Julio Cortázar

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Cortázar, Julio (Vol. 5)

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Cortázar, Julio 1914–

Cortázar is an Argentine novelist, short story writer, and translator, now living in Paris, whose elaborately experimental fantasies have been compared with work by Borges, Kafka, and Joyce. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-22.)

Many of the short stories of the Argentine writer Julio Cortázar portray individuals who are afflicted by delusions, hallucinations, and nightmares. These vivid and powerful fantasies are often expressive of the characters' deep alienation, guilt, or fear. In Cortázar's short fiction, the interplay between fantasy and reality is of two different patterns. At times the delusions of the characters act as a positive force, offering consolation and even ironic fulfillment for persons who in reality lead lonely and frustrated lives. Some of the characters nurture their private fantasy worlds through which they reduce their anguish and guilt. In other stories fantasy is afflictive and destructive, serving to intensify the initial anxiety of the character and finally divorcing him entirely from reality, undermining his sanity. (p. 75)

In Cortázar's world, the real or the concrete often turns out to be only a facade that covers the bizarre and the mystifying. Strange forces often well up at night, when the conscious defenses of the characters are relaxed or weakened, either from an extraterrestrial sphere or, more likely, from the subconsciousness of the individuals themselves. For … many of Cortázar's characters, the unreal or the absurd asserts itself as the most significant reality…. (pp. 78-9)

Fantasy in Cortázar, if positive and ironically fulfilling, can never be sustained and, if negative and destructive, cannot be dispelled. Characters, like the frustrated mother in "The Condemned Door," who retreat into fantasy realms as a means of escape from the pressures or afflictions of reality are caricatured, humiliated, or otherwise defeated. Their illusory worlds collapse and adverse reality triumphs. Delusions of the characters are more often explicitly destructive, as in "Afternoon Nap," when they always triumph over reality. Fantasy in Cortázar is always deceptive or destructive for the characters, because its basis lies in a negative reality of social alienation and emotional turbulence. (p. 90)

Lanin A. Gyurko, "Guilt and Delusion: Two Stories by Cortázar," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction (copyright © by Critique, 1973), Vol. XIV, No. 3, 1973, pp. 75-90.

While the literary cognoscenti might be disappointed in [All Fires the Fire, a] collection of eight stories, the pleasure reader will find them less abstract and more accessible than some other Cortázar fiction. Even though Cortázar fools around with doubles now and then and often indulges in multiple points of view within the same sentence, each story is immensely readable. Dramatically, however, some are more effective than others….

Cortázar seldom wastes a word. His sentences build on each other like spider strands to ultimately form a fragile cobweb spun from one thread. "The Island at Noon" is like that, starting with the moment that the airline steward spots his dream island through the plane window as he looks down on the Aegean Sea. What happens after that builds inexorably and understatedly until the end. But you don't see it coming until you get there. What more can you ask from a story? (p. 69)

Deborah Davis, "Webs from a Single Thread," in Review 73 (copyright © 1972 by the Center for Inter-American Relations, Inc.), Fall, 1973, pp. 69-70.

To deal in illusion but not be dismissed as an illusionist is the nearly unsolvable problem of a writer like Julio Cortázar. For him the short story is the perfect form—a fine dazzle, then a quick curtain and nothing left but spots on the...

(This entire section contains 2660 words.)

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retina. But an entire collection of Cortázar's glittering tricky fiction invites the reader's eye to outguess the magician's hand. The mood that results is a profitless mixture of admiration and something not unlike contempt.

The only cure is to wait two months between short stories, and this the reader is urged to do…. The special quality of Cortázar's subtle nuttiness deserves much patience.

John Skow, "Quicker than the Eye?," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), October 1, 1973, p. 116.

It has always been the aim of Julio Cortázar's heroes to find their way to an all-embracing, wholly meaningful experience. They are the heirs of the Surrealist quest for a passage to the "other side", across a magical "bridge" that will lead them away from the irritating mechanics of society to total ecstasy. Such ecstasy is at times glimpsed in his novels, but it is rarely more than instantaneous, being demolished in the end by the plodding consciousness of its excessively intellectual aspirants. Yet Cortázar's characters often extract a great deal of fun from their search, from their dogged determination not to slip into a social mould….

In recent years Cortázar has become increasingly political in his pronouncements, and through hindsight has tended to interpret his entire oeuvre as a political gesture, as though his questing characters were faltering prototypes for Ché Guevara's New Man….

