Although books about other books abound, there are very few that actually tell us what it is like to read. "The Temptation of the Impossible," Mario Vargas Llosa's book about Victor Hugo's "Les Misérables," is one of these rare confessions. Perhaps because Vargas Llosa is himself an author, a Peruvian rival of the Colombian Gabriel García Márquez, he has the confidence to tell us that his comprehension is sometimes stretched, his attention fluctuates and that when he closes his eyes, only a few memorable scenes from a novel appear before them.
Vargas Llosa calls these hotspots "active craters." In Hugo's epic novel, he picks out the scene in the Paris sewers as the ex-convict Jean Valjean emerges with Marius on his shoulders and also the epic battle on the barricade at La Chanvrerie, in which the street urchin Gavroche dies and Valjean saves the life of Javert, the relentless policeman. The scenes' vitality "flows from them and expands in time and space"; they "dominate the vast landscape of 'Les Misérables.' " The vastness of that landscape, at about 1,200 pages in translation, cannot be ignored. Vargas Llosa admits that the story has a "slow pace," but he makes a good apology for it. Were the story not so long, he writes, it would not be as powerful: "Quantity is one of the ingredients in the quality of a novel." Read More
It was one of the most popular novels of the nineteenth century and Tolstoy called it "the greatest of all novels."
Yet today Victor Hugo's Les Misérables is neglected by readers and undervalued by critics. In The Temptation of the Impossible, one of the world's great novelists, Mario Vargas Llosa, helps us to appreciate the incredible ambition, power, and beauty of Hugo's masterpiece and, in the process, presents a humane vision of fiction as an alternative reality that can help us imagine a different and better world.Hugo, Vargas Llosa says, had at least two goals in Les Misérables--to create a complete fictional world and, through it, to change the real world. Despite the impossibility of these aims, Hugo makes them infectious, sweeping up the reader with his energy and linguistic and narrative skill. Les Misérables, Vargas Llosa argues, embodies a utopian vision of literature--the idea that literature can not only give us a supreme experience of beauty, but also make us more virtuous citizens, and even grant us a glimpse of the "afterlife, the immortal soul, God." If Hugo's aspiration to transform individual and social life through literature now seems innocent, Vargas Llosa says, it is still a powerful ideal that great novels like Les Misérables can persuade us is true.Mario Vargas Llosa is a prolific novelist and essayist whose literary criticism includes A Writer's Reality, Letters to a Young Novelist, and studies of Flaubert and Gabriel García Márquez. Read More
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