In the tradition of Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet, Mario Vargas Llosa condenses a lifetime of writing, reading and thought into an essential manual for aspiring writers, revealing in the process his deepest beliefs about our common literary endeavor. A writer, in his view, is a being sized by an insatiable appetite for creation, a rebel and a dreamer. But dreams, when set down on paper, require disciplined development, and so Vargas Llosa undertakes to supply the tools of transformation. Drawing on the stories and novels of writers from around the globe - Borges, Bierce, Céline, Cortázar, Faulkner, Kafka, Robbe-Grillet - he lays bare the inner workings of fiction, examining time, space, style, and structure, all he while urging young novelist not to lose touch with the elemental urge to create. Conversational, eloquent, and effortlessly erudite, this little book is destined to be read and reread by young writers, old writers, would-be writers, and those with a stake in the world of letters. By Miriam Berkeley.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Copyright by Mario Vargas Llosa, Translated by Natasha Wimmer, ISBN: 0-374-11916-3


Shifts and Qualitative Leaps

Dear Friend,

You're right: throughout our correspondence as we've discussed the three points of view that are common to all novels, I've used the expression shifts several times to refer to certain conversions a narrative undergoes, but I haven't really stopped to explain this common fictional device as carefully as I should. I'm going to describe the process now; it is one of the most ancient used by writers in the composition of their stories.

A "shift" is an alteration in any of the points of view we've examined. There may, therefore, be spatial shifts, temporal shifts, or shifts in level of reality. Frequently, especially in the twentieth century, novels have multiple narrators: sometimes various narrator-characters, as in Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, sometimes an omniscient, exterior narrator and one or more narrator-characters, as in Joyce's Ulysses. Each time, then, that the spatial perspective of the story changes - and it changes whenever there is a shift in narrator, which is evident when the grammatical person switches form he to I, from I to he, or otherwise fluctuates - a spatial shift is taking place. In some novels these shifts are frequent and in others they are rare, and only the end result indicates whether they are helpful or counterproductive and whether they reinforce or undermine the story's power of persuasion. When spatial shifts are effective, they manage to give a broad, variegated, even global and totalizing vision of a story (and thereby produce the illusion of independence from the real world that, as we've already noted, all fictional worlds secretly aspire to). If the shifts aren't effective, the result may be confusion: the reader is disoriented by the sudden and arbitrary leaps in perspective.

Perhaps less frequent than spatial shifts are temporal shifts, the movements of the narrator in time that cause a story to unfold simultaneously before or eyes in the past, present, or future. If the technique is well applied, of temporal self-sufficiency. There are writers who are obsessed with the subject of time - we've discussed a few - and that is evident not only in the subject matter of their novels but also in their construction of unusual and sometimes incredibly complex chronological systems. One example out of thousands: D.M. Thomas's novel The White Hotel, which was much discussed in its time. The novel tells the story of a terrible massacre of Jews in the Ukraine; the confessions that the protagonist, the singer Lisa Erdman, makes to her Viennese analyst, Sigmund Freud, are its slender backbone. From the temporal point of view, the novel is divided into three parts, which correspond to the past, present, and future of the chilling collective crime, the novel's crux. The temporal point of view shifts twice: from the past to the present (the massacre) and to the future of the narrative's central event. But this second shift, to the future, is not just temporal: it is also had existed in a "realist", historical, objective plane, shifts after the massacre in the last chapter, "The Camp", into a fantastic reality, a purely imaginary plane, an ethereal, spiritual territory inhabited by beings shed of physical existence, shades or ghosts of the human victims of the slaughter. The temporal shift is also a qualitative leap, causing the narrative to change in nature. As a result of the shift, the story shoots from a realist world to a purely fantastic one. Something similar happens in Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf when the immortal spirits of the great creators of past appear to the narrator-character.

It is shifts in level of reality that give writers to the best opportunity to organize their narrative materials in a complex and original fashion. In saying this I don't mean to denigrate shifts in space and time, where the possibilities are, for obvious reasons, more limited; I merely wish to emphasize that, given the existence of innumerable levels of reality, the possibility of shifts is correspondingly immense, and writers of all eras have learned to exploit this very versatile resource.

But before we venture deep into the rich terrain of shifts, it might perhaps be convenient to make a distinction. Shifts are defined, on the one hand, by the points of view in which they occur - spatial, temporal, or level of reality - and, on the other hand, by their supplementary or substantive (peripheral or essential) character. A mere temporal or spatial change is significant, but it doesn't entirely alter the substance of a story, whether the story is realist or fantastic. The kind of shift that occurs in a novel like The White Hotel, however does change the nature of the tale, transferring it from an objective ("realist") world to a purely fantastic one. The shifts that provoke this ontological cataclysm - since they change the being of the narrative - may be called qualitative leaps, a term borrowed from the Hegelian dialectic; according to Hegel, quantitative accumulation triggers "a leap in quality" (like that of water, which becomes a gas when it boils long enough or is turned to ice when its temperature drops low enough). A narrative undergoes a similar transformation when a radical shift in the point of view in terms of level of reality occurs, constituting a qualitative leap.

