Saturday, October 02, 2010

Letters to a Young Novelist - Mario Vargas Llosa

Umberto Eco talks about the craft of writing novels in this short book. Written in the form of letters to an un-named disciple, he explains the nuances of writing the novel. This is not an analytical book, nor it looks at the literary genre 'novel' in any different light. Its a short book and the scope is limited. I find this an interesting book and can give us some insight on the craft of writing fiction. He uses the examples from the masters of fiction from medieval writers, to the superstars of 20t century to explain the points he is writing in his letters.

The rest of my writing will be in the form of study notes for my quick reference.

  • 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.
  • All fictions are structures of fantasy and craft erected around certain acts, people, or circumstances that stand out in the writer's memory and stimulate his imagination, leading him to create a world so rich and various that sometimes it is impossible to recognize in it the autobiographical material that was its genesis and that is, in a way, the secret heart of all fiction, as well as its observe and antithesis.
  • 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 perform the same act in reverse. In constructing the novel, he goes through the motions of getting dressed, hiding the nudity in which he he began under heavy, multicolored articles of clothing conjured up out of his imagination. 
  • The novelist does not choose his theme, he chosen by the them. He writes on certain subject because certain things have happened to him. In choise of a theme, the writer's freedom is relative, perhaps even non-existent.
  • The separation of form and content is artificial; it never occurs in reality, since the story a novel tells is inseparable from the way it is sold. The way is what determines whether the tale is believable or not. 
  • 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. 
  • Good novels - great ones- never actually seems to tell us anything; rather, they make us live in it and share in it by virtue of their persuasive powers.
  • Style : Novels are made of words, which means that the way writer chooses and orders his language determines whether his stories possess or lack the power of persuasion.
  • "Reading 'One hundred years of solitude' or Love in the Time of Cholera' we are overwhelmed by the certainty that only in these words, with the grace and rhythm, would these stories be believable, convincing, fascinating, moving; that separated from these words they would not have been able to enchant us as they have: his stories are the words in which they are told.
  • For practical advise, I'll give you this: since you want to be a novelist and you cant be one without coherent and essential style, set out to find a style for yourself. Read constantly, because it is impossible to acquire a rich, full sense of language without reading plenty of good literature, and try as hard as you can, not to imitate they styles of the novelists you most admire and who first taught you to love literature....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.
  • Basic Structure of the novel consists of Narrator ,Space,Time ,Level of reality
  • The narrator ( the person who tells te story) must not be confused with the author( the person who write the story). This is a vey serious error, made even by many novelists who, having decided to tell the story in first person and deliberately taking their own biographies as their subject matter, believe they are the narrator of their fictions.
  • The narrator is always a made up character, a fictional being, just like all the other characters whose story he tells.
  • The first problem the author must resolve is who will tell the story. There are many possibilities, but in general terms they can be classified into three: A narrator character , an omniscient narrator outside and separate from the story he tells, or an ambiguous narrator whose position is unclear.
  •  If the narration is in the form of an I ( or we in some cases), the narrator is inside the narrative, interacting with the characters. If the narrator speaks from the third person singular, he is outside the narrative space. An omniscient narrator is modelled on an all-powerful God, since he sees everything.
  • Time : There are tow kinds of time, chronological and psychological. The time in the novel is based on the psychological time.
  • Time in all novel is, a formal creation, since in fiction the story unfolds in a way it never could in real life; at the same time, the passing of fictional time, or the relationship between the time of the narrator and what is being narrated, depends entirely on the story's being told from a particular temporal perspective.
  • Qualitative Leaps : A shift is an alteration in any of the points of view.This may be spatial shift, temporal shift or shift in the level of reality.
  • Given the existence of innumerable levels of reality, the possibility of shifts is correspondingly immense, and writers of all era have learned to exploit this very versatile resource.
  • A narrative undergoes a similar transformation when a radical shift in the point of view in terms of reality occurs, constituting a qualitative leap.
  • Chinese Boxes : Another technique of narrative is to construct the novel like those traditional puzzles with successively smaller and smaller identical parts nestled inside each other, sometimes dwindling to the infinitesimal. Eg: The thousand and one night ... 
  • The Hidden Fact : The hidden Fact, or narration by Omission is another technique employed by many authors, It is vital that the narrator's silence be meaningful,that it have definite influence on the explicit part of the story,that it make itself felt as an absence, and that it kindle the curiosity , expectations and fantasies of the reader. According to Llosa, Hemingway was one of the strongest exponent of this technique, most of his best stories are full of significant silences.
  • Communicating 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: these are communicating vessels.

This book, as I mentioned earlier has a treasure of references and explanations from the classics, most of them are very interesting. What impressed me most was the take on the famous one line story called "The Dinosaur" by Guatemalan writer Augusto Monterroso. "When he woke up, the dinosaur was still there." This book is fun to read and fairly simple.However, as a parting note Llosa gives the best advice possible to his friend ( and readers ) :   
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. 
If you are an aspiring write, you will find this book useful.

Mario Vargas Llosa ( translated from Spanish by Natasha Wimmer )


136 Pages

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