Saturday, February 08, 2014

The Prehistory of Cronopios, Famas & Esperanzas (Epistolary Phase)

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he had written to that point, including the story collections Bestiario and Final del juego as well as the (as yet unpublished) novels El examen and Los premios.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.)

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