I wrote this piece around the autumn of last year to introduce a new Vintage selection of Julio Cortázar’s short stories. I remarked that the stories still read freshly, urgently, as if they were written the other week. ‘It is as if he could sense how crazy the world was going to get,’ I wrote, blissfully unaware of all the craziness that was just over the horizon. But his relevance holds, and his freshness, and for readers new to Cortázar, a wonderfully realised world is yours now to enter.
Typically, Cortázar enters in a hot rush, his sentences spilling one over the other, and the narrative arrives as a cascade of turning, whirling information. But even as he wilfully discombobulates you – the dazed and bamboozled reader – you are enthralled, also, by the sense of happy chaos, by the gleeful abandon in the recít, and, very quickly, you find yourself pinned to the page and held gladly wriggling there. Cortazar proceeds then on the engines of his mad energy to squeeze a novel’s worth of confusion into a dozen or fifteen pages. With a maximalist’s glee, he sprays on his drive-by descriptions as if by machine gun, like the old man in ‘The Gates of Heaven’ ‘with a handshake that felt like a live sardine’, and, without ever a sense of effort, he bangs together his gloriously deranged set-ups, like the hapless correspondent besieged by an avalanche of bunnies (oh, read on, read on) in ‘Letter To A Young Lady In Paris’: ‘They tore the curtains, the coverings on the easy chairs, the edge of Augusto Torres’ self-portrait, they got fluff all over the rug and besides they yipped, there’s no other word for it, they stood under a circle in the light of the lamp, in a circle as though they were adoring me, and suddenly they were yipping, they were crying like I never believed rabbits could cry.’ And then there are his extravagant lurches of emotion, when he suddenly crunches down through the gears and slows the whole caboodle and allows feeling enter, as in the story ‘Bestiary’, with the child Isabel playing handball one lost hot afternoon of an Argentine summer, and ‘Isabel could smell the terebinth leaves and at one moment, returning with a backhand an insidious low shot of Nino’s, she felt the summer’s happiness very deep inside her.’ Julio Cortázar is truly a sorcerer and the best of him is here, in these hilariously fraught and almost eerily affecting stories.
Visitors to Buenos Aires will recognise in their very first hours on those fervent streets that there are two defining notes on the city’s air and that they are contrary – the one is a sense of antic giddiness, and the other is the weight of melancholy that same gaiety ferries beneath itself. Though born in Brussels – in 1914, to Argentine parents – Cortázar was raised and schooled on the outskirts of Buenos Aires and the city forever defines and colours him in his art. Every sentence that he writes contains those two contrary notes. He is a seriously funny writer, or an hilariously serious one. For most of his writing life, his stock-in-trade was the uncanny, and maybe his great achievement was to stitch it seamlessly into the apparent or surface realism of his fiction.
Coming to artistic maturity where and when he did, of course, there was a very large shadow that he needed to emerge from, that of Borges, and while the influence of the great fabulist is often present in Cortázar, it is so benignly, as a kind of permission, a permission to wildly invent and to fill his own ficciones with his own strange wonders. In turn, Cortázar would pass on the permits to his own generation of writers; he was a dynamic figure in the so-called Boom, the explosion of Latin American literary talent from the 1960s onwards in the work of Columbia’s Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Chile’s Mario Vargas Llosa, Mexico’s Carlos Fuentes, and many others. Vargas Llosa wrote that it was through Cortázar’s work, especially through his ground-breaking novel Hopscotch, published in 1963, that other writers on the Latin American scene discovered ‘that literature was an inspired way of enjoying ourselves, that it was possible to explore the secrets of the world and of language while having a great time and that, while playing, one could explore mysterious levels of life hidden to our rational mind, to our logical intelligence, chasms of experience into which no-one can look without serious risks, such as madness or death.’
Cortázar’s role in the literature of his place and time seems to me very similar to that performed by Flann O’Brien in my own country’s literary history. For much of the 20th century, Irish writers laboured sombrely in the shadows cast by James Joyce and Samuel Beckett (contrary influences – one putting everything onto the page, the other taking everything off again) and it took the emergence of an O’Brien, with his mischief and roguery and spirit of sedition, to show the others that they could, in fact, lighten up just a little. Sometimes, the work of an O’Brien or of a Cortázar (of a court jester, really) is precisely what’s needed to remind the rest of the field that they can have a good time with this stuff, too. (And the equation is a simple one: if the writer is not having a good time at his or her end of the process, the beloved reader is not having a good time at the far end.) It could be said also that the playfulness in both O’Brien and Cortázar can ultimately be traced (via the labyrinths laid down by Borges and Joyce) to the same primary source, namely Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy.
A condition that was of immense value to many Irish writers in the 20th century came to be so for Cortázar, too – the condition of exile. In his 20s, in the zealot days of his writer’s apprenticeship, he worked as a school teacher in the Argentine provinces but he moved to Paris in his 30s and he would remain there for the rest of his life. His absence from the city that formed him allowed the Buenos Airies he conjured on the page to become a truly fictive realm. He could invent at will the events and the people of his imagined metropolis – Cortázar’s city would be a place unsullied by the drear restraints of reality, and it could gladly accommodate the fantastic.
But it is when he hovers just inches above the real, when he applies his blithe, his often almost breezy style to matters of true weight and significance that the measure of his accomplishment becomes apparent. Let’s zoom in from the broad view and try for a while a tighter focus, say on the story ‘The Gates Of Heaven’. Here, the matter is grief, and the story opens thus:
‘José María came at eight with the information, hardly beating around the bush at all he me told me that Celina had just died. I remember that I noted the phrasing with a flash, Celina just dying, almost with the sense that she herself had decided the moment. It was almost night, and José María’s mouth was trembling when he told me.’
