Valerie Miles Gets Things Going [A Month of a Thousand Forests]
As promised at various points in the past, all this month we’re going to be running excerpts from our latest book, A Thousand Forests in One Acorn by Valerie Miles. This anthology—which is so much more than an anthology—features twenty-eight great writers from the past century, each of whom picked out the handful of pages representing the “aesthetic high point” of their writing career.
Not only do you get the best of the best in here, but each author’s section is prefaced by an illuminating bio and an interview in which they address questions of influence, what they were trying to accomplish in their selected pieces, etc. This context is incredibly useful and fascinating, allowing the reader to build a sort of network . . .
Over the next month, we’ll be posting short excerpts from the collection—both from the interviews and the works themselves—starting with the interview below in which Valerie explains the project.
Also, for the month of September, you can receive a copy of A Thousand Forests in One Acorn for $15 by purchasing it through out website and using the code “FORESTS.”
Here’s the interview, which was conducted by University of Rochester MALTS graduate Katherine Rucker.
Katherine Rucker: Which authors chose works that surprised you? Were there instances when you didn’t agree with what they chose as their “best work?
Valerie Miles: I was surprised by more than a few of the choices the writers made, which charged the whole process with a far more interesting result, and sort of verified the idea that what a critic says objectively isn’t always in sync with how a writer feels about his or her own work. Yes, of course we know that, but I wanted to go farther and find a way to prove it. Not that a writer is correct and a critic mistaken, which is obviously not the case either. Just that there is a private space in which a critic, for however expertly versed he or she is in a writer’s work, cannot enter, it belongs to a writer’s private sphere. So I wanted to appeal to the writer’s complicity to enter this more intimate creative space, ask that they open the door to their studios and hand over the secrets about what they feel is their own best work; the obsessions that have finally sparked something significant, where the space between intent and result is at its minimum. I wanted to hear about the struggles they’ve had with form, or on the contrary, the felicities of a certain character, a passage, a technical accomplishment or a particular high stakes bet that aesthetically paid off.
This is what I set out to explore, that secret and intimate distance between a writer and his work. In that sense, perhaps two of the selections that I found some of the most surprising are those of Mario Vargas Llosa and Carlos Fuentes. During my initial discussion with Mr. Vargas Llosa, which was done by email since he was in Peru at the time and I was in Madrid and later Barcelona (some of these conversations, though edited down into short introductions in some cases, were often held over a long period of time), I had mentioned novels like Conversation in the Cathedral, since it represents a truly incredible technical and structural feat, and is widely considered one of his most accomplished novels. I also thought he might choose something from The Time of the Hero, which was such an important novel in the history of twentieth-century Latin American literature, initiating the whole movement known as the “boom”, when writers emerged of the stature of Cortázar, Gabriel García Márquez, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Carlos Fuentes. It was the launch of a generation of bold new writing from Latin America that quickly took center stage. The writers of that movement have made a mark, they brought a swing into audacious technical innovations, together with a newfound linguistic élan which lasted through the 1960s, 1970s and even 1980s (the pages of Granta magazine during the 80s give testament to how important translation from the Spanish was then. It was a time of great ebullience, and there was a sense that literature could help bring about social change, that it was imbued with significance beyond mere entertainment, an art form that was vital and challenging and pushing political discussions. Writing in the Americas was full of genius, and the new Latin American novel held a pole position on the map of world literature.
Instead, Vargas Llosa chose a piece from The Feast of the Goat, which touches on a theme that cuts across much of his writing, the abuse of political power in Latin America by merciless dictators and how their brutal behavior wreaked havoc over generations. He chose a fragment in which a young girl finally tells the secret of how she was brought to the dictator’s bed as a young girl and raped. He also chose another fragment, a scene from a book that is less widely known as some of his others, The Way to Paradise. Here, he brings Paul Gauguin to life and his grandmother, Flora Tristan, both of whom have left lives of a certain consequence to follow their individual ideals. Gauguin went to Tahiti to paint, and Flora Tristan to Paris to fight for women’s rights. It’s interesting that he would choose this fragment, which expresses a sort of Nabokovian flash of illumination with the strike of a match. The circumstances behind what brought Gauguin to paint his masterpiece, Spirit of the Dead Watching, which depicts his Tahitian mistress lying naked on her belly, terrified by the light of the match he struck when he entered his cabin late at night. She confused him with an ancestral ghost. Interestingly, they are both scenes of young girls in different sexual relationships with older men.
Carlos Fuentes, on the other hand, tells us cryptically that his choice, the fourth chapter of Terra Nostra, largely considered one of his more obscure novels, is his greatest accomplishment because it “has the unfortunate habit of summarizing my approach to storytelling.” I would have thought he might choose Where the Air is Clear, Aura, or The Death of Artemio Cruz, largely for the same reason as I mentioned earlier with Vargas Llosa. They are the novels that made him into a huge literary sensation at a time when the Latin American novel was experiencing its zenith. This was the last interview he gave before he died, and since then, in fact, the critics have begun revisiting Terra Nostra, it’s being studied more in universities, and there are serious deliberations regarding the nature and importance of the novel that may have been the most widely misunderstood in his lifetime.
