Sunday, March 09, 2014
Burnside Park in Providence, Rhode Island currently sports an installation of rotatable signpost sculptures, including the one shown here, which is dedicated to the horror writer Howard Phillips Lovecraft, a local native.
I have mixed feelings about H. P. Lovecraft in general (q.v. my earlier post), but the handwriting and appropriately ghoulish illustration here seem to hit just the right note. Lovecraft is, in any case, now at least as much a mythical creature as he is anything else, and who knows if perhaps that fate wouldn't have displeased him. So far, I haven't been able to find out who created these sculptures.
Additional (and better) photos can be found in a blog post at Are there Any More Cookies?.
Saturday, March 01, 2014
This hand-printed calendar was produced by the Japanese katazome (stencil-dyeing) master Keisuke Serizawa, whose mark can be seen just below and to the left of the bird on the cover print (see following image). He produced calendars, with different designs each year, from 1946 until the mid-1980s; at least one associate and friend, Takeshi Nishijima, produced his own similar calendars during part of that period.
This particular production is relatively restrained. On most of the individual panels it is the numbered squares or circles, rather than the accompanying illustrations, that are the dominant design element; many of the spaces not needed for dates are filled with little vignettes.
For the August print below, Serizawa worked the letters of the name of the month into the first row of the calendar, but since he was one square short he combined the last two letters into one space.
November, I think, is my favorite. Notice that the "S" for Saturday is displaced to a line above the other days, again because there was no empty square available for it.
All of these pages were printed on handmade paper, so the originals are not as neat and square as the images shown here imply.
A variant of this calendar has the name of the Western Automobile Co., Ltd. (the Japanese affiliate of Mercedes-Benz) printed on each page; the image below is from an auction listing.
I am relying on George Baxley for identification on this calendar as the work of Keisuke Serizawa. There are relatively few English-language sources on the artist, with the fine exhibition catalog Serizawa: Master of Japanese Textile Design (Yale University Press, 2009) being the notable exception.
Call it an urban legend or what you will: here's a twice-told tale that only acquired its full impact years after the events it purports to describe.
The story emerged from a conversation in Paris between Julio Cortázar and an Argentine expatriate couple, Aldo Franceschini and Rosario Moreno. During the conversation, someone (apparently Cortázar) alluded to Mendoza in western Argentina; at the mention of the name Aldo Franceschini suddenly became excited and began to narrate an incident that had happened to him and his wife years before:
It was at the end of the 1950s, on the highway from Córdoba to Buenos Aires. Just at dusk the couple's car ran out of gas. Night fell with no sign of another vehicle passing by. They remained in the dark, smoking, waiting, hoping for someone to appear who could lend them some gas or give them a lift into the nearest town. Finally, around one in the morning, a car appeared. They signaled with a flashlight for it to stop and stood in the middle of the highway until it came skidding to a halt. Aldo approached the car in order to ask the driver for help, but even as he neared the window he detected something strange, an enigmatic fear that made him hesitate, an unease that seemed to emanate from the passenger seat, where the slumped form of a human being was outlined in the glow of the instrument panel. As Aldo explained that they had run out of gas the driver abruptly said that he had none to spare and quickly pulled away, leaving the couple stranded in the middle of the Pampean night. Oddly, as Aldo watched the car disappear he felt an inexplicable relief. A few hours later the couple were rescued by a passing trucker.When Cortázar heard this tale it brought something else to mind and he quickly put two and two together. The motionless figure in the passenger seat, he suggested, was in fact a corpse.
The reason was economic. In the 1940s and '50s patients from Buenos Aires suffering from lung ailments like tuberculosis were frequently sent to the mountains around Córdoba, a climate considered drier and healthier than the capital. While they were there, naturally, some of them died, but returning their bodies to Buenos Aires entailed considerable expense in the payment of duties and taxes imposed by the city government. In order to skirt having to pay this tribute, the corpse would be propped up in the passenger seat and given a bit of hasty make-up, and the driver would then speed to the capital at seventy miles an hour. Upon arrival, the authorities having been notified of the death as if it had taken place locally, the required fees were avoided.Cortázar added, perhaps facetiously, that at least two of the drivers in this clandestine business went on to become famous race car drivers.
