Julio Cortázar Essay - Cortázar, Julio (Vol. 2)

Cortázar, Julio (Vol. 2)

Cortázar, Julio 1914–

A Belgian-born Argentine writer, now living in Paris, Cortázar favors novels and stories bordering on fantasy, zaniness, and madness, after the manner of Borges and Kafka. His best-known work is Hopscotch. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-22.)

Cortázar is the evidence we needed that there is a powerful mutant strain in [Latin American] literature. It leads toward a mystic borderline. "Where frontiers end, roads vanish," says Octavio Paz. And so it is with Cortázar. He works toward the outer limits of experience, thumbing his nose at the world. He is a brilliant wit, and a tireless innovator, who has given us a lot to ponder. The tendency in certain circles has been to accuse him of a lack of seriousness, probably with some justification, at least to the extent that he insists on pulling chairs out from under us all. Certainly there is an element of the practical joker in him. But it lives in close quarters with the visionary. How Cortázar became what he is is a disconcertingly difficult question to answer. In his early days he was a sort of Borgian aesthete, a qualifier to which he is not entirely invulnerable even today. But there was a change in mid-road. For a while he leaned on the traditional props of the psychological novel. But that was a transitory stage. Whatever genre he touched, he seemed immune—or soon inured—to its conventions. He is a man of strong antibodies. Nowadays he has no use for what he considers easy effects: pedestrian dramatic situations, platitude or pathos. He travels along his own circuits. His importance is hard to assess…. He is perhaps the first man in our literature to have built a complete fictional metaphysic. If, as all originals, he would seem to be a bit of an aside for the moment, the shock waves his work has spread may well be echoes of the future….

Creative fatigue, that common ill of our authors toward middle age, when an early bloom is ruined by faulty plumbing, is unknown to him. An unflagging inventiveness and imagination, combined with sure marksmanship, have kept him steadily growing in stature through the years. Today, at the height of his powers, his restless and inquiring mind tells him his work is more unfinished than ever….

Rayuela [(Hopscotch) is] an "antinovel" that shows every sign of having represented a major breakthrough for him. Rayuela is a therapeutic book, intended as a complete course of treatment against the empty dialectics of Western civilization and the rationalist tradition. It is an ambitious work, at once a philosophical manifesto, a revolt against literary language, and the account of an extraordinary spiritual pilgrimage. The Cortázar of Rayuela is a deep-sea diver who comes up with a full net. He is a man of many means, contorted, contradictory, exuberant, paradoxical, polemic: not only a great wit and humorist, outshining all others in our literature, but also—as he shows in a pithy appendix somewhat detached from the main body of the narrative—a brilliantly aggressive, if slightly pedantic, literary theorist….

[Los Reyes] introduces an image that makes a recurrent appearance in his work: the labyrinth. Here it is mere frontispiece and curlicue, but there is a Cortázar who attaches a deeper significance to this archetypal symbol. He says he is the last to know what obscure biographical sources—or literary reminiscences—may lie behind it….

Rayuela is an invitation to plunge through time in order to gain the far shore of eternity. It suggests a jump into the waters of selflessness, as well, says Cortázar, as what Musil called "the search for the millennium: that sort of final island where man would at last find himself, reconciling his inner differences and contradictions."…

Words are mere touchstones in [Cortázar's] stories; one finds oneself reading between the lines. The language is disarmingly simple and straightforward. There are no verbal flourishes, no tortured effects. The tone is conversational. The surface is crystal clear. But intangible forces are building up underneath. The clarity is made of shadowy undercurrents that gradually fuse in a climax with cathartic after-effects. The reader, swept along, spills over the brim, delivered of himself….

In Rayuela, jokes, gags, are not only dramatic elements but stitches in the narrative fabric. Whole scenes are built on them. Cortázar is a great improviser. His humor can be harsh, hectic, grotesque, ironic, jeering. The episodic construction he uses favors his ends. He is a master of parody, jabberwocky, wordplay, non sequitur, obscenity, and even cliché, which he exploits with predatory relish. Farce alternates with fantasy, slang with erudition. Puns, hyperbole, innuendo, sudden shifts and dislocations, all the resources of comic art, including virtuoso nonsense passages, are put to work with inexhaustible versatility….

In Rayuela the motif of the search is orchestrated at every possible level, including the level of language. Words are a process of elimination. We beat a path toward a distant shore, a sort of ulterior calm in the eye of the storm, a final turn in the thread leading to the center of the labyrinth. Language has a specific function in Rayuela: to talk the problem out until it has been exhausted or annulled—or exorcised….

