Buenos Aires, Argentina has more bookstores per capita than any other city in the world. It has considerably more than Hong Kong and Madrid, which are the second and third-place cities, and it has more than twice as many as New York City and London. In many neighborhoods of Buenos Aires there are bookstores on every block and María Gainza’s two most recent books, about art and art history, appear in display windows everywhere.
It’s the beginning of 2019 and I am in Buenos Aires, in the tree and graffiti-lined neighborhood of Villa Crespo. It’s summer in the southern hemisphere. I am visiting María Gainza at her home and she lets me in through the garden, which is 15 degrees cooler than the city center. The property is green, luxurious, and compact, verdant branches leaning over the concrete walls. Gainza tours me through the garden and into her home. Despite her life-long contemplation of art, there are no paintings hanging in her house. Instead, her walls are lined with wooden bookshelves and tranquil blank space. Sunlight pours through the ceiling-high windows.
Gainza has been publishing about art since 2003, first articles for newspapers and cultural supplements but more recently she has moved into a book-length work that involves an unusual layering of narrative approaches—fiction blended with memoir blended with art history. Gainza’s first book, Textos elegidos, was a collection of short essays, many of which were written for culture section of the Buenos Aires newspaper Página/12. Her most recent, La luz negra, is a fictionalized imagining of a historical high-society con artist. In between came El nervio óptico, the book that introduces Gainza’s writing to a worldwide audience. This spring it arrives in English as Optic Nerve, translated by Thomas Bunstead.
“Do you drink mate?” Gainza asks me. We speak mostly in English, thanks to Gainza’s English education growing up. Her 11-year-old daughter is flitting between her bedroom and the kitchen, sometimes helping us with words like desvergonzado (shameless) and chisme (gossip).
I say yes, I drink mate, though I admit I don’t have much experience. We walk to the kitchen and Gainza fills the kettle, turns it on.
“The upper class more imitates European tea or coffee culture,” Gainza explains to me. “Mate is more like clase media. Or the upper class who do drink it are usually very connected to the campo and horses. But the Buenos Aires upper class doesn’t drink it. My mother, for example, thinks my teeth are going to turn green. ‘Como se dice teñir?’” she asks her daughter, who is putting out cookies for us on the coffee table.
“Muy bien. Dye. I drink mate all the time. It keeps me awake.”
Optic Nerve, first issued by the small Argentine press Mansalva in 2014 and then reissued by the major Spanish publisher Anagrama in 2017, takes place almost entirely in Buenos Aires. It features a meditative narrator reflecting on the popular art displayed in the city’s public museums—for example, Henri Rousseau, Mark Rothko, and Gustave Courbet at the National Museum of Fine Arts or Miguel Carlos Victoria at the Sívori Gallery. It weaves between art history, journalism, personal essay, historical fiction, and autofiction.
In the opening chapter, the narrator considers an Alfred de Dreux piece in a grand dining room of the National Museum of Decorative Arts. The massive painting features a pack of hunting dogs tearing down a running deer. Gainza uses the enormous baroque image of the deer’s face, expressing a continued panic for life during the dawning reception of death, to thread together a layered meditation on the volatility of life.
Gainza says that her readers always want to know which parts of her books are fiction and which are nonfiction, especially given her narrators’ first-person storylines. In Optic Nerve, components of the narrator’s life parallel Gainza’s own—she has worked as an art guide and many of the characters in the book are based on people in Gainza’s life—but there’s also plenty that veers from it. “It’s just a drop of color,” Gainza says of the autobiography in her books, “and then it goes, pheww.” She makes an expanding motion with her hand. Like a splash of food color in a glass of water.
