Julio Cortázar

Julio Cortázar

Preliminary note: When I set out to write this article, my plan was to frame it in the same way as a chapter in Julio Cortázar’s Rayuela in which a character thinks to himself whilst reading a book. In the layout of the chapter the lines from the book are alternated with the character’s thoughts. I thought I might do the same thing: alternating lines from a ‘straight’ article on Cortázar with lines from a more personal and excitable appreciation. About half way into the writing I found that this approach was not only too clever by half, but also that I was not half clever enough to achieve it. What remains of my ‘personal appreciation’ has been inserted into rather clumsy parentheses, and to those who find this thoroughly annoying I apologize.

It’s a favourite if futile literary game of mine to transplant writers from one age to another. Imagining, for example, how Dickens might have written about the Second World War, Tolstoy Vladimir Putin‘s government, or Melville a meeting of the IWC. With Julio Cortázar, I’d like to see how he, or perhaps his characters, would have reacted to the World Wide Web. Because it seems to me that the internet is an especially Cortázarian invention.

Some wikibackground: Julio Cortázar was born in Brussels (for some reason the Brussels thing is always mentioned as though it is particularly significant, often accompanied by the information that Borges was born in Geneva) to Argentinian parents in 1914. As this was not a particularly auspicious time to be born, or indeed be, in Europe, the family was unable to return to Argentina until Cortázar was four years old. He would spend the rest of his childhood living in Banfield, in the suburbs of Buenos Aires. Cortázar’s father left the family while the writer was still young. The strikingly feminine household - he lived with his mother, sister, aunt and grandmother (I mention this because it might go some way towards explaining his occasional chauvinism) - seems to have been a melancholy one, not helped by Cortázar being a sickly child. His childhood proved a fertile resource for his later writing; his illnesses provided plenty of time for reading and his back garden seems to have played an important part in the young Julio’s imagination. (There is probably a good essay in the role that suburban back gardens and patios, real or imagined, play in Argentine literature.) Many of his best short stories (Los Venenos, Final del Juego) have children as the main protagonists or are written from a child’s point of view. He began writing stories and poetry from an early age and was reportedly scandalized at nine years old when his family, unwilling to believe that he was capable of writing of that quality, unfairly accused him of plagiarism.

After school, Cortázar trained as a teacher before enrolling in the University of Buenos Aires to study literature, but only completed one year of his course before dropping out to help his mother support the family. He instead got a job as a teacher in a small school in Buenos Aires Province. His first book, a poetry collection  (Presencia), was published in 1938. Over the next ten years he wrote poetry, stories, translations from French and English and a couple of failed novels  (He was also writing the book that would introduce me to him: Imagen de John Keats, a five hundred page [in the pocket edition at least] wonderfully nebulous essay roughly covering Keats’ life and writing, but also including plenty of Cortázarian miscellany - there is a lovely part about a beetle walking across the page on which he is writing. Unsurprisingly it was only published posthumously. I found it by chance in a second hand book stall in Buenos Aires amazed that someone else, and an Argentinian at that, could have been as obsessed as I thought I was with the poet, that the appreciative rant that I had always wanted to write was already written, 3000 miles away from where Keats lived and in Spanish.) He later became a professor at the University of Cuyo, teaching courses in French literature. Probably the most significant work published during this time (apart from, arguably, the translations) was Casa Tomada, which came out in a small literary journal edited by Jorge Luis Borges in 1946.

In 1951 Cortázar received a grant to travel to France and would spend the rest of his life living in Paris. It has often been suggested, not least by Wikipedia, that he left Argentina as a protest against the Peronist government and certainly he was no fan of Juan Domingo Peron. I’d suggest, however, that a majority of people in the world would, if offered money to travel to Paris, gladly accept it, whatever the political situation where they happen to be living (and given the role of Paris in the Latin American literary imagination, such an offer would be impossible to refuse for a writer.) 1951 was also the year that he published his first short story collection: Bestiario,  the first instalment (Casa Tomada opens the collection) in a remarkable body of short fiction. Like all great writers Cortázar is able to marshal his influences (Poe, Verne, Cocteau, De Sade, the Surrealists, the cultured control and fervent imagination of Borges, the playful anarchy of Alfred Jarry, the earnest humanism of Keats…) and order them into a body of work very much his own.

