Tag Archives: mario vargas llosa

A Celebration of Literature

20 Sep

PBS is currently running a series that seeks to identify Americans’ most beloved novels. I haven’t watched it, but as the son of a Duluth librarian who is coordinating several panels on the series with local literature professors, I’ve been lured into attending a couple of events. This is the sort of thing I would probably attend anyway: by my count I’ve read 35 of the 100 short-listed novels, and have also seen film or TV adaptations of another 13, and read other works by nine authors who make the list (each could make the list only once). These events, which feature good discussion with (disappointingly) small groups, pose the vital questions that surround any such effort: what does it mean to develop a literary canon, what and who gets left out of a canon, and whether these things should be popularity contests or if some cadre experts can decree what constitutes good fiction and what does not. (While there were some limitations, the PBS series is largely a popularity contest, with works like Fifty Shades of Grey and Twilight making the short list alongside War and Peace and Great Expectations.) Whatever the masses end up choosing, it’s a good launching point for discussion, and a chance to spill my own thoughts.

I have little trouble naming favorite works or authors of non-fiction, but find it a much greater struggle to do so with fiction. Still, the PBS series compels me to offer up a few. One Hundred Years of Solitude sits near the top of my list for its layers of allegorical power, and Mario Vargas Llosa’s The War of the End of the World still wows for its ability to recreate a world and the full range of people within it. I reread The Great Gatsby in the past two years, and it resonated far more than I remember it doing in high school, perhaps in part because I’ve lived a slight flavor of the Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby journey, drifting from Minnesota to East Coast money and trying to find my way between those two worlds. As a literary work, though, it is near-perfect: so tightly wound, so well-constructed, and yet still so easy to access eighty years later. If anything can claim the ‘Great American Novel’ title, Gatsby is probably it. If forced to choose one book, though, I still might lurch back to the novel that began all novels, Don Quixote. It does help when one takes an entire class on a book in one’s undergraduate days from an awesome professor to get the full historical context behind a book of brilliant social commentary.

There are other works I would not put on the same pedestal as those few, but have changed how I live my life in one way or another. Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom was a marvelous blend of people in places I have lived, all trying to make some statement on contemporary American life, and inspired my own fictional attempts. Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country came to me as I contemplated a life of foreign service of some sort, while the dry iconoclasm of Graham Greene fit the mood of a more jaded, older kid. Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse gave me a metaphor that still informs many of my pursuits, and at a later stage, the criminally undervalued Wallace Stegner came along with Crossing to Safety to shower some wisdom on someone wrestling with both career ambitions and a love of place. I read them all at the right time.

Before we go any further, I’ll confirm my credentials as a literary snob: my list of great novels will all fall somewhere within the realm of realism, or at least magical realism. Even though I thoroughly enjoyed both as a kid, I have some reservations at the appearance of things like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings alongside Dostoevsky and Adichie. My literary tastes have progressed since then. I’ve done little dabbling in science fiction or fantasy as an adult, perhaps because I’m the sort of person who, upon discovering the burdens and frustrations of life, goes running for the most depressing and heavy stuff to try to find out how other insightful people have wrestled with such questions instead of looking for escapes. Some books in those genres do go in this direction: for example, Frank Herbert’s Dune downplays the tech side of science fiction and offers a rich commentary on society (and may yet inspire me to launch a Butlerian jihad), and the study of mythology and imagination behind Tolkien’s world-building has had an overwhelming influence on literature. They build complex plots, and it’s easy to fall into their worlds.

