Letters to a Young Novelist
By Prof. Wimal Dissanayake
Ceylon today Mosaic
Last week, I discussed Italo Calvino's book of criticism titled Six Memos for the Next Millennium. Today, I wish to focus on Mario Vargas LIosa's critical work, Letters to a Young Novelist. Vargas Llosa, like Calvino, is an internationally acclaimed novelist. In Six Nemos to the Next Millennium and Letters to a Young Novelist they are reflecting on the art of literature based on their writing experience, wide reading and deep reflection. In that sense, there is a similarity between the two works.
Mario Vargas Llosa (1936 -) is a Peruvian novelist, cultural critic, politician, journalist and university professor. His novels have been translated into about forty languages and in 2010 he won the Nobel Prize for Literature. In awarding this prize, the committee referred to ' his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual's resistance, revolt and defeat.' He is the author of such novels as The Time of the Hero – The Green House – Captain Pentoja and the Special Services –The Storyteller – Death in the Andes – The Feast of the Goat and Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. In his fiction, he blends realism and fantasy, politics and aesthetics, localism and globalism in interesting and complex ways. His early works of fiction were modernist in nature while the later works lean towards postmodernism.
Vargas Llosa's Letters to a Young Novelist reminds one of Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet. Here, he has sought to distil a lifetime of writing, reading and reflection into a useful manual for aspiring writers. The word manual is in a sense misleading; the author goes beyond offering advice regarding the mechanics of novel-writing. In this book, Vargas Llosa illumines the essence and significance of the literary endeavor. According to him, a writer is a person possessed by the unquenchable thirst for literary creation, and is both a rebel and a dreamer. In order for these dreams to be transformed unto moving works of literature the writer needs discipline as well as a mastery of a set of recognisable skills. It is Vargas Llosa,'s intention to tell us what they are.
Drawing on the works of such diverse and hugely talented writers as Borges, Flaubert, Celine, Kafka, Faulkner, Virginia wolf, Garcia Marquez, Robbe-Grillet he uncovers the inner dynamics of fiction. While focusing on such aspects as space, time, style, narration, structure, the author repeatedly and emphatically underlines the need to keep constantly in touch with the basic urge to create. This is an accessible work, elegantly written. Although the book is composed as a series of letters to an aspiring novelist, the general reader too can derive much guidance from this work.
Vargas Llosa opens his book in the following way. 'I was moved by your letter because in it I saw myself at fourteen or fifteen, in gay Lima under the dictatorship of General Odria, aflame with the desire tone day become a writer yet disheartened because I didn't know what steps to take, how to begin channeling my ambition, which I experienced as an urgent prompting, into the creation of real works, how to write stories that would dazzle my readers as I had been dazzled by the writers I was beginning to install in my personal pantheon; Faulkner, Hemingway, Malraux, Dos Pasos, Camus Sartre.'
He then goes on to confess that, 'may times it occurred to me to write to one of them as they were all still alive and ask for their advice on how to be a writer. I never dared, out of shyness or out of the kind of defeatism – why write, if I know that no one will deign to respond – that so often thwarts the ambitions of young people in counties where literature means little to most and survives on the margins of society as an almost underground activity.'
Vargas Llosa says that the predominant trait of the literary vocation is that those who possess it experience the exercise of their craft as its own best reward; it is nobler than anything the might win from the fruits of their effort. He says that this is the one thing that he is sue of in the midst of numerous uncertainties associated with the literary vocation. He makes the following inspiring claim. 'deep inside, a writer feels that writing is the best thing that ever happened to him, or could ever happen to him, because as far as he is concerned, writing is the best possible way of life, never mind the social, political, or financial rewards of what he might achieve through it.'
While explaining the nature of fiction, Vargas Llosa makes the point that that life as depicted in fiction is never life as lived by those who imagined, wrote or read or experienced it but rather the fictional equivalent, what they were compelled to fabricate because they were not able to live it in reality and as a consequence resigned themselves to living only in the subjective and oblique way it could be lived; in dreams and in fiction. He says that fiction is a lie covering up a deep truth. These observations are indeed important because they challenge the naïve, mimetic realism that is so prevalent in literary analysis. Discussing the topic of themes of fiction Vargas Llosa said that the novelist does not choose his theme; he is chosen by them. He opts to write on certain subjects because certain things have happened to him. When it comes to the selection of a theme, he believes that the writer's freedom is relative, perhaps non-existent. This is in contrast to selecting the literary form he enjoys total freedom and total responsibility. These are observations worth pondering.
Vargas Llosa offers us some important insights regarding the idea of the novelist's power of persuasion. He says that if before reading Kafka's The Metamorphosis we had been told that it was about the transformation of a submissive little office worker into a hideous cockroach, we probably would have yawned and expressed our impulse not to read it. However, after having read the story as Kafka expertly tells it, we come to believe totally in the predicament of Gregor Samsa. And we believe in the story of Samsa because Kafka was able to find a way to tell it – in words, silences, revelations, narrative flow, structuring of information. These add up to the power of persuasion that Vargas Llosa privileges.
The author has a number of interesting observations to make on the idea of style in a novel. He says that style is a cardinal element though not the only element of narrative form. It is evident that novels are composed of words; this means that the way a novelist selects and orders his language largely determines whether his narratives contain the requisite power of persuasion. He goes on to say that, 'a novels language cannot be dissociated from what it relates – words shape their subject. The only way to know if a novelist has succeeded or failed in his narrative undertaking is to decide whether, through his writing, the fiction lives, liberates itself from its creator and real life, and impress itself on the reader as an autonomous reality.' Vargas Llosa goes onto say that linguistic correctness should not be a factor in literary evaluation. He claims that there are writers like Cervantes, Stendhal, Dickens, Garcia Marquez who obey all the grammatical and stylistic imperatives. On the other hand, there are writers like Balzac, Joyce, Celine whose styles are full of improprieties from the academic point of view. He says that this deficiency does not prevent them from becoming excellent novelists.
This book consists of eleven chapters and a postscript. Each chapter, dealing with a specific theme related to the art of fiction, is in the form of a letter to an aspiring young novelist. I have highlighted some of the themes he has chosen to explore. In the rest of the chapters he deals with such topics as the narrator and narrative space, time, levels of reality in the post script he offers the following admonition. 'A successful fiction or poem will always contain an element or dimension that rational critical analysis isn't quite able to encompass. This is because criticism is a labour of reason and intelligence, and in literary creation other factors, sometimes critical to the work, intuition, sensitivity, divination and even chance –intervene and escape the very finest nets of literary criticism. This is why no one can teach anyone else to create; at most, we may be taught to read and write. The rest we must teach ourselves, stumbling, falling, and picking ourselves up over and over again.'
Mario Vargas Llosa's Letters to a Young Novelist is more than a manual of fiction-writing. It raises a number of significant philosophical issues related to the art of fiction and succeeds in persuading the reader to give greater thought to the important issues he has raised. It can prove to be of value not only to aspiring novelists but also to the general reader interested in creative literature.
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