Optic Nerve by María Gainza review – art critic’s profound debut

An Argentinian critic’s reflections on painters and painting become an inquiry into the place and function of art

After an encounter with a painting that shares exactly the “surly, boastful look” of herself as an 11-year-old, the narrator of this intriguing novel admits: “I know, I know, this is about as far from hard-nosed criticism as you can get, but isn’t all artwork – or all decent art – a mirror? […] Isn’t theory also in some sense always autobiography?” The narrator is called María, like the author, and this book would appear to inhabit the territory of autofiction; in it she reflects, in glimpses and fragments, on motherhood, childhood, adolescent friendship, strained familial relationships. Most of all she reflects on paintings and painters: it is this, above, all, that matters to her, and that gives shape to her digressive, intricately woven narrative. As a guide and critic, she is excellent company – wry, astute, self-deprecating. Her sphere of reference is broad and catholic, the book flecked with quotations. The prose, in Thomas Bunstead’s translation, is restrained, funny, by turns (and at once) luminous and melancholy. I was put in mind of Rachel Cusk’s Faye trilogy, for this and for the anecdotal, allusive structure. The text moves fluently between art criticism and history, biography, anecdote, memory and the imagined past.

To encounter art in a gallery, María advises, “keep your eyes unfocused to begin with” and be open to the “first jolt”. She is interested above all in the subjective experience of art, and all that we bring to that encounter: “bodily”, unconscious, associative and subrational responses. An equally astute and curious attention is devoted to lesser known or now forgotten artists, as much as to Toulouse-Lautrec, Rousseau and El Greco. Even the more familiar names tend to be those of artists who were in some way peripheral, disdained or iconoclastic in their own lifetimes. This is a book fascinated by the passage of time, the fragility of fame and the possibility of art’s endurance.

The Dream by Henri Rousseau (1910).
The Dream by Henri Rousseau (1910). Photograph: Peter Barritt/Alamy

The reader might feel compelled to put it down and go in search of a reference point, an image of the painting in question. I have no problem with that; I like a book that asks me to go seeking and then invites me back in. And it’s worth noting that she speaks up for the reproduction as a means of access to artwork – rejecting the truism that prints of Rothko don’t work, for example. But it certainly isn’t necessary to be familiar with the works María contemplates: ekphrasis, at least in the conventional sense, isn’t quite the objective here. She gives a “doubtless reductive description” of the first painting we encounter – “a pack of hounds encircling a deer” with “ranked, squally clouds” – in fact, a sparing and precise paragraph that provides just enough to go on. Gainza is an established art critic in her native Argentina, and writes with authority and precision about technique, style and context. And her subject is as much the possibility and the limits of writing or talking about art – in response to Rothko: “Rarely do the inadequacies of language become so patently obvious. All you really want to say is ‘Fuck me’.”

Each chapter is discrete, and the connections between narrative strands are often oblique; a motif (the sea, animals), or a concern with, for example, the quest for and meaning of success, will tie together memories, imagined scenes, stories of lost friends and artistic commissions: an aristocratic relative “in his boudoir”, Richard Burton’s encounter with a “skinny dog” in Paraguay. But Optic Nerve as a whole is not merely episodic. It becomes richer and more complex, until a self-portrait of the narrator emerges – layered, realised as much in what is left undeveloped or partial, and culminating in something quite unexpected, which loops us back to the start and casts new light on the pall of anxiety and sadness that has shaded the text. Various preoccupations, details and quotations, even the practice of quotation itself, now carry new resonance. At the outset, she told us: “You write one thing in order to talk about something else.”

“Writing doesn’t happen in gaps,” says her aspirational “loudmouth” friend (they were united in “snobbishness” as adolescents and now enjoy the occasional fraught reunion: shades of Elena Ferrante here). But it is through the gaps, through juxtaposition and elision, that our own encounter with the book takes place; they invite us to make connections, to shift our focus and attention and pick out details. As John Berger writes in Ways of Seeing: “We are never looking at just one thing; we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves. Our vision is continually active, continually moving.” In this book, as in Berger’s, the history of art becomes a continuum, an ongoing dialogue. We are left with a profound inquiry into the place and function of art: in culture, in the gallery, in private homes, and most of all, in the narrator’s life – as remembrance, as joy and consolation, as meaning, as refuge.

• Painter to the King by Amy Sackville is published by Granta. Optic Nerve, translated by Thomas Bunstead, is published by Harvill Secker (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p on all online orders over £15.

Amy Sackville

The GuardianTramp

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