Friday, September 30, 2011

Laccabawn to New York

The letter transcribed and reproduced here is part of a small cache of correspondence exchanged between Margaret Nagle or Neagle, a young Irish immigrant in New York City, and her parents, of whom we know only the name of her father, John. The letters cover the period from August 1866 to March 1870.

Margaret, who periodically sent money home, apparently worked as a domestic servant, and reported -- truthfully or not -- that she had no difficulty finding employment. In the other letters there are indications that neither she nor her parents were able to read or write (Margaret does once mention that she is attempting to learn), so the entire correspondence would have been conducted by means of proxies. Although at one point she gives an address on West 20th Street, she generally requested that letters be sent to her care of the general post office in New York City.

At least two of Margaret's siblings remained at home in Ireland: a brother, also named John, and her younger sister Mary. Her father appears to have been a tenant farmer or laborer. There are several places in Ireland called Laccabawn or Lackabane, but this one appears to have been in the parish of Donoughmore in County Cork.

In the transcription below I have divided the text into paragraphs for easier reading, added periods and capitalization, and excised one repeated word. The embossed stationery, clear penmanship, and absence of spelling and grammar errors in this letter suggest that the person who actually wrote it down was reasonably well-educated. Brackets indicate a word that can't be read with complete certainty.

Laccabawn Sept 17th 1867

My Dear Daughter

We received your most welcome letter on the 4th of this month which gave us the greatest pleasure to hear that you were enjoying good health as we are ourselves at present thanks be to god. We do feel very thankful to you for the present you have sent to us which was £2 and was very much wanted. Last winter was so very severe that there was neither hire or wages for man or woman provisions of every description went up to famine prices which robbed the people especially the labouring class.

I do kindly thank you for the nice ribbon you sent me which will bring you to my memory every time I shall look at it during my life time. Your brother Johnny kissed it several times when he saw it. Johnny is in service with his fathers consent at low wages. Our potatoes are blighted this year again. You did well not to trouble yourself by enquiring about friends. Your uncle and family are well but does not care about any one else nor never asked about you since you left home. They consider their own business plenty and no more.

I would send you some presents of [flannel] or stockings if I got any sure person to take them to you. I would like that you would give us your address more correct than usual. Johnny is a fine big boy of his age and Mary feels angry as you did not say anything about herself in your letter. I do feel very proud to hear that you are sensible and attentive as usual. Mind yourself as you always did and you will have your father and mothers blessing. Mary says she hopes to see you yet. She says she is as big as you now. Your aunts two daughters are gone to America. Their passage was paid by their brother.

Write to us at any rate very soon. No more at present from your parents brother and sister.

Direct as usual.

Later letters discuss plans to have Margaret's brother John join her in New York. There are indications that her parents might have been considering emigrating as well.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Cortázar: Los relatos

I revisit many of the stories in these three volumes quite regularly, particularly the first, but lately I've been realizing that I haven't read some of the individual tales in maybe, well, thirty years or so, so I've decided to start with the first volume and read through the whole set, although given my unpredictable reading habits it may be months or even years before I actually complete the project.

Alianza Editorial in Madrid first published these paperbacks in the series "El libro de bolsillo" in 1976. The contents, representing more or less all of Cortázar's published short fiction up to that time (not counting the special case of Cronopios and Famas), were arranged not in chronological order but on the basis of affinities detected by the author, who sorted the stories into categories denominated "rites, games, and passages." The disadvantage of this arrangement, of course, is that it obscured the temporal sequence of their publication and their arrangement as they had originally appeared in volumes like Bestiario, Las armas secretas, and Final del juego, but the author's wishes in this sort of thing ought not to be lightly dismissed. A fourth volume containing later stories and subtitled Ahí y ahora ("There and Now") was published several years after these three, perhaps posthumously, but I've never owned a copy.

