Letters to a Young Novelist

by Mario Vargas Llosa

Translated by Natasha Wimmer

Review by Bobby Matherne

In many ways, this book is a lucubration on writing in the sense that it is a meditation and deep study of the ways that writers write novels. Vargas asks this question in his first letter, "The Parable of the Tapeworm."

[page 7] What is the origin of this early inclination, the source of the literary vocation, for inventing beings and stories? The answer, I think, is rebellion. I'm convinced that those who immerse themselves in the lucubration of lives different from their own demonstrate indirectly their rejection and criticism of life as it is, or the real world, and manifest their desire to substitute for it the creation of their imagination and dreams.

What is the parable of the tapeworm? One can imagine that it comes from something that feeds off the life of a person like the parasitic tapeworm does. One must eat more than to just survive, one must eat enough to keep the tapeworm alive also. Writing is like a tapeworm in that sense as any writer must know at some level. Writing consumes one's time and resources � it takes one out of the commerce of everyday life into a world of lamp light and late night study, in other words, into the process of lucubration in its descriptive sense. Vargas shares a passage in Thomas Wolfe where he talks about writing as a worm inside of his being:

[page 12] Thomas Wolfe: "For sleep was dead forever, the merciful, dark and sweet oblivions of childhood sleep. The worm had entered at my heart, the worm lay coiled and feeding at my brain, my spirit, and my memory � I knew that finally I had been caught in my own fire, consumed by my own hungers, impaled on the hook of that furious and insensate desire than had absorbed my life for years. I knew, in short, that one bright cell in the brain or heart or memory would now blaze on forever � by night, by day, through every waking, sleeping moment of my life, the worm would feed and the light be lit, � that no anodyne of food or drink, or friendship, travel, sport or woman could ever quench it, and that never more until death put its total and conclusive darkness upon my life, could I escape.
       "I knew at last I had become a writer: I knew at last what happens to a man who makes the writer's life his own."

Vargas has another metaphor for writing which he used at a youth conference: a backwards striptease. In a strip tease, one begins fully clothed and slowly and sensuously remove single items of clothes until one is naked on the stage at which time one usually leaves the scene to applause. In a backwards striptease, one would appear naked and slowly add one's clothes until one is fully clothed and then leave the stage. I'm not sure that would qualify as a tease to do the stripping backwards, but let's see how Vargas describes the backwards striptease.

[page 16] Writing novels is the equivalent of what professional strippers do when they take off their clothes and exhibit their naked bodies on stage. The novelist performs the same acts in reverse. In constructing the novel, he goes through the motions of getting dressed, hiding the nudity in which he began under heavy, multicolored articles of clothing conjured up out of his imagination. The process is so complex and exacting that many times not even the author is able to identify in the finished product � that exuberant display of his ability to invent imaginary people and worlds � the images lurking in his memory, fixed there by life, which sparked his imagination, spurred him on, and induced him to produce his story.

In the tapeworm metaphor, the writing part of a person appears to be a separate being inside of the writer who consumes all the resources of the being in which it resides. When it comes to themes, the writer of novels is likened by Vargas to a catoblepas, a mystical beast who feeds off of itself(1).

[page 17] The catoblepas is an impossible creature that devours itself, beginning with its feet. Likewise, the novelist scavenges his own experience for raw material for stories � in a more abstract sense, of course. He does this not just in order to re-create characters, anecdotes, or landscapes from the stuff of certain memories but also to gather fuel from them for the willpower that must sustain him if he is to see the long, hard project through.

One of the humorous writers whose life Vargas examines is the man I would call "The Foot Man" because his novels were filled stories of how "men fall in love women not for the beauty of their faces, the slenderness of their waists, their good breeding, or spiritual charms but ultimately for the beauty of their feet or the elegance of their boots." One need only watch a shoe salesman at work in the women's shoe section of a large metropolitan department store to understand how the influence of the novels of Restif de la Bretonne in eighteenth century France still affects the women of today. Even if women buying shoes have never heard of his novels, they buy shoes as if men of today operated the way that Restif described in his novels � as if all men were driven by a foot fetish.

