Monday, April 11, 2005

Yes, but who will cure us of the dull fire? (2)

For the uninitiated, the above is the opening phrase of Chapter 73 of Gregory Rabassa's translation of Julio Cortázar's Rayuela (Hopscotch), which I am slowly re-reading. Chapter 73 being the first chapter, or rather a first chapter, not counting epigraphs and the “Table of Instructions” in which it is explained that there are at least two ways to read the book: in the usual order from Chapter 1 to Chapter 56, or following the table, beginning with Chapter 73 then proceeding to Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 116, Chapter 3, etc., and concluding (or rather not concluding, as the final chapters cycle endlessly) with Chapter 131. The word Rabassa translates as “dull” is sordo, which is the same word that is used for our English “deaf,” but which can also mean silent, muffled, mute, etc. “Dull” seems a dull choice of word, but honestly I can't think of a better one. The Spanish is Sí, pero quién nos curará del fuego sordo... As to what the “dull fire” is all about, the only real insight one could gain would come through reading the book, which I urge you to do, if you are so inclined. Otherwise, no matter.

Cortázar loved jazz, dabbled in playing it (on the trumpet, and apparently not very well), and wrote some of his most interesting essays or quasi-essays about it (the best being “Louis enormísimo cronopio,” about Louis Armstrong). In Rayuela there is one long set-piece, broken up over several chapters, in which the various members of the Club of the Serpent, a diverse group of exiles and bohemians resident in Paris, spend an evening getting drunk on bad vodka and listening to old jazz 78s (and blues 78s as well, though Cortázar generally and with some justice lumps them together as “jazz”). In Chapter 17 this culminates in a bravura sentence, running more than two pages, in which the narrator poses what could be called a metaphysical defense of jazz, winding up with these words:
... an archetypal form, something from before, from below, that brings Mexicans together with Norwegians and Russians and Spaniards, that reincorporates them into the dark and forgotten central flame, clumsily and badly and precariously it returns them to a betrayed origin, it shows them that perhaps there have been other paths and that the one they took was maybe not the only one or the best one, or that perhaps there have been other paths and that the one they took was the best, but that perhaps there were other paths that would have been sweet to walk down and that they didn't take, or that they took only in a halfhearted sort of way, and that a man is always more than a man and always less than a man, more than a man because he has in himself all that jazz suggests and lies in wait for and even anticipates, and less than a man because out of this liberty he has made a moral or esthetic game, a chessboard where one must be either bishop or knight, a definition of liberty which is taught in school, in the very schools where the kids are never taught ragtime rhythm or the first notes of the blues, and so forth and so on.

(Rabassa's translation, somewhat modified)
The above could well be seen as a manifesto for the novel in which it occurs, perhaps even a manifesto for Cortázar's work and life as a whole.

Friday, April 08, 2005


When I was a kid there was a low-lying vacant lot across from our house, mucky and smelling of skunk cabbage in the spring, and if you turned over the right kind of stone (and one quickly learned to judge the right dimensions and placement, not too high and dry but not too deep in the muck) there was a good chance that, along with the assorted beetles and sow bugs and ants, you would encounter a delicate, motionless little form beneath, dark brown with a red stripe down the back, four tiny, fingered limbs. If you touched one it would wriggle away in a half-hearted fashion, its movements more sluggish still if the weather was cold.

These were the ordinary red-backs, the only kind I ever found in that lot. Closer to the lake, in the sphagnum woods, you could turn up the diminutive red efts, faintly spotted down the back, which I knew were the terrestrial phase of drab green newts that must have swum in the lake, not that I ever saw them. And once a friend found a heftier creature, a marbled salamander or a tiger, not far from the same woods.

I never see salamanders where I live now. It's a little too dry, too built up, too close to town. And nothing calls attention to itself less than a salamander. Silent, defenseless, innocuous, the salamander leaves little impression of itself. It's neither dangerous nor delicious, and has so little weight in our folklore and popular culture that its usual name, at least in America, is lifted pedantically from ancient Greek (though “newt,” as well as “eft,” are from an obscure Anglo-Saxon root). No one imitates the salamander, or fears it, in fact nobody except for herpetologists thinks about it much at all. There is some vague lore about its ability to survive in fire (allegedly because it was seen crawling from burning logs), there is one excellent short story (Julio Cortázar's) about an axolotl, which is, however, a rather more garish creature altogether, and that's about it. No Muppet, I'm almost certain, is modelled on a salamander.

