Mario Vargas Llosa condenses a lifetime of writing, reading, and thought into an essential manual for aspiring writers. Drawing on the stories and novels of writers from around the globe-Borges, Bierce, Céline, Cortázar, Faulkner, Kafka, Robbe-Grillet-he lays bare the inner workings of fiction, all the while urging young novelists not to lose touch with the elemental urge to create. Conversational, eloquent, and effortlessly erudite, this little book is destined to be read and re-read by young writers, old writers, would-be writers, and all those with a stake in the world of letters.
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The Parable of the Tapeworm
I was moved by your letter because in it I saw myself at fourteen or fifteen, in gray Lima under the dictatorship of General Odría, aflame with the desire to one day become a writer yet disheartened because I didn't know what steps to take, how to begin channeling my ambition, which I experienced as an urgent prompting, into the creation of real works; how to write stories that would dazzle my readers as I had been dazzled by the writers I was beginning to install in my personal pantheon: Faulkner, Hemingway, Makaux, Dos Passos, Camus, Sartre.
Many times it occurred to me to write to one of them (they were all still alive) and ask for their advice on how to be a writer. I never dared, out of shyness, or out of the kind of defeatismwhy write, if I know no one will deign to respond?that so often thwarts the ambitions of young people in countries where literature means little to most and survives on the margins of society as an almost underground activity.
You do not suffer from that kind of paralysis, since you've written to me. That's a fine beginning to the adventure you wish to set out on and from which you expectas I'm sure you do, though you don't tell me so in your lettermany marvelous things. I venture to suggest that you not expect quite so much and that you not count too much on success. There's no reason why you shouldn't be successful, of course, but if you persevere in writing and publishing, you'll 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 deserve 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). There is a difference.
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 labors. That is one thing I am sure of amid my many uncertainties regarding the literary vocation: deep inside, a writer feels that writing is the best thing that has ever happened to him, or could ever happen to him, because as far as he is concerned, writing is the best possible way of life, never mind the social, political, or financial rewards of what he might achieve through writing.
Vocation seems to me the inevitable starting point for our talk about what is exciting and troubling you: namely, how to become a writer. It's a mysterious business, of course, veiled in doubt and subjectivity. But that doesn't stop us from trying to explain it rationally, rejecting the religious fervor and pride of the self-important myths the romantics spun around it, according to which the writer was the chosen one of the gods, a being singled out by a transcendent superhuman entity to write divine words that, once breathed, would effect the sublimation of the human soul and allow the writer, thanks to his brush with Beauty (capitalized, of course), to achieve immortality.
Today nobody talks that way about literary or artistic vocation, but even though the definition offered in our times is less grandiose, less steeped in fatefulness, it is still fairly elusive: a predisposition of murky origin that causes certain men and women to dedicate their lives to an activity that one day they feel called, almost obliged, to pursue, because they sense that only in pursuing this vocationwriting stories, for examplewill they feel complete, at peace with themselves, able to give the best of themselves without the nagging fear that they are wasting their lives.
I don't believe that the destinies of human beings are programmed in the womb by fate or by a mischievous divinity that distributes aptitudes, ineptitudes, likes, and dislikes among brand-new souls. But neither do I believe, as once I did under the influence of the French existentialistsespecially Sartrethat vocation is a choice, a free expression of individual will that decides a person's future. Indeed, despite my conviction that literary vocation is not governed by fate or inscribed in the genes of future writers, and despite my belief that discipline and perseverance may sometimes produce genius, I've come to be convinced that it cannot be explained solely in terms of free choice. Free choice is essential, in my opinion, but only at a second stage, following an initial subjective inclination, innate or forged in childhood or earliest adolescence, that rational choice serves to strengthen but is unable to manufacture from scratch.
If I'm not mistaken in my supposition (though I very well may be), a man or a woman develops precociously, in childhood or early in his or her teenage years, a penchant for dreaming up people, situations, anecdotes, worlds different from the world in which he or she lives, and that penchant is the first sign of what may later be termed literary vocation. Naturally, there is an abyss that the vast majority of human beings never cross between the propensity to retreat from the real world and real life into the imagination and the actual practice of literature. Those who do cross, and who become creators of worlds with the written word, are writers, the minority who have reinforced their penchant or tendency with an exertion of the will Sartre called choice. At a given moment, they decided to be writers. That's what they chose to be. They arranged their lives to make the written word the focus of the drive that at first they contented themselves with harnessing for the elaboration, in the misty realms of the mind, of other lives and worlds. This is where you are now: at the difficult and thrilling moment when you must decide whether you will go beyond amusing yourself with the creation of fictional realities, whether you will set them down in writing. If that's what you decide to do, you will certainly have taken a very important step, though your future as a writer will still be far from assured. But the decision to commit yourself, to orient your life toward the achievement of your purposes, is already a waythe only possible wayof beginning to be a writer.