Let's take a look at some striking examples from the rich arsenal of contemporary literature. In two contemporary novels published a good many years apart, for example, one Brazilian and the other English - The Devil to Pay in the Blacklands by Joao Guimaraes Rosa and Orlando by Virginia Woolf - the sudden change in sex of the main character (from man to woman in both cases) causes the entire narrative to undergo a qualitative shift, relocating the narrative from a plane that until that point seemed "realist" to one that is imaginary and even fantastic. In both instances, the shift is a crux, a central upheaval in the body of the narrative, an episode of maximum concentration of experiences that confers on its setting a quality it didn't seem to possess before. There is no such crux in Kafkas's Metamorphosis, in which the remarkable event - poor Gregor Samsa's transformation into a horrible cockroach - takes place in the story's first sentence, positioning the story from the start in the realm of the fantastic.

These are examples of sudden and rapid shifts, abrupt acts that, because they are miraculous or extraordinary, skew the coordinates of the "real" world and give it a new dimension, a secret and marvelous configuration conforming not to rational or physical laws but rather to dark, fundamental forces that are only possible to understand (and, in some cases, control) through divine mediation, witchcraft, or magic. But in Kafka's most famous novels, The Castle and The Trial, the shift is a slow, involved, and stealthy process, the result of the accumulation or intensification in time of a certain state of things; in the end, the narrative world is emancipated from the objective reality - the "realism" - it pretended to imitate, and reveals itself as a different brand, a different species of reality. The mysterious Mr. K., the anonymous surveyor of The Castle, tries many times to reach the massive edifice that looms over the district where he has come to work and where he is the supreme authority. The obstacles he encounters are trivial at first; for a good stretch of the tale, the reader has the sense of being submerged in a tightly realist world, a world that appears to mirror the most ordinary, everyday aspects of reality. But as the story progresses and the unlucky Mr.K. seems more and more defenseless and vulnerable, confounded by obstacles that, we come to understand, aren't fortuitous or the by-product of a mere administrative inertia but the manifestations of a sinister secret mechanism that controls human actions and destroys individuals, we readers are seized with the consciousness - besides the mounting anguish we feel at the impotence in which humanity is mired in the story - that the novel's level of reality is not the objective and historical one familiar to us but another kind of reality, a symbolic and allegorical (or simply fantastic) imaginary version. (This, however, should not be taken to suggest that "fantastic" novels are any less capable of imparting illuminating lessons about human existence and our own reality.) The shift takes place, then, between tow magnitudes or levels of reality much more slowly and tortuously than in Orlando of The Devil to Pay in the Backlands.

The same thing happens in The Trial, in which Mr. K. finds himself trapped in the nightmarish labyrinth of a political and judicial system that initially seems "realist" to us, a somewhat paranoid interpretation of the inefficiency and absurdities that lead to the excessive bureaucratization of justice. But then, as absurd occurrences become increasingly frequent and intense, at a certain moment we begin to realize that there is something more sinister and inhuman behind the administrative tangle that traps the protagonist and is gradually destroying him: an ominous system of a perhaps metaphysical nature in which a citizen's free will and ability to react vanish; a system that uses individuals like a puppet master manipulating puppets on a stage; an order that it is impossible to rebel against, one that is omnipotent, invisible, and deeply ingraines in human consciousness. Symbolic, metaphysical, or fantastic, this level of reality becomes evident gradually and progressively in The Trial, as in The Castle, so that it is impossible to determine the precise moment the metamorphosis takes place. The same is true of Moby-Dick, isn't it? The endless chase across the sea in the pursuit of a white whale that, by virtue of its very absence, acquires an aura of evil legend and is seen as a mythical animal - doesn't it, too, undergo a shift or qualitative leap that transforms what was at first a realist novel into a tale classifiable as imaginary, symbolic, allegorical, metaphysical - or simply fantastic?

At this point, your head is probably full of memorable shifts and qualitative leaps from your favorite novels. And the truth is, writers from every age have made frequent use of the device, especially in fantastic fictions. Let's think back on some of the shifts that are still vivid in our memory, shifts that serve as reminders of the books we've enjoyed. I know! I'm sure I've guessed right: Comala! Isn't the name of that Mexican village the first that comes to mind when we think about shifts? And the association is an excellent one, since it's unlikely that anyone who has read Juan Rulfo's classic 1955 novel Pedro Páramo will ever forget the shock of discovering deep into the book that all the characters in the story are dead and the fictional Comala is not part of "reality" - or not, at least, the reality the reader inhabits - but belongs to a literary reality, where the dead do not disappear but continue to live. This is one of the most effective shifts (of the radical, qualitative-leap kind) of contemporary Latin American literature. The way it is achieved is so masterful that if you set out to establish where it occurs in the space or time of the story, you're faced with a real dilemma. Because it is rooted in no precise episode, event, or moment but reveals itself little by little, gradually, insinuatingly, announcing its progress in vague signs and faint traces that we barely notice when we come across them. Only later, retroactively, do the string of clues and the accumulation of suspicious events and incongruities allow us to see that Comala is a town not of live beings but of ghosts.