Among other unusual techniques in Gainza’s two most recent books is her use of an uncanny level of detail within the historical record to decorate and propel her scenes. In the opening chapter of Optic Nerve, she imagines the Errázuriz family, the owners of the mansion in which the Dreux painting hangs, eating at the sprawling dining table beneath the painting. In an opulent vignette, she imagines the matron nervously looking back and forth between the flailing dying deer in the painting and the lean-sliced venison on the dinner table. “In the Renaissance-style parlor next door, a carved wooden clock chimes,” Gainza writes. “The Señora Alvear shivers; a cold draft, she assumes. It has been some time now since she has known what it is she feels.”Power and wealth have shifted often and drastically in Buenos Aires over the past century and the effect of that turmoil ripples across Optic Nerve.
Gainza says Mozart’s Journey to Prague, a novel by the 19th century German writer Eduard Mörike, influenced this technique of fleshing out a historical record. Instead of following more traditional methods of biography—birth to death chronology, exposition instead of scenes, a hazy focus that evades inaccuracies—Mozart’s Journey to Prague obsesses and invents; it imagines Mozart getting caught while playfully stealing an orange from a Bohemian family’s garden. I mention that the approach reminds me of An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, a César Aira novel about the German painter Johann Moritz Rugendas. The short novel zooms in on the time period when Rugendas was struck by lightning and then dragged nearly to death by his fleeing horse. Aira’s concentration in the novel is focused, off-kilter, and surreal. Gainza says yes, like that. “A biography that is not a biography. The story explodes and goes somewhere else.”
I ask Gainza what she was doing before she was writing about art, and she tells me she’s always been writing. Journalism runs in her family. Her father inherited and ran a newspaper, La Prensa, founded in 1869. It was one of the most widely circulated papers in Argentina for decades and then ran into trouble as Juan Peron rose to power. The paper was confiscated by Peron’s government. When it was returned to Gainza’s father, it was under new regulations for buying paper. Her father didn’t think you could be in business with the government and carry out objective journalism. For a while, he bought his paper from Canada—far too expensive. Over time, La Prensa folded. The flagship office in the neighborhood of Monserrat was sold in 1988.
I notice The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom! among Gainza’s books and mention that I thought a lot about Faulkner while reading Optic Nerve. One of the threads woven through the novel is the narrator’s family’s fall from the aristocracy and an inability to reconcile memories of the past with their new faded present.
Power and wealth have shifted often and drastically in Buenos Aires over the past century and the effect of that turmoil ripples across Optic Nerve. The characters in the book are living alongside the national trauma of the last civil-military dictatorship, when 30,000 people—writers, artists, academics, and suspected leftists—were killed. Some of them were thrown from military planes into the Atlantic Ocean. Families lost people to this terror and also to migration and escape. More recently, during the Argentine great depression of 1998-2002, people lost everything they had ever put in the bank, bringing widespread unemployment and riots.
Economic instability in Argentina is still an urgent and continuing problem; thick stacks of paper money often only represent modest value, as we see when someone pays the the narrator for an article she has written. Money is unstable. In a chapter about the Catalan artist Josep Maria Sert and the narrator’s deceased uncle, the narrator weaves together a story about luxury as its own prison. She says, “Nothing compares with the passions unleashed by a contested inheritance among a family still clinging on to millionaire pretensions, still struggling to accept its diminished lot.”
Gainza says she hadn’t thought of the connection with Faulkner, but she sees it. She read The Sound and the Fury three times in high school. According to the bookplate on the inside cover of Absalom, Absalom! she won it in a classroom competition at Northlands School in 1989. “Every writer has a constellation of influences that are present and then others that are in the dark,” she says. “When you read something a lot, it goes to some subterranean place.”
Though Gainza started writing art pieces right after college, she says she didn’t find her voice until she switched to writing in Spanish, around when she was 28. “It was like I opened the tap,” she says. “Or if I was painting: it was like I went from having only three colors and then I suddenly I had a whole palette.” Gainza says that she knows that one of the things that people respond to in her writing is the way she makes connections between different artistic mediums—between painting, theater, music, movies. “The arts to me is all the same scene. If I was writing about art, maybe it was similar to a movie I had seen or a play by Beckett,” she says.“When I got back from London, I said, ‘I want to write about art.’”