Libro de Manuel is a liberating, comic book, and presents a heroic notion of revolution difficult to realize. The revolution envisaged will have none of the Puritanical repressiveness of current socialist regimes…. It will assert the principle that life is fun, will satisfy man' "erotic and ludic thirst" and liberate him from taboos and social constraints….

Cortázar is aware of the obstacles confronting such a programme, but his novel would be less slight if it came to grips with it more thoroughly. It is symptomatic and interesting that not a single worker appears in Libro de Manuel, and if any worker ever got down to reading it, he would no doubt find the book's aspirations somewhat luxurious. Libro de Manuel is an unwitting expression of the fact that middle-class intellectual revolutionaries are on a trip all their own, particularly if, like Cortázar, they are Latin Americans living in Paris.

"The Fun Revolution," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers, Ltd., 1973; reproduced by permission), October 12, 1973, p. 1208.

Cortázar does not intend to depart from the implications of reason when he employs the fantastic. He believes that reality itself is absurd or irrational. His heresy consists in the fact that he radically metaphorizes the real as he sees it, which is not the way the ordinary reader sees it…. He struggles with absurd reality without choosing an alternative to it. In "Carta a una señorita en París" he rebels against the consequences of linear time but stays within it. In using the fantastic for a symbolic purpose, he alludes (inevitably) to the other life-feeling without believing in its power. Unlike Borges, he cannot place his spirit in the world of art and smile or knit his brow, being "in but not of" the real world. Consequently, in Cortázar's work we do not find the momentary relief ["the escape into art," as Wheelock says elsewhere,] that renews us for work on Monday morning; we glimpse the other world but find no real exit from this one. (pp. 6-7)

Carter Wheelock, in The International Fiction Review, January, 1974.

[The] eight pieces in "All Fires the Fire" suffer, in the way of collections, from comparison with one another—the story "Meeting" is less stunning than the title piece, and "Instructions for John Howell" ends less satisfyingly than "The Island at Noon." But in sum these eight "mortal games" correct this reviewer's previous impression (gained by that most thrifty of methods, bookstore perusal) that Cortázar was a decadent avant-gardist, a rather desperate innovator snipping autobiography into eye-catching shapes. True, he cannot get started without a gimmick: there is always a fantastic premise or a startling formalistic deviation, and he does not have Borges's power of persuading us that the strangeness flows from the superior vision of a drastically refined sensibility. But, once the trick is established (and no two devices are alike in this set of eight), Cortázar pushes beyond it with surprising powers of realistic development. (p. 124)

Juxtaposition is Sr. Cortázar's creative habit, and perhaps he is most himself when the juxtaposition is most harsh and least explained; an abyss, narrow as a black knife, gleams in the schizoid split….

[At] his most intense Cortázar floods the gaps and mysteries of his tricky structures with a potent negativity—death, that invisible possibility, made electric and palpable, like the atmosphere before lightning. Whereas a curious immortality, the eternal sprightliness of pure mind, fills the airy spaces of Queneau. Both men convince us that surreality has been elicited from them by the extremity of their ardor for reality…. (p. 125)

John Updike, "Mortal Games," in The New Yorker (© 1974 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), February 25, 1974, pp. 124-25.

Cortázar's tricky fable-stories fragment the World into extra-rational nightmares that question all the Self's "certainties." Point-of-view is hardly sacred (in one story, the interior monologues of separate characters intersect; in another, parallel narrative situations are each filtered through multiple character-narrators). "Reality" is what you think it is, and confused personae aren't even sure whether they inhabit a Roman gladiatorial arena, or a Paris apartment; the Parisian red-light district in wartime, or an Argentine café. Sometimes Cortázar seems more interested in the sheer fun of the contrivance than in any possible meaning. Example: an airplane steward, fascinated by his vision of a vague island shape floating below, finds himself drawn to the island—where reversed perspective now enthralls him with the image of an airplane overhead. What does it mean? That what we see is only what we think we see? Cortázar tells us that "Everything was falsified in the futile and recurrent vision…." But nothing more.

In "The Health of the Sick," a doting family must construct an elaborate hoax to hide family tragedies from their adored, hypersensitive "Mama." With urbane indirection, and perfect pacing, Cortázar allows the hoax to replace the "reality." Best of all is "The Southern Thruway," in which an ominous traffic jam clogs dozens of journeying strangers together in an inexplicable existential impasse. Its victims are in a desert, surrounded by abandoned farmhouses, denied their fixed destination ("a city [that] sparkled in the distance …"). Elaborate defenses are adopted, responsibilities delegated, comforting relationships established: a microcosm of society is sedulously constructed. Suddenly, the enigma dissolves—as mysteriously as it had descended. The unity they had accomplished is unceremoniously dispersed, and the unifiers go their separate ways.

