Cortázar at Berkeley

By | 28 January, 2014

In 1980 the Argentine writer Julio Cortázar gave a series of eight lectures at Berkeley’s Spanish and Portuguese department. Getting him to Berkeley had not been easy. In 1969 he refused Columbia University’s invitation to be a visiting professor on the grounds that it was representative of a “brain drain” on Argentina, and made it clear that he was heavily against the “imperialist policy” of the United States. In the 1970s, his anti-US stance began to ease up slightly, and he started making short trips to the country. His scepticism remained, however, and he finally accepted the invitation at Berkeley mainly out of friendship for Pepe Durand, the professor who invited him.

Cortázar’s lectures – transcribed and published in Spanish this year as Clases de Literatura (Editorial Alfaguara) make for fascinating reading – both for their content, and for the light they throw on the author. The college lecture is usually a sort of set piece, a confined exposition on certain themes designed to work through a given list of topics. University professors attest to how much preparation such lectures require, and the difficulty of fitting the material to the limitations of time. They usually work according to outlines prepared in advance, so that whether the subject is Slavic monarchy or astrophysics, the lecturer can get his points across clearly to his audience scribbling away.

But Cortázar was not only a writer, but a writer who claimed language itself as a ground for revolution, spending his life battling the syntaxes and structures that oblige us to think in predetermined ways. Cortázar’s lectures were personal reflections on his life and work, and invitations to those around him to interrogate their own lives.

The Voice of Cortázar

“You have to know that I’m improvising these courses only a little before you get here: I am not systematic, I am neither a critic nor a theorist, and so I seek out solutions as problems come up,” Cortázar told his class at the first meeting.

From the start he sought to build up a fluid dynamic with the students, seeing them as comrades in working out existential questions. Students began to feel more and more comfortable as the classes went on, leaving him letters, addressing him in the familiar ‘tu’ form, even giving him gifts like music cassettes and the figure of a unicorn, a fantastical creature that during a lecture he had mentioned being fond of. Cortázar replied to their many questions good-naturedly, honestly, and with some irascible humour – as when one student asked him why he hadn’t talked about Luis Buñuel, and he replied: “Look, the list of people I haven’t talked about would resemble the Oakland telephone directory.”

Reading the lectures, one has to imagine his voice delivering them. Cortázar’s is the kind of voice that, once one hears it, cannot easily be forgotten; he speaks clearly in a manic, intelligent monologue, just as he writes, and does so in a Spanish accent that while recognizably Argentine – confident, even slightly stentorian, with a constant downward cadence – lacks its ‘r’s. Cortázar was born in Belgium, and French was technically his first language; he would move to Argentina when he was five years old and then move back to France during the Perón years, when he was 37. He lived there for the rest of his life, eventually taking French nationality. And yet he would grow offended if someone suggested he wasn’t truly Argentine or Latin American, or that his prose had been inflected in any way by French.

In that unmistakeable voice of his, Cortázar would often make polemical pronouncements. In a famous clip, he emphatically insists that the so-called ‘Latin American Boom’ has no basis in reality – that it was based on a coincidence of books published around the same time by Garcia Márquez, Fuentes, Vargas Llosa and himself, and was no more than a marketing label. In the English-speaking world this label retains a tenacious hold, and is frequently applied to his best-known novel Rayuela, about the search by an Argentine in France for the woman he loves.

Composed of monologues, philosophical fragments, advice for chapter reading order, and absurd dialogues like how to stretch a plank between two buildings, Rayuela is a book in which plot is secondary – it is very much inspired by the French existentialism of the 60s, and first and foremost concerned with what it means to question all societal givens, even one’s own language. Even now, Cortázar is often read as an alternative to the neat metaphysical constructs of Borges, his prose slangy and clause-filled, spiralling outwards rather than inwards, avoiding clichés of style and rigid programmatic structures as far as it can.

Building a Personal Myth

This is why it’s so surprising that during the very first class, Cortázar proposed a highly systematic model for understanding his own trajectory as a writer. He said that he passed through three well-defined stages: the first “aesthetic”, the second “metaphysical”, and the third “historical”. The first stage, he said, was nearly unthinking: “I belong to a generation of Argentineans that emerged almost completely from the middle class of Buenos Aires, the country’s capital; a social class that by study, origin and personal preference committed itself from a very young age to literary activity.” He and his friends spent their days at cafés, reading and discussing works in both castellano and other languages like French and Italian, interested in the style with which things were expressed. He did read the news, but thought of this as an activity totally distinct from that of literature.

It was when he moved to Paris in his thirties that he entered the second stage. During the “great loneliness” in which he lived there, he began to interest himself in the psychological other, and to use psychological mechanisms in his stories and novels to “advance in that territory – which is in the end the most fascinating in literature”. Both Los Premios and Rayuela were written during this period of intense personal anguish and interest in both his own mind and the minds of others.

The third stage occurred in 1961, when Cortázar travelled for two months to Cuba as part of an international investigation into political conditions. When he returned to Paris, “by a kind of abrupt revelation –and the word isn’t exaggerated– I felt that I was not only Argentine: I was Latin American”. He suddenly felt the responsibility to write for and on behalf of other Latin American nations, not just himself, not just Argentina.

