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A Novelist Doesn’t Choose His Themes; He is Chosen By Them

atkins-bookshelf-literatureMario Vargas Llosa is the quintessential man of letters — an erudite and engaging writer, essayist, literary critic, journalist, and politician. As a Latin American writer, his literary contributions rank up there with the brilliant and influential work of Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Octavio Paz. In 2010, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature; the Nobel jury recognized Llosa for “his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt, and defeat.” Inspired by Rainer Maria Rilke’s eloquent and transformative, Letters to a Young Poet, Llosa shares his insights drawn from his eventful life as a writer in a deeply reflective and thought-provoking little tome, titled Letters to a Young Novelist:

“Writing novels is the equivalent of what professional strippers do when they take off their clothes and exhibit their naked bodies on stage. The novelist performs the same acts in reverse. In constructing the novel, he goes through the motions of getting dressed, hiding the nudity in which he began under heavy, multicolored articles of clothing conjured up out of his imagination. The process is so complex and exacting that many times not even the author is able to identify in the finished product — that exuberant display of his ability to invent imaginary people and worlds — the images lurking in his memory, fixed there by life, which sparked his imagination, spurred him on, and induced him to produce his story.

As for themes, well, I believe the novelist feeds off himself, like the catoblepas, the mythical animal that appears to Saint Anthony in Flaubert’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony [Flaubert’s description: “a black buffalo with the head of a hog, hanging close to the ground, joined to its body by a thin neck, long and loose as an emptied intestine. It wallows flat upon the ground, and its legs are smothered under the huge mane of stiff bristles that hide its face”] and that Borges later revisted in his book of Imaginary Beings. The catoblepas is an impossible creature that devours itself, beginning with its feet. Likewise, the novelist scavenges his own experience for raw material for stories — in a more abstract sense, of course. He does this not just in order to re-create characters, anecdotes, or landscapes from the stuff of certain memories but also to gather fuel from them for the willpower that must sustain him if he is to see the long, hard project through.

I’ll venture a little further in discussing the themes of fiction. The novelist doesn’t choice his themes; he is chosen by them. He writes on certain subjects because certain things have happened to him. In the choice of a theme, the writer’s freedom is relative, perhaps even nonexistent… My impression is that life… inflicts themes on a writer through certain experiences that impress themselves on his consciousness or subconscious and later compel him to shake himself free by turning them into stories.”

Read related posts: The Wisdom of Rainer Maria Rilke
The Best Advice for Writers
Write What You Know
Why Writers Write
The Nobility of the Writer’s Craft

For further reading: Letters to a Young Novelist by Mario Varga Llosa (1997)

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