As someone who writes, however, I often find that my fondness for good writing overpowers my identification with the story. While I want to read novels that are both good stories and well-written (duh), if forced to choose, I’ll take good writing about topics that don’t fascinate me over an entertaining story. I’m not a lover of Hemingway, but he has glimmers of some of the most pristine prose I’ve ever read when he takes readers along on a fishing expedition in the Spanish countryside in The Sun Also Rises. A Prayer for Owen Meany is a fun book, but John Irving is capable of making paint drying sound amusing, and that turns a good story into a great novel. The prose of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead perfectly pairs with the heartland Protestant austerity of Reverend John Ames as he writes his letters to his son, and other writers, from Wendell Berry to Flannery O’Connor to William Faulkner, blur language with a sense of place in our minds. Perhaps this love of well-wrought prose is at the root of my dismissal of science fiction and fantasy as great literature: so often, even when they do manage to be insightful about human nature, those novels fixate on plot over structure and artistry, or devolve into sequels and expanded universes instead of standing on their own very real power. Their worlds fall in on themselves, instead of cycling back out to the one we live in.

I enjoy fiction that inhabits worlds similar to my own, and my world is a very large, rich place. While my defense of a concept of good writing makes me broad-brush defender of some sort of literary canon, I certainly believe in an expansive version of said canon that captures the written tradition of any number of societies. The Great American Read list is fairly thin on books translated from other languages; it is confined to a couple of Russian and French giants, Don Quixote, and One Hundred Years of Solitude. This is a mild source of frustration for someone whose literature consumption, especially in his college days, was driven by Latin American Boom authors, and expanded from there. It started with García Márquez in high school but soon wandered over toward the delightful absurdity of Julio Cortázar, the stunning range of Vargas Llosa, the posthumously beloved Roberto Bolaño, and a number of other lesser-known masters of Spanish prose. I didn’t confine my voracious reading to writers in one language, either: my reading list has often been populated by the likes of Arundhati Roy, Orhan Pamuk, Hiroki Murakami, and Edwidge Danticat. In an era of vogue scorn for the dead white men who traditionally dominated many lists of great literature, my reaction has often just been a shrug: I’ve never had any trouble incorporating a lot of people who are not like me at all into my own expansive idea of a canon. I can learn from all of them.

Despite all of this love for different worlds, the novels that affect me most tend to be coming-of-age stories. I have a deep fondness for angst-ridden teenage boys, and this has not waned even as I move further away from that phase of my own life. Thankfully, one can get a lot of mileage out of Holden Caulfield’s search for authenticity in The Catcher in the Rye, the competitive fire that makes and breaks Finny and Gene in A Separate Peace, and the question of destiny that motivates Owen and John’s friendship in A Prayer for Owen Meany. Even Harry Potter becomes a good bildungsroman when one can look beyond its magical trappings, even if it has diseased an entire generation with an overuse of adverbs.

Perhaps my favorite novel of the past ten years is The Art of Fielding, which falls into the same genre. While it bears many of the telltale signs of a debut novel in Chad Harbach’s attempts to show off his range, that flaw almost made me love it even more. It had so much in common with some of my own stumbling attempts to write fiction, and is exactly the sort of debut novel I would have been satisfied to produce. As long as they can attain some measure of distance in its perspective, youthful writings about youth resonate the best. I have little memory of reading The Outsiders in seventh grade, but suspect it would hold up well upon a second reading. (Fun aside: one of my hockey colleagues turned S.E. Hinton into a diehard St. Cloud Apollo hockey fan when he asked her for permission to play off the book while doing a story on the program’s fight for survival a few years back.) Alas, teenage boys are not a large literature market these days, which is problematic for my own stillborn writing career. If I do ever get around to publishing something, though, it will likely fall somewhere in this genre.

Speaking of which, I had a spurt of fictional inspiration this week, so I’m going to finish this blog post and stay up even later to head back to the nearly-complete story I’ve been spitting out on this blog for the past year. Long live the novel as an art form, and may all of my readers continue to read fiction for fun, even if it is trashy smut not worth the paper it’s printed on. (Actually, that sounds like it might be kinda fun. Pass along your recommendations.)

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Mario Vargas Llosa in Winter

22 Jan

Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue:

“It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman Empire declined into the Dark Ages. None the less certain parallels there are. A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead—often not recognising fully what they were doing—was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We  are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.”

