Monday, 24 June 2013

Vargas Llosa and HHhH

Read HHhH by Laurence Binet in a mostly good translation from French by Sam Taylor (2013, Vintage).
Binet's novel is his first and it won the Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman in 2010. It woke me up at 3:00 am with an urgent need to rethink the way I've written my own (unfinished) book. It enabled me to think of different ways of doing things, my head's in a spin, don't know where to start, where will it end?

HHhH is divided into numbered sections - 257 in total - there are no pages numbers, and indeed no need for them because the sections are relatively short; this was the format of another book I read recently, which had 131 numbered sections to it.

Why 131? Why 257? As far as I can see, they are both primary numbers. It is a mystery. I feel sure that there is a reason for each number, and that there is also clue in the book somewhere and I may find it when I re-read the book. It  is hard to put down. P. read it in one day, possessed.

Also helpful in a different way  is Mario Vargas Llosa's Letters to a Young Novelist (1997, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, NY, translated from Spanish by Natasha Wimmer). Read it very quickly last night - easy and enjoyable, the language just a little florid, which is normal for a translation from a Latin language - it's a small book of just over 130 pages, and interesting for all kinds of reasons.

About why people write:
"The answer, I think, is rebellion. I'm convinced that those who... [write] ...demonstrate indirectly their rejection and criticism of life as it is, of the real world and manifest their desire to substitute for it the creations of their imagination and dreams. Why would anyone who is deeply satisfied with reality, with real life as it is lived, dedicate himself to something as insubstantial and fanciful as the creation of fictional realities?" (p. 7)
But I don't know anyone who is 'deeply satisfied with reality...'.

Most people would agree with the Buddhist statement that 'Life is suffering...'  Some people also believe that if only they did this or that, owned a car of a certain type, slimmed down sufficiently, enjoyed good health - all would be well and they would know pure bliss. So - of all people who suffer, writers belong to a particular subset, who hopefully have the ability to express themselves and the imagination to create different worlds.

 About not telling the reader everything:
"Let's say that the full story of a novel (including all selected and omitted facts) is a cube and that, once the superfluous pieces of information and the bits omitted deliberately in order to obtain a specific effect are carved away, each particular novel takes on a certain form, [...] an expression of the artist's originality....[..] there is no doubt that the hidden fact (if you can't come up with a more appealing name for the device) is one of the most valuable and widely used instruments for cuttaway material until the desired beautiful and persuasive form emerges." (p. 119)

About Chinese boxes
He also calls this the matryoshka technique. "The story is constructed like those traditional puzzles with successively smaller and smaller identical parts nestled inside each other" (p. 101). The example is Scheherazade telling the Sultan stories during 1001 nights.

But is his definition a helpful one? the Scheherazade example is the simplest way of bringing another story into the original one: one person tells another a story. But that story may not necessarily be 'smaller' than the original one - the original one, which Vargas Llosa calls the 'mother' story - may be like a peel around an orange, with the orange (with all its sections, am beginning to like this metaphor - a fruitful metaphor - Hah!) being the longer, more important  story that needs to be told.

Take Binet's novel HHhH (mentioned above): the author or someone like the author is writing about historical fact and agonising about what is true and what is not and what he can make up and what might in fact be wrong. You encounter this person as you read the book, and his meta-view of the story is welcome, because that story is gruelling. The story is not smaller and smaller: it keeps getting bigger in our minds.

Another way of introducing a story is by a person being reminded of the past, and remembering it and the reader living in their head while they think about it.Mostly called 'flash-back', it is not a technique that Vargas Llosa mentions.

About the concept of 'communicating vessels'
Vargas Llosa uses this term to describe a novel where two stories are told side by side and influence each other. He mostly gives extensive examples rather than an abstract description of what he means and I am not sure how well I've understood. Those books I have not read yet, so I have no opinion at this point, except that the idea of two intertwined stories differing substantially in time and place and exerting a strong pull on each other is very interesting. (p. 121) Is it what Binet does with such success in his book HHhH? The story of the author researching and the story of what he finds out and what he chooses to write in the end, different time and place for each part, each having an influence on the other. Or maybe those stories are intermingled anyway?

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