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, of the real world, and manifest their desire to substitute for it the creations of their imagination and dreams. Why would anyone who is deeply satisfied with reality, with real life as it is lived, dedicate himself to something as insubstantial and fanciful as the creation of fictional realities? Naturally, those who rebel against life as it is, using their ability to invent different lives and different people, may do so for any number of reasons, honorable or dishonorable, generous or selfish, complex or banal. The nature of this basic questioning of reality, which to my mind lies at the heart of every literary calling, doesn't matter at all. What matters is that the rejection be strong enough to fuel the enthusiasm for a task as quixotic as tilting at windmillsthe sleight-of-hand replacement of the concrete, objective world of life as it is lived with the subtle and ephemeral world of fiction.
Nevertheless, despite the evanescence of fiction, and the subjective, figurative, extrahistorical nature of its execution, it comes to have long-term effects on the real worldthat is to say, on the lives of flesh-and-blood people.
This questioning of real life, which is the secret raison d'être of literatureof the literary vocationensures that literature offers a unique vision of a given period. Life as described in fictionespecially in superior fictionis never just life as lived by those who imagined, wrote, read, or experienced it but rather the fictional equivalent, what they were obliged to fabricate because they weren't able to live it in fact and, as a result, resigned themselves to live it only in the indirect and subjective way it could be lived: in dreams and in fiction. Fiction is a lie covering up a deep truth: it is life as it wasn't, life as the men and women of a certain age wanted to live it and didn't and thus had to invent. It isn't the face of History but rather her reverse or flip side: what didn't happen and therefore had to be fabricated in the imagination and in words to fulfill the ambitions real life was unable to satisfy, to fill the voids women and men discovered around them and tried to populate with ghosts they conjured up themselves.
This rebellion is relative, of course. Many story writers aren't even conscious of it, and it's possible that if they were to become aware of the seditious roots of their calling, they might be surprised and frightened since in their public lives they certainly don't imagine themselves as plotting secretly to dynamite the world they inhabit. On the other hand, theirs is ultimately a fairly peaceful rebellion. What harm is there, after all, in pitting vaporous fictional lives against real life? Where is the danger in such a contest? At first glance, there is none. It's just a game, isn't it? And games aren't supposed to be dangerous, so long as they don't threaten to overflow their boundaries and mingle with real life. Of course, when a personDon Quixote or Madame Bovary, for exampledoes insist on confusing fiction with life and tries to make life resemble fiction, the consequences can be disastrous. Those who behave in such a way tend to suffer terrible disappointments.
So the game of literature is not innocuous. The fruit of a deep dissatisfaction with real life, fiction is itself a source of discomfort and dissatisfaction. Because those who, through reading, live a great storylike the two tales I've just referred to, by Cervantes and Flanbertreturn to real life with a heightened sensitivity to its limitations and imperfections, alerted by these magnificent fantasies to the fact that the real world, and life as it is lived, is infinitely more mediocre than life as invented by novelists. When readers are faced with the real world, the unease fomented by good literature may, in certain circumstances, even translate itself into an act of rebellion against authority, the establishment, or sanctioned beliefs.
That's why the Spanish Inquisition distrusted works of fiction and subjected them to strict censorship, going so far as to prohibit them in the American colonies for three hundred years. The pretext was that these wild tales might distract the Indians from the worship of God, the only serious concern of a theocratic society. Like the Inquisition, all governments and regimes aspiring to control the life of their citizens have shown a similar distrust of fiction and have submitted it to the kind of scrutiny and pruning called censorship. None of these authorities have been mistaken: innocent as it may seem, the writing of stories is a way of exercising freedom and of quarreling with thosereligious or secularwho wish to do away with freedom. That's why all dictatorshipsfascist, communist, or Islamic fundamentalist regimes, African or Latin American military tyrannieshave tried to control literature by forcing it into the straitjacket of censorship.
But these general reflections have caused us to stray a little from your particular case. Let's get back to specifics. Deep down, you've felt a certain predilection, and you've bolstered it with an exertion of will and decided to devote yourself to literature. Now what?
