María Gainza - The narrator of Optic 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

Optic Nerve: A Novel by María Gainza
María Gainza, Optic Nerve,T Trans. by Thomas Bunstead,  Catapult, 2019.

The narrator of Optic 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 in Rousseau’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.

'I was reminded of John Berger's Ways of Seeing, enfolded in tender and exuberant personal narratives'  - Claire-Louise Bennett

"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

'This woman-guide, who goes from Lampedusa to The Doors with crushing elegance, is unforgettable' - Mariana Enriquez

A woman searches Buenos Aires for the paintings that are her inspiration and her refuge. Her life -- she is a young mother with a complicated family -- is sometimes overwhelming. But among the canvases, often little-known works in quiet rooms, she finds clarity and a sense of who she is . . .

'A dazzling combination of memoir, fiction and art book, like nothing you've ever read before' Elle

"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."Entertainment Weekly

... Gainza, in a gorgeous translation by Thomas Bunstead, mines María's elusiveness — and allusiveness; she's great with a well-placed quotation — to create a highly compelling life story told almost entirely through art ... María's descriptions of art are one of Optic Nerve's great pleasures. Without fail, they are lyric but unpretentious, imaginative and compelling ... [The descriptions of art] might seem a bit over-intellectualized, but thanks to Gainza's dry wit and realism, it's the reverse ... Gainza's own artistic tactic, it seems, is to keep her narrator's sense of discovery alive throughout the novel. 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 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. The book is composed of episodes in the life of María, who lives in Buenos Aires, often beginning with an anecdote about someone she knows before brilliantly finding an associative link to a work of art, then delving into the backstory of the artwork and the artist before coming full circle to how it all makes sense in Maria’s life. In one chapter, María’s observation of the sea prompts her to consider Gustave Courbet’s seascapes (“his water was fossil-like: a slab of malachite rent hard across the middle”), before connecting the thread to her enigmatic cousin. In another chapter, María’s fear of flying keeps her from attending a prestigious art convention and leads her to mull over Henri Rousseau’s ability to venture beyond his limitations to shape avant-garde art. Tsuguharu Foujita’s artistic decline is juxtaposed against María’s longtime friend Alexia’s unrealized artistic potential. There are many pleasures in Gainza’s novel: its clever and dynamic structure, its many aperçus (“happiness interests only those who experience it; nobody can be moved by the happiness of others”), 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

A woman chronicles her city, her family, and the culture that has defined her life in this debut novel by an Argentinian journalist and art critic.
The unnamed narrator of Gainza’s first foray into fiction, which is also the first of her books to be translated into English, is a flâneur of the metaphysical. A languorous woman approaching middle age, our narrator—one of the many self-proclaimed black sheep in an aristocratic Argentinian family on the decline—lives, works, and, eventually, refuses to leave Buenos Aires due to a pathological fear of flying she develops in her late 20s. Far from feeling trapped by this semicloistered life, however, she revels in the intimacy of her city, whose every mood she faithfully chronicles in service to the moment when the “clouds occasionally part and, out of nowhere, something emerges.” 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. The narrator allows us an intimacy through her stream-of-consciousness impressions which the author controls through her nonchronological ordering, shifting points of view, and short tales from the lives of famous artists interspersed among the chapters. The effect is like walking through an eclectically assembled gallery show organized around the central theme of domestic ephemera. The narrator’s childhood exploration of Buenos Aires while walking the family dog leads to Toulouse-Lautrec’s debauchery in the dance halls of Montemarte; her husband’s friendship with a prostitute in the cancer ward where he is receiving treatment opens the doors to the mystery of Rothko’s refusal to finish his commissioned murals for the Four Seasons in New York. With cultural touch points ranging from the Doors to Michel de Montaigne—and touching on Guy de Maupassant, Aubrey Beardsley, Marguerite Duras, and a host of others in between—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, where, when, "the grandiose…grows tiresome…a simple little hill does well enough.”
Erudite and unusual, Gainza’s voice evokes both John Berger and Silvina Ocampo even as she creates something wholly new. - Kirkus Reviews

... roving, impassioned ... If only Ms. Gainza’s personal recollections were as charismatic [as her descriptions]! Even in Thomas Bunstead’s nimble translation from the Spanish, these passages seem thin and unrealized, their significance far too private in nature to communicate much to the reader. Optic Nerve is being called a novel, if only because that label is affixed to just about anything these days (autobiography, history, TV shows, espresso drinks). But if you approach it expecting it to resolve into an organic whole you’ll be disappointed. It’s wiser to treat the chapters like stand-alone essays, each one enlivened by the delightful variety and idiosyncrasy of artistic obsession. - Sam Sacks

