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April 2019 Fiction: Literary

Optic Nerve
By (author): Maria Gainza Translated by: Thomas Bunstead
9781948226165 Hardcover, Cloth over boards English General Trade FICTION / Literary Apr 19, 2019
$37.50 CAD
Active 5.5 x 8.25 x 0.79 in 208 pages Catapult

"In this delightful autofiction—the first book by Gainza, an Argentine art critic, to appear in English—a woman delivers pithy assessments of world-class painters along with glimpses of her life, braiding the two into an illuminating whole." —The New York Times Book Review, Editors' Choice

The narrator ofOptic Nerve is an Argentinian woman whose obsession is art. The story of her life is the story of the paintings, and painters, who matter to her. Her intimate, digressive voice guides us through a gallery of moments that have touched her.

In these pages, El Greco visits the Sistine Chapel and is appalled by Michelangelo’s bodies. The mystery of Rothko’s refusal to finish murals for the Seagram Building in New York is blended with the story of a hospital in which a prostitute walks the halls while the narrator’s husband receives chemotherapy. Alfred de Dreux visits Géricault’s workshop; Gustave Courbet’s devilish seascapes incite viewers “to have sex, or to eat an apple”; Picasso organizes a cruel banquet inRousseau’s honor . . . All of these fascinating episodes in art history interact with the narrator’s life in Buenos Aires—her family and work; her loves and losses; her infatuations and disappointments. The effect is of a character refracted by environment, composed by the canvases she studies.

Seductive and capricious,Optic Nerve marks the English-language debut of a major Argentinian writer. It is a book that captures, like no other, the mysterious connections between a work of art and the person who perceives it.

María Gainza was born in Buenos Aires, where she still resides. She has worked as a correspondent forThe New York Times in Argentina, as well as forARTnews. She has also been a contributor toArtforum,The Buenos Aires Review, andRadar, the cultural supplement from Argentine newspaperPágina/12. She is coeditor of the collectionLos Sentidos (The Senses) on Argentinean art, and in 2011 she publishedTextos elegidos (Selected Texts), a collection of her notes and essays on contemporary art.Optic Nerve is her first work of fiction and her first book to be translated into English.

Thomas Bunstead is a writer and translator based in East Sussex, England. He has translated some of the leading Spanish-language writers working today, including Eduardo Halfon, Yuri Herrera, Agustín Fernández Mallo, and Enrique Vila-Matas, and his own writing has appeared in publications such asKill Author,The White Review, andThe Times Literary Supplement. He is an editor at the translation journalIn Other Words.

Praise forOptic Nerve

Bustle, 1 of 5 Books by Women in Translation You Should Read This Month

“In this delightful autofiction—the first book by Gainza, an Argentine art critic, to appear in English—a woman delivers pithy assessments of world-class painters along with glimpses of her life, braiding the two into an illuminating whole.” ––The New York Times Book Review, Editors’ Choice

“Appealing and digressive . . . María’s store of information about painters and their lives can make reading the book feel, delightfully, like auditing a course . . . Consistently charms with its tight swirl of art history, personal reminiscence and aesthetic theories.” ––John Williams,The New York Times Book Review

“A roving, impassioned hybrid of art history and memoir . . . The pithy biographical portions ofOptic Nerve are bracing correctives to potted textbook histories . . . Treat the chapters like stand-alone essays, each one enlivened by the delightful variety and idiosyncrasy of artistic obsession.” ––Sam Sacks,The Wall Street Journal

Optic Nerve would be worth reading as an art history lesson alone; its descriptions of great paintings are phenomenal, as are its lives-of-the-artists anecdotes . . . With each chapter, María finds a new artist to love, and, in doing so, accesses a new part of herself. It's a pleasure to watch her do both.” ––Lily Meyer,NPR

“Gainza’s long-awaited English-language debut is a provocative novel that investigates the power, value, and emotional significance that art carries, from the perspective of one deeply curious Argentinian woman.” ––David Canfield,Entertainment Weekly

“Gainza’s phenomenal first work to be translated into English is a nimble yet momentous novel about the connection between one woman’s personal life and the art she observes . . . There are many pleasures in Gainza’s novel: its clever and dynamic structure, its many aperçus, and some of the very best writing about art around. With playfulness and startling psychological acuity, Gainza explores the spaces between others, art, and the self, and how what one sees and knows form the ineffable hodgepodge of the human soul. The result is a transcendent work.” —Publishers Weekly (starred and boxed review)