Your decision to claim your literary leanings as your destiny must lead you into servitude, into nothing less than slavery. To put it graphically, you've just done what some nineteenth-century ladies, concerned about their weight and determined to recover their slender silhouettes, seem to have done: you've swallowed a tapeworm. Have you ever come across anyone who sheltered that terrible parasite in his gut? I have, and I assure you those ladies were heroines, martyrs to beauty. In the early sixties, in Paris, a great friend of mine, José María, a young Spanish painter and filmmaker, was invaded by such a creature. Once the tapeworm establishes itself inside an organism, it merges with it, feeds off it, grows and is nourished at its expense, the worm is very difficult to expel from the body it thrives on and effectively colonizes. José María kept getting thinner, even though he was constantly forced to eat and drink (milk, especially) to satisfy the gnawing of the creature housed inside him, since if he did not, his suffering would become intolerable. But everything he ate and drank was for the tapeworm's benefit, not his. One day, when we were talking in a little Montparnasse bistro, he surprised me with the following confession: "We do so many things together. We go to theaters, exhibitions, bookstores, we spend hours and hours discussing politics, books, films, mutual friends. And you think I do these things for the same reason you do, because I enjoy them. But you're wrong. I do them all for it, for the tapeworm. That's how it seems to me: that my whole life is lived no longer for my sake but for the sake of what I carry inside me, of which I am now no more than a servant."
Ever since then, I've liked to compare the lot of the writer to that of my friend José María when he had the tapeworm inside him. The literary vocation is not a hobby, a sport, a pleasant leisure-time activity. It is an all-encompassing, all-excluding occupation, an urgent priority, a freely chosen servitude that turns its victims (its lucky victims) into slaves. Like José María's tapeworm, literature becomes a permanent preoccupation, something that takes up your entire existence, that overflows the hours you devote to writing and seeps into everything else you do, because the literary vocation feeds off the life of the writer just as the tapeworm feeds off the bodies it invades. As Flaubert said: "Writing is just another way of living." In other words, those who make this enchanting and engrossing vocation their own don't write to live but live to write.
This idea of comparing the writer's vocation to a tapeworm is not original. I've just come across it reading Thomas Wolfe, who described his vocation as the lodging of a worm in his very being:
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 memoryI 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 that 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 foreverby 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 on 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.
I think that only those who come to literature as they might to religion, prepared to dedicate their time, energy, and efforts to their vocation, have what it takes to really become writers and transcend themselves in their works. The mysterious thing we call talent, or genius, does not spring to life full-fledgedat least not in novelists, although it may sometimes in poets or musicians (the classic examples being Rimbaud and Mozart, of course). Instead it becomes apparent at the end of many long years of discipline and perseverance. There are no novel-writing prodigies. All the greatest, most revered novelists were first apprentice writers whose budding talent required early application and conviction. The example of those writers who, unlike Rimbaud, a brilliant poet even as an adolescent, were required to cultivate their talent gives heart to the beginner, don't you think?
If you are interested in the subjectthe fostering of literary geniusI recommend that you read the voluminous correspondence of Flaubert, and especially the letters he wrote to his lover, Louise Colet, between 1850 and 1854, the period in which he wrote Madame Bovary, his first masterpiece. I read them while I was writing my first books, and they were very helpful. Although Flaubert was a misanthrope and his letters are full of tirades against humanity, his love for literature was boundless. That is why he pledged himself to his vocation like a crusader, surrendering himself to it day and night, working with fanatical conviction, pushing to surpass himself. In this way, he managed to overcome his limitations (very evident in his early works, which are as formal and ornate as the romantic models then in fashion) and write novels like Madame Bovary and A Sentimental Education, perhaps the first two modern novels.
Another book you might read on the subject addressed by this letter is one by William Burroughs, a very different kind of author: Junkie. Burroughs doesn't interest me at all as a novelist: his experimental, psychedelic stories have always bored me, so much so that I don't think I've ever been able to finish one. But Junkie, the first book he wrote, a factual and autobiographical account of how he became a drug addict and how his addiction to drugsfree choice augmenting what was already doubtless a certain proclivitymade him a willing slave, furnishes an accurate description of what I believe to be the literary vocation, of the utter interdependence of the writer and his work and the way the latter feeds on the former, on all he is and does or does not do.
But, my friend, this letter has gone on longer than it should, belonging as it does to a genrethe epistolaryof which the primary virtue is precisely brevity, and so I'll take my leave.
Excerpted from Letters to a Young Novelist by Mario Vargas Llosa. Copyright © 2002 by Mario Vargas Llosa. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Table of Contents
ContentsThe Parable of the Tapeworm,
The Power of Persuasion,
The Narrator and Narrative Space,
Levels of Reality,
Shifts and Qualitative Leaps,
The Hidden Fact,
By Way of a P.S.,
Index of Names and Works,