Somehow it’s the tiny visual image that concludes the paragraph – the trembling mouth – that pins us to the page, that makes the situation palpable, and that helps us take in the more abstract notion we’ve already been presented with by the narrator, the idea that Celina chose her moment, that she was wilful to the last, and already, inside the beat of just three sentences, something of her character has been brought to life.
With his usual artful impatience, Cortázar now rushes the detail onto the canvas: Celina’s has been a sudden death (the lungs; the coughing of blood; a case of tuberculosis insinuated) and her partner, Mauro, has taken it hard – he tried to beat up the doctor; he had to be held down in fact. The narrator and José María now cross the city of Buenos Aires by taxi, to Mauro and Celina’s place at Cánning and Santa Fe, and there ‘the wake was already organising itself, by itself; the faces, the drinks, the heat.’ Somehow, the grimness of the grieving moment must be gotten through, and to do so, we can only drift into the story’s past, into its lost love, and now, as we sit with the other mourners and sip maté at the wake, the narrator belatedly and memorably introduces himself – ‘I am Doctor Hardoy, a lawyer who doesn’t fit in with Buenos Aires, not its law courts or its music or its racetracks; and I move as hard as I can in other directions, other bags’ – and he takes us out of the wake and into the past, into the lovers’ heyday:
‘All this was happening, but I was with Celina and Mauro again, the carnival, Luna Park, 1942, dancing, Celina in sky-blue which went badly with her dark color, Mauro with his Palm Beach suit, and I with six whiskeys in me and drunk as a monkey. I liked to go out with Mauro and Celina, a witness to their hard, hot happiness.’
The city in its Noirish era and this hard, hot love are here conjoined – Cortázar is marvellous on romance, of people and of places both, and it is when he brings the two together, making a portrait of love in a particular epoch and in a particular domain, that he achieves some of his finest moments.
In an attempt to unburden Mauro from even a fraction of his grief, Doctor Hardoy, as the story progresses, takes his friend for a night on the town, but as they sit and sip Quilmes Cristal beer in a café bar, it all starts to gush from Mauro, the grief pouring out like hot wax, and ‘I hardly remember anything that he said, I think, really, it was always the same thing over again. I’ve remembered one phrase: “I have her here,” and the gesture of driving his forefinger into the center of his chest as though he was indicating where a pain was, or a medal.’
The medal – grief as ornament, as an honour to be borne – is the mark of greatness here. Anyway, they proceed to a tango club, and they sit in the smokiness among the sinuous music, and they watch the dancefloor, and now it is the past and present that conjoin, the lost, glorious nights of love seeping and sequeing into this awful, grief-filled one, and quickly the madness of grief breaks loose, and now every woman on the dancefloor becomes for Mauro his beautiful, lost Celina.
Doctor Hardoy tactfully escorts us from the story as Mauro tragically prowls the nightclub, and the prose takes on a fade-out rhyhtm, a lovely, dying fall: ‘I stayed quiet and took my time over a cigarette, watching him coming and going, this way and that, knowing he was wasting his time, that he would come back, tired and thirsty, not having found the gates of heaven among all that smoke and all those people.’
There is a sense in all of Julio Cortázar’s work of a great nervousness – he seems to work from beneath a skin of anxiety. He is palpably, tremblingly alive to the hidden presences in objects and in still life. He considers the lives of buildings and he considers the odd music of natural things. He is fabulous on childhood, on the great dark forest of spookiness that exists at its edges. His leaning, it often seems to me, is as much in the direction of the eerie as it is towards the uncanny.
After he moved to Paris, in 1951, his work started to become more widely known, and his influence started quite early to spread. (And it has spread into our own century, too; Cortázar was a great and acknowledged influence on Roberto Bólano.) From what we know of it, his pragmatic, day-to-day life had a somewhat antic and impatient note. He translated widely, he wrote stories and novels and poems, he played jazz and had romances – he was a gangly six foot four, and he liked to glower intensely in photographs, with a cigarette clamped fiercely between his lips. He was keenly attuned to the existential ennui and to the attendant sense of cool that defined his epoch – two of his stories came to be the sources for Antonioni’s film Blow-Up and for Jean Luc Godard’s Week End.
In the last fifteen or so years of his life, his work was impacted more and more by the political situation back home. It was a time of ominous regime changes all over Latin America, a time of juntas and of coups, of a great heaviness on the political air, and the artistic response was for Cortázar’s stories to take on a still more fantastical tinge.
‘These days, my notion of the fantastic is closer to what we call reality,’ he told The Paris Review, late on. ‘Perhaps because reality approaches the fantastic more and more.’
In his fiction he could be cussed and tricky. He is happy to leave the awkward bits remain in a story – the elbows and knuckles of a story – and in this way he allows life in. He is aware that life is ever hovering towards a condition of shapelessness and the only sense we can put on it is narrative sense. He reads very freshly now. His stories encountered in the present epoch seem to offer something in commentary to it. It is as if he could sense how crazy the world was going to get. His set-ups still reverberate and the dialogue still sings. You rarely catch what sounds like an antique note in this work; these stories have not with the years gathered a sepia tone. Sometimes, the note he plays in his stories is clear as a bell, and his narrative intentions are clear; at other times, he opts for a kind of woozy music, and the meaning is blurred and uncertain, but we can gather well enough that he is trying to unseat the reader, that he is teasing readerly expectation. Half the time you wouldn’t know what the rogue is up to but you’re happy to go along for the steer.
Julio Cortázar was born in 1914 under the sign of Virgo in Brussels and he died in 1984 under Aquarias in Paris and he is buried there at the Cimetiére du Montparnasse.
Bestiary: The Selected Stories of Julio Cortázar with Kevin’s introduction was published by Vintage Classics in February this year.