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Gabriel Garcia Marquez and The Art of Fiction

June 16, 2011

The Paris Review has a brilliant series called The Art of Fiction in which they interview some of the best scribes around. In my view, the best living writer in the world is Gabriel Garcia Marquez and this interview is a must for any writer learning his or her craft.

I was first introduced to Gabo’s writing a little over three years ago when I was gifted a copy of ‘Memories of My Melancholy Whores’. ‘That’, I thought at the time, ‘is a brilliant fucking title for a book’. The novella in a nutshell was on an ageing journalist who decides to gift himself a night of passion with a virgin on his 90th birthday. Sorta like a Lolita except, you know, weirder. I remember raising an eyebrow as I read the synopsis at the back, but I had heard about this Marquez guy and decided I’d give it a read. Suffice to say, the book went beyond a great title. Over the next 70 pages, I gasped in awe at his mastery of prose. If the translation read like this, how good would it be in the original language it was written in?

At the time, I had almost given up any notions of becoming a writer – writer’s block had had the better of me for over three years. It’s a funny thing this writing business. I’ve not been formally taught on the craft of writing. What I’ve picked up has been through reading as I digest words becoming phrases becoming sentences becoming paragraphs becoming chapters becoming books.

Writers, unlike musicians, are sometimes weighed down by our most precious tools, words – especially in this day and age where attention span is quite low and time is precious. Marquez’s prose, even in translation, reads like a dream because he writes like a musician. No where is that more visible than One Hundred Years of Solitude, the epic tome on  Macondo and the Buendía family.

There is a section in ‘Solitude where the town is besieged by a storm that lasts ten years. Everyone in the town is more or less restricted to their homes, businesses wither, and age-old habits die natural deaths. Aureliano Segundo is stuck at the home his great grandfather built with a wife he shares no connection with and away from his mistress who lives in the other side of town. Supplies at home are running low and his wife, Fernanda del Carpio, begins to complain one day and doesn’t stop.

Now any man knows the feeling of being nagged at by women (I say this with no malice intended towards you, ladies). It begins with our mothers and sisters and extends to girlfriends and wives. It feels like a never ending torrent of sound that we barely pay attention to – even though sometimes we ought to. So how does Marquez portray this on prose and page? He writes it as a never ending torrent of words: a five page long sentence.

My reaction at the time of reading it was sheer incredulity. You can’t do this, I kept thinking. This goes against everything writers and writing teachers tell you to do. But here was Marquez taking the supposed rules of writing, tearing it apart in front of me, setting it on fire, dancing around the blaze and doing it without sinking the narrative of the story in the process. He was liberating language in my head. As someone who always wanted to be a writer, I was left breathless. I knew then with absolute certainty: I am going to write that book I always wanted to write. This was all the inspiration I needed.

But back to The Paris Review and their interview with the great man: I urge all writers to read this regardless of whether you’ve read Marquez or not. Pearls of wisdom adorn this page for us scribes.

It is long so I’ll attempt here to highlight the salient bits.

'They (critics) have claimed for themselves the task of being intermediaries between the author and the reader. I’ve always tried to be a very clear and precise writer, trying to reach the reader directly without having to go through the critic.'

When asked about the two tools – truth and fiction – that separate the work of a journalist and a novelist respectively, he replies:

‘In journalism just one fact that is false prejudices the entire work. In contrast, in fiction one single fact that is true gives legitimacy to the entire work. That’s the only difference, and it lies in the commitment of the writer. A novelist can do anything he wants so long as he makes people believe in it.’

While that may strike some as obvious, the sheer possibilities that arise when a novelist applies the training and prudence of a journalist are enormous. Says Marquez, ‘That’s a journalistic trick which you can also apply to literature. For example, if you say that there are elephants flying in the sky, people are not going to believe you. But if you say that there are four hundred and twenty-five elephants flying in the sky, people will probably believe you.’

It is this technique that allowed him to get away with some of the more outlandish plot elements in ‘Solitude like flying carpets and the like.

In closing there is a piece of advise that hit me quite hard precisely because it is my biggest weakness: ‘I don’t think you can write a book that’s worth anything without extraordinary discipline.’

Read more here.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. June 17, 2011 1:49 pm

    I love that photo of him. Still sexy. 🙂

    • June 18, 2011 9:08 pm

      Not sure about the sexy bit, but am fond of the photograph as well. Was my computer wallpaper for a while 🙂

  2. June 19, 2011 9:08 pm

    I reacted the same way you did to Marquez’s style. While it violated the rules of fiction writing that I heard in writing workshops and conferences, I was enchanted with the narrative. Yes, it bewitched, bothered and bewildered (to borrow song lyrics). That’s what great literature should do. You are right to say that Marquez writes like a musician. Thanks for steering me to The Paris Review interview. While I was there I also read the one with Carlos Fuentes (another of my favorites). Marquez’s thoughts on writing struck many sympathetic chords with me. For him, good writing involves hard work, discipline and structure to the fictional work. I agee with his description of the “solitude of fame,” saying “It invades your private life.” He has guarded his privacy. I liked what he said about first paragraphs. Because I am currently working on an opening, his comments were very helpful. I appreciate the importance of getting the first paragraphs right much more than when I first started writing. I pay more attention to them and spend more time with them now. Marquez draws a valid distinction between how fiction and how journalism use fact. The development of the non-fiction novel, represented in such works as Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, shows the extent to which novelists and non-fiction writers borrow the techniques. The Nineteenth Wife is an interesting novel that alternates historical accounts of actual events with a fictional murder mystery. Marquez’s refers to notable authors and their works in this interview, clearly re-inforcing that to write well, an aspiring writer most first read widely in the world’s great literature, and that means, not only in their native language, but from other cultures. I think the “greats” are great in even in translation, and by the way, I have read One Hundred Years of Solitude in Spanish. Lastly, I love Marquez’s indifference to critics. He’s great, too, because he does not write for fame or fortune. He writes for the truth he knows in the best form he can give it.

  3. June 24, 2011 8:16 am

    Completely agreed on first paragraphs. Reading Marquez has taught me the absolute importance of the opening sentences – for truly, he writes opening sentences better than any writer I can think of.

    Speaking of journalistic technique, I’ve just ordered Roberto Bolona’s 2666. The premise of the novel sounds far too good to be ignored.

    And lastly, I completely agreed. I think I’ve become a better writer once I veered away from reading purely ‘English’ writers and instead sought translations of great literature from other languages. It has made me eager to learn German and Spanish after my two favourite writers.

    Thanks again for your thoughts and apologies for the delay in responding.

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