passages that impede the pace of a book’s plot. While I have encountered this from time to time in my own reading, the sheer beauty of the prose in Episode was one of the main things that kept me riveted to the narrative.
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 alternations, 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. Each day was larger and more distant. As the mountains took on weight, the air became lighter and more changeable in its meteoric content, a sheer optics of superposed heights and depths.
I hope to read more of the works of Cesar Aira; I’d like to read Zama as well.