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Mario Vargas Llosa at The New York Public Library
Not that it happens very often, but when asked who my favorite contemporary writer is I always split it down the middle between Charles Portis and Mario Vargas Llosa. Vargas Llosa's La Casa Verde - The Green House - is one of my all-time favorite novels along with The War of the End of the World, Conversation in the Cathedral, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter—the list goes on. I only wish my Spanish was good enough to better appreciate them in the original, but fortunately all of his books have been well-translated.
Back in the mid-1980's he visited the 42nd Street branch of the New York Public Library to do research for one of his novels and was there several days in a row. Each time he came he would pick up his books at the busy South Hall delivery window then sit down at a nearby table and read. I'd never seen anybody who was able to read for such long periods of time without fidgeting or nodding off or being distracted by the activity around them or getting up every fifteen minutes to stretch their legs or go to the bathroom. It was the most remarkable feat of continuous silent reading I'd ever witnessed. Some of my colleagues urged me to approach him since they knew I was an aficionado of his writings. But I didn't do it. I was too much in awe and I didn't want to disturb him.
Flash forward to May of 2008 and here was Mario Vargas Llosa again, looking quite distinctive in a dark blazer and his hair now completely silver, sitting at one of the same tables where he had sat so many years ago—reading! It's not so easy to do that these days with the introduction of internet and database computers and the presence of the laptop crowd, wired and wireless, working on their spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations while streaming YouTube music videos or last week’s episode of “American Idol”; not to mention the hordes of tourists chattering and milling about and snapping pictures with their cameras and cell phones. Mere readers of books are something of a throwback. It’s getting harder to imagine someone going to a large public library simply to “use the collection.”
Anyway, this time, I figured what the hell. I approached him—"Señor Vargas Llosa?" “Yes?” he answered looking up from his book—and introduced myself and told him how much I admired his work. I informed him I was on the staff of the Library and should he require any reference help to let me know. He was very gracious and thanked me for my interest and offer of assistance. Afterwards, I was in my work space in the catalog room looking at a shelf of my own personal items and noticed a number of books by Mario Vargas Llosa there. I went back into the reading room and approached him again with a copy of The War of the End of the World which he kindly signed for me. I recalled his previous visit many years ago and he said he was working on his novel El hablador - The Storyteller at that particular time.
Over the course of the next few weeks he continued to come regularly to the Library. He was researching Roger Casement, the Irish patriot who was hanged by the British in 1916, about whom he was writing a novel. He said the Library had a wealth of materials. His amazing capacity for sitting still and reading was not diminished in the least.
He always did his work at the first few tables in the South Hall reading room near the delivery window which with the constant commotion can sometimes have more the air of a bus station than a library. On one occasion two readers got into a dispute by one of the internet work stations. There was an older fellow—a regular we called “Pops”—who was bent over a book, while the other person resembled a younger, slightly deranged version of Joe Girardi, the skipper of the New York Yankees. Somehow they had managed to invade each other’s personal space and were going at it. Sr. Vargas Llosa, along with everyone else in that part of the room, stopped what they were doing and watched the scene unfold. I intervened and was trying to calm things down to little avail. I told Pops that he could move to another table but he refused to do so. I told Joe Girardi that if he didn’t cool it I’d have to call security.
“I don’t care about security and I don’t care if he’s 80 years old—I’ll punch him out!” was his response.
Just then a woman arrived with a ticket showing she had a reservation for the computer where Girardi was sitting. With an operatic sigh he got up and stalked off to another table. For the moment the situation was defused. As I walked away I looked at Sr. Vargas Llosa and said sotto voce, “Welcome to the New York Public Library.” He laughed and resumed his reading.
We talked on several more occasions although I tried not to distract him from his work. I learned that in addition to his research, he was able to spend time with family. His wife was with him here in New York and one weekend their son and daughter-in-law and the grand kids came up from Washington D.C. and they all had gone on an outing to the Bronx Zoo. His daughter was temporarily living in Boston where her husband was completing course work at Boston University for his Ph.D. Because the daughter and son-in-law would soon be returning to Peru there was going to be yet another family get together.
At one point, I presented Sr. Vargas Llosa with copies of my own books—two self-published fiction collections (here and here) and SOG Medic, a personal narrative of the Vietnam War which I co-authored. He readily accepted them. In an accompanying note I told him that he was now one of a few persons in possession of my modest obras completas. As he thumbed through the pages of SOG Medic he asked me if I had gone to Vietnam. I said no, I just helped Joe Parnar write the book. He noticed that I was originally from Oklahoma and recalled delivering a lecture many years ago at the University of Oklahoma in Norman and knowing Ivar Ivask, the former editor of World Literature Today which is published there. He thanked me and said, “I will read your books.” I took this as a courtesy rather than a promise. I'm sure he must have a closet somewhere where he stores all the stuff that people constantly bestow on him.
