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Ascent to Glory
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B+ : interesting look at all that goes into a book becoming a 'classic', beyond the text itself
See our review for fuller assessment.
The complete review's Review:
Ascent to Glory is, as the subtitle explains, a look at: How One Hundred Years of Solitude Was Written and Became a Global Classic.
There's no question that Gabriel García Márquez's 1967 novel is a 'classic' -- widely translated, hugely popular, widely considered: "the work of Latin American literature par excellence" as well as the ultimate example of a work of 'magical realism'.
Álvaro Santana-Acuña differentiates between mere canonical and classical -- noting that 'canonical' works depend on individuals and institutions (notably academia) for their status, while the true 'classic' transcends these -- and One Hundred Years of Solitude is one of those works, like War and Peace, that is both.
[H]e first imagined [One Hundred Years of Solitude] when he was twenty-two years old, but despite several attempts, he did not have the skills to turn his ideas into a publishable novel. Writing the final draft of One Hundred Years of Solitude, rather than a bout of inspiration, was an act of networked creativity. He was at the center of a network of relatives, friends, peers, and gatekeepers who closely supervised the progress of his manuscript and secured its production and initial reception as a best-selling New Latin American Novel.Certainly, this network was central to the making of the success of the finished book, but Santana-Acuña is not nearly as convincing in showing that it also shaped the (writing of the) book, or indeed how much it did. While there is some discussion of some of the feedback García Márquez received while writing the book, Santana-Acuña can't chart its writing very closely -- notably because, as he mentions (and makes surprisingly little of ...):
García Márquez destroyed all materials that he produced while writing the novel. These included about forty notebooks with daily notes, diagrams, family trees, partial drafts, and all manuscripts, except for the last one.Understandably, Santana-Acuña can say little about this missing material, and all this unavailable information; however, García Márquez destroying everything that went into the writing of the novel suggests a very deliberate attempt at framing and positioning the text by the author, and this is something which surely should have been explored more closely. Maybe Santana-Acuña is correct about the large 'networked' influence along the way -- though one imagines much of that could have been pieced together externally (i.e. from the reports of networkers, as it were) --, but the actual writing of the text might surely well have proceeded very differently (i.e. with much less outside influence than Santana-Acuña insists on). Just how much is lost without the material that García Márquez destroyed is suggested by Santana-Acuña's close reading of the limited amount available to him -- the different manuscripts from the final editing process, where the changes are relatively minor but still illuminating.
Looking at the big picture -- the worldwide success --, Santana-Acuña regrettably does not chronicle the path of the published One Hundred Years of Solitude particularly closely, beyond his excellent account of the (carefully planned and incredibly successful) launch of the book. It is fascinating to read how readers were prepared for the book -- for the coming of a big, significant work --, by a whole network of interested parties, including through pre-publication reviews and mentions, as well as the publication of numerous extensive excerpts (fully a third of the text, all together, apparently) before the book came out. But Santana-Acuña offers only cursory mentions of the trajectory of its international publication and critical reactions abroad in the years and decades that followed; even just a timeline of when the different translations appeared (and, say, in what size print runs) would have been welcome and useful.
In part, Santana-Acuña presumably doesn't bother much with documenting the (admittedly already well-documented) critical and sales reaction to the novel because part of the point he makes so insistently is that classics easily outlive any immediate gatekeeper- and audience-reaction. He notes that generally no one remembers who those first critics were or what they said about a book; that their opinion may be of some importance in the short or immediate term, but in the long run classics succeed because of entirely different forces. Similarly, initial sales-success can often prove flash-in-the-pan: most bestsellers are soon forgotten. So instead Santana-Acuña offers a broader look at how One Hundred Years of Solitude has been received more generally -- truly broad: it can seem like he offers more Amazon.com- and Goodreads-reader-comments than from 'established' literary-critical publications ..... Still, for example, his chapter on 'Indexing a Classic' -- looking at how the work transcends the mere work, including in such things as the use of the concept/place "Macondo' -- is a useful overview of, so to speak, what becomes a classic (including what becomes of it and the extra-literary impact it has).