These being hard times for amphibians in general, perhaps salamanders are fated to vanish. Interestingly, their distribution neatly reflects the ancient boundaries of Laurasia: they can be found in North America, Asia, and Europe, but not in Australia, Africa, or South America. A little more development, a little more ozone, and good-bye. Chances are they would be little missed. Unlike frogs and toads, I have never heard great claims for their efficacy in destroying mosquitoes or other pests, nor do they seem to be a food species of choice for any more conspicuous species. Their charms are subtle and solitary, qualities that are — sadly — little valued now.

But maybe their one defense will protect them still. In the deep woods, snug under their stones and rotten logs, they will wait. Natural Taoists, they will never seek to dominate, they will always be willing to sacrifice a little more, will ask nothing, and perhaps they will prevail in the end. They will miss us, I think, a little.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Notes on the jazz lyrics in Cortázar's Rayuela (Hopscotch)

Update 2014: the discussion below is now very much out-of-date, but I'll leave it up in case it's of use to anyone.

Julio Cortázar was a great jazz fan. In one section of his novel Rayuela there is a long set-piece, broken up over several chapters, in which the members of the “Club del Serpiente” pass an evening listening to records, most or all of which are American jazz and blues records from the '20s and '30s. In the original Spanish-language text several of the songs are quoted, in English. When the English-language version of the novel, created by Gregory Rabassa, was published, most of these lyrics were changed substantially and, in most cases, without any self-evident reason. This was presumably done with the author's blessing, since he worked closely (if at a substantial geographical remove) with Rabassa on the preparation of the translation. But why? [Update 2013: see footnote1]

My first assumption was that Cortázar had mangled the lyrics when he wrote the book, either because he was working from memory or because he had difficulty making out the correct lyrics. Though Cortázar was a professional translator and knew English very well, he occasionally shows signs, when he quotes from the language, of being a little uncertain with vernacular expressions (his compositor or publisher may have been more uncertain still), and in a few instances (the lyrics aside) Rabassa clearly cleaned up English phrases that were not idiomatically likely (“This is a plastic's age” being one example). Since Rabassa was a jazz aficionado himself, he may have known or discovered that Cortázar had the lyrics wrong and corrected them, with the author's knowledge. (“It don't mean a thing if it ain't that swing” being one example of an obvious misremembering or printer's error.)

But some spot-checking of lyrics on the web suggests that frequently Cortázar's original versions are more accurate than the corrected ones. (Many of these tunes, by the way, can be heard at the online Red Hot Jazz Archive.) The only guess I can make — and it's a hesitant one, at best — is that the lyrics were intentionally altered in the Pantheon edition to avoid copyright clearance issues. Some examples follow.

Rayuela Chapter 13:

... Don't play me cheap.

Satchmo cantaba Don't play me cheap
Because I look so meek

Hopscotch Chapter 13:

... Don't play me cheap.

Satchmo was singing:

So what's the use
If you're gonna cut off my juice

Rayuela Chapter 15:

Champion Jack Dupree ...

Say goodbye, goodbye to whiskey
Lordy, so long to gin,
Say goodbye, goodbye to whiskey
Lordy, so long to gin,
I just want my reefers
I just want to feel high again —

Hopscotch Chapter 15:

Champion Jack Dupree ...

So long, whiskey, so long ver-mouth
Goodbye, goodbye, gin.
So long, whiskey, so long ver-mouth
Goodbye, goodbye, gin.
Jus' want some good grass
'Cause I wanna turn on again —

Rayuela Chapter 15:
Big Bill [Broonzy] ...

They said if you white, you all right
If you brown, stick aroun',
But as you black
Mm, mm, brother, get back, get back, get back.

Hopscotch Chapter 15:
Big Bill [Broonzy] ...

If you're an ofay, well, you're okay,
An' if you're tan, you're all right, man,
But if you're brown or black, mmn,
Step down, git back, git back.

Rayuela Chapter 16:

It don't mean a thing if it ain't that swing
[obvious error]

Hopscotch Chapter 16:

It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing

Rayuela Chapter 16:

You so beautiful but you gotta die some day,
You so beautiful but you gotta die some day,
All I want's a little lovin' before you pass away.

Hopscotch Chapter 16:

Skin like darkness, baby, you gonna die some day,
Skin like darkness, baby, you gonna die some day,
I jus' want some lovin' be-fore you go your way.

[This is an interesting case because after quoting the three lines in a block, Cortázar works them into the text of the following paragraph. So does Rabassa, but curiously he uses the original lyrics, not the substituted ones.]

Chapter 17:


I could sit right here and think a thousand miles away,
I could sit right here and think a thousand miles away,
Since I had the blues this bad, I can't remember the day —

Hopscotch Chapter 17:


I can set right here and think
three thousand miles away,
set right here and think
three thousand miles away,
can't remember the night
had the blues this bad any-way …

Rayuela Chapter 106:

The Yas Yas Girl [= Merline Johnson]:

Well it's blues in my house, from the roof to the ground,
And it's blues everywhere since muy [sic] good man left town.
Blues in my mail-box cause I cain't get no mail,
Says blues in my bread-box 'cause my bread got stale.
Blues in my meal-barrel and there's blues upon my shelf
And there's blues in my bed, 'cause I'm sleepin' by myself.

