Thursday, July 28, 2011

Cortázar and books

Nine years after Julio Cortázar died in Paris in 1984, his library of some 4,000 volumes was acquired, with the co-operation of his literary executor (and first wife), Aurora Bernárdez, by the Fundación Juan March in Madrid. Cortázar y los libros, a slender but genial book published by Fórcola Ediciones and generously illustrated (in black and white), represents a personal tour through Cortázar's library by a Spanish writer and journalist, Jesús Marchamalo.

Cortázar was widely read in at least three languages, and his library thus includes a broad range of titles published in French and English as well as in Spanish. He was a heavy annotator — what Anne Fadiman refers to as a "carnal" rather than a "courtly" book lover — who felt no compunction about marking up his volumes with marginal notes, underlinings, objections and agreements, and various doodles and scribbles whose meaning, if any, is unknown. Many of the volumes bear personal dedications from fellow writers such as Octavio Paz, Carlos Fuentes, Pablo Neruda, Elena Poniatowska, José Lezama Lima, Rafael Alberti (whose dedication is woven into a full-page drawing), and the poet Alejandra Pizarnik (a good friend whose progressive mental decline is painfully evident in her inscriptions). A few of the books were apparently borrowed from other writers and never returned, including a volume of Luis Cernuda's poetry with Mario Vargas Llosa's name written inside it and an anthology of Catalan poetry personally inscribed to Gabriel García Márquez and his wife Mercedes. There are some impossible, fictional dedications, including one by Thomas de Quincey, who salutes Cortázar from beyond the grave as "a friend of Mr. Keats, I think?" And there are some mysteries, such as who — Cortázar himself, a wife or lover, or a previous owner? — left a number of pressed flowers in a copy of Baudelaire's Fleurs de mal.

The books document Cortázar's reading interests through various phases of his life from the 1930s onward, but there are unexpected gaps in the shelves, and the absence of certain titles in the library of an author who traveled widely and lived in various places shouldn't be taken as evidence that he never read or owned them. There is no Camus, no de Beauvoir, no Duras, no Tolstoy or Turgenev, and surprisingly little by Vargas Llosa (a good friend, despite their political differences) or by García Márquez (no Cien años de soledad, notably).

Marchamalo's book — as yet untranslated — makes no pretense of being a scientific survey (hopefully other hands will take up the task) and raises as many questions about Cortázar's reading as it answers. But for anyone interested in Cortázar's work and character, or in the ways in which readers and writers shape — and respond to — their own personal libraries, it will be a unalloyed delight.

Update (2014): For Tororo's French translation of this post, visit A Nice Slice of Tororu Shiru.

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