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the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction / literary criticism


The Temptation of the Impossible

Mario Vargas Llosa

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To purchase The Temptation of the Impossible

Title: The Temptation of the Impossible
Author: Mario Vargas Llosa
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2004 (Eng. 2007)
Length: 177 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: The Temptation of the Impossible - US
La tentación de lo imposible - US
The Temptation of the Impossible - UK
The Temptation of the Impossible - Canada
La tentation de l'impossible - France
Victor Hugo und die versuchung des Unmöglichen - Deutschland
  • Victor Hugo and Les Misérables
  • Spanish title: La tentación de lo imposible
  • Translated by John King
  • Based on lectures given at Oxford University in April and May, 2004

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Our Assessment:

B+ : interesting reading of Les Misérables , and useful study

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The LA Times . 13/5/2007 Benjamin Lytal
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 29/4/2006 Leopold Federmair
The NY Rev. of Books . 28/6/2007 Graham Robb
San Francisco Chronicle A- 30/6/2007 Robert Hicks
TLS . 5/10/2007 Michael Kerrigan
World Lit. Today . 5-8/2005 Will H. Corral

  From the Reviews:
  • "(R)ereading the book, living in its alternate reality, convinces him that it is not a social but a religious novel. Without a belief in God, it would be impossible to create a narrator with the authoritative fiat of Hugo's. The volcanic hugeness of the novel does not seek to change reality but to replace it." - Benjamin Lytal, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Vargas Llosa's study is not without flaw. Irony is central to an understanding of Les Misérables, and Vargas Llosa fails to devote time to the many ironies in Hugo's novel. He also gets bogged down during his lengthy summary of Hugo's Philosophical Preface. Nonetheless, when he returns to a precise study of the individual characters and specific events in the novel within the context of his commentary on the preface, he offers some of his most profound insights about the narrator-God and the moral dilemmas confronted in the fictive reality of Les Misérables, which he sees as a religious novel. (...) Vargas Llosa's study reaches beyond an analysis of Les Misérables to help define the very essence of the novel and fiction." - Robert Hicks, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Vargas Llosa has shown an understanding both of the workings of political life and of its impact in the most intimate reaches of the private sphere. It feels odd, then, to find him describing so gigantic, so tumultuous a work as Hugo's in such measured, self-consciously cautious critical terms. Yet as a conservative critic's exploration of what a work of literature sets out to do, and what it can and can't deliver, this essay is more far-reaching than it may seem." - Michael Kerrigan, Times Literary Supplement

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:

       In The Perpetual Orgy Vargas Llosa took on Flaubert's Madame Bovary , and in The Temptation of the Impossible he examines another French classic that he has carried with him most of his life, Victor Hugo's Les Misérables. Always concerned with what the novel is and can do, it's natural for Vargas Llosa to gravitate to -- and pay such close attention -- to these significant works. As he points out:

     Although Madame Bovary was published six years after Les Misérables, one can say that the latter is the last great classical novel, while the former is the first great modern novel.
       Among the things that most fascinate Vargas Llosa is how very fictional Les Misérables is -- in the sense of not being true to reality. Much is simplistic, and many of the characters exaggerated types of the sort not found in the real world. Critics have found this problematic, a (grave) weakness of the novel, but not so Vargas Llosa, who fully accepts the: "surreptitious unreality, fashioned out reality" that Hugo presents. Indeed, it's obvious that this appeals to Vargas Llosa greatly -- and that this is one of the things he tries to accomplish in his own fiction. What others find to be a weakness Vargas Llosa considers one of Hugo's greatest strengths, as Hugo has here created "a fiction that is fictive to the highest degree, yet also sinks its roots in a specific history" (words Vargas Llosa no doubt would love to hear about his own work as well).
       Another point Vargas Llosa emphasises is how Hugo saw the novel: "He intended Les Misérables to be a religious tract, not an adventure novel". Vargas Llosa repeatedly points out how Hugo (may have) meant this -- and how the results can appear so different to readers over the years.
       The Temptation of the Impossible offers a fairly close reading of Les Misérables (though necessarily focussed on specific themes and ideas), usefully considering it (or parts of it) from several angles. It is also serious literary criticism, and not as personal (about either himself or the author he is discussing) or approachable as his Madame Bovary-study, The Perpetual Orgy. Responding to many of Hugo's critics (most notably Lamartine), Vargas Llosa does present a cohesive picture of Hugo and this specific work (comparing it also to its shorter previous incarnation, Les Misères), an interesting reading that can certainly enrich the reading-experience of anyone taking up Hugo's massive tome. Among the best parts are when Vargas Llosa goes at it from a writer's point of view -- such as in explaining the necessity and use of the great lengths to which Hugo took this work -- but even in professor-mode Vargas Llosa offers many useful titbits (about Hugo, about the reception of the book, etc.) and opinions.
       Some familiarity Les Misérables is obviously desirable to fully enjoy The Temptation of the Impossible, but even if that book is only a distant memory, Vargas LLosa's look makes one eager to pick it up again. Thought-provoking and well-presented (though not quite up to achievement that is The Perpetual Orgy) it's certainly of interest..

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The Temptation of the Impossible: 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. He has written many works of fiction and non-fiction, and has run for the Presidency of Peru.

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