Hilarity, in Cortázar, often becomes a sort of seizure. His comic pangs are like death throes. His comic scenes are really brink situations in an almost Dostoevskian sense. Rayuela is made up almost entirely of brink situations. Apart from their dramatic effectiveness, they provide the author with strong motor impulses. "For one thing, they heighten reader interest, which I always keep very much in mind. They're another form of inner tension in the book. Besides, I think these brink situations are a kind of displacement for the reader, a way of estranging him. They shake him up a bit, shift the ground under him [," says Cortázar]….

In this sense, from the point of view of [Latin American] literature, Rayuela is a confirmation. We could say it is [the Latin American] Ulysses. Like Joyce, Cortázar, by a sort of inner triangulation, measuring a personal magnitude, has fathomed our world in exile. From his solstice he has found our equator. It was partly a matter of pinpointing things, he says. A book like Rayuela, on the one hand, gives the reader a lot he was already prepared for…. [On the other hand, the] "step forward" it offers is a new concept of the literary experience that may come to live a long life in our literature. Rayuela is the first Latin-American novel which takes itself as its own central topic or, in other words, is essentially about the writing of itself. It lives in constant metamorphosis, as an unfinished process that invents itself as it goes, involving the reader in such a way as to make him a part of the creative impulse.

If there is any objection one can raise to Rayuela, it is that too much of it functions on the kind of intellectual premises the ordinary reader would be likely to break his teeth on. Its erudition, pursued at times to unnecessary lengths, is intimidating.

Luis Harss and Barbara Dohmann, "Julio Cortázar, or the Slap in the Face," in their Into the Mainstream: Conversations with Latin-American Writers (copyright © 1967 by Luis Harss and Barbara Dohmann; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), Harper, 1967, pp. 206-45.

Cortázar is a hunter of genius, accepting the tiger in his clover garden, taking incredible risks in the mental jungle, sending phenomenal shots into the dark. His readers will probably divide into two distinct factions: those who think he is mad, and those who are mad about him. I confess to being hooked, and shall be found one day gazing into the golden eyes of an axolotl, until I melt through the glass wall of its tank.

Jean Stubbs, in Books and Bookmen, May, 1968.

The need for originality is much prized by Cortázar. He once cast Theseus as a dull-witted, conventional, sword-swinging Victor Mature hero pitted against the Minotaur—seen as a poet-victim being set upon for his incendiary ideas. In a chapter of Cronopios and Famas, he offers Hamlet as a man obsessed with finding a five-leaf clover—a quest worthy of his proud and exceptional nature.

Cortázar displays his own exotic humor best in a section entitled "The Instruction Manual." As if briefing a group of anthropologists from Uranus, he details precise ways to cry, sing, climb stairs and comb hair."… Cortázar's ability to present common objects from strange perspectives, as if he had just invented them, makes him a writer whose work stimulates a sense of rare expectation.

"Free-Floating Levity," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; © 1969 by Time Inc.), June 13, 1969.

Julio Cortázar … is probably best known in this country for his mediocre short-story, "Blow-up," which was made into that extraordinary Antonioni film. It's a shame, because Cortázar is also the author of "Hopscotch." And so that my bias might be immediately established, it is important to state that I think "Hopscotch" is the most magnificent novel I have ever read, and one to which I return again and again. No novel by any living author has more influenced me, more intrigued me, or more enraptured me than "Hopscotch." No novel has so satisfactorily and completely and beautifully explored man's compulsion to explain life, to search for its meaning, to challenge its mysteries. Nor has any novel in recent memory lavished such love and attention upon the full spectrum of the writer's craft….

"Cronopios and Famas" is a textbook on how to get one's finger to make the proper motion, a lesson plan for combating the alienation and nihilism one feels from a life of automatic acts and responses, a guide to the cronopio state of being. Horacio Oliviera [the protagonist of Hopscotch] was a cronopio—but not the first….

Argentine reality, to Cortázar, must seem absolutely as foolish as the acts he describes in "Cronopios and Famas." His surrealistic treatment of the most pedestrian acts suggests that one way to combat alienation is to return to the original receptiveness of childhood, to recapture this original innocence, by returning to the concept of life as a game. (If the thought that life is a game is repugnant to you, give up. A cronopio you will never be.) To be a cronopio, one must enjoy life instead of simply coping with it.

C. D. B. Bryan, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1969 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 15, 1969, p. 4.

The book [Cronopios and Famas] is a golden nettle. Those who poke at it gingerly and are stung will still bring away tiny splinters of pure gold. Those who gallantly seize it will find themselves in new dimensions of thought, observing with the puzzled awe and nonchalance of childhood bright, close, funny-sad, marvelous, sometimes dirty, sometimes terrible dream-sequences of their world.

Neil Miller, "Seeing the World As Dream" (excerpted from The Christian Science Monitor; © 1969 by The Christian Science Publishing Society; all rights reserved), in The Christian Science Monitor, July 3, 1969.

Cortázar is one of the maturest of experimenters, intoxicated (as any disciple of J. L. Borges should be) with imagination, dreams and intuition, and censorious of "usefulness," habit and routine….