But it might be a good idea to move on the other literary shifts less macabre than Rulfo's. The most engaging, exuberant, and amusing one I can think of takes place in the story "Letter to a Young Lady in Paris" by Julio Cortázar. An amazing shift in level of reality occurs when the narrator-character, the author of the letter in question, lets us know that he has the unfortunate habit of vomiting up bunnies. This is a serious qualitative leap in the middle of what is generally a lighthearted story, though there is a chance it ends in tragedy; the last sentences of the letter insinuate that the protagonist, overcome by the constant stream of bunnies, kills himself at the end of the tale.

This is a procedure Cortázar often employs in his stories and novels. He uses it essentially to unsettle things in his invented worlds, shifting from a fairly simple, everyday reality of predictable, banal, ordinary elements to another, fantastic world where extraordinary things happen, like humans vomiting bunnies, and in which there is often a hint of violence. You must have read "The Maenads", another of Cortázar's great stories, in which the narrative world undergoes a psychic transformation, this one progressive and exponential. At what first seems a harmless concert at the most excessive enthusiasm of the audience; this enthusiasm degenerates into an explosion of savage, incomprehensible death. At the end of this unexpected slaughter, we are discomfited and ask ourselves whether it all really happened or whether it was a horrible nightmare, an absurd occurrence taking place in "another world", a world governed by an unusual mix of fantasy, hidden terrors, and the darker impulses of the human spirit.

Cortázar knows how to use shifts better than almost any other writer, whether those shifts are gradual or sudden, and in space, time, or level of reality: in the unmistakable geography of his world, poetry and the imaginations are linked with his infallible sense of what the surrealists called the incredible everyday, and the apparent simplicity and conversational ease of his clean, fluid prose, entirely free of mannerisms, disguise complex arguments and a great inventive audacity.

Now that we're recalling literary shifts that linger in memory, I must cite one (and it's a crux) that occurs in Death on the Installment Plan by Céline. I have no personal sympathy for Céline: his racism and anti-Semitism inspire repugnance in me; nevertheless, he wrote two great novels (the other is Journey to the End of the Night). In Death on the Installment Plan, there is an unforgettable episode in which the protagonist crosses the English Channel on a ferry full of passengers. The sea is rough, and the rocking of the little boat makes everyone on board - crew and passengers alike - seasick. And of course, in the kind of sordid and threatening atmosphere that so fascinated Céline, everybody starts to vomit. Up until this point, we are in a natural world - an incredibly vulgar and petty world, perhaps - but our feet are firmly planted in objective reality. However, the vomit hat begins to fall on the reader, splashing him with all the filth and waste one can imagine Céline's organisms expelling, is so painstakingly and effectively described that the tale becomes detached from reality and turns into something nightmarish and apocalyptic, until finally it is not just a handful of seasick men and women but all the humans in the universe who seem to be coughing up their guts. As a result a visionary, sympbolic, and even fantastic plane; everything in the narrative is affected by the extraordinary transformation.

We could keep on discussing shifts indefinitely but that would mean repeating ourselves, since the examples cited more than explain the way the process (with its different variations) works and the effects it has on the novel. It may be worth insisting on something I haven't tired of repeating since my first letter: in and of themselves, shifts don't guarantee or indicate anything, and their success or failure in terms of power of persuasion depends on the particular way in which a narrator uses shifts in a specific story: the same process may strengthen a novel's power of persuasion or destroy it.

To conclude, I'd like to remind you of a theory of fantastic literature developed by the great French-Belgian critic and essayist Roger Caillois (in the prologue to his Anthologie du fantasique). According to Caillois, true fantastic literature isn't created deliberately; it isn't the result of a conscious effort by an author who sets out to write a fantastic tale. In Caillois's opinion, true fantastic literature requires the spontaneous revelation of incredible, prodigious, fabulous, rationally inexplicable acts, unpremeditated and possibly even unnoticed by the author - it is literature in which the fantastic appears motu proprio, as one might say. In other words, these fictions don't tell fantastic stories; they themselves are fantastic. This is a very debatable theory, of course, but it is original and rich in possibility, and it provides us with a good way of ending this reflection on shifts, one of whose versions might be - if Caillois isn't too far off track - the autogenerated shift: a shift that would bypass the author, take possession of the text, and set it along a path its creator could never foresee.


Page 89 - 99, Mario  Vargas LLosa, "Letters to a Young Novelist", Translated by Natasha Wimmer