The Storyteller

An Interview with Mario Vargas Llosa

Octavian Report: You seem to regard the 19th Century as a golden age for the novel — why?

Mario Vargas Llosa: For literature, the 19th Century was, I think, an exceptional century. Look at the great English writers, French writers, Russian writers, and also some American writers too. In Latin America, there were no very great writers with the exception of Sarmiento. Sarmiento was a great writer, but the greatest writers in Latin America were in the 20th Century. I am a great admirer of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and the French writers who have marked me deeply. Victor Hugo and Les Miserablés, principally. And Flaubert, who was a real master for me. Because — unlike Victor Hugo — I think Flaubert was not a genius when he started as a writer. He fabricated his genius with effort, with perseverance, by trying to overcome his limitations. In this sense, he's a model for writers who are not born geniuses.

OR: How was he able to do that?

Vargas Llosa: Perseverance. This idea that you can always improve what you have done if you have the will and the critical experience. To try to reach a superior standard of quality in language and also in the structure of the stories. He wasn't an imitator of the great writers of his time. But he had the critical experience to know that he was not achieving what he wanted to achieve as a writer. And so he persevered and persevered, rewriting and correcting. A desperate fight against his limitations. He reached genius, and he produced Madame Bovary, L'Éducation Sentimentale, even Salammbô.

I love Salammbô. Critics consider it a minor work, but I think that the elegance and power of the prose, of the language, are able to make his story of Salammbô so romantic. A living story. Flaubert helped me when I was starting to become a writer. Also Balzac: the ambitions of Balzac. The idea that a novel can embrace society and describe everything that is seen in a society — good, bad, awful, terrible, grandiose. I think in Spain we also had great writers in the 19th Century. Probably the greatest Spanish novel, Fortunata y Jacinta by Pérez Galdós, was written in the 19th Century.

OR: Have we lost the ambition that novelists had in the 19th Century to do something all-encompassing?

Vargas Llosa: I am absolutely sure of it. The novel is the literary genre of the 19th Century. The greatest novels in history probably were written in the 19th Century.

At that time, people felt that their world was collapsing. It's this period in which we have this méfiance, this distrust. Méfiance: an act of fate in the real world, in which the fictitious worlds of the novel reach their greatness. And in the 19th Century, this feeling was in Russia, in France, in all Europe; precisely at that time, the greatest novels were written.

OR: Do you feel that the 19th Century was also a high point for visual arts and music?

Vargas Llosa: No. I would say that the greatest painters were at the beginning of the 20th Century. The great revolution in art was Picasso, it was cubism, it post-Impressionism. Expressionism in Germany. This is, I think, the beginning of modernity in the visual arts.

OR: It seems that the Lost Generation doesn't speak to you as much as it used to. You said sometimes when you reread —

Vargas Llosa: The Lost Generation?

OR: Hemingway. Fitzgerald.

Vargas Llosa: This was a great generation. Hemingway, Faulkner. I admire Faulkner enormously. I think he's probably the writer of the 20th Century, the only one you can compare with the greatest novelists of the 19th Century.

Faulkner wouldn't have been possible without Joyce, but I think he overcame the master and he created a saga which is even better, more interesting, more deep, more profound than the saga of Ulysses. Or even Proust, whom I think is a great, great novelist. But I don't think you can compare them with the extraordinary richness of the world that Faulkner was able to produce.

OR: Do you see any explanation for the fact that Spain produced two of the greatest creative minds — Picasso and Cervantes?

Vargas Llosa: Spain and Latin America produced particularly creative worlds. Philosophy is not a Spanish idea. We have Ortega y Gasset, a great thinker. Philosophy is not a Spanish cultural idea. But creativity is, without any doubt. Something that is more emotional than intellectual. This is Spain. This is Cervantes. This is Picasso. This is Góngora. This is Guerrero. This is also Latin America.

Latin America has produced fantastic writers, like Borges, like Cortazar, like García Márquez — but not great thinkers. Great thinkers are much more German, or French, or even English. But Latin America and Spain are much more emotional in their creativity. Picasso is a radical expression of this Spanish quality. He was not able to explain anything that he did, but he was a genius at doing things.

His ideas were lacking. They didn't exist. He had this instinct, which was the instinct of Góngora. Góngora couldn't explain what he had done, what he was doing. And he produced the most important and original poetry of his time.

OR: Picasso maintained close friendships with poets, like Guillaume Apollinaire —

Vargas Llosa: Apollinaire was very intelligent. Picasso was not intelligent. He was instinctive. He was a genius by instinct, but when he tried to explain, he was totally confused.

OR: Do you think there will still be great composers?

Vargas Llosa: Probably. I wouldn't say great. They are the composers of our time, but they are totally unknown by the common public. Specialists know and follow what they do. Why? Because in our time, unfortunately, there is an extinction of culture — without any doubt because of the great technological revolution in communication. From this has come the frivolization and banalization of culture.

Now, philosophers will defend this. I think for the first time in history we have a democratic culture, but this democratic culture is superficial and frivolous. Without substance. Without many ideas. I think this is because ideas have been replaced as the main vehicle for culture by images. The book has been replaced by the screen. The result of all this is that we have a democratic culture, because it reaches enormous sections of society. But what it represents is superficial, frivolous, and banal in comparison with what culture was in the past. This is a serious problem, and we have yet to decide if we think that images can replace ideas as the hegemonic instrument of culture.