[page 21] In the world as Restif experienced it, it was natural and normal that the principal female attribute, the object of pleasure coveted by men � all men � should be that delicate extremity and, by extension, its coverings, stockings and shoes. Few writers make it possible to grasp so plainly the process by which fiction transforms the world through the subjective urges � desires, appetites, dreams, frustrations, grudges, et cetera � of novelists as this instructive Frenchman.

In my essay Art is the Process of Destruction, I discuss process and content, how process is what is happening at every moment while content is the traces of what gets left behind as those moments progress. As I type these very words, my process is slight movements of my hand and tapping of my fingers upon a well-worn PC keyboard in which the letter L is no longer visible and the letters K, E, N, M, and E are dimming away. Content is what I have typed upon this page, up until now. In the writing of a novel the reified process on the page is called form � it is the way in which the story is told. In good novels, the form matches the content, whereas in bad novels, form and content do not match up.

When they do match up, something magical happens to the readers � we find ourselves carried away into another world which we share with the protagonists. I experienced that recently in reading Audrey Niffenegger's novel, The Time Traveler's Wife. I identified with the Time Traveler and his temporal dislocations. When Henry was unexpectedly and repeatedly dumped into somewhere and somewhen, naked, I was there with him and together we tried to make sense of how one can get by under such conditions. On the other hand, others must have identified with Clare, Henry's wife, to whom Henry had been appearing at odd times since she was 6. She had fallen in love with him by her teens long before she was married to him.

When they do not match up, we can't explain why, but we do not like the novel. We may likely stop reading it at some point. For myself, when this happens, the novel never gets reviewed because I don't finish reading it.

When the form and content do not match up, one or the other takes over and it's like you're on a chariot with one big wheel and one small wheel. No matter how you try, you drive around in circles and that quickly becomes unpleasant. The best recourse is to stop the chariot and get off it as soon as possible. Vargas tells us "the story a novel tells is inseparable from the way it is told," and gives us examples from Melville and Cervantes.

[page 26] This way is what determines whether the tale is believable or not, moving or ridiculous, comic or dramatic. It is of course possible to say that Moby-Dick is the story of a sea captain obsessed with a white whale that he pursues across all the world's oceans and that Don Quixote tells of the adventures and misadventures of a half-mad knight who tries to reproduce on the plains of La Mancha the deeds of the heroes of chivalric literature. But would anyone who has read those novels recognize in such plot descriptions the infinitely rich and subtle universes of Melville and Cervantes? To explain the mechanisms that bring a tale to life, it is permissible to separate content from form only on the condition that it is made clear that such a division never occurs naturally, at least not in good novels. It does occur, on the other hand, in bad ones, and that is why they're bad, but in good novels what is told and the way it is told are inextricably bound up together. They are good because thanks to the effectiveness of their form they are endowed with an irresistible power of persuasion.

A novel must have autonomy, be independent of the real world of the novelist, and yet must persuade us to live in this world and share in its meaning in a personal way. The miracle of the good novel is that it achieves these contradictory goals with elan.

[page 27] To equip a novel with power of persuasion, it is necessary to tell your story in such a way that it makes the most of every personal experience implicit in its plot and characters; at the same time, it must transmit to the reader an illusion of autonomy from the real world he inhabits. The more independent and self-contained a novel seems to us, and the more everything happening in it gives us the impression of occurring as a result of the story's internal mechanisms and not as a result of the arbitrary imposition of an outside will, the greater the novel's power of persuasion. 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, successfully seducing its readers and making them believe what it tells them. Good novels - great ones - never actually seem to tell us anything; rather, they make us live it and share in it by virtue of their persuasive powers.

