A Novel Approach to the Lives of Artists

Art and life convene in the art critic María Gainza’s debut novel.

Optic Nerve by Maria Gainza

Point Break, Kathryn Bigelow’s 1991 action movie, has its astonishments: an extended tribute to the grandeur of skydiving, a coruscating image of two surfers embracing in the night, that bit where Keanu Reeves glares at the whirring blades of a lawnmower. To this list of thrills we might also add the final scene: an oceanside showdown featuring waves that are reminiscent of Gustave Courbet’s depictions of the sea. So contends the narrator in Optic Nerve, the debut novel by the Argentinian art critic María Gainza. “The waves, thick as milk, or cream, or stew,” she tells us, “are straight out of a Courbet.” The book’s pages are filled with idiosyncratic links like that one—links between paintings, painters, and the thoughts and details of the narrator’s life.

“Might a great painting not even reformulate the question what is it about to what am I about?” the narrator, an Argentinian woman who shares Gainza’s first name, wonders. “Isn’t theory also in some sense always autobiography?” Her queries nod toward the mode of this spellbinding novel. Gainza’s lambent art criticism shines alongside a series of personal reveries and threnodies. In one instance, a portrait by Augusto Schiavoni startles the narrator because of how precisely it recalls her bygone childhood. But another, by Miguel Carlos Victorica, seems to her an omen of the years still to come.

Gainza pursues these and other resonances as they travel across paintings, the narrator’s experiences, and her imaginative accounts of the lives of artists. Her clear-cut prose, which has been translated from Spanish into English by Thomas Bunstead, confers some serenity onto the narrative commotion. Still, a sense of velocity endures — a flourishing, dendritic quality. The temporal powers of the Schiavoni and Victorica paintings, for example, are recast in a discussion of Schiavoni’s life. The narrator evocatively claims that Schiavoni once saw two ghosts standing beside the assistants of a Florentine medium: “One was the adorable little child that each had been, and the other the dark monster they were bound to become.”

At other points, Gainza’s writing conveys a certain lightness, as when the narrator notes that her mother “still held hopes of me marrying a polo player someday (a glimpse of my mother the negotiator: she liked money, I liked horses: voila).” Yet even that line vaguely anticipates the melancholy of her discussion of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, whose genetic disorder excluded him from the liberations of horseback riding. Gainza’s prose, solemn and declarative, accords to Lautrec the dignity that eluded him at various points in his life. “He is taken to the castle at Malromé, in La Gironde,” she writes. “His friends do not come to see him: La Gironde is a long way, in every respect, from the existence of the aesthetes and hedonists of fin de siècle Paris.” Gainza concludes this chapter by peering into Lautrec’s dreams: She seems to collapse entire years of living and longing into one exquisitely oneiric scene.

Maria Gainza (photo by Rosana Schoijett)

Her discussion of Mark Rothko, whose art she likens to “smoldering, endless blocks of fire,” is no less multifaceted. Near the end of that chapter, Rothko’s applications of red and black are suddenly reconstituted through the narrator’s glimpse of a woman in a red dress. This woman vanishes down a shadowy corridor in the hospital in which the narrator’s husband is being treated for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Here, in part, is Gainza’s achievement: an impression of the way art insinuates itself into the phenomenological jet stream of our daily lives, and the way it attaches itself to all manner of quotidian and tragic moments. The art that strikes us, Gainza seems to be saying, also tends to spill out into the mnemonic, emotional, and sensorial welter of our personal experiences.

Gainza’s novel at times brings to mind the writing of film scholars like Martin Lefebvre and Lesley Stern. For example, in Stern’s lively article about movies and things, she advances the following argument: “if the quotidian impresses itself in the cinematic, it is equally the case that the cinematic impinges upon the practices of everyday life.” Like Gainza, Stern directs an observant gaze at the way the details of art — in this case, cinematic details — can “travel” or “migrate,” and the way they can “reverberate beyond the frame.”

Many of the details that travel within and across the chapters of Optic Nerve pertain to death. Early on, a green loden cape stands out in the lead-up to a scene that finds two sisters fatally torn apart. It’s worn by one of the siblings, who invites the other, a friend of the narrator’s, to a French château. The sister accepts the invitation, but is later struck by a bullet while exploring the grounds — a “pointless and hypnotic” death. The green of the loden cape, now freighted with this familial rupture, subtly migrates across the novel before alighting, in the final chapter, upon the narrator’s moving remembrance of the green eyes of a departed loved one. A similarly arresting example is the deathly moment that Gainza extracts from Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard. Gainza employs many quotations, but few are quite as piercing as Lampedusa’s mention of a dying hare’s “big black eyes soon overlaid by a glaucous veil.” There is “no reproval” in those eyes. Instead, they are “full of tortured amazement at the whole ordering of things.”

This passage is brought up in the first chapter of Optic Nerve. The narrator uses it to illuminate “the unpredictability of events,” and an Alfred de Dreux painting that depicts a deer gazing out at life during its final moments. All of this, in turn, anticipates a great deal of what unfolds across Gainza’s novel — various correspondences between the frailties of people and animals; the sundering of friendships and familial bonds; and the frequent sense of being whipsawed between reminders of decay and the possibilities of life. (She marvels, at one point, at the prospect of growing old: “I find myself interested in knowing what I’m going to become.”) In other words, the concerns and memories of the narrator are interpolated into Dreux’s painting, and into the lives and paintings of many others. These varied linkages become increasingly worthy of her own “tortured amazement.”

Optic Nerve, by María Gainza (with English translation by Thomas Bunstead) was published by Catapult in 2019.

Update: We have added the sixth paragraph to the piece at the request of the author for clarification.

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