Saturday, February 22, 2014

The New Man

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.

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