The story above is translated loosely from the version told by Miguel Herráez in his biography of Cortázar. I have embellished it with a few details from Cortázar's own, longer treatment, "El copiloto silencioso" which can be read in Spanish online or in Un tal Lucas (Sudamericana, 1979) and in English, in Gregory Rabassa's translation, as "The Silent Copilot" in A Certain Lucas (Pantheon Books, 1984).
Saturday, February 22, 2014
As far as I can tell there is no "biography" of Julio Cortázar in English, though there are any number of book-length critical studies. There are at least three (probably more) in Spanish, of which Miguel Herráez's "revised biography," published in 2011, is among the more recent and the first that I've read. Not having compared it to the biographies by Mario Goloboff (1998) and Eduardo Montes-Bradley (2005), I can only say that this one seems thorough and judicious and worth putting before an English-speaking audience, although even in this año Cortázar — the centenary of his birth — I don't know how likely it is that a publisher in the US or UK will make the effort.
Herráez's book doesn't pretend to be "definitive"; if such a qualifier will ever be applicable to a life of Cortázar it will be some time in the future and the resulting product will no doubt be vastly longer than the 351 pages — nicely illustrated, I might add — we have before us. Herráez has been able to draw on the three-volume edition of the writer's letters published in 2000, but presumably didn't have access to the greatly expanded edition published two years ago; he has, however, interviewed many of Cortázar's friends and associates, including his first wife, Aurora Bernárdez, who has overseen his legacy since his death.
One of the puzzles of Cortázar's life is how its segments fit together, in particular how the provincial schoolteacher and professor in his late twenties and early thirties, a man who published little of note before 1951, became, as an expatriate in France, the daring and confident writer who would knock down the walls of the modern novel with the publication of Rayuela (Hopscotch) in 1963, and who would devote much of his later life to a political activism that at first glance at least seems at odds with the stubborn aestheticism of his younger years. Herráez doesn't entirely resolve these mysteries, and in fact underlines some of them, revealing how Cortázar cut his ties with many old acquaintances once he moved abroad. There are gaps in the story — Herráez says little, for instance, about Cortázar's years as the director of the Cámara Argentino del Libro in Buenos Aires — and no doubt some of these will be filled in in years to come, but we ought to remind ourselves that the whole notion of being "provincial" is here, as elsewhere, highly suspect; Cortázar at thirty-five, though he had as yet never left the continent of South America, had absorbed more French and English literature (much of it in the original) than many educated Europeans or North Americans ever would. Though the years in France would be decisive for his development, in many ways the mature writer must have always been there in embryo. Even so, one can't help being impressed by the force of the deliberate reinvention of himself that was to come.
Saturday, February 08, 2014
Julio Cortázar's Historias de cronopios y de famas, a volume of short, unclassifiable whimsical fables and texts, was published by Francisco Porrua's Ediciones Minotauro in Buenos Aires in 1962, and appeared (as Cronopios and Famas) in Paul Blackburn's English translation for Pantheon Books in 1969, that is, well after the US editions of The Winners, Hopscotch, and End of the Game and Other Stories (also known as Blow-up and Other Stories). Curiously, though, it appears that the cronopios reached an English-speaking audience before they were widely available in Spanish. Here's the story in brief as I've been able to piece it together thus far.
Blackburn, a poet and translator from several languages, first exchanged correspondence with Cortázar in the spring of 1958 through the auspices of Edith Aron (who, incidentally, is said to have been the inspiration for the character of la Maga in Hopscotch). Aron, a native German speaker, had translated some of the pieces that would eventually become Historias de cronopios y de famas into German for a magazine, and Blackburn may have seen them there. (It's also possible that he had come across the selection of seven pieces that were published in Havana by the review Ciclón in 1956.) In March 1958, at Aron's instigation, Cortázar sent Blackburn some of the cronopio material, possibly in the form of a homemade mimeographed "edition" similar or identical to one he had sent to the Cuban poet José Lezama Lima in January 1957. In April 1958, responding to a letter he had received in return, he wrote again, complimenting Blackburn on his Spanish, expressing an interest in reading the latter's own poetry, and providing a brief curriculum vitae that listed the books he had written to that point, including the story collections Bestiario and Final del juego as well as the (as yet unpublished) novels El examen and Los premios.