"Being good with quotations means avoiding having to think for oneself,” observes the narrator of Optic Nerve, a seductively clever debut novel about an art historian who sees her life through the paintings and artists who enthral her.
It is, in itself, an excellent quotation, and it’s delivered with a wink. Maria Gainza, a 43-year-old Argentinian art writer, is extremely good with other people’s quotations – Stendhal and Carson McCullers, AS Byatt and Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. Reflecting on Mark Rothko’s final work before his suicide, she recalls TS Eliot: “The more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind that creates.” But no one could accuse the author of avoiding thinking for herself. The narrative intrigue of Optic Nerve lies precisely in the way Gainza shares her mental processes. Part criticism, part autofiction, part meditation on the act of seeing, it 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 savour.
We first meet the narrator when she’s working as a tour guide, showing rich foreigners around the art galleries of Buenos Aires. She is a mother “hovering at the midpoint of life” whose dysfunctional family descends from a line of Argentinian aristocrats. She’s brittle (“I simply wasn’t cut out for life”), self-aware (she refers to herself as “a bourgeois art girl”), and when faced with a crisis, she runs straight for a museum or gallery.
Her identity only emerges in flashes and fragments. In between, we get miniature portraits of El Greco, Toulouse-Lautrec, Henri Rousseau and, most memorably, Gustave Courbet, the 19th-century French painter. In front of one of his seascapes, she reflects: “Every time I look at it something inside me becomes compressed, a sensation between my chest and my throat, like a small bite being taken out of me.”
A novel about the experience of perception could easily have ended up wishy-washy, but Gainza keeps the book rooted in human experience: fear of pain, of disillusionment, of parenthood, of flying in a plane and dying. She describes her painters and their work with maturity and a wry wit; her prose, adroitly translated by Thomas Bunstead, is muscular and refreshingly free of international art speak.
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. At one point, the narrator literally sees herself in a work of art, startled to come across Augusto Schiavoni’s painting of a girl in a hat that looks just like her as a child: “I know, I know, this is about as far from hard‑nosed criticism as you can get,” she says, “but isn’t all artwork – or all decent art – a mirror? Might a great painting not even reformulate the question what is it about to what am I about?”
Optic Nerve is full of beautiful shocks. And they are often devastating. After she visits her doctor to examine a tremor in her eye, the narrator takes a final look at the Rothko poster in the waiting room and is reminded that she will die: “It gives me a feeling of my singularity: a clear sense of the brutal solitude of this slab of sweating flesh that is me.”
Gainza is a writer who feels immediately important. I felt like a door had been kicked open in my brain, which is just the kind of bracing experience you need at the start of the year. Her next novel, Black Light, has already been published in Spanish. I hope they hurry up with the translation.
- Johanna Thomas-Corr