Hopscotch Chapter 106:

[no attribution]

Cold feet on the kitchen floor, cold feet on the ground,
cold feet everywhere since my man left town.
Cold feet in the butcher shop, cold feet in the store
since nobody comes around to grind my meat no more.
Cold feet on the motor and cold feet on the stones,
and cold feet in my bed, 'cause I'm sleeping all alone.

Rayuela Chapter 106:

Johnny Temple [“Between Midnight And Dawn”]:

Between midnight and dawn, baby we may ever have to part,
But there's one thing about it, baby, please remember I've always been your heart.

Hopscotch Chapter 106:

[no attribution]

Between now and tomorrow, babe, morning, we'll have to part
midnight to morning, babe, tomorrow we'll have to part
Please remember just one thing about it, I've always been in your heart.

Update (5/18/2005): More evidence that copyright issues may be the explanation: in Chapter 87 of Rayuela there is a nine-line quote from Ellington's “Baby when you ain't there,”

I get the blues down North
The blues down South
Blues anywhere,
I get the blues down East,
Blues down West,
Blues anywhere.
I get the blues very well
O my baby when you ain't there
ain't there ain't there —

In Rabassa's translation the lines are simply omitted, perhaps because the length of the quote put it beyond the limits of fair use without permission.

Incidentally, at least two compilations of most of the quoted tunes have been issued. One, issued by the Institute of Pataphysical Studies of Melbourne, Australia is El Jazz para leer Rayuela / The Jazz to read Hopscotch. The track listing is as follows:

Chapter 10
1) "I'm coming, Virginia" (Cook - Heywood) 3.10 m
Frankie Trumbauer & His Orchestra
New York 13/5/1927
2) "Jazz me blues" (Delaney) 3.02 m
Bix Biederbecke & His Gang
New York 5/10/1927

Chapter 11
1) "Four O'clock drag" (Gabler) 2.49 m
Lester Young with The Kansas City Six
New York 28/3/1944
2) "Save it pretty mama" 3.26 m
Lionel Hampton

Chapter 12
1) "Wrap your troubles in dreams" 2.43 m
Coleman Hawkins
New York 1/5/1944
2) "Grooving high" 2.42 m
Dizzy Gillispie
3) "Empty bed blues" 3.25 m
Bessie Smith
New York 20/3/1928

Chapter 13
1) "Don't play me cheap" (Dial - Randolph) 2.54 m
Louis Armstrong
Chicago 26/4/1933

Chapter 14
1) "After the rain" 4.07 m
John Coltrane
New York 29/4/1963
2) "Village blues" (Marsala) 2.48 m
Sidney Bechet
3) "See see rider" 2.55 m
Lonnie Johnson
Copenhagen 16/10/1963

Chapter 15
1) "Jelly beans blues" 3.20 m
Ma Rainey
New York 16/10/1924
2) "Blue interlude" 3.25 m
Benny Carter
3) "When I'm drunk" 8.30 m
Champion Jack Dupree
En vivo 1971
4) "Black brown and white" 3.06 m
Big Bill Broonzy
Paris 20/9/1951

Chapter 16
1) "Hot and bothered" 3.16 m
Duke Ellington & His Orchestra
New York 1/10/1928
2) "I ain't got nobody" 5.40 m
Earl Hines
New York 7/3/1964

Chapter 17
1) "Mamie's blues" (Desdume) 2.46 m
Jelly Roll Morton
New York 16/12/1939
2) "Stack O'Lee blues" (Lopez) 2.20 m
Waring's Pennsylvanians

I was able to obtain the above from in Argentina. Some of the tracks are actually later performances that did not exist when Rayuela was written. The CD also includes a reading by Cortázar of Chapter 7 of the novel.

A second compilation, which may be obtainable in Europe, is called Jazzuela (Recopilación de Pilar Peyrats K Industria Kultural, Barcelona, 1979). These are the tracks:

I'm Coming Virginia
Jazz Me Blues
Four O'Clock Drag
Save It Pretty Mamma
Body and Soul
Baby Doll
Empty Bed Blues
Don't You Play Me Cheap
Yellow Dog Blues
Mahogany Hall Stomp
See See Rider
Blue Interlude
Junker's Blues
Get Back
Hot and Bothered
It Don't Mean A Thing
I Ain't Got Nobody
Mamie's Blues
Stack O'Lee Blues
Jelly Beans Blues

Neither compilation appears to have tried to include the songs quoted in Chapter 106.

