Mario Vargas Llosa, In Praise of Reading and Fiction: The Nobel Lecture, translated by Edith Grossman (Farrrar Straus & Giroux 2011)
I’m away from home for a couple of weeks over the summer, and I’ve packed a swag of physically small books from my overloaded to-be-read shelf. Some of these have already turned out to be unreadable. I’ll donate them to a Street Library without further comment. Others bring much pleasure, even delight.
I don’t have a lot to say about this beautiful little front-counter book. It’s Mario Vargas LLosa’s lecture accepting the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature, translated into honey-smooth English by Edith Grossman. It was probably a gift close to its date of publication.
Vargas Llosa speaks of his early love of reading, of his identification with his native Peru even though he had lived most of his life elsewhere, of his early Marxism and his reasons for abandoning it, and above all of the importance of story-telling and the reading of fiction. What Roger Ebert said about movies, that they are a machine that generates empathy, Varga’s Llosa says here, beautifully and at more length, about novels. There’s a lot that’s quotable. Here’s one moment where he acknowledges some self-doubt:
At times I wondered whether writing was not a solipsistic luxury in countries like mine, where there were so few 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, to the desires and longings it inspires, and to our disenchantment with reality when we return from the journey to a beautiful fantasy, civilisation is now less cruel than when storytellers began to humanise life with their fables.(Page 7)
I love that, and think on aggregate it’s true, but I do wonder about the consciousness shaped by writers like the man who produced phenomenally popular The Da Vinci Code or the woman who wrote Atlas Shrugged. I suppose Mario Vargas Llosa would say those books aren’t literature. But then wasn’t one of the ‘monsters of Serbia’ a Shakespeare scholar? Still, a Nobel lecture isn’t the place for such quibbles, and those of us who are addicted to reading can think with some justification that it’s a good thing. Perhaps the lecture is an example of what he means: a beautiful fantasy of a world where reading makes the world more human.
Still on my shelf at home is another gift, a collection of 20 earlier Nobel lectures, which includes a number of writers whose work I know: Harold Pinter, Toni Morrison, Nadine Gordimer, Dario Fo (who once called my older son a bambino terribile), Seamus Heaney, Wole Soyinka … I guess I’ll dip into it when I need a shot of hope.