We had lunch together on another day at O'Casey's, a wood-paneled Irish pub near the Library—an appropriate venue given his research topic, with its portraits of Joyce and prints of the Irish countryside hanging on the walls. He ordered a Guinness and I had a Black and Tan. He offered a toast “to literature” and we clinked glasses. While waiting for our food we were discussing the joys and pains of writing. He listened patiently as I talked about my own novel in progress. We both agreed that the initial draft of any piece of writing is the hardest. “After that, the pleasure begins,” he declared.
I mentally pinched myself. Surely, this wasn't really happening—that I was actually sitting here chatting with Mario Vargas Llosa about his use of vasos comunicantes and various other literary matters. Surely, I would wake up any moment with the realization that I was only having a vivid and protracted dream.
I told him I was recently in Mexico City and attended a Lucha Libré match. We both laughed when recalling one of the chapters in Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter that depicts a wrestling match that ends in hilarious and utter confusion, with a certain “triumphant disorder” such as Roland Barthes describes in “The World of Wrestling.” I was surprised when Sr. Vargas Llosa said he was not familiar with Barthes’ essay and wanted to know if it was included in Mythologies.
I asked him about the week he spent lecturing at Bard College the previous Fall. I told him I was interested because my daughter graduated from Bard in 2005. He said he had been very impressed with the campus and the students. He thought the Hudson Valley area was quite beautiful but “possibly very cold in the winter.” I began telling him about Charles Portis, who I said was my favorite American author. He was curious and wanted to hear more about him. I related that Portis had written five novels and never married; that he lived in Little Rock, Arkansas and had traveled extensively in Mexico. Sr. Vargas Llosa was familiar with True Grit because of the John Wayne movie but not read the novel. I assured him the book was much superior to the film. I also said that someone had once observed that the reason Portis took so long between books was because every sentence he wrote was “a perfect American sentence.” He asked if Little Rock was a “village.” I told him it was small to medium-sized city. As we passed by the bar on the way out of the restaurant, a soccer match between Manchester United and Chelsea was being shown on the large-screen TV. We stopped for a moment to watch the action and check the score. I asked him if he followed fútbol and he nodded affirmatively.
* * *
Shortly after that, I arranged for Sr. Vargas Llosa to meet with Isaac Gewirtz, the curator of the Berg Collection which contains some of the most noteworthy items in the Library's archives. The three of us gathered in Isaac's small office one afternoon where he provided some background on the Berg brothers—Henry and Albert—and spoke about the history of the collection. The presentation began with copies of the first Spanish and English-language editions of Don Quixote. Sr. Vargas Llosa said that copies of the first edition were smuggled into Peru, despite a ban by the Spanish government, but it’s not known what became of them; and that in Spain today copies are owned by the Academia Real, the Biblioteca Nacional, and the Dutchess of Alba. Isaac then showed us some examples of the extraordinary illuminated books executed by William Blake, containing his most famous poems and etchings. Next was Charles Dickens’ own copy of A Christmas Carol, with his hand-written notes and directions to himself indicating which passages to emphasize when reading aloud before an audience. Isaac opened a small box and handed Sr. Vargas Llosa a writing pen that had belonged to Dickens. “A great writer holds the pen of another great writer,” Isaac intoned.
He brought out a portable writing desk that had been used by one of the Bronte sisters along with some pencils and a paper weight. Then it was a typescript of The Heart of Darkness (finding aid). Sr. Vargas Llosa had not known that Conrad typed. He wondered if there was an earlier, hand-written version and said that he still prefers to first do a hand-written draft before turning to the typewriter or computer. He described himself as a “great admirer of Conrad,” and said that Lord Jim was one of the first works of serious literature he had read when he was young. He noted that Conrad had known Roger Casement in Africa, and that it was while reading a biography of Conrad he had first learned about Casement. Now came Mark Twain’s first draft, with corrections, of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (finding aid), followed by some of Virginia Woolf’s original diaries as well as a hand-written first draft of The Waves (finding aid). Isaac said that the whereabouts of Woolf's later typescript drafts of the novel were unknown, but had not been among Woolf's papers when they were acquired by the Berg. He passed around her cane which was found on the river bank near where she drowned herself. Next was a typescript of a screenplay of Lolita (finding aid) which Nabokov had sent to Staney Kubrick. According to Isaac, Nabokov burned an earlier manuscript of Lolita because he feared being deported for creating an obscene work. Isaac asked Sr. Vargas Llosa if he had read Ada. “Yes, but I enjoyed Lolita much more and I believe Pale Fire is a masterpiece!”