[Cronopios and Famas] is a collection of short, whimsical pieces which typify Cortázar's passion for the fantastic, for eliciting unusual and well-nigh preposterous behavior from ordinary people in ordinary settings. Cronopios and Famas was first published in Buenos Aires in 1962 and reads, in places, like a polished-up notebook—as if, unable or unwilling to do more with a number of meticulous jottings, Cortázar let them stand in their own right as puzzles, riddles, or mini-fables, all of them forms more popular in South America than here, but—to anyone weary of the longest-winded of North American fictional practitioners—an undeniable relief, like haiku cut from prime beef. Thus, one is grateful for the few paragraphs that explain surrealistically "How to Cry" and "How to Kill Ants in Rome." The best pieces make the familiar strange and the strange beyond belief.

[Some] of [the pieces in Cronopios and Famas] are insipid and perfunctory, some of them debonairly pedantic. It isn't enough to say there is a tiger in the house or a bear in the water pipes, for that is being merely cute; the idea has to be developed until we feel it on our pulses. And that is where the numerous pages devoted to the disparate creatures called Cronopios and Famas really disappoint….

Mild fun, yes, but with something lazy and complacent behind it—something I did not find in Cortázar's other book of stories in translation, End of the Game, which both charms and appeals with ironic metamorphoses that cut to the root of human vulnerability and then leave us high and very dry.

Paul West, "Down with Usefulness, Up with Imagination," in Book World (© The Washington Post), August 17, 1969.

For those who didn't realize it before, Cronopios and Famas should convince American readers not only that the Argentinian novelist Julio Cortázar is a major literary figure, but that he is also one of a select, disappearing breed—an intellectual humorist. His intellectuality is cultured and cosmopolitan, ironic and totally unpretentious; his Weltanschauung, which is coherent, is presented for the delight of the reader with no abstraction and not a trace of heavy-handedness. On the contrary, the really remarkable quality that makes Cronopios and Famas such pure joy is Cortázar's dry, off-beat, highly original sense of humor. He has a rare gift for isolating the absurd in everyday life, for depicting the foibles in human behavior with an unerring thrust that is satiric yet compassionate….

Cortázar's utter economy of means is admirable; he does more with a single paragraph than most writers manage in a full-length short story, and he does it much more entertainingly. Moreover, he creates a strange world entirely his own: a world of surrealistic bizarreness and playful fantasy the likes of which we have not encountered elsewhere. Nevertheless, Cortázar himself considers his writings to be realistic since, as he states, typically with tongue-in-cheek, "reality appears fantastic to me."…

Cortázar is masterfully incisive. Each page sparkles with vivid satire that goes to the heart of human character and, in his best pieces, to the essence of the human condition; in its entirety Cronopios and Famas comprises a veritable human comedy. One is tempted to mention possible literary influences on Cortázar: Borges, Kafka, Jarry, the surrealists, Thurber, to name a few. But in reality this Argentinian writer who has lived in France for more than a decade and a half is very much his own man; if he naturally does not write in a vacuum, his work does clearly bear his own stamp, and his whimsical imagination is wholly original.

Tom Bishop, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1969 by Saturday Review; first appeared in Saturday Review, September 27, 1969; used with permission), September 27, 1969.

Cortázar's fame was brought about by his fiction and he has consistently turned to that genre since the publication of Bestiario (Bestiary) in 1951. In this book first appears Cortázar's predilection for the animal form of the human self, what can be called his "teratologic" vein. However, it is not the bestial aspects of man that attract him, but rather the situational similarity of man to certain forms of animal life….

End of the Game and Other Stories explores more carefully human situations which have not ceased to be monstrous or at least repulsive, but in which the human predicament and not the bestiality of men is the main concern of the author. The division between man and monster has finally been obliterated in the real and psychological sense. Cortázar reveals now how concerned he is in mining the mystery that underlies the trivia of most human situations. There appears also a rich vein of grotesque buffoonery….

Hopscotch (1966) marks Cortázar's entrance into the international world of letters. It is a long novel of two parts: first a very skillful narrative of the wanderings of an Argentine expatriate in Paris, later in Buenos Aires, in a half-hearted search for his former mistress, or rather for what she seemed to be in contact with: an intuitive world, a mandala, a lost paradise outside the character's reach. The second part is made up of notes from a writer's workbook: copied newspaper ads, alternative different versions of chapters to be found in part one, digressions triggered by thoughts contained in the material of part one, etc. A Pandora's box of the mind, a kind of scrapbook out of which the main picture has been taken to form part one, an idea of what a work in progress really is, inside the writer's mind. But Hopscotch is more than just that, a mere presentation of finished fiction and its gestation: it is also an open novel in the truest sense. Its author invites the reader to read it as it unfolds in more or less chronological sequence, and then to follow his guide which intersperses fragments of the second part through the first, being asides, comments, digressions, or parentheses of the main narrative sequence….

