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the Complete Review
the complete review - literary criticism

The Perpetual Orgy

Mario Vargas Llosa

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To purchase The Perpetual Orgy

Title: The Perpetual Orgy
Author: Mario Vargas Llosa
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 1975 (Eng. 1986)
Length: 240 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: The Perpetual Orgy - US
The Perpetual Orgy - UK
The Perpetual Orgy - Canada
L'orgie perpétuelle - France
Die ewige Orgie - Deutschland
La orgía perpetua - España

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  • Flaubert and 'Madame Bovary'
  • Spanish title: La orgía perpetua
  • Translated by Helen Lane

Our Assessment:

A- : excellent companion-piece to Madame Bovary

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
London Rev. of Books . 26/11/1987 Philip Horne
The LA Times . 18/1/1987 Leslie W. Rabine
The New Republic . 8/6/1987 Michael Wood
The New Statesman . 3/7/1987 Nick Caistor
The NY Rev. of Books . 16/7/1987 Roger Shattuck
The NY Times . 9/12/1986 John Gross
The NY Times Book Rev. A+ 21/12/1986 Julian Barnes
Time . 22/12/1986 R.Z.Sheppard

  From the Reviews:
  • "Vargas Llosa provides a wealth of detail about biographical and literary sources. But most of this information is already available elsewhere. In fact, the main weakness of The Perpetual Orgy is that it lacks originality. (...) (T)he book is less interesting for the questions it raises about Madame Bovary than for the questions it raises about the institution of publishing." - Leslie W. Rabine, The Los Angeles Times

  • "After the impressionistic prologue, we move on to more customary considerations - in the first instance, to an examination of the genesis of the novel, of Flaubert's working methods, and of the literary or real-life sources on which he may have drawn. The inquiry takes the form of a catechism, a series of questions with answers varying in length from a paragraph to 9 or 10 pages. This proves to be a highly effective device (indeed, you wonder why it hasn't been used more often) and enables Mr. Vargas Llosa to provide a clear and vigorous account of some much-debated issues. (...) Taken as a whole The Perpetual Orgy is a stimulating and forceful study, and one that offers many passing rewards." - John Gross, The New York Times

  • "Most of The Perpetual Orgy, at last available in Helen Lane's elegant translation, is a discussion of the genesis, execution, structure and technique of Madame Bovary. It is the best single account of the novel I know. Flaubertistes will instantly set it alongside Francis Steegmuller's classic Flaubert and Madame Bovary; students of literature who want to know how a novel works could not be better advised than to listen to Mr. Vargas Llosa hunched over this masterpiece like some vintage car freak over the engine of a Lagonda." - Julian Barnes, The New York Times Book Review

  • "(A) highly original work of nonfiction, part literary testament and part critical study of Madame Bovary (....) Vargas Llosa satisfies his own craving: to make love to a masterpiece in public." - R.Z.Sheppard, Time

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary (see our review) is a novel that, for a variety of reasons, holds great appeal for Mario Vargas Llosa. From the fact that it is "the very exemplar of the closed work, of the book that is a perfect circle" (something Vargas Llosa likes in his books) to the ability of Emma's fictional suffering to help neutralize what suffering he feels in real life, Madame Bovary is a book he has repeatedly turned and returned to. He writes that he has re-read it, in whole or in part, many times and never found himself disappointed.
       The title The Perpetual Orgy is taken from a quote from a letter by Flaubert: "The one way of tolerating existence is to lose oneself in literature as in a perpetual orgy." In his book, Vargas Llosa takes the plunge: focussing on this one work, he considers both what it has meant to him as well as, more generally, what the book has to offer. The Perpetual Orgy is both personal reminiscence and literary analysis, and the result is quite impressive.
       The book is presented in three parts. The first is the most personal, more autobiographical than analytical, describing Vargas Llosa's encounters with the book. It's a fascinating account of a young writer. Arriving in France in 1959 Madame Bovary -- one of the first books he buys -- became a useful companion, and Vargas Llosa does a wonderful job of describing how significant such a literary relationship (between reader and book) can be. Flaubert also remained an important figure; indeed, after selling one of his first novels he knew exactly what to spend the money on: "my first investment was the purchase, in a bookstore in Tours, of the thirteen volumes published by Conard" of Flaubert's Correspondance. And he's certain it was a wise investment:

I believe that Flaubert's correspondence constitutes the best possible friend for a budding writer with a literary vocation, the most profitable example a young writer can have as he embarks upon the destiny he has chosen.
       The second part begins with a long question-and-answer section focussing on the writing of Madame Bovary, Vargas Llosa answering the basic questions about what went into the novel and about Flaubert. From: "What was Flaubert's method of work ?" to "In what form did Flaubert project his personal and family life into Madame Bovary ?" Vargas Llosa offers an impressive amount of biographical detail and literary speculation. He clearly knows his Flaubert, citing the various sources and theories, acknowledging what isn't certain -- and always offering his own (well-considered) opinion.
       The rest of the second part offers more in-depth consideration of "the added element, the reordering of the real, that makes a novelistic world autonomous and allows it to compete with the real world from a critical point of view." It highlights some of what Flaubert does -- from the odd transformations of the narrator to repetition to the binary world of the novel.
       The short final section then is an attempt to situate the novel, showing the debt other authors and novels owe to Madame Bovary -- everyone from Joyce to, Vargas Llosa suggests, Bertolt Brecht.

       The Perpetual Orgy is a marvelous companion piece to Flaubert's novel. Vargas Llosa shows a deep critical understanding of the text, and offers a useful gloss on it, but it is particularly his personal relationship with the book -- what it has meant for him and what he has gotten out of it -- that make it valuable.
       Highly recommended.

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The Perpetual Orgy: Reviews: Mario Vargas Llosa: Other works by Mario Vargas Llosa under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa was born in 1936 and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2010. He has written many works of fiction and non-fiction, and has run for the Presidency of Peru.

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