“Here, art is a trellis around which life knots and overlaps, severs, climbs upward . . .Optic Nerve’s episodic iridescence—the way each chapter shimmers with the delicacy of a soap bubble—belies its gravity. Gainza has written an intricate, obsessive, recherché novel about the chasm that opens up between what we see and what we understand . . . a radiant debut.” ––Dustin Illingworth,The Nation

“Falling somewhere between essay and close personal narrative,Optic Nerve reads like a museum. It encompasses countless styles, eras, and characters, offering new stories and ideas for our narrator to follow down winding hallways. Considering artist legacies, Argentine culture, and the accuracy of perception, Gainza paints life and art as adjacent forces; fabricated images and stories become real, casting their shadows onto memory. At one point, Gainza describes the narrator’s childhood home filled with antique furniture, and the bathroom with ‘a pile of Sotheby’s catalogues dating back to 1972, the shelves bowed under their weight.’ The image serves as an unlikely metaphor for Gainza’s book: built around everyday life but haunted by a history of art stacked high in the corner, quietly shaping the space where it sits.” ––Nikki Shaner-Bradford,The Paris Review

"As a reader, you truly find yourself spending time with Gainza, someone who’s naturally agreeable and warm, a charming companion that you’ll want to spend time with. As a whole, it makes a book that’s both hypnotizing and comforting." ––Justin Souther, AshevilleCitizen-Times, 1 of 4 Great Summer Reads

“Is there anything more exciting than when art defies categorization, resists genre, operates only within the boundaries of its creator’s intentions? María Gainza'sOptic Nerve is one such piece of art; its words shimmer and shimmy inside your head as it leads you to places you’ve never been, and could only ever have imagined. Part autofiction and part inquiry into the consumption of art,Optic Nerve is a vital read for anyone who knows that seeing something isn't the same thing as perceiving it, and that once you understand the distinction between the two, entirely new worlds can open up, unconstrained from the restrictions too often placed upon them.” ––Kristin Iversen,NYLON

“My favorite book of 2019 (thus far),Optic Nerve is composed of a series of vignette-like sections that each focus on a different artist. Through the stories of Rothko, Courbet, Toulouse-Lautrec, and others, the reader comes to understand something essential about the novel's narrator, an Argentine art historian who has built her life on the foundation of the work of the artists she idolizes.” ––Cristina Arreola,Bustle

“A spellbinding novel. Gainza’s lambent art criticism shines alongside a series of personal reveries and threnodies . . . 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.” ––Matthew D. Rodrigues,Hyperallergic

“One of the most difficult tasks in fiction is conveying the aesthetics of a particular character. That’s precisely what María Gainza has done in her newly-translated bookOptic Nerve, which follows the life of a narrator with an intense interest in art, and blends observations on artists’ lives and work with events within her own world.” ––Vol. 1 Brooklyn

“The unnamed Argentinian woman who narrates Gainza’s debut novel loves, lives, and breathes art. Buenos Aires is her home, and, afraid to fly, she becomes intimately connected to the city where she spends her life. Readers will become equally intimately connected to her mind, from where we view her world as a kind of gallery walk, with memories becoming exhibitions, placed together by theme or whim rather than by chronology. These crystalline moments of her life are set off against stories from art history, artists, and art becoming a mirror for self.” ––Ilana Lucas,Brit + Co

Optic Nerve is an exploration of art history through the life of a woman who’s living in the now, interweaving the stories of past and present to create an enchanting, captivating read. If you’re a lover of art or even just a lover of interesting prose, do yourself a favor and pick upOptic Nerve when you get the chance.” ––Callie Byrnes,Thought Catalog

Startlingly original . . . Both Gainza’s writing style and her taste in art display a preference for understatement . . . One senses a certain arbitrariness, a sincerity of taste that brings to mind Borges’s literary enthusiasms . . . Rare and exquisite.” ––Maxine Swann,Los Angeles Review of Books

