Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Llosa, Bernhard, and Saint-Exupéry

Hello. I hope you are all well.

As promised, I will review three books today to promote our collective sanity during this time of collective insanity. Ready?

Letters to a Young Novelist by Mario Vargas Llosa

“I venture to suggest that you expect not quite so much and that you not count too much on success. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t be successful, of course, but if you persevere in writing and publishing, you’ll soon discover that prizes, public acclaim, book sales, the social standing of a writer all have a sui generis appeal; they are extraoardinarily arbitrary, sometimes stubbornly evading those who most deserve them while beseiging and overwhelming those who merit them the least.”

So, there’s a series of books called “The Art of Mentoring” whose titles always begin with “Letters to a Young…” It’s inspired by a bunch of letters written by the Austrian poet, Rainer Marie Rilke (who also wrote Letters on Cézanne), to another person. That book was published as Letters to a Young Poet.

Letters to a Young Novelist is by the Nobel Prize-winning writer, Mario Vargas Llosa, and consists of a bunch of letters written “to” a friend (AKA to the reader). Addressing all of his letters as “Dear Friend” would sound false and contrived were Llosa a politician, but as a writer you get the sense that he means it. It also gives the sense that he’s in solidarity with you, even if the same letters are being read by millions of “friends” worldwide. I guess that makes us all in solidarity together!

Anyway, the letters themselves have some great ideas. However, some of them are more focused on specific craft techniques than on the actual philosophy of writing. One of them analyzes a scene in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, for instance. Even though specific techniques are not as universal as some of his ideas about writing, they’re still interesting to read about.

One observation: I read his notebooks in the Princeton University archives. This was a great privilege. From this, I saw that the majority of the contents of his Letters had their source in an 8 × 12 olive-green notebook he used to teach one of his university classes with. In this notebook, there are no “friends”, only “students.” Also, there’s material in the notebook that didn’t make it into the letters, which is a shame because there’s so much richness in the notebook. However, there’s also stuff in the Letters that are not in the notebook, so it all balances out.

In the end, Letters to a Young Novelist are worth reading. Just know that it’s not as fully detailed in some areas as the notebook itself.

Gargoyles, by Thomas Bernhard

“The essential elements of a person come to light only when we must regard him as lost to us, when everything he has done seems to have been a taking leave of us. Suddenly the true nature of everything about him that was merely preparation for his ultimate death becomes truly visible.”

This book reminded me a lot of O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey into Night” in how Bernhard was able to get into his characters’ psyches. It also reminded me a lot of “Hamlet.”

Guess why.

Okay, I’ll give you a hint: the majority of Gargoyles features a potentially-mad prince giving a monologue. Sound familiar?

Bernhard doesn’t describe things in great detail, and his sparse prose suits his subject well, because it’s not the outward events that matter, but the inner ideas. However, due to its lack of an outward plot (other than a doctor’s son following his father around as he visits patients), it may ultimately be less interesting than “Hamlet.”

Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

“To be a man is, precisely, to be responsible. It is to feel shame at the sight of what seems to be unmerited misery. It is to take pride in a victory won by one’s comrades. It is to feel, when setting one’s stone, that one is contributing to the building of the world.”

You may have heard of Saint-Exupéry if you read The Little Prince. Well, he also wrote this memoir about his time flying commercial airmail planes for Aéropostale.

This book is great, even though it has some purple prose. What makes it great is the varied insights about life within. They come from Saint-Exupéry’s experiences flying planes, hearing the stories of his fellow pilots, almost starving to death in the Sahara desert, buying a slave and releasing him, and visiting war-torn Spain. None of the insights come off as second-hand, because all of them come from someone who loved life and who thought deeply about it rather than just letting it happen and accepting what others had to say about it. That makes this book admirable.

In addition to making you think, this book makes you laugh and cry. It is worth reading.

It also inspired The Little Prince, so now you have absolutely no choice but to read it.

I hope you enjoyed my reviews. As always, let me know if you’ve read any of the books. If so, how did you like them?

Stay happy, stay hopeful, and stay healthy!

6 thoughts on “Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Llosa, Bernhard, and Saint-Exupéry

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