One of the things the fictionist can do with "reality" is to play delighted games with it—and make us wonder whether any settled assumptions are trustworthy. In Cortázar's inside-out landscape, the staggeringly arranged windows and mirrors are props stolen from the fun-house. (pp. 127-28)

Bruce Allen, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1974 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVII, No. 1, Spring, 1974.

Julio Cortázar's Ultimo round, which first appeared in 1969, is a good example of audience-participation art. In Rayuela he had already suggested that the reader choose his own order for approaching the chapters, but Ultimo round represents a further step, in that it is now impossible for the reader to proceed in a conventional manner. Upon opening the book the reader notes that there are two sets of pages within the binding, and he must immediately decide which of them to read first, and even whether he will go through by reading the top and then the bottom of page one, and so on. In addition, only a few pages—at the beginning and the center particularly—obviously belong together. One example is p. 9, the whole being a picture of Cortázar himself. The top section is already distorted and fragmented by the cutting out and rotation of concentric circles on his face, but if the reader insists on turning the two pages separately he must bear the responsibility for further fragmentation of the author. Any other combinations are purely subjective on the part of the reader: the author wants his reader to feel free to find some personal meaning in a chance combination, whether of two pages whose numbers correspond or in the combination of any other pair of pages. So Ultimo round cannot be termed a wholly finished work of art. No work of art is finished until there are "good vibes" between the chaos in the text and the chaos within the reader. (pp. 74-5)

In a sense it is as if Cortázar were reacting to Marshall McLuhan's prediction of the demise of the printed word on the basis of its being a hot medium and hopelessly linear. Meeting the charge that a book is necessarily linear, this work not only refuses to present its divisions in any logical, set order but employs only sentence fragments at many points….

It becomes evident too that in this work the medium is the message. Even if it were possible to arrange the contents of Ultimo round logically in a conventional manner, it would lose the major portion of its impact, simply because the greatest effect of the work lies in its very arrangement rather than in its content. (p. 75)

Cortázar appears to conceive of Ultimo round as the daily newspaper chronicling the apocalypse, referring to it in the text as a "diario." The format of the cover is that of a newspaper, and this is supported, in some editions, by a light yellow color. The content is like that of a newspaper in that it is miscellaneous and reflects the human condition in transit: there is something for everyone, including ads for a doll repair service, bicycles, and battery recharging.

The book is apocalyptic in its very title, which alludes to a boxing match near its conclusion, and does so in a fragmented language in which one word is properly Spanish and the other an English loan word. (pp. 75-6)

Apocalypse is not simply cataclysm. It is a destruction of all that is in order to rebuild from the most basic beginnings. Therefore if a book is truly apocalyptic it should reflect some attempt at putting the pieces back together in a meaningful order (although not necessarily guided by previously existing canons of "coherence"). The first step should be some sort of return to origins, but in effect Cortázar declares, "De ninguna manera me creo un ejemplo de esa 'vuelta a los orîgenes'" ("By no means do I consider myself a participant in that 'return to origins'")…. On the basis of the rest of the book, however, I have to conclude that what he has reference to is limited to the search for—as he calls it—the telluric national past, because at another point he states, with apparent approval, "Los personajes de una novela de James Ballard, favorecidos por un mundo en resuelta entropîa, tienden a organizar sus sueños en procura de una verdad primordial" ("The characters in a James Ballard novel, favored by a world in determined entropy, tend to organize their dreams in an endeavor to recover a primordial truth")….

So man must pick up the pieces of what has disintegrated in his Self and his environment, just as he picks up the pieces which make up this piece of literature, and build a new world for himself out of them….

The new reality emerging out of the chaos of the apocalypse involves a nonrational way of knowing, a truth which refuses to be captured in the nets carefully passed down from Socrates to the twentieth century. It is a nonlinear truth, not based on the syllogism or symbolic logic, so it is most appropriately contained in a book of random order. It is, as Carlos Castaneda would have it, a separate reality, and all those who may rail against it as illogical are ignored, because not only do they not have currently meaningful answers, they don't even know how to formulate the right questions. (p. 76)

William L. Siemens, "Cortázar's 'Ultimo Round': A Bi-Level Literary-Pictorial Experience," in The International Fiction Review, January, 1975, pp. 74-7.


Cortázar, Julio (Vol. 3)