Portrait of an Unknown Lady 
by María Gainza, translated by Thomas Bunstead.
Harvill Secker, 188 pp., £14.99, March 2022, 978 1 78730 324 9
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At​ the start of María Gainza’s first novel, Optic Nerve, the narrator, an art critic who is also called María, shows a couple round a grand house in Buenos Aires. She is wearing a soaking wet dress and a pair of fluffy slippers. She tells us with some self-deprecation that her job is taking rich foreigners to see private art collections. On this occasion, she had been sheltering from the rain waiting for her clients when a car ‘came past hugging the kerb and drenched me and my pristine yellow dress’. The collector whose house they are visiting looks at María with contempt and provides the slippers. ‘My clients’ loss of respect for me was complete.’

We don’t know exactly how to place María. She is well educated but not rich; appealing but awkward. In the second chapter, she becomes pregnant. Later we learn that she has given birth to a daughter, and we read about some friends, an uncle, an aristocratic mother and a husband who has chemotherapy in a hospital where a sex worker walks the corridors. Near the end of the book, María is also diagnosed with cancer, which comes as ‘a relief’ after two years of feeling that ‘something was wrong inside me.’ But this information is presented in fragments dispersed throughout the novel; there is little connective tissue between the events described; explanatory information is scant. Gainza isn’t interested in the usual propulsive features such as plot or character arc. As the title suggests, Optic Nerve is concerned with perspective and, in particular, about what the act of looking can reveal about the spectator. The form and rhythm of the novel are shaped by María’s fluctuating attention. Each chapter considers a painting, circling out from and around it through a series of associations, taking in stories from art history, scenarios and counterfactuals imagined by María, and passing thoughts about her own life.

In the first chapter, for example, María stands before Alfred de Dreux’s painting Deer Hunt, in which seven hounds surround a stag, its tongue lolling out of its mouth. She thinks it’s ‘fairly conventional’, but it strikes her nonetheless: ‘More than that: it unsettled me.’ She then moves from Géricault’s animal paintings to the 1881 treaty between Argentina and Chile to the story of a university friend whose sister married a Belgian millionaire. While walking through the mud along the perimeter of a hunting reserve, the friend was struck and killed by a stray bullet from the hunt. ‘You write one thing,’ María says, ‘in order to talk about something else.’

Gainza’s idea is that absorption is only one kind of attention: becoming distracted in the course of looking at something might be a sign of meaningful engagement. It’s when María’s mind wanders in front of a painting – or back to a painting – that we learn something interesting about her character. In Hubert Robert’s Archaeological View (1773) a cluster of ordinary people make themselves at home in a ruined temple. ‘Anywhere you look in the painting,’ she says, ‘at the withered tree, or at the starving mule, everything points to endings, or the end.’ Robert’s work seems to connect to the decline of the Argentinian nobility – the class into which Gainza and her narrator were born – over the last half-century. María recalls seeing the painting in the National Museum of Decorative Arts in Buenos Aires, formerly the Errázuriz Palace; her uncle Matías ‘Marion’ Errázuriz, she says, commissioned Josep María Sert to decorate the boudoir.

Standing in front of Archaeological View, María remembers a house fire when she was ten. She looked everywhere for her mother, only to realise she had gone to the American embassy, which had been her grandmother’s house. ‘She was five years old when the property was sold, and found it so traumatic that she was from then on incapable of letting anything go.’ Addressing herself in the second person, she says: ‘You spent the first half of your life rich, the second poor … Hence the Silver Spoon syndrome that has always marked you out: the indestructible sensation that the money will come from somewhere.’

The writer Mariana Enriquez has described Gainza as belonging to ‘the elite of the elite’, attributing the ‘ruined decadence’ of her work to her family’s loss of status. Gainza, who was born in 1975, worked as an art critic before publishing El nervio óptico in 2014 and La luz negra, now translated as Portrait of an Unknown Lady, in 2018. Her grandfather edited the conservative newspaper La Prensa, which her father inherited, although the family had to sell its extravagant headquarters to the state in 1988. (It’s now the Buenos Aires House of Culture.) This is a complicated inheritance. A study conducted in 2015 found that 88 per cent of Argentinians considered themselves middle or lower-middle class. None admitted to being upper class.

María’s constant recourse to the discussion of paintings is both a way of talking about her history (which is very close to Gainza’s: she and María were born on the same day) and a way of avoiding it. She is especially critical of her mother, who, in a version of Howards End, is knocked down by a mirror that falls from some bookshelves: it ‘came crashing down on top of her; she said afterwards that she had been trying to find a book to lend the porter. Which book? Los que mandan (The Ruling Class) by José Luis de Imaz; it was a lifelong obsession of hers to disseminate the correct history of our country.’

Sometimes her response to art is somatic: whenever she looks at Gustave Courbet’s Mer orageuse (1870), ‘something inside me becomes compressed. A sensation between my chest and my throat, like a small bite being taken out of me.’ Sert’s claustrophobic boudoir in the Museum of Decorative Arts suggests to her ‘what it must be like to be shut inside a cage’. Is this because Sert’s wife, Misia Godebska, was, as she puts it, ‘a prisoner to luxury’? Or because of the association with her ‘eccentric’ uncle Marion (really her mother’s uncle), who chafed against his family and class. She remembers Pepita, Marion’s sister, saying to her: ‘Do you know what happens if you draw a line in the ground around a hen? It’ll become agitated, start flapping its wings and so on, but it will never cross that line – even just a faint line in the dirt with your toe.’

