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.

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.)

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.

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.

Unmistaken Hands

A trailer from the new Quay Brothers film, Unmistaken Hands: Ex voto F. H., based on the short stories of the Uruguayan writer Felisberto Hernández (1902-1964).