He also points to James Joyce's Ulysses as an example of what seems to be a stream of consciousness in motion while actually creating it. He says of Molly's monologue:

[page 33] It is a literary creation so powerfully convincing that it seems to us to mimic the meandering of Molly's consciousness when really it is creating it.

When the style, form, or process of a writer attracts you, it is a temptation to mimic their process with your own content. Vargas warns the young novelist in his letter against that approach.

[page 39] Imitate them in everything else; in their dedication, in their discipline, in their habits; if you feel it is right, make their convictions yours. But try to avoid the mechanical reproduction of the patterns and rhythms of their writing, since if you don't manage to develop a personal style that suits your subject matter, your stories will likely never achieve the power of persuasion that makes them come to life.

The mot juste was Flaubert's technique of style and it is one anyone can incorporate into one's writing � it means to find the right word to express something and not quit until you find the right word. Annie Dillard calls the process by which she does this playing with sentences (2). How did Flaubert know he had the right word? When it sounded right to him. And he meant that literally and enforced this process by reading, in fact, shouting the words he'd written. He called it "la gueulade."

[page 40] He'd go outside to read aloud everything he had written, out to an avenue of lime trees that still exists near what used to be his house at Croisset: the "allée des gueulades," the shouting allée. There he'd read as loudly as he could what he'd written, and his ear would tell him if he'd succeeded or if he'd have to keep trying out words and sentences until he reached the artistic perfection he pursued with such fanatic tenacity.

Vargas calls Flaubert the "first writer of the modern novel" because he adhered to the "neutrality and impassivity of the narrator." He says in effect, one must not break the frame of the story.

[page 51] Commentary, interpretation, and judgment represent intrusions of the narrator into the story and are signs of a presence (in space and reality) different from the presences that make up the reality of the novel; the intrusion of the narrator destroys the illusion of self-sufficiency, betrays the accidental, derivative nature of the story, and shows it to be dependent on something or someone external to itself.

Until recently in the twenty-first century, no cartoonist broke the frame of their cartoons. One April 1 recently, the cartoonists began to have characters from other comic strips visit their own strip. It was fun and a bit disconcerting until one realized it was an April Fool's Joke the cartoonists were playing on each other and their readers. Most recently I read an announcement of a Dagwood Sandwich shop being constructed in New Orleans and during the succeeding weeks, in the comic strip, Dagwood could be seen planning to leave Mr. Dithers firm where he worked and napped for 75 plus years to open a sandwich shop, even to the extent of designing sandwiches for the future shop. Also Pearls Before Swine had one of its characters become a baby-sitter for the small children from Baby Blues, drinking beer while doing so. Once a cartoon character in one strip literally broke open the bottom of the frame of the strip and fell through it. This works well in a comic medium because that is what comedians do all the time: find new ways to break the frame of the expectations of their audience. In a novel, breaking the frame had better be part of the process of the novel, as in the Time Traveler's Wife the frame of time is broken, or it is best avoided.

Vargas devotes an entire letter to the subject of time. He explains that time in the novel is a fiction like the rest of the story, shows how time is essential to the process of the novel, and provides us with the three ways (with various combinations possible within them) that time might be used by the novelist. Let us inspect them and see which one we would place the innovative novel the Time Traveler's Wife.

[page 63]
       a. The time the narrator inhabits and the time of what is being narrated may coincide and be one and the same. In this case, the narrator narrates in the present tense.
       b. The narrator may situate himself in the past to narrate events taking place in the present and the future. And, finally,
       c. The narrator may situate himself in the present or the future and narrate events that have taken place in the (near or middle) past.

In the Time Traveler novel, the Time Traveler, Henry, and his wife, Clare, share the duties of narrator, speak in the present tense, and alternate speaking with each other. That would place them in category a. above.

The example Vargas gives of category c. is a story called "The Dinosaur" by Guatemalan writer Augusto Monterroso which contains only one sentence:

[page 64] "When he woke up, the dinosaur was still there."