A fitting conclusion to Santana-Acuña's study is also the fascinating chapter and exercise that considers why some works become 'classics' and others don't in the form of five case-studies: five literary works by South American authors that arguably had equal potential to become classics but, for various reasons, did not: José de la Cuadra Los Sangurimas (1934), Álvaro Cepeda Samudio's La casa grande (1962), José Lezama Lima's Paradiso (1966), José Donoso's The Obscene Bird of Night (1970), and José María Arguedas' The Fox From Up Above and the Fox From Down Below (1971). Santana-Acuña here makes clear how many different things have to be and go right, from how and where a work is published to various contexts; poor Donoso's personality -- clashing with the 'Mafia' -- and the fact that he was not included in Luis Harss' seminal Into the Mainstream: Conversations with Latin-American Writers are among the plausible factors in explaining the failure of his book to become 'classic', for example .....
In a way, One Hundred Years of Solitude -- the novel proper, the art-work itself -- gets rather short shrift in Ascent to Glory -- but then that's also part of the point Santana-Acuña makes here: so much more goes into a book becoming 'classic' than the mere text itself. No doubt also hampered by the absence of García Márquez's own writing-record -- all those materials consigned to the flames --, Santana-Acuña does arguably overstate the case for outside influence in shaping a text, or at least that feels like the least convincing part of his argument. As to the shaping of its success, there he's on much firmer ground, and offers a fascinating, detailed, and truly far-reaching look at seemingly everything that plays a role (and he makes a good case for the significance of practically all these factors).
Occasionally, the reach can be too far -- Santana-Acuña shows some propensity for over-listing, and while the thoroughness isn't entirely unwelcome in many of the sections, it gets a bit haphazard (presumably because there are simply so many things to choose from -- and Santana-Acuña chooses a lot of them ...) in the section on 'Indexing a Classic'. Still, the piling-on does help make his point(s) -- though of course in the case of pointing to, for example, anonymous Amazon.com-reviewers it would be just as easy to find a contrary claim or opinion (contrary to whatever you wish, likely: as I write this 3,298 'customer ratings' can be found alone at the US Amazon.com page for One Hundred Years of Solitude)
Ascent to Glory is a remarkably good introduction to what went into the making of the Latin American Boom, detailing the evolution of the Latin American literary market and scene into the 1960s exceptionally well. One Hundred Years of Solitude is quite well used then as a case-study of what makes a classic, though García Márquez's deliberate obliteration of the writing-record of the making of the text means that a vital piece -- a huge chunk -- is missing, which Santana-Acuña uses rather too conveniently in insisting on his many-cooks-explanation, seeing One Hundred Years of Solitude as a networked co-production. The case he makes for many factors and people contributing to the possibility and then reality of the book being as successful as it ultimately has been is convincing; the claim that García Márquez couldn't have done it -- write the book -- without all these specific experiences, factors, and people in his life (leaving aside what then might have become of it) seems a lot more iffy.
The work might also have benefited from a comparison to and closer look at other examples of classics and how they achieved that status; Santana-Acuña does mention and briefly discuss several but without digging very deep into them. (He spends considerably more space considering, for example, the five books he suggests had the potential to become classics but just didn't -- which is indeed a fascinating exercise; but a similar examination of a few that did make the cut would have been a welcome counter piece too.) Of course, part of the problem there is that so few recent novels can be called, without doubt or qualification, classics; Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children would be one example (and is a novel whose success was also helped by a changing publishing- and literary scene, in this case in India, i.e. external circumstances and factors played a great role in making it as lastingly significant as it has proven to be).
Ascent to Glory provides a very good and interesting overview of twentieth-century Latin American literature and publishing -- particularly strong on the extra-literary aspects to the business and the scene -- and a fascinating deconstruction of how a book becomes a classic (and what goes into helping to position it so it can potentially do so). The success of One Hundred Years of Solitude was and continues to be remarkable, and Santana-Acuña is onto -- and explains well -- a lot of what went into that and lies behind it (beyond the text itself, which, as noted, can seem a bit neglected in this bigger picture).
Ascent to Glory is essential reading for anyone interested in Latin American literature in general and the life and work of Gabriel García Márquez in particular, but should also be of interest to anyone interested in culture and its workings (including star- and 'classic'-making).
[Note: my The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction is cited in several footnotes in Ascent to Glory -- though I'd suggest: entirely incidentally rather than as any sort of authority. I don't think this has in any way influenced my reading of the book, but since readers may feel otherwise I mention it in the interest of full and open disclosure.]
- M.A.Orthofer, 2 September 2020
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Álvaro Santana-Acuña teaches at Whitman College.
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