Saturday, February 15, 2014


"The problem for an engagé writer, as they call them now, is to continue being a writer. If what he writes becomes simply literature with a political content, it can be very mediocre. That’s what has happened to a number of writers. So, the problem is one of balance. For me, what I do must always be literature, the highest I can do . . . to go beyond the possible. But, at the same time, to try to put in a mix of contemporary reality. And that’s a very difficult balance."* 

Save Twilight and Hopscotch, Julio Cortázar

                                                                                  He was a beautiful man--there's a little of Chet Baker in this image, though Cortázar was darker and his face had more sadness in it.  (Chet would catch up in the sadness department, pretty quickly).  In my study I have lots of pictures, but only one image of a writer--Julio, bearded, smoking (of course), looking off into the distance, looking, perhaps, for La Maga in some Parisian cafe, or thinking about a philosophical paradox posed by Gregorovius, that spinner of paradoxes.  Oh to have lived in that Moveable Feast, Paris in the Fifties, cheap wine and jazz and conversations that lasted all night!  When I dip back into Hopsccotch, or, as now, reread it for the third or fourth time, I almost weep at the beauty of it--the gorgeous writing, the flow of ideas, the lost world, the riffs on politics and love and art that follow Oliveria/Cortázar as he wanders the streets in his lumberjack coat and leaky shoes, looking for, or trying to forget, La Maga, that life-force, that enigma, who just happens (among other things) to be a woman.

He was a poet of course, a poet in prose, like so many other writers in Spanish.  This morning, reeling from half-a-dozen poems from Save Twilight, I was thinking that, for sure, no language has more beautiful writing than Spanish--Cortázar, Márquez, Bolaño, Vila-Matas, Lispector, Abad--I could go on, but what's the point?  Russians and East Europeans do politics better than anyone; the French have no peer when it comes to malaise, the Brits are the great chroniclers of imperialist regret, Anglophone Indian writers are the best storytellers (Rohinton Mistry, e.g.), and Americans own bewildered self-regard--but literature in Spanish, whether peninsular or colonial, is by far the most poetic and passionate and beautiful.

From section 25 of Hopscotch: (I like to read the novel straight through and have never attempted playing rayuela according to Cortázar's directions in the preface): "Gregorovius thought that somewhere Chestov had written about aquariums with a removable glass partition which could be taken out any time and that the fish, who was accustomed to his compartment, would never try to go over to the other side. He would come to a point in the water, turn around and swim back, without discovering that the obstacle was gone, that all he had to do was to keep on going forward....."

He tosses this sort of thing off on every page--emblems of deeper truths, hints at the inner lives of his characters (who we know to be real people, thinly disguised).  Cortázar/Oliveria is this fish, walking and smoking and talking in riddles to his cercle intime--and then traveling back to Argentina to work in a circus that is an insane asylum and in an insane asylum that is a circus (yes, the glass partition can be removed and the fish never tries to go to the other side).  There is a yearning in Cortázar for truth and clarity that I find brave and touching and deeply moving; he is the greatest philosopher among writers, far more bracing than Dostoevsky because he is far less willing to capitulate to dogma or to divide the world up at all--no, Julio/Horacio swallows life whole, just as it is and must be.

 Look, I don't ask much,
just your hand, to hold it
like a little frog who'd sleep there happily.
I need that door you gave me
for coming into your world, that little chunk
of green sugar, of a lucky ring.
Can't you just spare me your hand tonight
at the end of a year of hoarse-voiced owls?
You can't, for technical reasons. So 
I weave it in the air, warping each finger, 
the silky peach of the palm
and the back, that country of blue trees.
That's how I take it and hold it, as 
if so much of the world
depended on it, 
the succession of the four seasons, 
the crowing of the roosters, the love of human beings.

This is "Happy New Year."  In interviews, like the one given to the "Paris Review," Cortázar often made the point that the real and the surreal are one and the same thing--I think he felt the glass partition between consciousness and the unconscious to be porous, or non-existent.  His novels, like 62: A Model Kit  aren't at all like dreams, but they are dreamy, the prose languorous rather than sharp; there's nothing business-like about Cortázar's writing, and he's never eager to take the reader to some destination of plot or character development. Things pop up in the stories embedded in Hopscotch, like that marvelous long account of Horacio/Julio wandering into an eccentric piano recital by the deluded impresario Berthe Trepat--this is writing as jazz, Charlie Parker put into words, and Horacio/Julio is, in La Maga's words, "like a glass of water in a storm."

He was a beautiful man who died too young (at 69), possibly from a blood transfusion.  He was born in Brussels, taught elementary school in rural Argentina where he began to write, then moved to Paris in 1951.  He offended the Peronists who ruled his native country and wasn't welcome--and that was all right since Paris was his natural home.  He translated for UNESCO, played the trumpet, collected books and art, wrote and thought and lived.

Here is a photo of his wife, Carol Dunlop who died in 1982.

Julio Cortázar died in Paris in 1984.  I visited his grave in Montparnasse; it was covered with flowers.

*From the Paris Review interview:

Hopscotch was translated by that genius Gregory Rabassa who has done so much to make Spanish and Latin American Literature available to us.

City Lights Books published Save Twilight in a nice pocketbook edition, with Spanish texts and translations by Stephen Kessler.  It's #53 in the City Lights Series.

Here he is, looking like Jean-Paul Belmondo. 

George Ovitt, 2/15/14

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