One of the reasons I wanted to organize this project in this way, also, was to learn from the writers themselves and let them give me a good reading list!
KR: This anthology tells us where Spanish-language literature has come from. Can it also tell us where it’s going? Or, if there were to be “A Thousand Forests: Volume 2” in thirty years’ time, what are some young voices that you might expect to see there?
VM: That’s a very interesting question. I do think it gives a sense of the literary back and forth, the traffic, between Europe and the US during the latter part of the twentieth century. Europe as paradise, Europe as center, Paris particularly is itself almost a protagonist. Also Faulkner, interestingly, looms large as one of the most important influences on these generations. However the U.S. was at the time more of an enemy than a friend. It seems, though, that the North and the South have grown closer in many ways, and I would venture to say that the literary traffic is now more north and south than transatlantic, which one would think should always have been natural, but it wasn’t back in the day. The Cold War, Pinochet, it was “complicated”. But New York seems to be taking the relay from Paris as the center, where the conversation is, which I find particularly exciting.
Also, if you notice, there aren’t as many female voices as I would have liked. I finally decided I had to get this book done, it had been on my mind for many years, when Cabrera Infante died and I hadn’t had the chance to ask him the question of what he considered his best pages. And García Márquez was already too ill to respond. The Mexican Daniel Sada had passed. I think the feminine voice has been growing and hopefully when it would come time to do another volume, we could be sure to have a strong crop of women writing. But not because they are token, but because they are that good . . . a new generation of Lispecters, of Silvina Ocampos, of Carmen Martin Gaites.
KR: Of the excerpts and stories included in the anthology, which ones would you most like to see translated in their entirety in the future?
VM: I would love to see someone take Hebe Uhart on, which would be a monumental challenge for a translator, a sort of Argentine version of the linguistic panache that is the trademark of Rafael Sánchez Ferlosio’s writing. She’s got such a sharp ear for language and yet she’s so terribly funny. Sánchez Ferlosio demonstrates in his choice for this anthology how the fantastic can be much more claustrophobic than any unrelenting realism! But Hebe is just one of those big old secrets just waiting to be discovered, and Andrés Neuman quoted her in the epigraph of his novel Talking to Ourselves. I think Horacio Castellanos Moya is another truly hilarious writer, but his humor is of the neurotic type, so psychologically penetrating it makes you blush, he’s an absolute master of the charming rogue. You just can’t believe he’s doing this, but there he is, just doing it! And there is nobody, and I mean nobody, as deliciously perverse as the ninety-something Aurora Venturini who had the audacity to send one of her novels in anonymously for a young writer’s award, taking it unanimously after not publishing for as many years as the age of some of the other contestants. Borges discovered her and awarded her with her first literary distinction, before she was forced into Parisian exile for having been so close to Evita Perón. Also, the Cuban writer Abilio Estévez, who is also a very talented playwright and hence so incredibly spot on with his characterization. Or the great artisan of the sensuous, the Mexican Alberto Ruy Sánchez, whose series of erotic novels are about the most arousing examples of what can be done with the form when its in the hands of such a careful, affectionate wordsmith.
Say Ramiro Pinilla three times in a row in front of the mirror. I dare you . . . A Fig Tree will appear.
KR: You spoke a little bit about the experience of working with the authors in your preface. Was there a common theme or thread that you saw in their experience as writers?
VM: I asked two questions that were the same to each one of the writers and by that measure, I was able to survey whether or not there were differences. And yes, as anyone who reads their answers can see, there was a very wide range of different and even contradictory answers, which I find one of the happiest results of all. There’s no rote! And then the third and fourth or fifth questions, the “coda” section, was to continue the path of the conversation set out by them.
So what does that mean? It means that there are as many doorways to the craft as people who have the keys. Each one, as an individual, has had to confront the blank page, and each one of them feels differently about just about everything involved. For example, I call the section where I ask them to talk about their selection of their best pages as “Dr. Johnson’s torture” because I could see how some writers just really had a hard time talking about their own creative process—as was the case of Eduardo Mendoza, for example, or the great Basque writer, Ramiro Pinilla, for whom Faulkner was a liberation and Algorta his own private Yoknapatawpha. Others, like Marías, took up the challenge and our conversation lasted an entire summer! His section really shows someone dedicated to the devices of literature and very consciously applying new techniques and innovations in point of view, in poetical associations between forms. Each writer inhabits their own personal labyrinth and that’s what makes the chance to compare and contrast these different approaches a rich experience.
After all, we needed Paris to tell us how important Faulkner was, and in a Telerama poll taken in France in 2009, Faulkner beat out Flaubert, Stendhal, Baudelaire, de Beauvoir, Camus and Celine, coming in second only to Proust. Early on, in the US, he was considered a mere chronicler of the Southern condition. The Boom—Fuentes, García Márquez, Vargas Llosa—are the children of Faulkner. That’s why translation is so important, it brings the periphery into the center and renews our own traditions. Sometimes we don’t see our own forest for the trees and we need a readership to appreciate what we aren’t able to see for ourselves. What would Baudelaire be without our Poe, whom Emerson used to call “the jingle man”? And what would Bolaño be without Baudelaire?