These words came to mind as I wrapped up Mario Vargas Llosa’s latest essays, Notes on the Death of Culture, in which he exercises his prerogative as a grumpy old man and complains about what has gone wrong in the world. His lament here is on the decline of high culture and its replacement by a sorry substitute of an anti-culture of the masses. He is unashamed to defend the old elites and use terms like ‘civilization’ and ‘barbarism’ to draw distinctions between the good and the bad. His diagnosis has nuance, but it boils down to this: the democratization of culture has left us with incoherence, and no means of elevating truly great work above the rest of the noise. We live in a society of spectacle, in which the biggest, flashiest sights eclipse all work of any quality. In spite of our great advances in technology and political progress in many parts of the globe, the cacophony may drown out the narratives we need to sustain our societies and thereby jeopardize the entire project.

Vargas Llosa is a classical liberal figure, one that was never in vogue in his native Peru—alas, he lost the 1990 presidential election to eventual autocrat Alberto Fujimori—and his type has become increasingly endangered elsewhere, too. He’s unique among Latin American literary giants of the late twentieth century in his firm embrace of open markets and rejection of leftist revolution. He is also one of those intellectuals with tremendous respect for the religious and the societal role of faith who nonetheless does not identify with any place, perhaps revealing the weakness of his stance in the process: if faith is just some guarantor of social order and does not place any demands upon its adherents, why should anyone else buy in? He knows he takes a lonely stance, but also knows that people like him have long served as the curators of culture, and worries about what may come next.

This worldview leads the Peruvian Nobel Laureate to embrace some fairly standard positions that prioritize a secular political order and existing institutions, including critiques of Muslim headscarves and WikiLeaks. Regardless of his positions, this is hardly the most gripping part of the book; authors philosophizing are a dime a dozen, and Vargas Llosa is witty but never revolutionary. His work is stronger when he delves deeper into the trappings of faith and in a mediation on the death of eroticism (cue Rollo May), which are somewhat more transgressive themes. Here, he mounts a defense of ritual and the private sphere in an attempt to keep some sense of mystery and wonder alive in the world.

Vargas Llosa is at his best when he talks about the arts, and the value of the canon in which some of his finest works (Conversation in the Cathedral, The War of the End of the World, The Feast of the Goat) surely belong. The excerpted section that concludes Notes on the Death of Culutre made bolder leaps than his 2010 Nobel Prize acceptance address that pondered some similar themes, but it does better drive home the thrust of his argument: that literature is particularly suited to inspire reflection, rebellion, and the pursuit of ideals, and does so in a way that newer technology cannot. Here we see the depth of his mind, and how he has taken many great works and used them in ways that again prove their greatness: by serving as windows into the soul, an inspiration toward human action in the service of a greater cause. This, he tells us, is how a curmudgeonly “dinosaur in difficult times” can still impart some wisdom.

Our intrepid author is otherwise short on advice for how to sustain culture; he even admits that the future does not concern him much. (This must be much easier when one is 79 than it is when one is 26.) This, perhaps, is what brought me back to MacIntyre today: the need to build communities (and I use that term loosely) that can preserve the best of this great cultural inheritance, even as we make our way in a modern world that often has no regard for it. We do this not to repeat the past or stay stuck in it, but to make sure we don’t lose touch with the more insightful things people have said in the past, and to ensure we stop and reflect on the broader narratives in which we situate our lives. I suppose I ought to get to work.

Finding the Cyclical Life in Arendt and Vargas Llosa

15 Jul

This blog is, admittedly, rather eclectic, and I am proud of that. There are posts about high school hockey and posts about city council meetings and posts about obscure intellectual debates, and I am well-aware that a number of readers come just for one of those topics while ignoring the rest. The posts on hockey and local politics have a certain order to them, while the more theoretical ones, while united by some vague themes, are fairly disjointed.

