‘This I Believe’: Man of Letters

From The New York Times:

Fuentes Carlos Fuentes is Mexico’s most celebrated novelist, though that description does no justice to his career as many other things. Perhaps the Victorian phrase ”man of letters” is more accurate: Fuentes is also a critic, a dramatist, a historian, a sometime professor at Cambridge and Harvard and occasional lecturer at other universities. But even ”man of letters” does not quite grasp him. He trained and worked in law and its international application, and for a couple of years in the 1970’s he was Mexico’s ambassador in Paris. (Mexico once looked favorably on writers as diplomats: a decade earlier, the poet Octavio Paz was appointed to look after his country’s interests in India.) So we need another term for Fuentes. Perhaps that term is ”public intellectual,” a clever and learned person prepared to put his head above the parapets of literary fiction and academe and set out his views on what’s right and wrong with humanity, engaging with what E. M. Forster called ”this outer life of anger and telegrams.” Most countries have them, but in the United States and Britain they are very rarely writers of fiction. There is Mailer and until recently Miller, of course, and Pinter, and once there were Shaw and Wells, but the writer in English is rare whose civic potency derives from anything beyond the appreciation of his craft and the values it contains. The work does the speaking. Literary writers as philosophic politicians have come recently from other languages and societies: Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia, Mario Vargas Llosa, Gabriel García Márquez and Fuentes in the Spanish of Latin America. To a writer in English their eminence may be seductive — oh, to live in a country where a novelist is taken so seriously! — but, as this book sometimes demonstrates, a novelist tends to be at his best when actually writing novels.

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