There is, by the way, a different kind of “correction” in the English version of the same author's short story “El Perseguidor” (“The Pursuer”). In the original the jazz musician Johnny Carter (modelled on Charlie Parker) is, somewhat ridiculously, a marijuana fiend; in Paul Blackburn's translation he is, like Parker and more plausibly, a heroin addict.2 Again, it is likely that this was with Cortázar's blessing, since Blackburn was a good friend (and for a time the author's North American agent).

1. A 1965 letter from Cortázar to editor Sara Blackburn essentially answers the question. Cortázar agreed to rephrase the lyrics to avoid copyright hassles, since the laws regarding the use of even short snippets of lyrics were stricter in the US than in Argentina and France. The letter, which is dated November 20, 1965 and is entirely in English, can be found in Volume 3 of the 2012 expanded edition of Cortázar's Cartas. Sara Blackburn was, at the time, married to Paul Blackburn, Cortázar's agent, friend, and occasional translator.

2. Apparently this was due to an innocent mistake on Cortázar's part. Martín Caparros reports that Cortázar told him that at the time he wrote the story he knew nothing of the effects of the two drugs; when Blackburn pointed out the implausibility Cortázar elected to leave the original alone, although in the translation the choice of drug was changed. Caparros: "It is strange to imagine now a time when a Latin American in Paris, thirsty for modernity and for various underworlds, had not the faintest idea what marijuana was."

Further reading:

Rabassa, Gregory If This Be Treason: Translation & Its Discontents New Directions, 2005; (discusses his work translating Cortázar and other writers).

Cortázar, Julio Cartas (5 volumes), Alfaguara, 2012; (includes some of Cortázar's letters to Rabassa during the time the latter was working on the translation of Rayuela).

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Yes, but who will cure us of the dull fire? (1)

As far as I can recall, it's been at least twenty years — maybe more like twenty-five — since I last read Cortázar's Rayuela (Hopscotch). Since I've long regarded it as one of the foundations of my outlook on life, I'm starting to re-read it again, which I plan on doing slowly, taking breaks now and then when something else of interest is at hand. I read Spanish, but not with the facility that I do my own language, so I'm keeping Gregory Rabassa's estimable translation handy for the times when I need it. In general, when I start reading a book in Spanish the first few chapters are slow going; then once I get accustomed (or re-accustomed) to the author's way of writing and particular vocabulary I can pick up the pace and dispense with the re-reading I often have to do at first. Rayuela is not an easy book (though not, to be sure, as tough going as Lezama Lima's Paradiso, which was tough sledding even in translation — Rabassa's as well — though well worth it).

Reading the first few chapters I'm surprised both at how much I remember in some ways (sentences nearly verbatim, details of description, etc.) and how much I had forgotten (whole characters, in at least one case thus far). And of course, as with any dense, rich book, I'm coming across things that had never struck me before (or maybe they did, but I've just forgotten).

In one of the “expendable chapters” (#84) I found this little bit (via Rabassa):
Imagination has been praised to excess. The poor thing cannot move an inch away from the limits of its pseudopods. In this direction, great variety and vivacity. But in the other space, where the cosmic wind that Rilke felt pass over his head blows, Dame Imagination does not go. Ho detto.
There are several things worth noting here, in one short paragraph. The ho detto (Italian for “I have spoken”) may or may not allude to the “previous” chapter (which is chapter 3 if you're following the longer of the book's two alternative courses and reading the book hopscotch-style), in which Cortazár describes how in his childhood he had first come up against the unappealable Hispano-Italo-Argentine ¡Se lo digo yo! [...] Glielo dico io! — "I say so!” — with which his elders could settle any argument. The pseudopods are explained earlier in chapter 84: people begin like amoebas, but as they grow up their pseudopods harden (“what we call maturity”). But what really interests me here is the reference to the imagination. A few years after the book was published, during the political tumult of 1968 Paris, the words L'imagination au pouvoir! were found scrawled on a wall; it would become, for Cortázar, a key text, a motto, and in some ways it can serve as an epigraph/epitaph for his entire life. But Rayuela is plumbing the depths well below such easy slogans. It may be that Cortázar, who became more politicized as the Sixties and Seventies wore on (in part, it is said, because of the events of 1968), stepped back from the existential abyss across which the “cosmic wind” was whistling, but I doubt he would ever have disowned the paragraph above. The truest test of intellectual honesty is not the ability to see to the bottom of others' convictions, but the willingness to confront the limitations — perhaps even the vacuity — of one's own deepest-held beliefs. I don't think I've yet come to the bottom of the darkness of this very dark book.