With that in mind, I’m going impose some order and tease out some parallels between my post on Hannah Arendt’s theory on evil and another recent one highlighting Mario Vargas Llosa’s Nobel Prize speech on the importance of literature. They might not seem to have much in common in subject matter or underlying theory, but they share a robust vision of human life that is not strictly individualist or collective, but one that cycles between the two and emphasizes the importance of each.

At a cursory glance, both of these outlooks can appear rather individualistic. Arendt is famous for her attacks on totalitarian governments and the mindsets they instilled in their citizens, argues for a distinct private sphere of life (albeit not a realm she celebrates much), and had no problem with Adolph Eichmann hanging for failing to exercise his own moral agency. Vargas Llosa, who once ran for president of Peru as the candidate of a right-leaning party, is a staunch defender of individual liberty.

But neither one is that simple. As I explained in the last post, Arendt was no rampant individualist. Instead, she subscribed to a different definition of freedom rooted in Aristotle that saw living in community as the very essence of being human. In fact, she rejected the label “philosopher” because she believed it referred to people who studied man (in the singular) instead of people and how they interacted, and preferred to be called a “political theorist.” She had no great love for collectivism, but she was well-aware that human flourishing does not involve autonomous humans operating in vacuums, but is forever tied up in daily interaction with other people—that is, politics. Her thinking, while not always easy to penetrate, has a clear logic.

Vargas Llosa, on the other hand, is very much a modern man, and posits the individual at the center of his philosophical outlook. In a 1992 interview in Sergio Marras’s América Latina (Marca Registrada), he celebrated the death of collectivism that he believed came along with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and hoped “the death of all social utopias [will] lead us to search for utopias in activities where it’s not harmful, but actually very positive: for example, in art, in literature, and in individual life.” (Emphasis and translation mine.) Vargas Llosa’s profession also lends itself to an appreciation of individualism: as an author, his great creations emerge ostensibly from his own mind, and nowhere else. “A novelist is someone whose inner existence is as compelling as the details of his or her life,” writes Jane Smiley in her book Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel.

Still, even Vargas Llosa is well-aware that every person’s individuality emerges in part as a response to the collective. Storytelling is not just a means of entertainment or self-improvement, but a necessary foundation for the move from the “tautological” tribal life of prehistoric homo sapiens and is the power that “makes the human being really human: the capacity to move out of oneself and into another, into others, modeled with the clay of our dreams.” Like Arendt, Vargas Llosa sees that human flourishing emerges from the political realm, and the ability to dialogue with others and imagine a different life.

From my own experience, I can endorse Vargas Llosa’s words wholeheartedly.  I don’t know that I’d completely accept a label of “communitarian” or “localist” or “republican” (small-R republican, not the political party) but I do often emphasize themes that are associated with these words, and that comes directly from my first attempt at novel-writing. While I was an undergraduate in college, I started writing a novel late at night while my roommate was trying to sleep, and slowly put together a novel. It was about as individualistic an act as can be; it was a creative attempt to create a sort of narrative around my life, and I never shared any of it with anyone. (In retrospect, I’m glad I didn’t.) While it was an alright story and offered varying degrees of subtlety, the book was essentially a justification for my political views and my lifelong project of relentless academic success and achievement. But as I wrote, the book collapsed in on itself: I came to see the humanity in the ideas and people and places I’d meant to attack, and I came to love the setting that my protagonist sought to escape. Literature is, ultimately, to blame for my decision to head home after college; without it, I never would have come to embrace my own roots. I’d always been socially conscious, but at the same time, there was a manner in which my well-intentioned desire to climb the ladder and go on to save starving children in Africa came at the expense of more immediate relationships and realms in which my political activity could have an immediate, tangible impact. I don’t mean to denigrate people who commit their lives to social climbing or saving people elsewhere, but I did realize that I, at least, wasn’t going to find happiness there.

Instead, I find that it comes in cycles, with my time split between introspective writing (a la Vargas Llosa) and outward engagement in the community around me, as Arendt prescribes. While I certainly haven’t abandoned my old sense of ambition, I have recalibrated it to an entirely different sphere of life; one that situates it within a community, forever in search of dialogue. I have a lot of work to do.

