Letters to A Young Novelist

by Mario Vargas Llosa

translated by Natasha Wimmer

Published by Picador

144 pages, 2003





A Humanistic Web

Reviewed by Pedro Blas Gonzalez


In Letters to a Young Poet Rainer Maria Rilke ruminates on the nature of writing with an aspiring writer named Franz Xaver Kappus. The letters were ten in total, beginning on February 17, 1903 and culminating with his letter of December 26, 1908. Mario Vargas Llosa's Letters to a Young Novelist is one of those eloquent, erudite and rare works of literary criticism that stirs clear of both ostentatious theory and ideology. While Rilke's ten letters were genuine articles of communication, each of Vargas Llosa's 12 letters serve as chapters respectively designed to tackle a particular literary problem. Vargas Llosa uses this style and/or genre merely as a literary device.

This notwithstanding, the effect that his masterful work conveys is one of sheer delight in the craft of writing. While Rilke assumes the responsibility of a big brother to his friend, the aspiring writer, Vargas Llosa's tone is much more technical in scope. Letters to a Young Novelist wastes no time in dwelling on questions of time and narrative, levels of reality and overall narrative structure and how these are ultimately understood and used by writers. The author begins the work with a discussion of the nature of literary vocation. He suggests that literary vocation must be worked at, even though he also concedes that writers are not made but rather born. He points out that talent or what some people call genius is not ready-made, but rather only begins to manifest itself after many arduous years of discipline and perseverance. He argues that, for this reason, those who approach literature like they would religion -- with total dedication -- develop the capacity to transcend themselves through their work.

Vargas Llosa calls the desire to write, "a basic questioning of reality." Convinced that people who are satisfied with reality do not desire to write, he then proceeds to decipher the inner world of the writer. Writers, he argues, are essentially architects who scrutinize the logos of the universe while simultaneously organizing and constructing reality with the power of the written word. He goes on to say that this process of discovery only reaffirms the conviction of most writers that writing is the only authentic mode of life for them.

Vargas Llosa's idea of a writer entails the notion of one who is a sort of metaphysical conjurer. He likens the vocation of writing to the catoblepas: the mythical animal that makes itself known to Saint Anthony in Flaubert's novel The Temptation of Saint Anthony. The catoblepas is a creature that feeds on itself -- one who is always consuming itself beginning with its lower extremities. The writer-catoblepas, Vargas Llosa tells us, is one who lives off its own experiences in one way or another. The experiences of all writers, whether consciously or subconsciously, become the material that the writer has to draw from in constructing the logical edifice that is a literary work. And as to the question of why only some experiences are used by writers, Vargas Llosa answers his own question by asserting that some of the events, faces and situations of daily life allow the writer to dissent from reality. Perhaps this is symbolic, but vital desire to replace reality with fiction is the reason why he is considered a writer of magical realism. Vocation, he adds, is what organizes aesthetic vision into a coherent unity. However, he never loses sight of the fact that it is literary technique that gives this subjective vision a communicative form.

On first encountering Letters to A Young Novelist's table of contents one gets the impression that the work is written as an elementary guide to non-literary initiates. In reality nothing as simple as that is the case. The book reads like a free flowing conversation between people of a similar aesthetic bent or preoccupation. Rather than developing extraneously conceived and fashionably limiting theories, he illustrates and supports his reasoning by citing a diverse list of traditional writers and their respective works. Vargas Llosa is as well read as he is prolific. Amongst his better known works one finds The Time of the Hero, Conversations in the Cathedral, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, In Praise of the Stepmother, and The Feast of the Goat. Vargas Llosa's literary ability and experience as a writer coupled with his erudition as a reader makes for a very eloquent work. A good example of this in Letters to A Young Novelist' comes when the author explores problems of time in writing fiction. He enquires into the possibility that both literary notions of time and narrative point of view jointly account for the believability or degree of persuasive power that a work of fiction conveys.

Even though the main concentration of Letters to A Young Novelist' is the modern novel, the author manages to trace a suitable lineage to some of the techniques and literary styles that have impacted the form in its current stage of development. Another striking aspect of the book is Vargas Llosa's reverence for reading classical works of literature and his humanistic respect for thought.

Another notable angle of this book is Vargas Llosa's respectful and sensitive showcasing or augmentation of the work of European, North American and Latin American writers. His knowledge of the latter is a particularly interesting aspect in that it serves as a short literary history of Latin American writers and the status of literature in the Spanish-speaking world. In this respect alone Letters to A Young Novelist' is essential reading for anyone interested in the development and contribution of Latin American writers to world literature. Vargas Llosa is very objective and even gracious in acknowledging the work of notable and established Spanish and Latin American writers such as: Barroja, Borges, Cervantes and Garcia Marquez. Yet, he is also instrumental in introducing other great writers, some whom are only now beginning to gain respect in translation. Of the latter, he offers insightful comments on the work of Bioy Casares, Alejo Carpentier, Julio Cortazar, Carlos Fuente, Jose Lezama Lima and Juan Carlos Onetti. Of all the writers that he could have included, perhaps the omission of a fellow Londoner, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, author of Three Trapped Tigers (1971), View of the Dawn in the Tropics (1976), and Infante's Inferno (1984) is the most notable oversight.

Letters to a Young Novelist works quite well on both, a literary and humanistic level. Vargas Llosa does not lose sight of his intended reader for the work: the novice writer. The author begins with a commentary on the nature of vocation, proceeds to introduce the beginning writer to the nature of effective shifts in literary voice and ends by citing Flaubert's Madame Bovary, Faulkner's The Wild Palms and Julio Cortazar's Hopscotch, examples of what he terms "communicating vessels." By communicating vessels Vargas Llosa means a manner of writing where the sum of a particular episode is other than that contained in its parts. But in addition, the book also addresses concerns that have to do with the nature and importance of a rich reading culture. Vargas Llosa's clear and serene style manages to stir clear of what are too often trendy but equally abstract and destructive ideological presuppositions. Instead he attempts to weave a humanistic web whose core is anchored by the love of reading as a form of culture. As such, Letters to a Young Novelist is a well-rounded introduction to the universal themes contained in great works of literature and the value of an objective humanistic approach to the craft of writing. | July 2003


Pedro Blas Gonzalez is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Barry University in Miami, Florida and is very interested in the philosophical concerns and implications of literature His philosophical passion lies with the thought of the ancient Greeks, especially that of Plato and the stoics. He and his wife Anne have been married for ten years and have two children: Marcus Julian age four and Isabella Sophia who is two.