Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Memories of Vargas Llosa by Eric Lichtblau (Llosavargas)

NEW YORK - OCTOBER 07:  Peruvian writer Mario ...Image by Getty Images via @daylifeSyracuse University Mario Vargas Llosa, center, in Syracuse in 1988, with Myron I. Lichtblau, left.
When word came last week that the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa had won the Nobel Prize in Literature, it brought me back to a small, sun-splashed office with centuries-old books lining pine shelves and a papier mâché pencil holder, the words “Happy Father’s Day” scribbled on it, sitting on the desk. That was my father’s office in our home in the suburbs of Syracuse, and it was there that my father, hunched over an old cassette player for weeks and months, became Vargas Llosa’s accidental autobiographer.

It was the spring of 1988, and Vargas Llosa was spending part of the semester on campus at Syracuse University to deliver a series of lectures on his writing and worldview. He had not yet reached the peak of his prominence; it was another two years before he ran for president of Peru, and longer still before he became the subject of Nobel rumors. Even so, Vargas Llosa, then 52, was already a rock star among Latin American novelists, often mentioned in the same breath as Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel García Márquez. For Syracuse, a university more accustomed to hosting future N.B.A. stars than internationally renowned novelists, his presence was a coup. My father, Myron Lichtblau, a scholar in Latin American literature and the chairman of the foreign language department at the time, had managed to lure him to campus with the promise of little more than a packed lecture hall and a few home-cooked meals.
Just out of college myself, I went to one of the lectures at my father’s urging. “This is a big deal,” he told me. Instead of the usual yawning students in a half-empty lecture hall, I found students and faculty at rapt attention in the packed auditorium. Vargas Llosa, a charismatic figure with dashing good looks and a thick Peruvian accent, held his audience spellbound as he spoke in English of using fiction as a way of turning lies to truth and, ultimately, changing society. “The novel was invented,” he said, “not to transcribe reality, but to transform it, to do something different, to make of real reality an illusion, a separate reality.”
As successful as the lectures were, Vargas Llosa never thought of them as anything more than that. “I had no idea when I came here to deliver these lectures that this could become a book,” he acknowledged to a local newspaper reporter. “It was Myron Lichtblau’s idea.” From that idea, Vargas Llosa said, was born “a kind of accidental, literary autobiography.” Indeed, my father saw in the lectures the potential not only for an unparalleled insight into a literary genius but, more broadly, a primer for any would-be novelist or student of the genre on how reality becomes fiction, and vice versa. Vargas Llosa mulled the idea over. He was not entirely comfortable with his English, but he had to admit that building an autobiography from a body of work not intended as autobiography promised an end-product that was “much more pure,” because it would not carry the pretense and self-consciousness that came with setting out to write a memoir.
And so, with Vargas Llosa’s blessing, my father labored over his tape player until late in the evenings to listen to the novelist’s lectures and get them down on paper. An unassuming man with a passion for language and learning, my father considered himself the curator for a rare masterwork, committed to capturing what he called “the essence of Vargas Llosa’s art.” Every word counted. If my father found himself stumped by Vargas Llosa’s strong accent, he would summon my mother, my sister or me to his office for help, planting us in front of his tape player. “Listen here,” he would say, hitting the play and rewind buttons again and again. Is Vargas Llosa saying that a novelist must reveal “those demons that obsess him,” or “those demons that upset him”? (It was the former). Or here — play, rewind, play — was he comparing writers to “street exhibitionists,” or “discreet exhibitionists”? (The latter.)
When he was done transcribing the lectures, Dad set to work putting them into a narrative structure, organizing the themes into eight separate essays, weeding out tangents, smoothing the syntax and adding historical and literary footnotes before sending the draft to Vargas Llosa for review and approval. The result was “A Writer’s Reality,” written by Mario Vargas Llosa and “edited with an introduction by Myron I. Lichtblau.” When the book was published by Syracuse University Press in 1991, it met with wide critical acclaim. “I know of no work, not even Henry James’ ‘The Art of Fiction,’ which so lucidly explains what a novelist does and how he does it,” the reviewer for Commentary wrote.
Unlike the dozen other books my father wrote — academic-minded tomes admired by fellow Spanish literary specialists but largely ignored by anyone else, with hundreds of leftover copies in our basement — this one even sold well. Alas, my father was ever the academic and never the businessman, and he had signed away his rights to the publishers. He never saw a penny from it, but it was no matter to him. A grateful Vargas Llosa flew him and my mother to Chicago to help him celebrate an award in his honor after the book’s release, and a personally signed copy of their collaboration — inscribed in Spanish with “deep gratitude” from “MVL” — was a prized possession of his, and is now one of mine.
The two men, the master and his accidental muse, remained friends for years, and Vargas Llosa returned to campus for follow-up visits before my father died in 2002. Dad would have turned 85 the week Vargas Llosa was awarded the Nobel, and I doubt he could have envisioned a better birthday present.
Eric Lichtblau is a reporter in The Times’s Washington bureau.
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