Tuesday, September 06, 2022

'It Wards Off Unhappiness'

“Literature has nothing to say to those people who are satisfied with their lot, who are content with life as it is. Literature offers sustenance to rebellious and non-conformist spirits and a refuge to those who have too much or too little in life; it wards off unhappiness and any feelings of lack or want.” 

Normally I’m allergic to grand statements about the purposes of literature. Such flatulence usually says more about the speaker than about books and writing. This passage appealed to me because the notion that reading is an outsider occupation, not a pastime of privileged dilettantes or a tool of patriarchy, describes a recent reality. Today’s elites and their unlikely brothers and sisters under the skin, the professional malcontents, don’t read. Most of the academics I know don’t read, nor do journalists. Serious reading has become an outr√© interest, not unlike collecting PEZ dispensers.  


The author of the  passage quoted above is Mario Vargas Llosa in a 2001 essay, “Literature and Life,” collected in Touchstones: Essays of Literature, Art, and Politics (trans. John King, 2007). I know his earlier works  of fiction, especially Conversation in the Cathedral, (1969; trans. 1975) but I have read little of the Peruvian novelist’s nonfiction. In Cultural Amnesia (2007), Clive James calls his essays Vargas Llosa’s “true strength” and goes on to write:


“Despite the turmoil, the anguish and the frequent desperation of his raw material, a Spanish word, hechiceria (witchcraft charm), and a Spanish phrase, a sus anchas (at one’s ease), both apply exactly to his prose, one of the more encouraging continuities linking two millennia.”


I found Vargas Llosa’s essays at Kaboom Books on Labor Day. I also bought The Sheep From the Goats: Selected Literary Essays (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989) by the late John Simon. Barton Swaim calls it one of his favorite essay collections. Most of us know Simon best as a film and theater critic, but he can be safely described as a member of that endangered species, a man of letters. He is always entertaining, even when he’s wrong. Simon writes in his introduction to The Sheep From the Goats:


“There are still highly sophisticated persons who haughtily declare they an do without the movies and that today’s debased theater is seldom worth their attention, but few if any people boast of never reading a book, even if some of them make good on that unvoiced boast.”


Then I found a travel book I’ve wanted to read for a long time – Howard Jacobson’s In the Land of Oz (1987; 2011), about the time he spent in Australia in the nineteen-eighties.

1 comment:

Faze said...

Vargas Llosa's has a book-length essay on Hugo's "Les Miserables", called "Temptation of the Impossible". It's a great way of prolonging the pleasure of "Les Miserables", once you've finished the original.