Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Letters to a Young Novelist

Happy New Year to all my friends! From some time, I have decided to blog less but blog well. The basic purpose of sharing interesting reading stuff is now being served by twitter (@zafaranjum) so I guess this move is justifiable. I will keep blogging; however, I will use this space more as a diary to share my own, more personal thoughts. Hope you understand and stay with me and share your thoughts with me as well.

The following is not a usual book review. I have tried to collect the main points from the book, so it is more of summary than a review. Enjoy!


In his delicious little book, Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa’s Letters to a Young Novelist (1997, Ariel/Planeta; translated from Spanish by Natasha Wimmer, 2002, Piacdor) a seasoned novelist (that is Mario himself) addresses an imaginary friend, a young novelist, who asks him for advice on becoming a writer.

In the first chapter, The Parable of the Tapeworm, Vargas remembers when he was fourteen or fifteen in Lima, aflame with the desire to become a writer but didn’t know what steps to take. At that time, he was dazzled by Faulkner, Hemingway, Malraux, Dos Passos, Camus and Sartre.

The young Mario wanted to write to these masters and seek their advice but he never had the courage. “I never dared,” he writes, “out of shyness or out of kind of defeatism—why write, if I know no one will deign to respond?—that so often thwarts the ambitions of young people in countries where literature means so little to most and survives on the margins of society as an almost underground activity.”

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? I like the sound of literature surviving on the margins of society. Sounds so very real.

Mario cautions the young writer right at the outset. He asks why does he want to write? If it’s for success and glory, then it’s a wrong choice. He writes: “There is no reason why you shouldn’t be successful, of course, but if you persevere in writing and publishing, you will soon discover that prizes, public acclaim, book sales, the social standing of a writer all have a sui generis appeal; they are extraordinarily arbitrary, sometimes stubbornly evading those who most deserve them while besieging and overwhelming those who merit them least. Which means that those who see success as their main goal will probably never realize their dreams; they are confusing literary ambition with a hunger for glory and for the financial gains that literature affords certain writers (very few of them).”

Mario says the defining characteristic of the literary vocation may be that those who possess it experience the exercise of their craft as its own best reward, much superior to anything they might gain from the fruits of their labour.

Mario goes on to makes two other important points in this opening chapter: One, those who become writers choose to become writers (this is as per Sartre’s philosophy); two, the game of literature is not innocuous. Fiction is a lie covering up a deep truth. It is the fruit of a deep dissatisfaction with real life, it is a source of discomfort and dissatisfaction. That’s why the Spanish Inquisition distrusted works of fiction and subjected them to strict censorship. Many governments in our contemporary world still do that

The literary vocation is not a hobby, a sport, a pleasant leisure-time activity, he warns. It’s an all encompassing, all excluding occupation, an urgent priority, a freely chosen servitude that turns its victims (its lucky victims) into slaves. He quotes Flaubert: “Writing is just another way of living.”

We often hear of genius novelists (Arundhati Roy?). Mario says that there are no novel writing prodigies: Talent or genius, at least not in novelists, does not spring to life full-fledged. Instead it becomes apparent at the end of many long years of discipline and perseverance. If you want to foster your literary genius, Mario advises you to read Flaubert’s correspondence, especially his letters to Louise Colet, and William S. Burroughs’ Junky.

On writing techniques

In the second chapter, Mario talks about the process of writing. He calls it a backward striptease. Also, he says that the novelist scavenges his own experience for raw material for stories—in a more abstract sense (Proust is the prime example).

We often talk about writers and their themes. Many writers have said this before and Mario says it here too: the novelist doesn’t choose his themes; he is chosen by them. Next what he says is also a well-known nugget of wisdom: a novelist has to write about what is there deep down in him and not on something that might sell (the bestseller lists are crowded with bad novelists). So, don’t shun your demons, young novelists.

The third chapter of this little book (136 pages) is on the Power of Persuasion. Mario reminds us that when a novel gives us the impression of self-sufficiency, of being freed from real life, of containing in itself everything it requires to exist, it has reached its maximum capacity for persuasion. Great works of fiction such as Moby Dick, Don Quixote and The Metamorphosis, succeed in creating this “illusion of autonomy”.

This autonomy in a novel is achieved through form and style which are matters of discussion in the following chapter. Mario says the success of a novel’s language depends on two qualities: its internal coherence (Molly Bloom’s monologue at the end of Ulysses) and its essentiality. Absence of essentiality, to Mario, is a style that makes a reader conscious of reading something alien and prevents us from experiencing the story along side its characters and sharing it with them. So a young novelist has to find his own coherent and essential style. To grow this kind of a rich style, they must read constantly. However, they should not try to copy the style of writers they admire by mechanical reproduction of the patterns and rhythms of their writing.

