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The New YorkerMy 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 -- just sit down and write." The final sentence of the Peruvian author Mario Vargas Letters to a Young Novelist, translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), may undercut the careful tutorial it concludes, but it's probably his soundest advice. As didactic as Rainer Maria Rilke's "Letters to a Young Poet" -- "Have you read ' Jealousy ' by Alain Robbe-Grillet?" "And, speaking of Joyce, wasn't 'Ulysses' a cataclysmic innovation?" -- Vargas Llosa's book takes the form of a one-sided correspondence with an imaginary fan. Defining the fiction writer as a rebel, a " 'dissident' from reality," Vargas Llosa lectures on persuasiveness and the "aura of indispensability" present in the language of a true writer.
That aura clings to nearly every phrase of Rilke's Letters on Cezanne (a new edition is forthcoming from North Point), which he wrote to his wife in 1907 while living in Paris and waiting for the proofs of "New Poems" to appear. Two rooms devoted to Cézanne at the Autumn Salon mesmerized him -- the still-lifes in particular, which he found "wonderfully occupied with themselves." The painter's "objectivity" resonated with Rilke's emerging interest in the Ding-Gedicht, or "thing poem." One canvas showed a red armchair whose "round bulging back curves and slopes forward and down to the armrests (which are sewn up like the sleeve stump of an armless man)." Cézanne's colors -- "chrome yellow" and "burning lacquer red -- could, he wrote, "heal one of indecision once and for all. The good conscience of these reds, these blues, their simple truthfulness, it educates you." (Dana Goodyear)
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