When I was young, I was a passionate reader of Sartre. I’ve read the American novelists, in particular the lost generation — Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos — especially Faulkner. Of the authors I read when I was young, he is one of the few who still means a lot to me. I have never been disappointed when I reread him, the way I have been occasionally with, say, Hemingway. I wouldn’t reread Sartre today. Compared to everything I’ve read since, his fiction seems dated and has lost much of its value. As for his essays, I find most of them to be less important, with one exception perhaps—“Saint Genet: Comedian or Martyr,” which I still like. They are full of contradictions, ambiguities, inaccuracies, and ramblings, something that never happened with Faulkner. Faulkner was the first novelist I read with pen and paper in hand, because his technique stunned me. He was the first novelist whose work I consciously tried to reconstruct by attempting to trace, for example, the organization of time, the intersection of time and place, the breaks in the narrative, and that ability he has of telling a story from different points of view in order to create a certain ambiguity, to give it added depth. As a Latin American, I think it was very useful for me to read his books when I did because they are a precious source of descriptive techniques that are applicable to a world which, in a sense, is not so unlike the one Faulkner described. Later, of course, I read the nineteenth-century novelists with a consuming passion: Flaubert, Balzac, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Stendhal, Hawthorne, Dickens, Melville. I’m still an avid reader of nineteenth-century writers.

As for Latin American literature, strangely enough, it wasn’t until I lived in Europe that I really discovered it and began to read it with great enthusiasm. I had to teach it at the university in London, which was a very enriching experience because it forced me to think about Latin American literature as a whole. From then on I read Borges, whom I was somewhat familiar with, Carpentíer, Cortázar, Guimaraes Rosa, Lezama Lima—that whole generation except for García Márquez. I discovered him later and even wrote a book about him: García Márquez: Historia de un decidio. I also began reading nineteenth-century Latin American literature because I had to teach it. I realized then that we have extremely interesting writers—the novelists perhaps less so than the essayists or poets. Sarmiento, for example, who never wrote a novel, is in my opinion one of the greatest storytellers Latin America has produced; his Facundo is a masterwork. But if I were forced to choose one name, I would have to say Borges, because the world he creates seems to me to be absolutely original. Aside from his enormous originality, he is also endowed with a tremendous imagination and culture that are expressly his own. And then of course there is the language of Borges, which in a sense broke with our tradition and opened a new one. Spanish is a language that tends toward exuberance, proliferation, profusion. Our great writers have all been prolix, from Cervantes to Ortega y Gasset, Valle-Inclán, or Alfonso Reyes. Borges is the opposite — all concision, economy, and precision. He is the only writer in the Spanish language who has almost as many ideas as he has words. He’s one of the great writers of our time.

Mario Vargas Llosa
Interviewed by Susannah Hunnewell and Ricardo Augusto Setti
Paris Review Fall 1990

close a book

March 12, 2019

Books, like landscapes, leave their marks in us. Sometimes these traces are so faint as to be imperceptible  –  tiny shifts in the weather of the spirit that do not register on the usual instruments. Mostly, these marks are temporary: we close a book, and for the next hour or two the world seems oddly brighter at its edges; or we are moved to a kindness or a meanness that would otherwise have gone unexpressed. Certain books, though, like certain landscapes, stay with us even when we have left them, changing not just our weathers but our climates.

Robert Macfarlane
Landmarks

Writing & Reading

March 5, 2019

The work is a work only when it becomes the intimacy shared by someone who writes it and someone who reads it, a space violently opened up by the contest between the power to speak and the power to hear.

Maurice Blanchot
The Space of Literature

Difficult poetry

February 12, 2019

What happens when we read so called ‘difficult’ poetry – poetry that does not readily ‘make sense’ – is not unlike what happens to us when we look at abstract art. What is being represented is not the concrete aspects of our lives – landscape, portrait, objects – so much as the internal responses we have to them. This is why I find the experience of abstract art – and of nonlinear poetry – to be so valuable. We as viewers and readers do not receive answers; instead we are implicated as accomplices in the conspiratorial search for meaning.

Alice Fogel
Strange Terrain

he inhabits a tiny world

February 8, 2019

Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realize the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors. We realize it best when we talk with an unliterary friend. He may be full of goodness and good sense but he inhabits a tiny world. In it, we should be suffocated. The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others. Reality, even seen through the eyes of many, is not enough. I will see what others have invented. Even the eyes of all humanity are not enough. I regret that the brutes cannot write books. Very gladly would I learn what face things present to a mouse or a bee; more gladly still would I perceive the olfactory world charged with all the information and emotion it carries for a dog.

C.S.Lewis
An Experiment in Criticism

A real book reads us. I have been read by Eliot’s poems and by Ulysses and by Remembrance of Things Past and by The Castle for a good many years now, since early youth. Some of these books at first rejected me; I bored them. But as I grew older and they knew me better, they came to have more sympathy with me and to understand my hidden meanings. Their nature is such that our relationship has been very intimate. No literature has ever been so shockingly personal as that of our time — it asks every question that is forbidden by polite society.

Lionel Trilling
On the Modern Element in Modern Literature
Partisan Review January/February 1961

Reading at night –

January 18, 2019

I read at night, until three or four in the morning. The darkness around you adds greatly to the absolute passion that develops between you and the book. Don’t you find that? In a way, daylight dissipates the intensity.

Marguerite Duras
The Suspended Passion: Interviews
trans. Chris Turner

How to be a Poet

December 16, 2018

(to remind myself)

i
Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill—more of each
than you have—inspiration,
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity. Any readers
who like your poems,
doubt their judgment.

ii
Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.

iii
Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.

Wendell Berry

delicious slowness

December 1, 2018

Solitude and rain and a melancholy-sweet landscape.

I am reading with delicious slowness.

Life seems inconceivably rich.

Joyce Carol Oates
diary entry October 1973

write beautiful books

December 1, 2018

…So that if I may not write beautiful books, I may at least read beautiful books; and what joy can be greater?

Oscar Wilde
De Profundis