The next three chapters in the book focus on narrative techniques (points of view): the narrator and narrative space (spatial POV), time (temporal POV) and levels of reality (realistic/fantastic POV). Like different narrator-characters, time also works differently in fiction. Mario illustrates his temporal point of view through examples from Borges’ “The Secret Miracle”, Augusto Monterroso’s “The Dinosaur” (which he calls perhaps one of the world’s best shortest stories—“When he woke up, the dinosaur was still there.”), Sterne’s “Tristram Shandy”, Gunter Grass’ “Tin Drum”, Julio Cortazar’s “Hopscotch”, H G Wells’ “The Time Machine”, Adolfo Bioy Casares’ “The Celestial Plot” and Joyce’s “Ulysses”.

The chapter on levels of reality is one of the most interesting and insightful. In it, the novelist talks about real and fantastic worlds (examples come from Woolf, Joyce, Kafka, Proust, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Alejo Carpenter’s The Kingdom of this World). At the end of the chapter, Mario concludes: “This is the greatest triumph of technical skill in novel writing: to achieve invisibility, the ability to endow a story color, drama, subtlety, beauty and suggestive power so effectively that no reader even notices the story exists…he feels he is not reading but rather living a fiction…”

In the chapter 'Shifts and Qualitative Leaps', Mario discusses shifts in spatial (Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, and Joyce’s Ulysses) or temporal (D M Thomas’s The White Hotel) points of view in the narrative.

The writer explains that the term ‘qualitative leap’ has been borrowed from the Hegelian Dialectic. According to Hegel, quantitative accumulation triggers a leap in quality (like water turns into gas after reaching boiling point). In Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, the sudden change in the sex of the main character (from man to woman) causes the entire narrative to undergo a qualitative shift. But this is not true of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis as the story’s inciting incident occurs right at the beginning of the story, positioning the story in the realm of the fantastic. These shifts in a novel can strengthen or destroy its power of persuasion. At the end of this chapter, Mario makes a very interesting point quoting the great French-Belgian critic and essayist Roger Caillois. According to Caillois, true fantastic literature isn’t created deliberately; it isn’t the effort of a writer’s conscious effort. In Caillois’s opinion, true fantastic literature requires the spontaneous revelation of incredible, prodigious, fabulous, rationally inexplicable acts, unpremeditated and possibly even unnoticed by the author. In other words, Mario says, these fictions don’t tell fantastic stories; they themselves are fantastic.

In the chapter 'Chinese Boxes', Mario talks about the story within story technique (examples would be The Thousand and One Nights, Don Quixote, and Juan Carlos Onetti’s A Brief Life). What follows this is a very engaging chapter called 'The Hidden Fact', in which Mario discusses Hemingway’s technique of “leaving out of the central event of the story”. He calls it the “Hidden Fact” which the reader is supposed to uncover while reading the story. In his story “The Killers”, Hemingway does not tell the reader why the killers want to kill Swede Ole Anderson. In his The Sun Also Rises, the hidden information is the impotence of narrator Jake Barnes. The point that Mario wants to make is that a novel is just a part of a full story from which the novelist finds himself obliged to eliminate much information—that eliminated information plays a part in the story.

This beautiful book’s last chapter deals with a unique concept called Communications Vessels. Here, the novelist painstakingly explains what Communications Vessels are through the example of the episode of the agricultural fair in chapter 8 of the novel Madame Bovary. Other examples come from Faulkner’s The Wild Palms and Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch. Mario thus defines ‘communication vessels’: “Two or more episodes that occur at different times, in different places, or on different levels of reality but are linked by the narrator so that their proximity or mingling causes them to modify each other, lending each, among other qualities, a different meaning, tone or symbolic value than they might have possessed if they were narrated separately.”

Mario’s little book is a great, breezy read, written in a playful and epistolary manner, that teaches new writers techniques of novel writing. The book’s simplicity should not fool anyone—it is pregnant with rich practical wisdom from one of the masters in the field of novel-writing.

Wrapping up the book, as a kind of a P.S., Mario advises young novelists to read some important critical works—Studies and Essays on Gongora by Damaso Alonso, To The Finland Station by Edmund Wilson (which is Aravind Adiga’s one of favourite books), Port Royal by Sainte-Beuve, and The Road to Xanadu by John Livingston Lowes. And like the sting in the tail, his last advice to the young novelist to is forget what he has learnt in the book. Just sit down and write, he says. Can there be any better advice for the young, fledgling writer?


Manreet Sodhi Someshwar said...

Lovely piece Zafar! Great start to the new year. On that note, happy 2011!

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