“The writing, rendered in translation by Thomas Bunstead, is crystalline and fluent, and Gainza’s eye for detail, ekphrastic or otherwise, is sublime . . . [Optic Nerve] is an open mind, recording the atoms as they fall; if there is doubt, it is tolerated precisely because it lives in those searing moments of confidence, perception, and vision.” ––Lauren Elkin,The White Review

“Gainza’s narrator is an Argentinian woman with a great interest in art and she weaves in and out of anecdotes from her own life, information about artists, and engagement with the art itself. Its discursiveness is its greatest strength; the smooth movement from one subject to the other is engaging and satisfying. Gainza also has an ability to wrestle with the contradictions and small lies that operating in the Art world, so to speak, produces.” ––Bradley Babendir,Chicago Review of Books

“The driving force behindOptic Nerve’s roving, elusive structure is Gainza’s uniquely enchanting voice. She is masterful at weaving together scenes from the life of her protagonist and moments from art history such that the correspondences are both explicit and subtle . . . [A] tremendously exciting achievement.” ––Wilson McBee,Southwest Review

“Berger-esque, Cusk-esque, Sebaldian, but of course a magic all its own, this novel will delight any flexible, curious mind that happens upon it.” ––Emily Temple,Literary Hub

Optic Nerve, María Gainza’s English-language debut, offers a subtly intellectual, yet relievingly unpretentious exhibition of art’s most enduring qualities . . . Her first foray into fiction (or autofiction), it is clear throughoutOptic Nerve that Gainza knows the limitations of language and the problems faced when writing about something that can stimulate so visceral, so often indescribable, a feeling. The fact that the book does not fail to encompass those feelings, and makes even the reader respond in the way the author does, is testament to both Gainza’s skill and that of translator Thomas Bunstead.” ––Harry Gallon,Minor Literature[s]

“A curiously fascinating piece of autofiction . . . The loosely connected chapters are like short essays of sharply written art criticism, bringing in real artists, their lives, and their work as they apply to smaller moments in María’s life. From thinking about Mark Rothko while her husband is in this hospital making friends with a prostitute, to exploring Gustave Courbet’s seascapes in relation to her strange, aimless cousin, each anecdote deftly draws the unassuming connections fromart to life.” ––Reviews on Books

“[A] profound inquiry into the place and function of art . . . 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.” —Amy Sackville,The Guardian

“Part criticism, part autofiction, part meditation on the act of seeing, [Optic Nerve] has much in common with the recent novels of Rachel Cusk, Ben Lerner and Olivia Laing. But it’s a highly original, piercingly beautiful work, a book you’ll want to savor . . .Optic Nerve is full of beautiful shocks. Like the critic John Berger, to whom she has been compared, Gainza writes about how we are never looking at just one thing: we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves . . . Gainza is a writer who feels immediately important. I felt like a door had been kicked open in my brain.”—Johanna Thomas-Corr,The Guardian

“As our narrator navigates her life, the reader builds a picture of her marriage, friendships, estrangements, entanglements, family grudges, and desires that feels at once spontaneous and curated . . . Gainza writes a lingual picture of a woman who walks the echoing halls of Western cultural history with the intimate familiarity of an initiate while maintaining a sense of astonishment at the wonders of the everyday world . . . Erudite and unusual, Gainza's voice evokes both John Berger andSilvina Ocampo even as she creates something wholly new.”—Kirkus Reviews

Optic Nerve is one of the best books I’ve read in years. How did María Gainza pull off something so risky when it never reads as anything less than delightful and engrossing? This is a book that loosens the restraints on literature and gives us a new way of seeing.” —Gabe Habash, author ofStephen Florida

“In between autofiction and the micro-stories of artists, between literary meet-ups and the intimate chronicle of a family, its past and its misfortunes, this book is completely original, gorgeous, on occasions delicate and other times brutal. And this woman-guide, who goes from Lampedusa to The Doors with crushing elegance, is unforgettable: she knows too much even though she declares herself scatter-brained and uncapable for modern life, even though she only feels alive in front of a secret painting, hiding somewhere in a South American museum.” —Mariana Enríquez, author ofThings We Lost in the Fire

“Exceptional.” —Enrique Vila-Matas, author ofDublinesque

“It is utterly unique how Gainza interweaves art into her book.” —Cees Nooteboom, author ofThe Following Story

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