Aesthetic experience often greases the wheels of the auto-fiction novel. Premised on the slippage between author and fictive narrator, the enticing blurriness of auto-fiction is in part a consequence of its diaristic tendencies. Of the handful of good-to-great novels that would fit comfortably beneath this rubric—Teju Cole’s Open City, say, or Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station—the author-narrator’s encounters with art serve to widen the aperture through which we peer at an ostensibly whole person. Like glimpsing the shelves of a friend or lover, these digressions on books and paintings accommodate a peculiar intimacy. They serve to suspend our disbelief that, even in the midst of novelistic artifice, we remain adjacent to a kind of emotional reality. Successful auto-fiction, then, often makes use of art to conceal its own inner workings.
Optic Nerve, the English-language debut of Argentinian novelist and art critic María Gainza, is rife with these kinds of aesthetic encounters. Here, art is a trellis around which life knots and overlaps, severs, climbs upward. Like Faye, the novelist at the center of Rachel Cusk’s celebrated Outline trilogy, the narrator of Optic Nerve is appealingly reticent. We are supplied with the contour of a character and little else. Like the author, her name is María. She is a museum guide and art critic in Buenos Aires, a mother, and a sister. It is only when her experiences are refracted through the prism of art—Courbet’s seascapes, El Greco’s elongated figures, the unfinished murals of Rothko—that the silhouette gains density and detail. The allusive, fragmentary chapters braid episodes of María’s past and present with art history, criticism, and John Berger–like forays into the ontology of seeing. María’s personal entanglements, while brisk and engaging, are largely a misdirection. Optic Nerve is instead a kind of sophisticated ghost story, in which a brilliantly associative mind is haunted by the psychic residues of art.
The novel—elegantly translated by Thomas Bunstead—opens with María on her way to guide a group of foreign tourists through a private art collection. Small disasters ensue: She is drenched in a sudden downpour, and later loses credibility when faced with a painting she doesn’t recognize. (“Alfred de Dreux,” the preening hostess tells her.) While María makes a graceful save, she remains unmoved by the painting, seeing in it “the work of someone technically gifted, but nothing more.” When María is brought face-to-face with another Dreux five years later, this time a hunting scene in which a pack of dogs encircles a deer, she tells us she is overwhelmed by what A.S. Byatt called “the kick galvanic”—that first, electric encounter with the mysterious forces that govern artistic attraction—and must go outside to catch her breath. “It reminded me,” María writes, “that all of art rests in the gap between that which is aesthetically pleasing and that which truly captivates you.” After a brief biographical sketch of Dreux—his upbringing in Siena, his commissions from the exiled King Louis-Philippe, his death in Paris of a liver abscess—the chapter ends with an improbable and tragic anecdote about a friend of María’s, who was accidentally shot by hunters while out for a walk in the countryside. There is an almost audible click as the circle closes. Dreux’s painting and María’s friend’s death coalesce, connected as if by invisible wire. A representation of the hunt becomes horribly actualized in María’s memory. “You write one thing,” she admits, “in order to talk about something else.”
If María is revealed anywhere, it is in these asides, in which she navigates the ambiguous divide between her art and her life. The two are a sort of double act, each a complement to the other’s reality, co-conspirators of her selfhood. “Whenever I’m in survival mode…I find myself drawn irresistibly to museums,” she writes early on, and though she frequents the cultural loci of Buenos Aires, she retreats just as often to the private, phantom galleries of a life lived among paintings. The intensity of each encounter replenishes something devoured by mere living, a resource sometimes spiritual and sometimes erotic.
María—a very good critic—is a pleasure in this mode, furnishing offhand descriptions both shrewd and unexpected. Take this experience with one of Rothko’s smoldering blocks of color: “Standing before a Rothko, you might reach for something meaningful to say, only to end up talking nonsense. All you really want to say is ‘fuck me.’” Or Rousseau’s phosphorescent jungles: “The fascination with the exotic…was intrinsic in the spread of empire.” Or Toulouse-Lautrec’s absinthe-tinged women: “He befriended these…profane fin de siècle Madonnas, and his posters ensured their immortality.” María’s wry self-awareness softens what could otherwise be ponderous, and her obvious erudition is tempered by a charming spontaneity: “I know, I know, this is about as far from hard-nosed criticism as you can get,” she writes upon finding her doppelgänger in an Andrea Schiavoni painting, “but isn’t all artwork—or decent art—a mirror? Might a great painting not even reformulate the question what is it about to what am I about? Isn’t theory also in some sense always autobiography?”
Various personal crises orbit these aesthetic migrations. There are grudges and illnesses, fallings out, bouts of confused nostalgia. An episode with an estranged, ambitious friend is hemmed in by fragments of the Japanese-French artist Tsuguharu Foujita’s rise and fall in post-WWI Paris. A summer with a boyfriend at Mar de Plata suggests the rayless heave of Courbet’s The Stormy Sea (“Every time I look at it, something inside me becomes compressed, a sensation between my chest and my throat, like a small bite being taken out of me”). A painful reunion with a brother in recovery invites a disquisition on El Greco. Ekphrasis and memory are seamlessly interlaced. Touching one strand causes the entire web to tremble. This approach, while often obliquely gorgeous, is not without its missteps. There are incursions into the second person (“On a winter’s night when you were ten, there was a fire in the study at your home”) that squander the immediacy Gainza has gathered with the lyrical authority of María’s voice. The novel is also dappled with quotes from writers: Carson McCullers, Marguerite Duras, Guy de Maupassant. While these are often very good—like T.S. Eliot’s “The more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind that creates”—they are sometimes clustered with a hoarder’s avidity, as when Jules Renard, Jean Rhys, and Michel de Montaigne are quoted within a space of a few pages. Gainza, it seems, is not unaware of this reflex. “I have also realized that being good with quotations means avoiding having to think for oneself,” María says at one point, a little archly, one suspects. 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. Late in the book, María is asked to write an essay for the retrospective catalog of an artist she’s only just met. Unenthusiastic about the work, she nevertheless agrees, fascinated by his tales of religious fervor and gay ’80s nightlife. “Deep down I think I am a destroyer of images,” she says, an incredible admission for someone in such obvious thrall to art. But María destroys images only insofar as she refuses their interpretation, at least initially. Like any good critic, she is less interested in the static image than in that image’s nexus of potential connections. We lack a satisfying name for that first confrontation with meaningful art—the gleaming, white moments of wordless perception. This is María’s state of grace. Optic Nerve, a radiant debut, enlarges that moment and invests it with ecstasy. - Dustin Illingworth
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 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. - Amy Sackville