Questioning All Narratives

But one should take this scheme with a large grain of salt. As he made clear, Cortázar himself was fairly sceptical of schematic descriptions and overly determined descriptions of intention imposed from the outside – even by his own future self. It is hard to see these easy divisions in his work; perhaps this retrospective description is just as convincing as any attempt would be to explain whatever temporary intuitions led him to write what he did. His ‘stage theory’ is hardly the only possible interpretation of his work.

The idea of multiple possible readings of his life, made at different times and equally valid, would likely not have bothered Cortázar. An acceptance of multiple realities and interpretations very much underlay what he said about the “fantastic”, for instance. Since he was a young boy, Cortázar was obsessed with the fantastic genre, and assumed everyone else was too; it was only when he tried to lend a copy of an H.G. Wells novel to a friend – who returned it without reading, saying it wasn’t believable – that he started to question seriously why everyone around him was only interested in “realist” books, often code for dull, depressing stories, or situations permitting no interpretation and nothing unexpected. For Cortázar, incorporating the fantastic seemed as “acceptable, possible and real as the fact of eating a soup at eight o’clock at night”; he accepted a “larger, more realistic, more expanded reality into which everything could enter”, a reality that was “more real than that of the realists”.

He talked about the importance of music – Cortázar wanted to be a musician growing up, and said that the prose he like to write and read prioritised a definite rhythm. “I’m talking about a prose mixed with and based on a series of latencies, of pulsations, that hardly ever come from reason and that make a writer organise his discourse and syntaxes in a way that beyond transmitting the message of the prose, they also transmit a series of atmospheres, of emanations, a content that has nothing to do with the message itself but enriches it, amplifies it and often deepens it.”

This rhythm is what makes translating Cortázar so difficult – the words might be right, but the “pulsations” are hard to recapture. They are the basis for his literary humour; they are also what make standard copy editing techniques so potentially damaging. During one class, he talked about a copy editor from Madrid who added 36 commas to a page of his, which was technically correct but converted the prose into something static, telegraphic.

This exploration of other realities, times and rhythms led Cortázar into his discussion of Rayuela, which he called “a book of questions which continually asks why something is this way and not another way, why people accept that something is given in this form when it could be given in another.” Young readers were receptive, identifying with the protagonist: “Horacio Oliveira is a man who puts under consideration everything he sees, everything he hears, everything he reads, everything he receives, because it seems to him that he doesn’t have a reason to accept received ideas and codified structures without first passing them through his own way of seeing the world and then accepting or rejecting them.” Oliveira’s fear was that “instead of being someone who thinks and criticizes, language would do the thinking for him and impose stereotyped formulas, the formulas we see when we open the newspaper every morning.”

When he wrote Rayuela, Cortázar wanted a revolution to escape from the “prison of language”, the syntaxes that obliges us to say certain things. The philosophy of that book, if there is one, is that one should constantly undermine what seems certain. “Once one denies something, it is possible to continue a chain of negations”, Cortázar told his class; he said he saw himself as an “anti-Thomas Mann”, who instead of proposing and trying to answer philosophical questions in his work simply raised doubts, trusting in “complicit readers” to work through them with him.

A Political Consciousness

Cortázar went on to talk about the difficulty of trying to write any kind of political novel, for “if the historical element imposes itself on the literary, the literary loses out, and vice versa”. The technique he settled on in Libro de Manuel and other works was to include real articles clipped from newspapers, while keeping the story itself totally imaginary, and retaining its sense of humour “even if the humour is black”. Continuing to develop an imaginative, introspective prose even during political periods was important to him: “If the revolution isn’t made from the inside out, it might be made from the outside in, with bad results – a revolution will be no good if it’s only led by old men who retain outdated mechanisms without the force of new language, thought and expression.”

In 1980, when Cortázar spoke, the National Reorganisation Process was in full force. He and many other writers, artists and other intellectuals were in exile, and this produced in him mixed feelings about how best to carry out his responsibilities. To politically “committed” intellectuals in other countries, he said, continuing to write fantastic literature during crisis rather than pamphlets or documentary material could appear incomprehensible; for Cortázar, however, this commitment to literature was not only proof that the human soul can survive no matter the circumstances, but itself a form of resistance. In reality, his “three stages” all folded into one, in which the personal is political, in a “reality that needs beauty as much as it needs truth and justice.”

Hasta Siempre, Amigos

Near the end of the last lecture, when Cortázar said he had to go, “hasta siempre, amigos” was the sign-off he used, borrowed from Che. But first he let the students ask him whatever they wanted, answering as always from his personal experience and frequently saying that he didn’t know or was only offering an opinion. The electricity in the air from the student perspective is obvious – this was a real writer talking about intuition, uncertainty, youth, eroticism and literature without the bulky apparatus of citations and footnotes.

julio-cortazar-clases-de-literaturaDuring the last lecture, in response to a student’s praise, Cortázar offered the following reply:

“Thank you for saying that. I would like it if this contact I’ve brought you here, outside all scholarship, is repeated very frequently in this Department because, without any false modesty, I think that a writer can communicate his personal experience, and with vitality and intuition create a connection, which doesn’t come across second-hand through a critic. The most erudite and academic criticism can provide a lot of very good and valuable information, but it lacks that more direct and personal contact.”

Shortly afterwards, the wildly-bearded, bespectacled, literarily madcap Cortázar went to catch his boat in Oakland – his suitcases and wife Carol already on board, ready to return to France. And with disquieting rapidity, this visitor from another world was gone, leaving his students to ponder what he had said.

Clases de Literatura is available from Amazon


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