I’m going to quote from Mario Vargas Llosa’s Nobel Prize lecture, because I think some of the things he said might interest you. They certainly interest me. If, afterward, you want to read the entire lecture, you can do so here: “In Praise of Reading and Fiction.” Llosa said,
“I learned to read at the age of five, in Brother Justiniano’s class at the De la Salle Academy in Cochabamba, Bolivia. It is the most important thing that has ever happened to me. Almost seventy years later I remember clearly how the magic of translating the words in books into images enriched my life, breaking the barriers of time and space and allowing me to travel with Captain Nemo twenty thousand leagues under the sea, fight with d’Artagnan, Athos, Portos, and Aramis against the intrigues threatening the Queen in the days of the secretive Richelieu, or stumble through the sewers of Paris, transformed into Jean Valjean carrying Marius’s inert body on my back.
“Reading changed dreams into life and life into dreams and placed the universe of literature within reach of the boy I once was. My mother told me the first things I wrote were continuations of the stories I read because it made me sad when they concluded or because I wanted to change their endings. And perhaps this is what I have spent my life doing without realizing it: prolonging in time, as I grew, matured, and aged, the stories that filled my childhood with exaltation and adventures.”
Today I spent an hour or so going through the galleys for my story “Pug.” In case you don’t know, galleys are the final glimpse I get of a story before it’s published. I get the galleys, I make any final corrections, and then the story comes out in a magazine (in this case, Asimov’s). This time, for the first time, I didn’t need to make any corrections. The story looked perfect. “Pug” is a story about a character from another novel, a minor character that I turned into the main character of my story. In writing it, I think I was doing a little of what Llosa talks about here, prolonging a story I loved, but also entering into a dialog with that writer, saying to her: look, here is my interpretation. I wish I could say to her, tell me what you think. Talk back to me. But of course she can never do that. (Requiescat in pacem, Jane Austen.)
But Llosa’s description of what stories did for him, when he was a child – that’s what they did for me too.
“Writing stories was not easy. When they were turned into words, projects withered on the paper and ideas and images failed. How to reanimate them? Fortunately, the masters were there, teachers to learn from and examples to follow. Flaubert taught me that talent is unyielding discipline and long patience. Faulkner, that form – writing and structure – elevates or impoverishes subjects. Martorell, Cervantes, Dickens, Balzac, Tolstoy, Conrad, Thomas Mann, that scope and ambition are as important in a novel as stylistic dexterity and narrative strategy. Sartre, that words are acts, that a novel, a play, or an essay, engaged with the present moment and better options, can change the course of history. Camus and Orwell, that a literature stripped of morality is inhuman, and Malraux that heroism and the epic are as possible in the present as is the time of the Argonauts, the Odyssey, and the Iliad.
“If in this address I were to summon all the writers to whom I owe a few things or a great deal, their shadows would plunge us into darkness. They are innumerable. In addition to revealing the secrets of the storytelling craft, they obliged me to explore the bottomless depths of humanity, admire its heroic deeds, and feel horror at its savagery. They were my most obliging friends, the ones who vitalized my calling and in whose books I discovered that there is hope even in the worst of circumstances, that living is worth the effort if only because without life we could not read or imagine stories.”
You understand this, right? This is how we learn as writers. We read other writers and we learn from them. We are uniquely privileged in our ability to do that, to learn from our masters. I can study with Austen, Woolf, Tolkien. They teach me about craft and style, but as Llosa said, they also teach me about humanity, and about myself, because ultimately whatever I write about humanity is also a statement about myself. I cannot write about a killer without finding the impulse to kill in myself. I cannot write about a martyr without finding what, in myself, would send me to my death for a cause.
“At times I wondered whether writing was not a solipsistic luxury in countries like mine, where there were scant readers, so many people who were poor and illiterate, so much injustice, and where culture was a privilege of the few. These doubts, however, never stifled my calling, and I always kept writing even during those periods when earning a living absorbed most of my time. I believe I did the right thing, since if, for literature to flourish, it was first necessary for a society to achieve high culture, freedom, prosperity, and justice, it never would have existed. But thanks to literature, to the consciousness it shapes, the desires and longings it inspires, and our disenchantment with reality when we return from the journey to a beautiful fantasy, civilization is now less cruel than when storytellers began to humanize life with their fables. We would be worse than we are without the good books we have read, more conformist, not as restless, more submissive, and the critical spirit, the engine of progress, would not even exist. Like writing, reading is a protest against the insufficiencies of life. When we look in fiction for what is missing in life, we are saying, with no need to say it or even to know it, that life as it is does not satisfy our thirst for the absolute – the foundation of the human condition – and should be better. We invent fictions in order to live somehow the many lives we would like to lead when we barely have one at our disposal.”
Writing is a protest against the insufficiencies of life. We look at life and we see how it fails us, how people are not as we wish they were, society is not as we would like it to be. And so we write about Elizabeth Bennett and Middle Earth, so we can show a lively and inventive mind, a place of unearthly beauty. So we can experience those things, even when things around us seem dull, ugly. Literature makes us discontented with our lots. And great literature makes us change them. It shows us who we can be, how we can think, what we can become.