She walks me over to the bookshelf to show me the greatest influence on Optic Nerve: The Story of Art by E. H. Gombrich, “That book for me was key,” Gainza says, holding the 670-page text adoringly in her hands. “It didn’t say the history of art. It said the story. Everything is a story. I used to read the way people were writing about art here—they were talking like lawyers. Mira,” she opens the cover page and shows me the handwritten date: London 1996. “This was a turning point for me. When I got back from London, I said, ‘I want to write about art.’ Something about the way he wrote was so easy, so readable. The way he doubled his voice or divided it and created a persona.”
She hands me the heavy book and indicates that I should sample the opening paragraph:
“In writing [this] I thought first and foremost of readers in their teens who had just discovered the world of art for themselves. But I never believed that books for young people should differ from books for adults except for the fact that they must reckon with the most exacting class of critics, critics who are quick to detect and resent any trace of pretentious jargon or bogus sentiment. I know from experience that these are the vices which may render people suspicious of all writing on art for the rest of their lives. I have striven sincerely to avoid these pitfalls and to use plain language even at the risk of sounding casual or unprofessional.”
I say it’s approachable. “It’s a book that’s very easy to read,” Gainza says. “I admire that about it.”
We return to the couch carrying more books: by Kenneth Clark, Peter Schjeldahl, Luc Sante, Helen DeWitt. I ask her about the narrator of Optic Nerve feeling detached from the art world as she wanders through Buenos Aires museums. “Buenos Aires,” her narrator says people say, “only has second-rate work: great artists, yes, but none of their great works. If you’re serious about art, you have to travel.” The narrator of Optic Nerve doesn’t travel—she’s afraid of flying—and in the book she ditches an important trip at an inopportune moment due to nerves.
Like her narrator Gainza hasn’t traveled much in quite a long time, but more because of her late husband’s 10-year illness with lymphoma. He passed away three years ago from a heart attack. But in a few days, Gainza is getting on a plane with her daughter to go to London, Paris, and Madrid. She says going to Europe with her daughter hasn’t really been possible until now. “She is made for those places,” Gainza says. “My mother always wanted me to leave: ‘This country has no future.’ But I don’t want her to leave because we are very close. She wants to work in fashion and fashion here is very different. I always say, ‘I’m going to take you to London and you’re not going to come back.’”
I ask her how she feels about going to Europe in terms of seeing original artwork versus reproductions, a subject on which her narrator often reflects. “I like originals…” she says, and pauses for a moment. Maybe, she says, it’s a little like a literary translation: when it works, some of the the spirit travels between the original and the reproduction. “My husband used to say, ‘The ideal is the enemy of the good,’ and I have come to terms with that. Even when I get to London, we might see the cola, the crowd, I might say forget it. In my ideal world I would be in front of the painting alone.”
Traveling to see a piece of art can be difficult or impossible, Gainza says. A lot of great art is owned by private collectors and kept in storage. But everything referenced in Optic Nerve is available in public museums in Buenos Aires, which was a priority for the project. While writing it, Gainza thought about creating a city museum guide that wasn’t stilted and boring, that didn’t sound like it was written by bureaucrats. But still, as Gainza’s narrator notes, the best-known works of many of the artists touched on in the book are primarily represented in museums in Europe or the United States. Gainza says, “Living in a far away country like Argentina, you’re very used to seeing your art in books.”
Gainza says as she was assembling the narrative concoction for Optic Nerve, her first attempt didn’t have nearly as much of the first-person drive and personality as it does now. The pieces were much more traditional. “They were correct,” she laughs. “Correct is like the worst.” By veering away from the path as she understood it, she arrived at something newly imagined. She says she also worries that it’s sloppy, but that there are virtues in writing from the dark. “It’s intuitive, which is a good thing because you get a swing to it that is is not very mechanic,” she says. “The swing, I can sense it.”