The most important aspect of Cortázar’s novels, short stories, poems and eccentrica, is his sense of the game. The game he plays with the reader, the characters, himself (this last phrase is stolen from the foreword by Mario Vargas Llosa to the first volume of Cortázar’s complete short stories, a book which I seem to have misplaced so can’t quote from exactly). The rules, as in the best games, are carefully drawn. They exclude as much as they allow, as in the best stories, creating their own imaginative space. The only trouble is that the rules are often revealed at the crucial moment to be completely different from those that the player (the reader, the character) thought applied. So, a visitor to an aquarium is actually an axolotl (a kind of newtish amphibian that shouldn’t, ideally, exist) looking at humans (a kind of gangly pink creature that shouldn’t, ideally, exist), a motorcycle accident victim in a hospital is actually a man hunted by Aztecs for human sacrifice, a man sits in a chair reading a novel whose plot ends up somewhere behind his head. The effect of reading a Cortázar short story is rather like coming towards the end of a game of Monopoly only to discover that your hotels are wearing the 1973 Newcastle kit and that nobody ironed the Subbuteo cloth before setting out the pieces. However, Cortázar’s stories are not sustained merely by a series of clever twists at the end: the end result is not important. One could say that a chief concern of the Cortázarian universe is to subvert the ending. He is interested in connections and transitions, between places, times, people, even species. Neither are these cold cerebral exercises, Cortázarian humanism is amongst the warmest in world literature. He has the happy knack of being able to describe what just happened to you - the taste of mediocre wine, sitting in a favourite chair, the thrill of an unrequited glance at an object of affection - in such a way that you cannot but nod happily to yourself in recognition (his enthusiasms: jazz, boxing, cats, long walks, sex . . . are well represented).

I’ve seen one commentator talk of a ‘Cortázar moment’: the moment when something that you’ve been idly thinking about appears suddenly on one of his pages. The variation of the stories; in length, structure, tone, subject (anything else one can think of) is also prodigious, as befits a writer with so many different influences. 

The work, however, that has generally been regarded as Cortázar’s masterpiece is not one of the stories (writers usually only get one of their short stories acclaimed as their masterpiece if they haven’t actually written a novel; possibly Kafka is an exception.) This honour goes to his second published novel: Rayuela (Hopscotch).

Published in 1963, it was, many have argued, the novel that marked the beginning of the ‘boom’ in Latin American fiction (the movement loosely defined as ‘when Americans and Europeans started to buy a lot more books by a lot of very different writers that happen to come from various different Latin American countries and which then got associated with magical realism even though not that many of the writers actually wrote that way’) that would see Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Carlos Fuentes et. al. become global superstars. Rayuela begins by giving the reader a choice: The first option: to read a linear plot (chapters 1-56) and then use the following 99 chapters of assorted notes to do with what they will. The second: a game of hopscotch, jumping chapters between the plot and the notes; some them literary theory, some them small additions to the plot or characters (along the lines of extras on a DVD), some of them one would file simply under miscellaneous. The plot is divided into two parts: the first set in Paris, the second in Buenos Aires. The Paris segment follows Horacio Oliviera, his relationship with his girlfriend, La Maga (with whom I defy any reader not to fall head over heels in love) and his conversations and hi-jinks with their strange group of friends. The second part follows his return to Buenos Aires, and his conversations and hi-jinks with another set of friends. This second part contains one of the funniest chapters in post war literature (41). But such a trite summary does not, of course, do a 700-odd page novel justice.

All the themes which I outlined in the discussion of the stories above are present in Rayuela and it is difficult to make hard and fast assertions about what does and doesn’t happen, and when and where it does, or doesn’t. Partly, of course, because it depends how you read it. The anarchic effect can appear a little crazy and I’ve heard the novel described as a long struggle against madness. It’s better read, however, as the gradual dissolution of the game - the way that some fall apart amidst over-excitement, jealousies, and the drifting away of players (That and, in more saccharine moments, a celebration of friendship). It has also been described as an ‘anti-novel’. 

(Which brings me to...)

I have, thus far, tried to avoid the term experimental when describing Cortázar’s writing, partly because I don’t see how writing can ever be experimental (what would the control be?) and also because it is the most likely reason that he doesn’t have the fame of other boom writers, why Hopscotch isn’t available in a UK edition (although you can get it imported from the States) and why English readers often look blank when I mention his name. Cortázar didn’t experiment, he played.