Blackburn seems to have set to work quickly on translating the material Cortázar had provided, and two excerpts appeared, in his translation, in the 1958 edition of New World Writing. By June 1959, he had translated large portions of the book and sent it to the author. A letter from Cortázar on June 29th describes the translation as "formidable" and mentions that he had read it twice and noted with pleasure that it reminded him in spots of Damon Runyon ("whom I always admired a great deal"). Several pages of suggested corrections follow, not all of which would be reflected in the final version.
By now, Blackburn was acting as Cortázar's literary agent in the US, and was seeking an American publisher for the cronopio material, without notable success. In December 1959, Cortázar refers to a public reading by Blackburn of the stories in New York City:
Paul, it's stupendous that you've read the cronopios in N.Y. and that people have enjoyed them so much. You don't know how happy this makes me. Did you make a tape recording? How I would have liked to hear your voice reading your translations, it would be fabulous. Many thanks for scattering my cronopios in the cafés of 9th Avenue. They must have eaten all the hamburgers, I imagine, and then left without paying. Deplorable conduct of the cronopios in New York.A tape recording of this performance (or a later one) must have existed, because in a letter sent in March 1960 Cortázar reports having received it and having greatly enjoyed listening to it. He also delightedly acknowledges receipt of a tube of garish Stripes toothpaste — a bit of an inside joke, as one of the cronopio texts involved misbehavior with toothpaste. Later in that same letter he indicates that an Argentine publisher had agreed to accept a volume including those pieces as well as several other groups of texts that would eventually be included in the published book. In April 1961, Cortázar told Francisco Porrua, the publisher, that the texts had met with great success in their New York reading:
Last year a radio station in New York broadcast all of the cronopios in a magnificent version by Paul Blackburn. There was a torrent of mail, which the translator showed me...By 1961, Editorial Minotauro was beginning work on the Argentine edition and Cortázar reports that Maurice Girodias' Olympia Press, located in Paris, had agreed to publish some of the cronopio texts in English in an issue of a new review, Olympia. They would, in fact, appear in issue No. 2 of that short-lived publication, but as of a June 1962 letter to Sara Blackburn — both Paul's wife and Cortázar's editor at Pantheon — Cortázar complained of not having been paid.
Cronopios and Famas would, as it happened, have to wait its turn in the US; the novels and longer stories were no doubt considered more easily marketable. The version that Pantheon eventually released includes a translation of at least one text ("Instructions on How to Dissect a Ground Owl") that Porrua persuaded Cortázar not to include in the Spanish-language version. It also incorporates most, but not all, of the changes Cortázar had suggested to Blackburn. The most puzzling of the corrections not made is found in "Improprieties in the Public Service," where Cortázar's objection to the incomprehensible "the confusion daddy" as a translation of "una confusión padre" (roughly, "one hell of a confusion") was never addressed. Nevertheless, Blackburn's translation of this elusive material holds up well, and Cortázar was right to be happy with it.
But what was the tape Blackburn sent Cortázar in 1960? The Pacifica Radio Archives holds a tape recording (not yet digitalized, sadly) of a 44-minute performance of Cortázar's "Stories of Cronopios and Famas" read by Blackburn and fellow poet Robert Kelly on WBAI in New York on July 19, 1962, which may or may not represent a re-broadcast of an earlier reading. The UC San Diego library, which holds Blackburn's papers, has a tape of what may be the same performance. It's possible that the original 1959 or 1960 tape still exists somewhere among Cortázar's papers.
(Translations from Cortázar's letters, taken from Cartas I (2000), are mine.)