It’s no big surprise that in the thriving genre of autofiction, in which the “auto” means based on the writer’s own life, we’re most often shown the world through the perspective of a fiction writer. The narrator of Rachel Cusk’s Outline novels is, like Cusk, a novelist. The same is true in Jenny Offill’s “Dept. of Speculation.” Ben Lerner’s novels are told by men who, like Lerner, are poets and novelists.
A slight but crucial difference in María Gainza’s appealing and digressive “Optic Nerve” is that the narrator, named María, is, like Gainza, an Argentine art critic. This area of expertise means that she dilates on something other than herself. María’s store of information about painters and their lives can make reading the book feel, delightfully, like auditing a course.
In many notable works of autofiction, we don’t get to know the narrators very well. (This is ironic or predictable, depending on your views about the nature of self-knowledge.) We learn about them sideways, at best — in many respects, being locked inside some combination of these characters and their creators makes them far less comprehensible than characters in more traditional fiction. We’re closer to these narrators, but not more familiar with them. (This elides the large question of how reliable the mappings of autofiction are anyway: In a recent interview with Literary Hub, Gainza said her own life story provides “just a drop of color” to the novel.)
We learn about the narrator of “Optic Nerve” in brief mentions of vital details: She’s married, she got “rusty on my history of art” while pregnant, she has received a cancer diagnosis. A brother living in California has suddenly died. We know she is anxious and embraces ambivalence. (“To ever feel that you understand anything only means that your mind has turned rigid.”)
Early in the book, the narrator hints at her method. She recounts the accidental death of a friend, who was shot by a hunter, and admits that she’s unsure of why she’s bringing it up. “I suppose it’s always probably the way: You write one thing in order to talk about something else.”
The something else isn’t always crystal clear in the book, which nonetheless consistently charms with its tight swirl of art history, personal reminiscence and aesthetic theories. In a series of chapters that read like discrete essays, the narrator ruminates on the desire (and the stymied desire) to travel; the expectations established within families; the lures of melancholy and nostalgia. She juxtaposes her fear of flying with Henri Rousseau’s paintings of hot-air balloons, Zeppelins and airplanes. She braids her thoughts about Mark Rothko into an account of her nervous visit to the doctor.
Bemoaning a museum tour guide whom she overhears boring a group of schoolchildren, she writes: “Carelessly administered, the history of art can be lethal as strychnine.”
This is not a problem in Gainza’s treatment of the subject. Try not to go scrambling for a full biography of Toulouse-Lautrec after reading her brief but potent treatment of his life. (On the artist’s father: “He would ride into the village in summer with his falcon on his shoulder, feeding it strips of raw meat and dispensing little sips of holy water from a bottle — so as not to deprive the bird of the benefits of a spiritual life.”)
Parts of “Optic Nerve” read as straight-up art criticism, strongly voiced. El Greco’s “unwavering dogmatism exasperates us, but so does his sensuality. We have difficulty accepting their coexistence in a single image; the mutual exclusivity of flesh and spirit has been drummed into us by now.” “Perhaps there is something spiritual in the experience of looking at a Rothko, but it’s the kind of spiritual that resists description: like seeing a glacier, or crossing a desert.” This is the first of Gainza’s books to be translated into English, and these moments make one hope that her criticism will be next to arrive. - John Williams

