Biography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1114

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Julio Cortázar (cohr-TAH-sahr), unquestionably one of the pivotal figures in Latin American literature, is a master of the short story, and his novel Hopscotch is widely considered to be one of the first great Spanish American novels. Born in Belgium to Julio José and María Descotte de Cortázar, Cortázar learned French along with his native Spanish, and his French-Argentine duality underlies all his work. His father abandoned the family soon after they returned to Argentina in 1920, and Julio was brought up by his mother and aunt. After earning degrees in primary and secondary education, with a concentration in literature, he first taught high school in several small towns and in Mendoza. He then taught French literature at the University of Cuyo, but his agitation against the Peronist regime led to his arrest and his subsequent forced resignation from the university. During his teaching years he wrote steadily but, dissatisfied with the quality of his work, refused to publish anything other than the collection of poems Presencia (presence), which appeared in 1938 under the pseudonym Julio Denís, and the long philosophic-dramatic poem Los reyes (the kings), which appeared in 1949 under his own name, as did a few magazine stories. It was fellow author Jorge Luis Borges, with whose work Cortázar’s has often been compared, who published his compatriot’s first story, “House Taken Over,” in the journal Los Anales de Buenos Aires.{$S[A]Denís, Julio;Cortázar, Julio}

Oppressed by the political and literary atmosphere of his native land, Cortázar took advantage of a scholarship from the French government to study in Paris. He left Argentina in 1951 to settle permanently in Paris, where he earned his living working as a freelance translator and for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). In 1953 Cortázar married the Argentinian Aurora Bernardez, who was also a freelance translator. The year 1951 marked the official start of Cortázar’s literary career with the publication of Bestiario (bestiary), his first collection of short stories. Bestiario contains Cortázar’s trademark signature, the gradual intrusion of a mysterious subversive element into the lives of ordinary people. Rarely is this force seen as an instrument of good, or at least liberating change; rather, it serves as an obsessive harbinger of destruction and death. (Julio Cortázar is the Spanish translator of the collected works of Edgar Allan Poe.)

Cortázar’s next volume of short stories, End of the Game, and Other Stories, contains some of his best prose. Stories such as “Axolotl” and “The Night Face Up” have become classics of the genre, and “Devil’s Drool” introduced Cortázar to an international audience through Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 cinematic version Blow-Up (although the film bears little relation to the story). By 1960 Cortázar had become widely known as a craftsman of intricate, beautifully written short stories that often had cunning, sleight-of-hand endings. The publication in that year of The Winners marked a drastic change in his artistic vision, however, for here the purely aesthetic gives way to metaphysical preoccupations. Variously interpreted as allegory, social satire, or thinly camouflaged political criticism, The Winners recounts the ill-fated voyage of a group of passengers who have received tickets for a mysterious cruise as a state lottery prize.

Hopscotch is regarded by most critics as Cortázar’s masterpiece. An immediate success in Argentina, it soon gained international acclaim, helped by the prize-winning English translation by Gregory Rabassa. Hopscotch demands active reader participation. According to the “Table of Instructions” at the beginning, there are at least two ways to read the novel, and the reader has to choose which path to follow through the book—a path that is never-ending, since the last two chapters refer endlessly to earlier ones. The main narrative of Hopscotch deals with the Argentinian Horacio Oliveira’s endeavor to shatter the mundane world of supposed reality and rationality and find the secret harmony underlying all things. Artistically, by means of its disjoined structure, the originality of its language, its black humor, often aimed directly inward, and, above all, its self-conscious awareness of itself as artistic creation, Hopscotch represents a manifesto against all closed literary structures and credos.

After Hopscotch Cortázar continued his literary experimentation. 62: A Model Kit is a demonstration of the literary theories of the writer Morelli in the concluding paragraphs of Hopscotch. There is no basic structure and no unifying sense of time, space, character, or plot. The reader must piece together the disparate components of the work to create a whole. Much of Cortázar’s later work can best be called “collage.” A Manual for Manuel combines fiction and history, the thriller with factual statistics and articles concerning political torture and oppression. Cortázar had often been criticized for his seeming indifference to the social and political realities of his native land, but toward the end of his life his writing began to include overt political statements. He donated the royalties of A Manual for Manuel to the families of political prisoners and became a supporter of the Cuban and Nicaraguan governments. Nicaragua awarded him the Rubén Darío Order of Cultural Independence.

Cortázar’s last collagelike work, A Certain Lucas, describes an expatriate Argentine writer living in Paris struggling humorously with the effects of time and a growing illness. Cortázar, himself gravely ill with leukemia, spent much of his last months in and out of hospitals. Cortázar died of a heart attack on February 12, 1984, in Paris.

Cortázar was gifted with a sense of whimsy, and he used humor to awaken the reader from passivity and reveal opportunities of wider significance. He once said, “I’ve always thought that humor is one of the most serious things there is.” His humor, along with all of his innovative techniques and linguistic fireworks, is enlisted in aid of one cause, the shattering of all artificial, conventional barriers that hinder the search for self-realization. Cortázar’s characters are expatriates, exiled not only physically from their native land but from their inner selves as well. Along with Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel García Márquez, Cortázar’s importance as a major figure in the emergence of Latin American literature is not debated. His originality, inventiveness, and daring use of language have been recognized and acclaimed. Cortázar countered the charge that he had “abandoned” his native country by insisting that it was time for Latin Americans to see themselves as citizens of the world and stop making cultural isolation a virtue. The political content of his later work and his interest in social concerns also helped to silence these critics.

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