Saturday, February 01, 2014
Evolutionary biology and biogeography are basically outside of my bailiwick here, not because I'm not interested in those fields (I am) but because, as is generally the case with all the sciences, a smattering of layperson's knowledge really doesn't qualify one to give an informed evaluation of advances in the discipline undertaken by people who have both years of scientific training and a thorough knowledge of the relevant literature. (Which doesn't stop any number of crackpots and pseudoscientists from jumping in with both feet, of course.) So I will only say of Alan de Queiroz's The Monkey's Voyage: How Improbable Journeys Shaped the History of Life that it is enjoyably written in a way that is comprehensible to a lay reader without being unnecessarily dumbed down, and that it puts forward what appears to be a plausible, if certain to be disputed, argument that may shed new light on how the world's flora and fauna came to be distributed where they are. It also introduced me to the cobra bobo, which is reason enough to be grateful.
To sum up the book's argument very briefly, one of the early problems that Darwin and his contemporaries faced was how species that were clearly related to each other came to be distributed in places oceans apart; the example alluded to in de Queiroz's title is the monkey lineage, which is found in both Old and New worlds. The discovery of plate tectonics seemingly provided an answer: the ancestral homeland of these species had drifted apart, and the descendants went their separate evolutionary ways thereafter, in a process known as vicariance. The problem is that recent DNA studies suggest that the timing is all wrong.
If the opening of the South Atlantic caused the separation between platyrrhines [New World monkeys] and catarrhines [Old World monkeys], then that split in the evolutionary tree should have occurred on the order of 100 million years ago. To put this in some perspective, such an old date would imply that the New World and Old World monkey lineages, which we know are not early branches in the primate tree, are actually about 50 million years older than the earliest known primate fossils of any kind. In fact, these monkey lineages would have to be some 35 million years older than the first known fossils of any placental mammal.The DNA evidence, which gets a bit complicated, suggests that the split in fact took place within the last 51 million years, and possibly as late as 33 million years ago. But if those numbers are right, then why are there monkeys in the Americas at all?
De Queiroz, a biologist at the University of Nevada, suggests that they got there the same way that a surprising number of seemingly out-of-place species came to be where they are: by accidental ocean crossings long after the continents had drifted apart. This may seem far-fetched, and in fact de Queiroz recognizes that the monkey example, of all the cases of potential oceanic dispersal that he examines, requires the greatest suspension of one's initial disbelief. But by building up careful evidence for other, less extreme dispersals, he makes a plausible case for even the ancestor of the platyrrhines as an accidental transoceanic migrant. The scenario — monkeys clinging to driftwood or to "islands" of vegetation swept out to sea by drainage from Africa's rivers (or, he might have added, by tsunamis) — would have extremely long odds against it, but one should bear in mind the vast quantity of time available; a one-in-10 million-years freak event might actually stand a fair chance of happening, given the tens of millions of years during which it could potentially have taken place. (The Atlantic would have been substantially narrower than it is now, and de Queiroz suggests that the monkeys — or maybe one pregnant monkey — might only have had to cling on for a week or so.)
There are many other well-documented case studies in the book — New Zealand, Hawaii, the Falkland Islands — and de Queiroz, whether or not he is ultimately proved to be right, appears to have done his homework. It seems likely that we'll be hearing more about his book in the coming years.
Saturday, January 25, 2014
Alfagura began issuing this five-volume expanded edition of Julio Cortázar's letters in February 2012, but it's taken me a bit to get around to it, starting now with the third and fourth volumes, which cover the period between 1965, when Cortázar's name was still largely unknown outside of the Spanish-speaking world, to 1976, by which time his international reputation had been solidly established and he had already completed his last novel, Libro de Manuel.
We're no doubt nearing the point where collections of this nature, sadly, will no longer be produced, or needed. Cortázar, who died in 1984 and thus antedated the age of email, didn't seem to use the telephone much, but he did conduct a prodigious multicontinental (and trilingual) correspondence. I suspect that even this greatly enlarged edition of Cartas, which includes more than 1,000 previously unpublished letters, doesn't come close to collecting his entire output. Several important recipients seem to be absent or underrepresented, perhaps because their papers have not yet been made available to the public*; in a few years, if the state of the book industry permits it, we may well be looking at a seven-volume or even ten-volume third edition.