In 2015, a study put together by the consulting firm TNS Gallup[1] found that eighty-eight percent of people in Argentina thought of themselves as being middle class. While only ten percent of those polled self-identified as lower class, it is remarkable that absolutely none of the respondents thought of themselves as part of the upper class. Regardless of the implications—or lack thereof—and limits of this kind of flashy statistic, this particular result might be telling of the complicated and uncomfortable relationship between Argentinian society and the concept of privilege, a conflict which writers have not escaped.
On the back cover of the first original edition of María Gainza’s Optic Nerve, curator and translator Ernesto Montequin wrote that the heroine of this book is “a woman who dares to say her name and that of her tribe: Argentina’s upper class.” “Dare” is a well-chosen verb: not many writers in the Argentinian tradition have been as explicit and prodigal as Gainza is in her English language debut when it comes to acknowledging their own privileged upbringing.
In the first chapter of Gainza’s elusive mix of memoir, novel, and art history essay, we encounter the protagonist-narrator—a very nonfictional version of Gainza herself—about to give a tour of a private art collection to a couple of American tourists. Torrential rain has left the protagonist completely unfit to meet not only her clients but also the elegant collector, who did not even understand why she had to go in the first place when the collector could have shown the paintings to the tourists herself; when the two women come face to face, they embark on a subtle competition to demonstrate whose knowledge of the art is greater, ending in the protagonist’s silent defeat. The scene is funny, especially the image of the protagonist leading the tour in a pair of white slippers the collector snidely gave her, but it also condenses the complex dynamics between Gainza’s protagonist and the social milieu in which she grew up, a theme that is developed throughout the rest of the book. In one sense, she is out of her element; in another, she is still there, trying to use that privilege—her education, her connections, her flawless English, which is a class signifier in Latin America—to, paradoxically, again, make a living. She wants to free herself from her social milieu, but that escape will always be incomplete.
These conflicts are also noticeable in Gainza’s writing: with a fine-tuned ear, you can hear a bit of sociolect in her beautiful, delicate, and personal literary style. And the world she has chosen for herself, the visual arts world, is—and has been for a long time—absolutely entangled with the life of the ruling class. Argentina is far from an exception in this matter: many public museums are located in what were originally the houses of powerful families. Gainza acknowledges this truth, and she makes use of it: two times in the book she goes back to the history of the Errázuriz Palace, which is now the National Museum of Decorative Arts. In a way, it seems as if she thinks of the characters who used to inhabit these mighty houses—dignified ambassadors, eccentric aristocrats, renowned sopranos turned wealthy wives—as museum pieces themselves, in both of the senses imbued in this expression: things of the past, but also works of art, worthy of display.  
It ought to be impossible to think of the way the conflict between the writer and her class origins works in Argentinian literature without thinking of Sara Gallardo, but because Gallardo languished in the shadows for decades—a situation that has slowly been changing in recent years—many avid readers might miss the comparison.
Gallardo was born in 1931 to a family very much like Gainza’s: she was the great-great-granddaughter of Bartolomé Mitre, one of Argentina’s first presidents and among its most important politicians. She worked as a journalist for most of her life and became well known for her fresh tone and elegant impertinence. She was very much conscious of the bubble in which she had grown up; you can read many allusions to that in her journalistic work or in interviews she gave. However, some of the most fascinating instances of her challenging the social expectations for a woman of her kind can be found in her fiction. Her first novel, Enero, published when she was only twenty-three, follows a sixteen-year-old girl called Nefer who works at a tambo (dairy farm) and gets pregnant after being raped. Rural fictions were a popular—if already tired—item in 1940s Argentina, but Gallardo turns this motif on its head by shifting the perspective from the wealthy landowners to the workers—and to a poor, ugly, and unremarkable girl.[2]
Like Gainza’s protagonist in Optic Nerve, Nefer is an observer as much as or more than she is an actor; we know her for what she sees, and through her eyes the author can show this otherwise familiar world in a different light. Nefer, otherwise, is nothing like the protagonist we get to know in Optic Nerve, and probably nothing like the real Gallardo either. Her character is not especially charming: she is fearful and shy, and she has not an ounce of the confidence that a childhood of luxury often provides. Nevertheless, there is a painfully beautiful scene in Enero where Nefer goes to meet an old woman who could help her get an abortion—the treatment of this topic is incredibly prescient for 1958, considering abortion is still illegal in Argentina today—and tries to ride at a gallop so fast and hard that it could do the job itself. In this moment, the reader can feel fire in her guts; the kind that comes from need, not from comfort.