One the most famous items in the Berg Collection is the typescript copy of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land with Ezra Pound’s hand-written annotations (finding aid). Only a few leaves of it have been displayed publicly, but a facsimile copy was published in 1971. I’ve always been intrigued by Eliot’s original idea for a title of the poem—“He Do the Police in Different Voices”—and there were those very words typed in all caps at the top of the first page. When Isaac related that Eliot's wife Vivien had made her own notations in the text, I wondered if those were perhaps along the lines of “Dear Tom—Pick up cat food and cigarettes at the store.” I kept my thoughts to myself however.
We were looking at some Carl Van Vechten photos of Gertrude Stein when the name of Borges came up. Isaac hustled off to the vaults to retrieve a photo of him taken two years before he died. Sr. Vargas Llosa told a story about when he was working as a journalist and had the opportunity to interview the Argentine master in France. “But when I sat down in his presence, I found myself unable to speak.” It was left to Borges to begin things by remarking that he considered “politics to be a form of tedium.” Eventually, Sr. Vargas Llosa recovered himself and the interview proceeded. He also recalled how reading Borges had been a secret passion for himself and for all the young Sartre-influenced engagé writers he was involved with at one time. I inquired if it was a secret they were keeping from each other.
The Borges photo and anecdote were a fitting end to an extraordinary presentation. And that day was easily my most memorable day of working at the Library over the course of 32 years. As we were leaving the Berg Collection reading room, Isaac pointed out Dickens’ desk in the corner and next to it in a bookcase a copy of Vanity Fair, inscribed to Dickens by Thackeray. Sr. Vargas Llosa turned to the last page of the novel and read aloud the final line: “…let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out.”
The next day Isaac told me he had given Sr. Vargas Llosa a copy of his own book, Beatific Soul – Jack Kerouac on the Road which he wrote to accompany the exhibition and celebration of the 50th anniversary of the novel’s publication, along with a facsimile copy of The Waste Land. I added one more item to the pile with a copy of True Grit. So many books Sr. Vargas Llosa was accumulating while staying in a sublet apartment near Union Square. What would he do with them all? I also asked him to sign a copy of Tia Julia… for the mother of my colleague Elizabeth (Estrada) Rutigliano; Elizabeth’s mom, who is originally from Colombia, was very excited to learn that her daughter had met the legendary author.
But his time in New York was coming to an end. His research was nearly complete. He and his wife were preparing to return to Spain. On his last day at the Library he presented me with a signed copy of his latest book to be translated into English—The Bad Girl. We shook hands and said goodbye.
* * *
He had provided me his mailing address in Madrid as well as two different e-mail addresses. Over the next two years I wrote and e-mailed a few times but did not hear back from him directly. “Mario has gone to Paris for a literary conference,” I was advised on one occasion by his wife; another time his secretary said that he was traveling in the Congo and on a “tight schedule.”
In September of 2010, I saw that the Roger Casement book was about to be published. The title in Spanish was El sueño del celta - The Dream of the Celt. I e-mailed again to congratulate him and said I looked forward to reading it. I also wanted to let him know I had recently retired from service with the Library. I gave him contact information for Elizabeth, telling him that if he required any sort of reference assistance, he should be in touch with her. I figured nothing would come of it but shortly afterwards I received an e-mail from his secretary informing me that Sr. Vargas Llosa was to be a visiting professor at Princeton for the Fall 2010 semester and would most likely be stopping by the Library at some point. I forwarded the e-mail to Elizabeth so she would have a heads-up. And then a couple of weeks later he was indeed in the Library. It happened to be a day when there was some sort of system-wide glitch with the computer catalog and he was having a problem with it. Fortunately, Elizabeth was on hand and able to resolve things. She offered to let him sit in a separate, enclosed area in the reading room but he indicated he was fine at his regular table amid the usual hubbub.
And just a few days after that came the splendid news that Mario Vargas Llosa had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature (read his Nobel Lecture of December 7, 2010). Most well-deserved in my opinion. But I was surprised actually. I'd told Elizabeth previously that he probably would never get it because of his outspoken, anti-left wing political views. The Swedish Academy cited “his cartography of the structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt, and defeat.” Whatever their reasons, this time they got it right. The sheer excellence of his work won out. I read with great interest all the stories in the press and watched a video on the internet of his press conference at the Cervantes Institute before a “rowdy” group of 150 international journalists. His initial reaction had been that it was a hoax! I sent an e-mail offering un mil congratulations. Only one of diez mil no doubt. His secretary must have been very busy dealing with the flood of incoming letters, e-mails, and phone calls.
A follow-up piece in The New York Times described his teaching duties at Princeton and the reaction of his students to the news of the award. The article stated that he “adored” spending his free afternoons in The New York Public Library because of its “ample space and generous natural light.” One unfortunate result, however, of his winning the Nobel Prize, is that most likely, at least for now, Sr. Vargas Llosa’s days of simply walking into the Library, calling for a book, and sitting down and reading it undisturbed are over. But eventually, after the excitement dies down, and the allure of another project beckons, I expect he will be back working at one of his usual tables.
Brooklyn, New York