Where does one even begin to open these volumes, given the richness of the material? Is it best to strike out chronologically, or to follow the threads of literary history in the letters to individual recipients like José Lezama Lima, Paul Blackburn, Mario Vargas Llosa, or Ariel Dorfman? Pick an event in the history of modern Latin America — the death of Che Guevara, the overthrow of Allende, the assassination of the Salvadorean poet Roque Dalton — and you'll find Cortázar's reaction to it, in real time, as they say. The importance of these letters to Latin American literary history, on the other hand, is simply immense, given that Cortázar exchanged regular correspondence with not only the major writers of the continent, but the important publishers, critics, agents, and translators as well. His correspondence with translators and academics is particularly fascinating; unlike many writers, Cortázar, an experienced translator himself, was quite willing to discuss in detail and with great patience his intentions in writing particular works, even if at times he had to admit being stumped himself by stories like "Las babas del diablo" (which Antonioni transformed into Blow-Up).
Cortázar's writing, as well as his life, became increasingly political during the 1960s and the awful decade of the 1970s, which saw countries like Chile and his native Argentina fall under barbaric military regimes. His political activism may have taken its toll on some friendships, as his continuing (but not entirely uncritical) support for Cuba separated him from old friends who were becoming increasingly alienated from the Castro regime. After the publication of the very political Libro de Manuel in 1973, his commitments, as well as occasional bouts of ill health and the deaths of old friends, may have taken a toll on his literary production, but inside he remained the eternal cronopio, able to take delight in reading, of all things, The Lord of the Rings from cover to cover in August 1975.
NB: The new edition omits the useful list of biographical references from the first edition that provided brief identifications for the recipients of the letters, and has changed the index so that references to individuals are only indexed at the end of the volume in which they are mentioned. On the positive side, an index of cited works has been added, which makes it easier to find the letters in which Cortázar discusses particular stories or novels. The thoroughness and care of the editors in these volumes is admirable throughout.
*Letters to Carlos Fuentes held at Princeton University have apparently been restricted until 2014. It's possible that some of Cortázar's letters to Octavio Paz may have been destroyed in a fire in 1996.
Tuesday, January 21, 2014
I approach the heart of the city down a narrow, winding road that weaves among thick settlements of low buildings and clusters of trees. (I have been to Mexico City, many years ago. The geography doesn't correspond, but it does correspond to the topography of the city as I may once have dreamed it, perhaps, before I went there.)
It's morning and I set out by foot to change a bit of money. I find myself in a small gift shop attached to a restaurant. There are some stacks of books about contemporary Mexican artists; I pick one up and leaf through it, admiring the work, then set it down and look around to see what else they have. But the shop is small, there's just the one corner of books. I get on line at the cash register to change some money. When I get to the front of the line the cashier and the cash register have disappeared somewhere behind me, and I wander off outside. I go into a bank. "Se puede cambiar dólares por pesos?," I ask the teller, but she says no and gives me directions, which I can't follow, to another bank. After a while I enter a small building that looks more like a car repair shop. While I'm waiting in line someone knocks me down and begins rifling through my pockets; I come to and give the man a beating. A third man, waiting in front of me, helps me up and thanks me profusely, but I think it best to beat it; I stuff my money awkwardly into my pockets and exit through a long arcade. Here I have a commanding view of much of the city. I look at my watch — it's ten A.M. — and at the sun to orient myself, then set off in the direction where I think the center of the city lies. Off to one side there's a little wrought-iron pedestrian gate that opens into an old neighborhood; there's a name and date on a sign next to the gate. But I don't go that way; instead, I climb a long series of steps past a vacant lot overgrown with tall trees. A man in a pale polo shirt, who doesn't appear to be Mexican, is descending the steps; he says "buenas" as we pass. I start to mumble "buenas tardes" but remember that it's still only morning. The man steps into a small office, where another man listens sympathetically as he pleads, "necesito un poquito más sustancia que me den, para poder vivir." The other man nods and agrees; he will take steps.
I've emerged at the edge of a small college campus. I pass through it; on the other side there is an abandoned fairground. A sign reads "NY World's Fair" and there's a date: 1961. I wonder, is this where fairs come to die? Is this a cemetery for fairs? Everything is white and there are life-size calaveras strewn over the ground.