Another reason for his relative obscurity might be that just about when Cortázar might have expected to make his mark on English readers (traditionally about ten years after they have achieved success in other languages) he had got himself overtly involved in politics. I’ve read that it was a 1961 trip to Cuba that politicized him, but, elsewhere, that it was the ’68 Paris uprisings. Probably, given that Cortázar was a supremely intelligent  human being, ’twas no single event (his heady romanticism notwithstanding). The point, in terms of English speaking fame, is that when he might have been on lucrative book tours, or accepting acting professorships at wealthy universities, he was visiting Cuba and dedicating the proceeds of his books (Libro de Manuel) to the Sandinista cause in Nicaragua (having said this, Garcia Marquez has remained a faithful supporter of such causes without any discernible impact on sales, but then he won the Nobel Prize).

The interest in politics had two effects: the first was the growth of a large beard, the second, more detrimental, the politicization of his writing. The latter was no good thing. It’s not that his writing took some tragic Stalinist dive, there are some great texts from his later years (Octaedro, a late collection, represents a particularly startling return to form - so much so that I thought it was one of the earlier collections until a friend pointed it out to me: thank you Martin) but simply not as many as before. And I think that he fails because the Revolution is not a Game, not all anarchists are Marxists, a dogmatic rarely has a sense of humour ... and other clichés of the kind. Libro de Manuel (1973) is not nearly so good as his follow up to Rayuela: 62: Modos Para Armar (from 1968, and my personal favourite) and the earlier stories are of a more consistently high quality than later on.

My interpretation is that he allowed himself less creative freedom as his sense of political responsibility grew. He seems to acknowledge this in the prologue to Libro de Manuel, saying that the ‘conciliation’ (of his writing and his politics) ‘had not been at all easy’. Having said all this, even a slightly restricted page by Julio Cortázar is a damn site better than one written by many a writer.

But back to the internet, an invention that Cortázar, and his characters, would surely have enjoyed: a space built on a wealth of information, where one can jump across the world or a century at a click of a button, and then come back again as if nothing had happened, where identities are uncertain and connections endless. An excitingly democratic space where Games keep popping up and everything can slip dizzyingly into anything else; not unlike a book by Julio Cortázar.

-- Kit Maude (29/07/2008)

Readers Comments

  1. Will Schofield says... Wednesday 30 July 2008

    You wrote: "there is a lovely part about a beetle walking across the page on which he is writing" -- any chance you could translate this section (assuming it's a paragraph and not 10 pages) and post it in the comments. I'd love to see it.

    You also wrote: "a kind of gangly pink creature that shouldn’t, ideally, exist" -- thanks for making my day.

  2. Kit Maude says... Thursday 31 July 2008

    Hi Will,

    Thank for commenting, it certainly made my day in turn! I'd have to take a look at the beetle bit - I don't have the book to hand so it'll have to be next week but will try and let you know somehow if it's feasible.

  3. JK Mabin says... Saturday 23 August 2008

    Thanks for the very interesting and insightful article. Julio Cortázar is one of my very favourite authors. Just one little thing: it's 42.Modelo para armar (not modos).
    The Mario Vargas Llosa comment goes roughly like this (translated by me from Spanish - sorry, neither English or Spanish is my first language): "... In Cortázar's books everybody plays: the author, the narrator, the character, the reader - the last one obliged to do so by the devilish traps set for him at the turn of every page, even the least suspected.'

  4. Dear JK (If I may),

    Thanks for your comment and correction: it is indeed 'Modelo', I'm almost always saying that wrong. I know why I make that mistake, but the confusion is so very idiosyncratic that I'm not sure that even the explantion makes much sense. The number, however, is defintiely 62 - if it was 42 it would have been a completely different book (although not uninteresting!) Thanks so much as well for the translation of Vargas Llosa quote, it had been playing on mind that it should be got down properly.

  5. Miguel Carrero Gálvez says... Saturday 22 November 2008

    Hola Kit. Un artículo interesantísimo, he disfrutado mucho su lectura. Me alegra ver que hay cronopios en Inglaterra. Te enlazo desde mi página (Rayuela -

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