Vargas cites a couple of stories in which time moves backwards, namely, Carpentier's "Journey to the Seed", and one in which prenatal time is described, Sterne's Tristram Shandy. My favorite was Martin Amis's Time's Arrow in which a man lives his life backwards in time, growing younger each year until he enters the womb.

In this next passage in "Communicating Vessels" his final letter to the young novelist, Vargas describes a story by Julio Cortázar which follows what has become the model of several modern movies, Sixth Sense is one, and Stay is a most recent one. Read this passage and you will undoubtedly think of several other movies you've seen which follow this new trend in movies. Do movies follow rather than lead the trend in novels? Since movies must be written, I don't think it's possible to say. I do know that I read Edna Forbes' Exit to Reality shortly before the first Matrix movie came out which took the innovative theme of Forbes' novel to a new level where software and human life were no longer easily distinguishable.

[page 127, 128] But it is above all in some of his stories that Cortázar uses the communicating vessel scheme with true mastery. Allow me to remind you of the small marvel of technical craftsmanship that is "The Night Face Up." Remember it? The protagonist, who has been in a motorcycle accident on the streets of a big modern city � almost certainly Buenos Aires � undergoes an operation and, in what at first seems merely a nightmare, is transferred in a temporal shift from the hospital bed where he is convalescing to a precolonial Mexico in the throes of a guerra florida, when Aztec warriors hunted for human victims to sacrifice to their gods. From this point on, the story is built on a system of communicating vessels, alternating between the hospital ward where the protagonist is recovering and the remote precolonial night in which in the guise of a Moteca he first flees and then falls into the hands of his Aztec pursuers, who bring him to the pyramid where he is sacrificed with many other victims. The counterpoint is achieved by subtle temporal shifts that, in what we might call a subliminal way, cause the two realities � the present-day hospital and the precolonial jungle � to approach and some how contaminate each other. Until, at the final crux � which involves another shift, this time not just temporal but in level of reality � the two times merge and the character is in fact not the motorcyclist being operated on in a modern city but a primitive Moteca who, seconds before the priest rips his heart out to appease the bloodthirsty gods, has a visionary glimpse of a future of cities, motorcycles, and hospitals.

One can read all the books one can find on writing novels, and never learn anything until one sits down to write a novel. One must simply begin writing and find bring the idea into incarnation into a novel before one can say one has learned anything about writing a novel. With that in mind, Vargas's last words of the P. S. to the young novelist:

[page 132] My dear friend: what I am trying to say is that you should forget everything you've read in my letters about the structure of the novel, and just sit down and write.

~^~ Addendum ~^~

While flying Continental from Seattle to New Orleans, August 14, 2006, about halfway on the trip, I wrote this poem in the rear overleaf of the Mario Vargas Llosa's book, "Letters to a Young Novelist." A similar poem could be written about writing a novel, might it not?

             Poet Might

I place my pen upon a page
       without a thought to write
Will a poem from me emerge
       of simply words of naught?

If no theme will me engage
      how can I last the night?
Unless each word recall an urge
      and fill me with new thought.

Now I have a structure found
      upon which to build my poem
Will I find words with which to bend
      my meaning into form?

I forage for an image
      to bring my thoughts to light
And tintinnabulate my urge
      as a Poe � it might.

---------------------------- Footnotes -----------------------------------------

Footnote 1. Vargas references the catoblepas as appearing to Saint Anthony in Flaubert's The Temptation of Saint Anthony and later in Borges' Book of Imaginary Beings. Such a self-devouring beast is also known as an ouroboros, a serpent which eats its own tail.

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Footnote 2. From her book on writing The Writing Life. I have come to use that expression to the final proofing I do on my work when they are in "galley proof" which for me is when I first publish them to the web. The thought of the world reading my sentences gives me the fortitude and resolve to produce the best sentences I can from the raw material spewed out my original writing and copy-editing.

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© Bobby Matherne
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