“Without fictions we would be less aware of the importance of freedom for life to be livable, the hell it turns into when it is trampled underfoot by a tyrant, an ideology, or a religion. Let those who doubt that literature not only submerges us in the dream of beauty and happiness but alerts us to every kind of oppression, ask themselves why all regimes determined to control the behavior of citizens from cradle to grave fear it so much they establish systems of censorship to repress it and keep so wary an eye on independent writers. They do this because they know the risk of allowing the imagination to wander free in books, know how seditious fictions become when the reader compares the freedom that makes them possible and is exercised in them with the obscurantism and fear lying in wait in the real world. Whether they want it or not, know it or not, when they invent stories the writers of tales propagate dissatisfaction, demonstrating that the world is badly made and the life of fantasy richer than the life of our daily routine. This fact, if it takes root in their sensibility and consciousness, makes citizens more difficult to manipulate, less willing to accept the lies of the interrogators and jailers who would like to make them believe that behind bars they lead more secure and better lives.”
You may argue that great literature does this, but some literature is merely escapist, and escapism supports the status quo. I would argue that all literature is escapist, and that escape, for even a little while, allows us to look back at where we were, and if it is a jail, say: “I am not a prisoner.” Because if you were not a prisoner for an hour, while you read, perhaps you are not a prisoner at all, or ought not to be a prisoner. Perhaps you ought to be as free as you were in the pages of a book.
“The paradise of childhood is not a literary myth for me but a reality I lived and enjoyed in the large family house with three courtyards in Cochabamba, where with my cousins and school friends we could reproduce the stories of Tarzan and Salgari, and in the prefecture of Piura, where bats nested in the lofts, silent shadows that filled the starry nights of that hot land with mystery. During those years, writing was playing a game my family celebrated, something charming that earned applause for me, the grandson, the nephew, the son without a papa because my father had died and gone to heaven. He was a tall, good-looking man in a navy uniform whose photo adorned my night table, which I prayed to and then kissed before going to sleep. One Piuran morning – I do not think I have recovered from it yet – my mother revealed that the gentleman was, in fact, alive. And on that very day we were going to live with him in Lima. I was eleven years old, and from that moment everything changed. I lost my innocence and discovered loneliness, authority, adult life, and fear. My salvation was reading, reading good books, taking refuge in those worlds where life was glorious, intense, one adventure after another, where I could feel free and be happy again. And it was writing, in secret, like someone giving himself up to an unspeakable vice, a forbidden passion. Literature stopped being a game. It became a way of resisting adversity, protesting, rebelling, escaping the intolerable, my reason for living. From then until now, in every circumstance when I have felt disheartened or beaten down, on the edge of despair, giving myself body and soul to my work as a storyteller has been the light at the end of the tunnel, the plank that carries the shipwrecked man to shore.”
I was talking to a friend recently and we agreed that literature was like this for us. When we feel disheartened, beaten down, and on the edge of despair, we start writing. That saves us. I think because when we write, we create alternatives on the page, and that allows us to create alternatives for ourselves as well. We write about living on Mars for a couple of hours, and then we can think about how we might live, in a different way, here on Earth.
“Literature is a false representation of life that nevertheless helps us to understand life better, to orient ourselves in the labyrinth where we are born, pass by, and die. It compensates for the reverses and frustrations real life inflicts on us, and because of it we can decipher, at least partially, the hieroglyphic that existence tends to be for the great majority of human beings, principally those of us who generate more doubts than certainties and confess our perplexity before subjects like transcendence, individual and collective destiny, the soul, the sense or senselessness of history, the to and fro of rational knowledge.”
I think that’s an excellent way to end, although Llosa does not end that way. To see how he ends (magnificently), read his speech. But I want to end here because I feel as though I’m part of that contingent: generating more doubts than certainties and confessing my perplexity before all sorts of things: who I am, where I am going, what my purpose is in the large, large world (so much larger than my understanding of it). It’s because of those doubts and perplexity that I write stories, that I attempt to find or create meaning, that I attempt to find or create myself through words.
As I am doing here.
>>I would argue that all literature is escapist, and that escape, for even a little while, allows us to look back at where we were, and if it is a jail, say: “I am not a prisoner.”
Ideally. On the other hand, I have known too many readers who read only as a life substitute and never invest what they’ve read into their own lives. So I guess the question becomes not whether literature is escapist but whether it is merely escapist, and that, I think, largely depends upon the attitude of the reader.
I like your take on escapism as subversion—gives the word a completely different connotation.
Here’s Patrick Brontë, father of the famous sisters, with a more traditional view:
“The sensual novelist and his admirer, are beings of depraved appetites and sickly imaginations, who having learnt the art of self-tormenting, are diligently and zealously employed in creating an imaginary world, which they can never inhabit, only to make the real world, with which they must necessarily be conversant, gloomy and insupportable.”
Thank God they didn’t listen to him!
A beautiful post, Dora.
Thanks, Terri! I think most of the credit goes to Llosa, who wrote the beautiful words I’m quoting. 🙂
Honestly, I believe that escape itself is a good thing, that it creates discontent simply because it is an escape into something different and more satisfying. As Brontë points out, it makes the real world gloomy and insupportable. Which is usually because the real world is gloomy and insupportable! It may be the world with which we’re necessarily conversant, but it’s also a world we can change for the better.
I’m sure there are people who never make that change. But at least the potential is there.