One of the most central pivotal chapters in Optic Nerve is called “The Enchantment of Ruins.” It stands out for its emotional stakes but also because it is here where one of the novel’s bigger themes is addressed at length: through the character of the protagonist’s mother, Gainza finds a chance to delve into Argentina’s aristocracy, its many miseries and identity conflicts. It opens like this: “You spent the first half of your life rich, the second poor.” The whole chapter is written in the second person, a resource Gainza will employ again later in her narrative but which we encounter here for the first time. While on a literal level the protagonist is speaking to herself and about herself—her “poverty” refers to the path she took as a grown-up, seeking distance from her family’s position: in a way, she might be speaking to a past version of herself, the rich girl she no longer is—this second-person form of address could also be read as speaking to her mother and to her whole social class.
Gallardo said in an interview[3] that hers was the last generation of the upper class to have seen an Argentina where families like hers ruled the country alone; that “dream,” Gallardo said, ended before the dreamers noticed, when Gallardo was still a teenager. Gainza, born more than forty years after Gallardo, came to know Argentina’s aristocracy in a different time and spirit: a time of nostalgia, a yearning for a past half-real and half-imagined where their wealth was even greater and power was not shared. “The Enchantment of Ruins” speaks of this too: Gainza writes about a bizarre trend that became popular among European nobility on the verge of the Industrial Revolution, which consisted of the building of “fake ruins.” While Sara Gallardo seemed to think this golden past she barely knew had actually had its day (even if it wasn’t “golden” for everybody, or even for most), Gainza casts doubt on the entire metaphor.
Another image in this chapter captures something very specific about Argentina’s traditional families and their pathos during recent decades: the protagonist tells the story of a fire and how her mother ran away to an old palace that had been her grandmother’s home but which has housed the US Embassy since 1929. On one level, Gainza’s mother is running toward her childhood and this lost paradise; on another, she’s fleeing Argentina, leaving this doomed and ever-decaying country for the First World, where people like her actually belong. In the depiction of this mother, who gives history books as presents to her doorman (to make sure he learns “the right version” of Argentina’s history) and asks every week whether her granddaughter’s passport is in order, Gainza shows the paradox of a class that prides itself on having built this country yet cannot wait to leave it behind.
There is a voyeuristic quality to the look Gainza casts on the world into which she was born; I say voyeuristic because I don’t think she is trying for an exposé. Her gaze is political, but there is no moral indignation in her tone; there is, instead, a genuine curiosity, and a will to turn those memories she cannot erase into an aesthetic. In that, Gainza is very close to another Argentinian writer who, through a defamiliarized look, turned her evocation of a privileged childhood into a book as sweet as it is disturbing: Norah Lange, better known for many years as poet Oliverio Girondo’s wife and Borges’s protegée.In Cuadernos de Infancia (“Childhood Notebooks,” yet to be translated into English), Lange uses her childhood evocations to create a fragmented narrative world that feels strange and almost surreal. Unlike most autobiographies written before her by men from a similar background[4] (Cuadernos was published in 1937), Lange’s book excludes any mention of an illustrious lineage; there are barely any historical references, no famous surnames or institutions. In Cuadernos, Lange is not trying to position herself, as a writer, as the heir to a tradition, or to establish her place in Argentina’s history. It would be too much of a stretch to say that, in this omission, Lange is renouncing her class and inheritance; however, it is true that she is turning her eye away from what the people in her social milieu—and especially the men—thought of as important and worthy of telling, focusing instead on the apparently inconsequential domestic world to unearth there something dark, something unfamiliar. Instead of famous schools and intellectual initiations, Lange writes of the night one of her sisters, on the cusp of puberty, put her baby brother’s mouth to her breast to calm his crying; or the game another of her sisters used to play, which consisted of introducing a stick into a goat’s anus to make it defecate. This is not a childhood that’s preparing the writer to become the father of a nation, like Miguel Cané’s Juvenilia; Lange’s mission, as writer and critic Sylvia Molloy has pointed out, is eminently literary. Like Gainza, she is using what she has on hand to create imagery that is guided by class but that is at the same time absolutely personal.  
Not all writers are aware of what they are doing when they’re writing, but it’s likely that Lange and Gainza were. This voyeuristic trend that Lange explores through the unnamed narrator in Cuadernos becomes explicit in her later novel, People in the Room, translated by Charlotte Whittle: in it, a young woman spies three women in the house across the street from her family’s home and begins to imagine secret lives for them.
Gainza, too, seems to be conscious of the way she is making use of the social universe of her birth; this becomes clear in the character of Uncle Marion, an eccentric relative who makes a few appearances throughout the book. Uncle Marion lived his life between two worlds, never daring to step completely out of his privilege but also never ceasing to feel uncomfortable in it either. At one point, another relative tells Gainza, Marion befriended a group of unprivileged men from the town near his country house; no one knows how he managed to be included, but he used to keep them entertained with crazy anecdotes of his travels and rich acquaintances. “He mesmerized them with tales from that time; to them it was like having a Martian land and getting to find out about life on other planets,” writes Gainza. It is impossible to think that Gainza did not realize this: that she is a true heir of her uncle Marion and that here she is, amusing the plebes among us with her stories from Mars. - Tamara Tenenbaum

