Sunday, January 11, 2015

Visiting professor

Clases de literatura: Berkeley, 1980, published in 2013, presents the transcription of a series of seminars that Julio Cortázar conducted (in Spanish) during one of his infrequent visits to the United States. Cortázar was not a professional academic (he had done some teaching in his native Argentina before emigrating to France), and was quite upfront about being neither a literary critic nor a literary theorist. For that reason, some of the ideas preserved here, such as his thoughts about the differences between the fantastic and the realist short story, may seem a bit half-formed and arbitrary, but not so his comments about his own works and writing methods, which include a discussion of Rayuela that is likely to be seen as indispensable to any future readings of that much-discussed work, even if some of the points he makes are repeated elsewhere. Here, for example, is his explanation of how that novel's interpolated "expendable chapters" were put into sequence:
I ought to say that many critics have devoted many hours to analyzing what technique I might have used to mix in the chapters and present them in their irregular order. My technique wasn't what the critics have imagined: my technique was that I went to the house of a friend [Eduardo Jonquières] who had a kind of large studio the size of this room, I put all of the chapters on the floor (each one was fastened with a paper clip, a fastener) and I started walking around through the chapters leaving little alleyways and letting myself follow lines of force: where a chapter connected well with a fragment that was made up of, for instance, a poem by Octavio Paz (one is quoted), immediately I attached a pair of numbers and went on connecting them, assembling a package that I hardly modified. I thought that in that manner chance — what gets called chance — was assisting me and that I had to let chance come into play a little: my eye might notice something that was one meter away but not see something that was two meters away which I would only see later. I don't think I was mistaken: I had to modify two or three chapters because the action started to go in reverse instead of forwards, but overall this ordering into different levels worked in a sufficiently satisfactory manner for me and the book was published in that form.
(I have changed two verbs in the above translation from the present tense to the past in the interests of consistency.)

Each seminar included a question-and-answer session in which Cortázar was asked about various topics, from the fairly predictable (the Padilla affair) to the unexpected (whether he wrote his works in Spanish or in French), but also prompting interesting evaluations of such figures as Boris Vian and José Lezama Lima. The transcription includes various excerpts from Cortázar's writings which he read to the class, one or two of which I don't recognize. No word thus far on a possible translation into English.

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