Mario Vargas Llosa on Literature

7 Jul

From the 2010 Nobel Prize acceptance address delivered by the Peruvian novelist and erstwhile presidential candidate:

Literature is a false representation of life that nevertheless helps us to understand life better, to orient ourselves in the labyrinth where we are born, pass by, and die. It compensates for the reverses and frustrations real life inflicts on us, and because of it we can decipher, at least partially, the hieroglyphic that existence tends to be for the great majority of human beings, principally those of us who generate more doubts than certainties and confess our perplexity before subjects like transcendence, individual and collective destiny, the soul, the sense or senselessness of history, the to and fro of rational knowledge.

I have always been fascinated to imagine the uncertain circumstance in which our ancestors – still barely different from animals, the language that allowed them to communicate with one another just recently born – in caves, around fires, on nights seething with the menace of lightning bolts, thunder claps, and growling beasts, began to invent and tell stories. That was the crucial moment in our destiny, because in those circles of primitive beings held by the voice and fantasy of the storyteller, civilization began, the long passage that gradually would humanize us and lead us to invent the autonomous individual, then disengage him from the tribe, devise science, the arts, law, freedom, and to scrutinize the innermost recesses of nature, the human body, space, and travel to the stars. Those tales, fables, myths, legends that resounded for the first time like new music before listeners intimidated by the mysteries and perils of a world where everything was unknown and dangerous, must have been a cool bath, a quiet pool for those spirits always on the alert, for whom existing meant barely eating, taking shelter from the elements, killing, and fornicating. From the time they began to dream collectively, to share their dreams, instigated by storytellers, they ceased to be tied to the treadmill of survival, a vortex of brutalizing tasks, and their life became dream, pleasure, fantasy, and a revolutionary plan: to break out of confinement and change and improve, a struggle to appease the desires and ambitions that stirred imagined lives in them, and the curiosity to clear away the mysteries that filled their surroundings.

This never-interrupted process was enriched when writing was born and stories, in addition to being heard, could be read, achieving the permanence literature confers on them. That is why this must be repeated incessantly until new generations are convinced of it: fiction is more than an entertainment, more than an intellectual exercise that sharpens one’s sensibility and awakens a critical spirit. It is an absolute necessity so that civilization continues to exist, renewing and preserving in us the best of what is human. So that we do not retreat into the savagery of isolation and life is not reduced to the pragmatism of specialists who see things profoundly but ignore what surrounds, precedes, and continues those things. So that we do not move from having the machines we invent serve us to being their servants and slaves. And because a world without literature would be a world without desires or ideals or irreverence, a world of automatons deprived of what makes the human being really human: the capacity to move out of oneself and into another, into others, modeled with the clay of our dreams.

From the cave to the skyscraper, from the club to weapons of mass destruction, from the tautological life of the tribe to the era of globalization, the fictions of literature have multiplied human experiences, preventing us from succumbing to lethargy, self-absorption, resignation. Nothing has sown so much disquiet, so disturbed our imagination and our desires as the life of lies we add, thanks to literature, to the one we have, so we can be protagonists in the great adventures, the great passions real life will never give us. The lies of literature become truths through us, the readers transformed, infected with longings and, through the fault of fiction, permanently questioning a mediocre reality. Sorcery, when literature offers us the hope of having what we do not have, being what we are not, acceding to that impossible existence where like pagan gods we feel mortal and eternal at the same time, that introduces into our spirits non-conformity and rebellion, which are behind all the heroic deeds that have contributed to the reduction of violence in human relationships. Reducing violence, not ending it. Because ours will always be, fortunately, an unfinished story. That is why we have to continue dreaming, reading, and writing, the most effective way we have found to alleviate our mortal condition, to defeat the corrosion of time, and to transform the impossible into possibility.