María becomes a guide to the uncertain terrain between what she calls ‘neurotic torpor’ (which she associates with the nobility) and ‘beautiful shocks’ (which she associates with Marion). Displacement and disorientation abound. Eyes spin like compasses; the beams of a car’s headlights swing in the dark; a dizzy head turns like ‘a cheap umbrella in a storm’. Looking at her ambitious childhood friend Alexia, María realises that she can’t see her straight. It puts her in mind of a time when she had double vision:

As a corrective, I was made to peer through some optical apparatus at a pair of Sylvester the Cats up on the wall; they were separated by a white space, and I had to use my eye muscles to bring them together, pulling them both into the middle so that one lay on top of the other. Looking at [Alexia] across the restaurant table, during my annual visitation, was like seeing two obdurately discrete silhouettes: there was no way of bringing them together, no way of forcing one to lie atop the other.

She also finds it difficult to comprehend or perceive herself: ‘Any time I experience happiness it has to be slightly to one side of reality.’ She prefers to think about situations in which she wasn’t present, and retells other people’s anecdotes (which undermines her authority as a recorder of first responses). At one point, she recounts her husband’s estrangement from his first wife, Cecilia:

Charly [Cecilia’s brother] getting high on a daily basis didn’t help. My husband threw in the towel at the end of the year and went back to Buenos Aires. Cecilia went to Asunción. Charly stayed on … A year after they had separated, and nearly ten years after they first met, Cecilia rang my husband from Asunción. [Her father] Franio had died a month before, she said, and she was worried about her brother. He had been found wandering around naked on the mountainside a few days after the death and it was now ten days since she’d heard from him.

We can imagine María’s husband telling her the story, the tone is conversational and the temporal markers hold the various characters together, but the sections where speculation and citation are laid on particularly thick are less convincing. It’s too cute for María to tell us that, as her husband’s first wife’s father snored in his hammock, ‘the million-starred sky looked on blithely, quite indifferent to terrestrial concerns’. And how can she be so sure that Toulouse-Lautrec dreamed about his sorrel mare?

Optic Nerve has precursors in other autofictional novels which blend art and real life. But María has more self-assurance than the narrator of Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, who watches a man crying in front of Roger Van der Weyden’s Descent from the Cross and worries that the ‘profound experience of art’ eludes him. She is unapologetic about her lapses in attention, and dares to find meaning in them. Gainza’s book sometimes recalls The Rings of Saturn, which also reproduces paintings and states of ill-health in order to comment on perspective, but her stylistic ambitions are more modest than Sebald’s. She works on a smaller scale, in contained sentences and discreet set pieces.

Portrait of an Unknown Lady at first seems a more straightforward work of fiction. The narrator checks into a Buenos Aires hotel, giving her name to the concierge as María Lydis. We learn that she used to work in the art valuation department of Banco Ciudad and became infatuated with her ‘cold and severe’ boss, Enriqueta Macedo, the country’s ‘pre-eminent expert in art authentication’, whose laugh was ‘a sound from another world, and diabolically contagious’. After some time, Enriqueta revealed to the narrator that she had been passing off forgeries for a commission. ‘Money was not what drove her. Rather, she said, she wanted to raise the bar for art in general … Can a forgery not give as much pleasure as an original? … And anyway, she added, isn’t the real scandal the market itself?’

Enriqueta is now dead, and the narrator is carrying out grief-fuelled research towards a biography of her favourite forger and collaborator, a woman known only as Renée. Renée specialised in counterfeiting the work of the real-life painter Mariette Lydis, who came to Argentina to escape the Holocaust. A section of the book tells the story of Lydis’s life through an auction catalogue of her possessions – including ‘Portrait of an Unknown Lady, oil on canvas, c.1960’ – which are being sold off after her death. Another section traces the art counterfeiting scene in Buenos Aires through court transcripts. These different forms produce a broken, gappy narrative, as well as showing up the limits of auction houses and courts in dealing with art. (Two experts are told not to concern themselves with the question of whether a painting is any good.)

The narrator grows increasingly dissatisfied with her reconstruction of a louche demi-monde and, ultimately, with the entire project. There is an echo of Katherine Mansfield’s Miss Brill, the lonely woman mocked by a young couple in the park for her ratty stole. The novel is preoccupied with age and ageing, and at times seems to wallow in gossip about Argentina in the 1960s. Against this, the reprint of a real Lydis portrait in the book – of a woman called Juana holding a turkey – looks strangely modern, as though the subject’s full lips have been generated by AI, or a cosmetic surgeon, or a street artist who makes tourists’ likenesses on a flipboard in chalk.

In trying to write this biography, the narrator is inspired by the first biography of William Blake, by Alexander Gilchrist, which was completed by Gilchrist’s widow after his death: ‘She had to see if she could imitate his voice.’ The narrator is writing to keep up ‘a topic of conversation’ with Enriqueta. The book’s Spanish title, La luz negra, refers to the ‘black light’ used by forensic teams and art authenticators ‘looking for … the final additions to a work’. But unlike María in Optic Nerve, the narrator of this novel is not really interested in her material. She finds facts disappointing and abandons what might be promising leads – a search for Renée’s boyfriend, the rumour that she kept a crocodile called Abdul. ‘The gaps in a life,’ she claims, ‘are not negative spaces that the biographer ought to feel compelled to fill.’ By the time she is shown a photo of Renée, she has come to think her subject ‘didn’t actually exist’. She doesn’t really want information, facts or a better account of what constitutes authenticity but something simpler and more remote: someone from her past, a woman whose laugh makes her think of ‘vast amounts of coal rumbling down a chute’.

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