Vol. XXIII, #1 Gilbert Sorrentino’s Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things
Review of Contemporary Fiction
Letters to a Young Novelist, by Mario Vargas Llosa, translated by Natasha Wimmer
reviewed by Mark Axelrod
Trans. Natasha Wimmer. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2002. 136 pp. $17.00.
In the introduction to Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, the young poet in question, Franz Xaver Kappus, gives a summary of the history of his brief correspondence with Rilke. In a beautifully written passage, Kappus writes, “I found myself writing a covering letter in which I unreservedly laid bare my heart as never before and never since to any second human being,” and concludes the introduction by writing, “Only the ten letters are important that follow here, important for an understanding of the world in which Rainer Maria Rilke lived and worked, and important too for many growing and evolving spirits of today and tomorrow. And where a great and unique man speaks, small men should keep silence.” And then, in the spirit of postmodern fiction, we have Vargas Llosa’s Letters to a Young Novelist. Unlike Rilke’s Letters, Vargas Llosa’s Letters have no recipient. Or should I say, all of us readers are the “recipient,” since the “letters” are clearly meant not to be letters to a young novelist at all but to be Vargas Llosa’s Lessons in Literature. Actually, they’re not letters at all, but both literary criticism (i.e., would a young novelist know what epigones means?) and a primer (i.e., a chapter devoted to knowing who your narrator is). Vargas Llosa has taken Rilke’s letters to a genuinely and nonfictionally young poet (whose introduction reads more like Mon coeur mis à nu than a standard introduction) and by fictionalizing the recipient and the reason for the correspondence in the first place has created a kind of parody. Under the persiflage of letters to a young novelist, Vargas Llosa gives us his take on writers and writing, much of which is a bit superficial but which, at times, gives new insight into the creative process.