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Optic Nerve
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About the Author

Maria 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 Pagina/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. 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, Agustin Fernandez Mallo, and Enrique Vila-Matas, and his own writing has appeared in publications such as Kill Author, The White Review, and The Times Literary Supplement. He is an editor at the translation journal In Other Words.

Reviews

Praise for Optic Nerve The New York Times Book Review, 1 of the 100 Notable Books of the Year
Publishers Weekly, One of the Top Ten Books of the Year
One of El Pais's Best Books of the 21st Century
One of The Morning News Tournament of the Books Short List Picks
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 . . . Maria'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 of Optic 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, Maria 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 apercus, 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, recherche 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 "A delightfully digressive reflection on perception, parenthood and the restorative power of looking at paintings." --Angel Gurria-Quintana, Financial Times, One of the Best Books of the Year "Optic Nerve is an elliptical, elegant debut that conjures Rachel Cusk and W. G. Sebald and even Jenny Offill, but is also a magic all of its own. It is mostly about an Argentinian woman named Maria looking at and thinking about art, and sometimes about her desires, or her family. I know you're skipping ahead, and honestly I can't really explain, but trust me when I say that it's breathtaking." --Emily Temple, Literary Hub, 1 of Our 50 Favorite Books of the Year "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, Asheville Citizen-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? Maria Gainza's Optic 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 Maria Gainza has done in her newly-translated book Optic 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 up Optic 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 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 . . . [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 "Part novel, part memoir, part art history, a neat description of Maria Gainza's English-language debut Optic Nerve is difficult to pull off. What you can be assured of is this will be the sort of book that readers will be recommending to each other for a very long time. Optic Nerve is a hallucinatory trip into the experience of being spilled out in front of a great piece of art. It follows in the spirit of its epigraph from Lucretia Rojas: 'Just going to take a look at the painting, said Liliana Maresca after her shot of morphine.'" --Nathan Scott McNamara, Hyperallergic, 1 of Our Top 25 Books of the Year "A curiously fascinating piece of autofiction . . . Each anecdote deftly draws the unassuming connections from art to life." --Thrillist, One of the Best Books of the Year (So Far) "Optic Nerve, Maria 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 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 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 Maria'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 from art 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 and Silvina 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 Maria 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 of Stephen 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 Enriquez, author of Things We Lost in the Fire "Exceptional." --Enrique Vila-Matas, author of Dublinesque "It is utterly unique how Gainza interweaves art into her book." --Cees Nooteboom, author of The Following Story

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