Optic Nerve, María Gainza’s English-language debut, offers a subtly intellectual, yet relievingly unpretentious exhibition of art’s most enduring qualities. Her narrator, also named María, serves as writer, curator and critic of a one-woman show, and spends her time guiding us through a plethora of paintings that represent significant points of change throughout her life.
Gainza begins with landscapes. Scene-setting. She depicts Argentina as a battlefield post-battle: still, silent, regrowing, eventually, though its topsoil is torn. Its people are still recovering from the 1976 coup d’état which overthrew President Isabel Perón, and installed the Argentine military junta. Destruction and turmoil, murder and torture remain very recent history, and men in uniform, stalwarts of masculinity, are very real phantoms in Argentine memory.
In Cándido López’s The Battle of Curupaytí, the army Gainza describes is, admittedly, considerably older than those which took part 1976 coup. López fought in the War of the Triple Alliance (1864-1870), and the battle he would come to paint resulted in a significant loss for the combined Argentine, Uruguayan and Brazilian forces. His army is long bereft of physicality: it is a mass of phantom soldiers, of men turned ghosts by the outdated masculinity which sent them to die in the first place.
What detail the narrator goes into about the men in her life is fed to the reader sparingly. Her husband, for instance, is given to us during the time of his first marriage, in which the father of his ex-wife is the focal point. Franio is neither one of López’s soldier-heroes nor one of the Junta’s more recent war criminals. He is a peripheral phantom, existent only within his own perpetual hangover; a relic of a past which, unlike the paintings, cannot be transplanted into the present with new relevance. Born into privilege, Franio didn’t work. He didn’t fight. He lived off the inheritance he received from his father, drank too much, mistreated women and berated his son for failings that were the only things he could actually claim as his own. What he has wasn’t earned through work. It was given to him, and if it wasn’t given, he, like the leaders of the coup, would take it.
His children suffer in the same way as the narrator: they are compelled to view the past, tolerate its pervasiveness, understand its reasoning. Trying to accept the legacy of tyranny and ensure it is not repeated is as necessary as understanding familial machinations, and both keep the young chained to them.
Delivered from that past, tired, unfinished and “the colour of unpolished granite,” this sculpture of a renewed Argentina is hewn and chipped, until the narrative shifts from the political landscape to the natural landscape. The fields, rivers, coastlines and mountains that played host to some of the Junta’s atrocities become the focal point, with Gainza’s narrator as soldier in an “army of one”, who would only realise she had “forgotten her bayonet” when the enemy was “right on top of [her]”.
It is through this oneness that the narrative progresses, with Gainza mapping her life anecdotally. She uses specific paintings as grid point references and the lives of their painters as comparative stories to highlight her own personal growth, through the catastrophic emotional inclines of adolescence to the sad, slow declines of old age. These anecdotes employ motif to link the works around which they are based: landscapes and ocean waves trigger memories of growing up in post-dictatorship Argentina, and the paintings the author refers to in each chapter link them until a more detailed portrait of the artist can be framed.
Whilst recounting the life of Gustave Courbet, the narrator recalls a road trip she took as a teenager to Mar del Plata, a place where the ocean and Argentine coastline brings to her mind Courbet’s Stormy Sea. We watch her boyfriend surf, while she reimagines the painting as the world in which she lives: “the sky and sea [melding] into one… packed with bulging pinkish clouds.”
The exclusivity which famous male artists enjoy in this book is used by Gainza to compare the role of men as destroyers with that of men as creators. She subverts the dichotomy of war and art with the classic trope that art results from war. Meanwhile, the less famous artists are categorised with those who neither create nor destroy, and exist in the margins of political and art history as inconsequential. Women, similarly, remain peripheral, decorative, curated by husbands who see them as disposable. The narrator lives through these painters, these men, and despite recalling only women writers’ words when describing the sea (Plath, Tsvetaeva), it is the male artists’ passage across those waters that sustains her period of “luminosity” and allows it to remain a “bright nodule in [her] mind for days” after.
The peripheral painters, the non-aggressors and non-creators, the women, are left lingering. Struggling through disease and old age, their bodies, like lesser-known artists, fail. They become parched, bleached and faded. They tear where they have been folded and their colour drains as the edges of their frames become worn. Of the deep, dark, grumbling sky in El Greco’s View of Toledo, Gainza says it is “the kind beneath which only terrible or solemn events may occur.” A disappearance, perhaps. Or, far worse, a decline.
As the day goes on and the young narrator gets more stoned, the sun begins to set, “lighting the funereal clouds blood-purple.” Gianza highlights the lonely joy of the ocean, the homesickness it carries and the overwhelming sense of possibility one gets when looking towards the horizon. Simultaneous is the feeling that something significant is coming to an end.
It is with that feeling that I finished this book. It took me longer to finish Optic Nerve than it would usually a novella of this length. I found myself constantly pausing and reaching for my phone or computer, to search for visual references to the works described and, at times, staring at them for what, though mere minutes, felt like hours. Such is Gainza’s ability to make her readers go in search of the response to art she so easily seems to find. And yet there is no need for any knowledge of these painters, some contemporary, most long dead, or of their works, which is relieving for the reader (such as myself) less inclined to visiting galleries than they are bookshops.
As a well-established art critic, Gainza offers sparing description of the works her fictionalised self encounters, preferring critical analysis of the self than of the art that self identifies with. This does, however, make Gainza’s voice feel a little restrained, as though allowing us to touch only the surface of her experiences. She wants to avoid telling us what we should think about art, advising us to “keep [our] eyes unfocused” when first entering a gallery, because all art is “a mirror” and the viewer must be ready to receive their reflection at random, from any piece that successfully pierces the blur. She found hers quite by chance, in Augusto Schiavoni’s Girl Seated, which held an uncanny, unsettling and ghostlike resemblance to herself as a child.
Her first foray into fiction (or autofiction), it is clear throughout Optic Nerve that Gainza knows the limitations of language and the problems faced when writing about something that can stimulate so visceral, so often undescribable, 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. Nevertheless, when faced with works of art, written or visual, one might often feel put on the spot, with words no richer in descriptive power than “Fuck me” to distinguish the work in which you see yourself from the one that never made it past your corneas. - Harry Gallon

