On Monday night, Team Literary Man was generously invited to sit and listen to the great Mario Vargas Llosa hold court at the Americas Society and dish deep on the World Republic of Letters. What a treat, dear readers, to sit in an elegant, chandeliered oak-walled library and listen to Edith Grossman, Mario’s translator, ask the old Peruvian writer about his favorite books AND any writers who, he felt, no longer had anything to offer him. Such a rare question.
Introduced by Jonathan Galassi, poet and publisher of FSG, Grossman and Vargas Llosa exchanged friendly quips about each other’s reading tastes and preferences, sharing a warm tone, good sense of humor, and general sense of pleasure in talking with one another and engaging with the crowd. Vargas LLosa, at 76-years-old, cuts an imposing figure. He’s a tall, athletic looking man with a full head of handsome white hair. He’s a total player. He’s also very funny, generous, self-deprecating, and genuine in his intellectual curiosities. He seemed as eager to be with us as he might’ve been fifty+ years old on the eve of his first novel’s publication, as if he’d never won the Nobel Prize and wasn’t an international literary star. He seemed like the kind of writer you’d want to have a drink with, or, in an ideal situation, have as a literature professor.
The dialogue covered a range of topics, but here are few of the highlights that stood out:
Vargas Llosa spoke fondly of his reverence for Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas. He talked about how much he loved The Three Musketeers and Les Miserables, and how he sometimes feared re-reading such books because of how much he had initially enjoyed reading them. Edith Grossman agreed and said that he had recently struggled with Conrad’s Nostromo, to which Conrad replied, “That book isn’t any good! You chose poorly,” and everyone in the audience laughed. They agreed that Virginia Woolf sustained re-reading, particularly The Waves, Vargas Llosa noted. But Faulkner, really, he kept coming back to. He mentioned that he has read Light in August “probably more than 10 times.” Interestingly, it was Sanctuary that first hooked him on Faulkner (because of the complex uses of form and time) not The Sound and the Fury or As I Lay Dying.
He recounted a trip he took to Faulkner’s home in Mississippi in which a Dutch tourist recognized him, Vargas Llosa, and said that it was because of a Vargas Llosa lecture on Faulkner that the Dutch reader had first heard of Faulkner and gone on to study him. The Dutch tourist bragged that he was “probably the foremost Faulkner authority in all of Holland.”
Grossman then asked if there were any authors that Vargas Llosa avoided, whose influence he spurned, as a sort of anti-corollary to Faulkner’s influence. After thinking a few seconds, Vargas LLosa uttered a single word: “Sartre.”
When he said this, it was like a dramatic courtroom scene when the witness says the killer’s name on the stand. Everyone was like, “Oh, damn.” And then Vargas Llosa proceeded to talk about how everybody in the world (in the 1940s) was obsessed with Sartre, how his politics seemed so infallible, so totally convincing, but that by the 1960s, even Sartre himself admitted that everything he had every said and written was nonsense or complete bullshit.Vargas Llosa seemed betrayed by Sartre, or conveyed this sentiment in some way. He seemed to be saying, “Fuck you, man, we all believed you!” This went on for nearly 15 minutes, not exactly Sartre bashing, but a more earnest condemnation of authors like Sartre who, perhaps, lacked the conviction of their philosophies.
There were a few intense moments with the Q&A: one author straight-up accused Vargas Llosa of creating a sympathetic character in one of Trujillo’s political cronies, as if this character’s crimes against the Dominican people weren’t as important as creating an entertaining fictional character; the author deftly and charismatically explained that he didn’t believe his character was sympathetic per se, but complex, rather, and therefore interesting.
Another questioner challenged him on the difficulty of assimilating indigenous people with “western” cultures, and the author spoke for about fifteen minutes about the impossibility of assimilation. All in all, he handled some very difficult questions with impressive intellectual agility. As far as NYC literary events go, this was completely bad ass.
Keep an eye out, literarians, for upcoming events with the team at the Americas Society. Any fellow lovers of Latin American literature should stay tuned! The upcoming tribute to Carlos Fuentes on Thursday November 29th sounds like another in a long string of excellent literary events.