The most salient feature of Cortázar's fiction seems to be the incidence of the levels of reality and fantasy. These planes are articulated in a methodical and perceivable way, never to fuse, remaining like two lucidly separated entities. The characters are aware of their fantasies and digressions, and there is little talk or attempt at establishing the veracity of any outlandish situation. Their condition and their situations are tacitly accepted; it seems that their happening is enough to make them real. In this sense, there are no surprises in his stories; what may startle us is a new twist, often provided by the intrusion of trivia or reality into what had become already—for characters and readers—an almost ordinary situation. There seems to be an almost painful need in man to adapt to what happens to him, no matter how extraordinary: there is also a need for what is at times only vestigial conviviality in the characters, who seem to retain even in comparative isolation, fragments of tenderness or ill-concealed—and often misdirected—affection.

Cortázar, like his fellow Argentine Jorge Luis Borges, cultivates what has been called "fantastic literature." But, while Borges explores in his fiction all the possibilities within the realm of the mind, Cortázar seems to explore the realities of the psyche. This may explain why the unreal seems so natural for his characters.

Marta Morello-Frosch, "Julio Cortázar: From Beasts to Bolts," in Books Abroad, Winter, 1970.

Readers of Cortázar's remarkable "Hopscotch" (published here in 1966) will remember that several chapters consist of passages from the notebooks of the writer Morelli. In Chapter 62, Morelli imagines a book in which the reader would see life "trying to change its key" by demonstrating its indifference to "psychological causality."…

"62: A Model Kit" is an attempt to fulfill these novelistic intentions. It is (in this fine translation by Gregory Rabassa) a deeply touching, enjoyable novel, beautifully written and fascinatingly mysterious and intricate in its designs. It realizes Morelli's (and Cortázar's) desire to find new and freer modes of organization in fiction, and I think that in some way it actually does offer a plausible alternative to those certainties of "psychological causality" which, according to Morelli, are standing in the way of another human mutation, of life once again "trying to change its key."

There is, however, a risky intimacy between the experimental and the conventional in "62: A Model Kit." The book does have a plot of sorts, as well as characters who seem to fit quite neatly into the psychological categories of realistic fiction….

But banality of content in "62: A Model Kit" (which is never as intellectually or emotionally rich as "Hopscotch") provides an unobtrusive framework for a dazzling display of compositional ingenuity…. The story constantly undermines its own variety of characters, times and places, by an extraordinary network of correspondences and identifications…. Certainties about plot and character are sacrificed to opportunities for extending and making elaborate patterns of narrative surfaces.

Nonetheless, depersonalization in "62: A Model Kit" is not exactly psychological impoverishment. Strictly within the limits of literary playfulness, Cortázar manages to suggest ways of achieving distance from the otherwise inescapable pressures of individual obsessions. A certain humor about the supposed boundaries of personal identity and personal mobility raises the possibility that life itself—more biological than psychological—might change the "key," the terms in which human beings think of themselves as participating in what Morelli called "that flow of animated matter."

And yet, as I've said, Cortázar's world is populated with disarmingly recognizable individuals. His work—unlike so many other attempts to subvert the humanistic faith in distinct inviolable "persons"—is an original but cautious experiment in the violation of individual differences which he has at least taken the trouble to imagine in the first place. Cortázar is the only loving "mutilator" in "62: A Model Kit." It is precisely because we become attached to his characters and their absurd, old-fashioned dilemma of falling in love with the wrong people that we accept a kind of beneficent vampirism as a remedy for their anguished humanity.

Leo Bersani, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 26, 1972, pp. 7, 43.

Whenever a work gives the impression of trying to create a summa, Cortázar's character Morelli thought in Hopscotch, one must quickly demonstrate that the reverse is being attempted, the creation merely of remains. What gets written, for Cortázar, is what is left when the excitement is over, when the epiphany or illumination that started you writing has gone, has disappeared among all the words and phrases you have thrown round it….

The title of [62: A Model Kit] refers to a chapter in Hopscotch, where Morelli thinks of a book in which psychology would be replaced by a theory of the chemical nature of thought so that characters would be driven by the organic, cellular needs of life itself, pushed into love or metamorphosis for no apparent reason. But Cortázar, as distinct from Morelli, knows that the attractions of this secret, impenetrable order are sinister and inhuman and not to be flirted with, like the attractions of perfect symmetry or the abolition of time in Borges. So he places this speculative possibility in a novel where the human particularity of events cries out against this reduction, pleads to be understood by the old, ordinary psychology…. 62 is a lesser work than Hopscotch,… less dense, less compelling, but an important and attractive book all the same.

Michael Wood, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1973 by NYREV, Inc.), April 19, 1973, p. 37.