ny good critic knows how useful the deft deployment of a personal anecdote can be. It humanizes the writer, situates the issue at hand in the real world, and allows for a passage of vivid, scenic writing that can provide a counterweight to the analytical prose. The problem comes when you have a moment from your past that is almost, but not quite, relevant—if only a few of the details were different, one thinks, it would be perfect—and you have to leave it out. Optic Nerve, the debut novel by Argentinian art critic María Gainza, could have grown out of this specific problem, given that it presents a compelling solution to it. Rather than confining herself to the completely factual, Gainza uses the techniques of fiction to amplify her ruminations on painting in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The narrator of Optic Nerve and Gainza have a lot in common. They have the same first name, María, and they both live in Buenos Aires and are involved in the art world. These and other biographical connections have led some to tag the book as autofiction, which is fair, I guess, but it’s important to note that Gainza’s ambivalence toward the conventions of character and plot is even more pronounced than that of writers like Ben Lerner and Rachel Cusk—as boundary-pushing as they might be. Optic Nerve is divided into chapters in which Gainza threads the story of one or two artists with scenes and reflections from the protagonist’s life. Besides María, only a few characters appear in multiple chapters, and there isn’t a major story arc that ties the sections together. Similarly, Gainza rarely refers to art-historical moments or observations from earlier chapters. Given that its chapters are so varied and self-contained, Optic Nerve might be better categorized as a collection of short stories or fictional essays than as a novel.
The driving force behind Optic 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. For example, the chapter “Lightning at Sea” begins with María watching her friends surf, then moves into a discussion of Gustave Courbet’s maritime paintings; after a brief aside about the movie Point Break, the section concludes with a stirringly beautiful passage about María’s cousin, an obsessive swimmer who succumbs to mental illness. While on the surface the chapter maps out a fairly straightforward visual narrative focusing on the ocean, at its core it is about the ways that nature can inspire us to mania. Gainza is at her best when using fictional moments to illuminate art. In other highlight chapters in this vein, meditations on disability and the experience of outsiders speak to the paintings of Toulouse-Lautrec, and a story about Argentina’s lingering class divisions provides a new angle on the hunting scenes of Alfred Dreux.
Gainza is less adept in chapters weighted more heavily toward the purely fictional. Aside from María herself, the characters she creates too often fail to cohere. The chapter “Separate Ways” pairs a string of incidents involving María and her childhood best friend, Alexia, with a discussion of the Japanese painter Tsuguharu Foujita. Alexia moves across the world—her vagabondism ties her to Foujita—and the two friends grow apart. María struggles with losing her friend, but this loss doesn’t fully resonate with the reader because Alexia never becomes more than an amalgamation of exotic anecdotes. If one comes to Optic Nerve looking for the typical hallmarks of good fiction—complex, surprising characters and moments of dramatic tension—then that expectation will largely be disappointed. Rather, Gainza’s gift emerges in how she uses the techniques of the novelist to advance her analysis of visual art.
Late in Optic Nerve, María asks, “isn’t all artwork—all decent art—a mirror?” Most readers will understand this question as merely rhetorical, as Gainza has spent the bulk of the book proving how art can be a springboard to understanding the self, and vice versa. In a challenge to the critic’s questionable claims to objectivity, Optic Nerve reminds us that there is no purely objective viewer, or reader, and that our own personal histories are always bound up in our experience of art. Another implication of her hybrid form is the notion that sometimes the most satisfying way to respond to art is by creating more art. This shouldn’t be taken as a knock on criticism so much as an invitation for critics to rise to the level of their subjects. Optic Nerve shows that you can novelize about painting in the same that way one can dance about architecture, despite the oft-quoted crack, and produce something worthwhile. And perhaps Optic Nerve is best appreciated not as a criticism-inflected novel but as a fiction-inflected work of criticism. Calling Optic Nerve a work of criticism rather than a novel would probably garner Gainza less attention—and it could be the case that Gainza’s own mislabeling of her book led her to include its clumsiest parts, namely, the purely fictional ones—but to my mind it is a better encapsulation of her tremendously exciting achievement.- Wilson McBee

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