The first volume, which I've just finished re-reading in its entirety, has always been my sentimental favorite, in part because I bought it several years before the others (which it why the cover is a bit different), and in part simply because the stories it gathers are so extraordinary. It contains several pieces that have long been well known to English-language readers of Cortázar, including "La noche boca arriba ("The Night Face Up"), "Bestiario" ("Bestiary"), "Carta a una señorita in París" ("Letter to a Young Lady in Paris"), "El ídolo de las Cícladas" ("The Idol of the Cyclades"), and "Final del juego" ("End of the Game"), a few that have appeared in volumes of translations that have since gone out-of-print, and at least a handful of important stories that as far as I can tell have never been translated into English, including "Omnibus," "Los venenos" ("The Poisons"), and "Relato con un fondo de agua" ("Story with a Background of Water"). Reading them together, one detects common themes: childhood, family, illness and death, the mysterious interchangeability of individual identities, the ways in which we offer ourselves and others explanations that seem plausible on their face but mask deeper passions we can't afford to reveal. With the sole exception of the forgettable "El viaje" ("The Trip"), the level of artistry is high but at the same time apparently effortless, whether in the hilarious "Cartas de una señorita en París," the poignant but venomous "Los venenos," the droll social comedy of "Los buenos servicios" ("At Your Service"), or the nouveau roman in miniature of "Manuscrito hallado en un bolsillo" ("Manuscript Found in a Pocket").

My copy of the first volume is approaching the end of its run. The pages have darkened a bit but more ominously the binding, which I've already reinforced once with tape, is starting to go. There were always a distressing number of typos in any case (whether these were carried over from earlier collections I don't know). Not surprisingly, Cortázar's stories have been collected and re-collected several times; there's an old one-volume hardcover edition comprising his early stories that I have my eye out for, and a more recent multi-volume Cuentos completos from Punto de lectura. Still, I imagine I'll be picking this one up now and then for years to come, spending a few moments with a favorite story from the hand of the master.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

An Open Letter to Gustavo Ribeiro

Dear Gustavo,

You’ve asked for a few thoughts on how Cortázar is seen in the US. I’m not an academic and I haven’t made any systematic effort to keep up with the latest scholarship in English, so what follows will be largely based on my personal perspective as a reader and as a bookseller (in one form or another) for the last thirty-five years.

I first encountered Cortázar in translation, in anthologies of Latin American literature, of which there were several good ones on the market in the 1970s. I don’t remember for sure, but the first story I read may have been “Axolotl” or “Carta a una señorita en París,” either of which would have been sufficient to hook me for life. I probably then picked up a second-hand copy of the paperback edition of Blow-Up and Other Stories, Paul Blackburn’s compilation assembled from portions of Final del juego, Bestiario, and Las armas secretas, before moving on to the novels. As my Spanish improved I was able to revisit the works in their original form and also familiarize myself with books that were as yet untranslated.

The first published book-length edition of Cortázar into English was Elaine Kerrigan’s translation of Los premios, (The Winners in English) in 1965, a translation which I don’t think the author liked particularly. Since that time he has been generally fortunate in his English-language translators; he worked closely with both Blackburn and Gregory Rabassa, and was very pleased with the results. Until the publication of Blow-Up (originally as The End of the Game and Other Stories) in 1967, Cortázar was known in the English-speaking world only as a novelist, which of course is a reversal of how his career had actually developed.

By and large, US publishers kept up with the output of Cortázar’s major works during the latter stages of his life. His books were issued in hardcover by large but prestigious houses, and several appeared in “mass-market” editions in paperback, notably in Avon’s Bard imprint. Since his death, however, the situation has been mixed. Hopscotch (Rayuela) and Blow-Up have been more or less continually available, no doubt in part due to course adoptions in universities, but Libro de Manuel (translated here as A Manual for Manual) and several other important works have been allowed to go out of print. More importantly, editions of previously untranslated or posthumous works have been slow to come. The large commercial publishers, even such respected houses as Knopf and Farrar, Straus & Giroux, seem to have no interest in Cortázar, but fortunately the slack has been taken up to some extent by smaller independent publishers like New Directions, City Lights, and Archipelago Books.

Perhaps the greatest omission in the publication of Cortázar’s work here is in the short fiction. Paul Blackburn’s selection was made in conjunction with his wife, Sara, then an editor at Pantheon, and with Cortázar himself, and presumably represented an effort at a “best selected stories” drawn from what had been published in Spanish up to that time. The selection was a good one, but ironically it has led to a situation in which many of Cortázar’s best stories from the first twenty years or so of his publishing career, ones that were not initially selected for Blow-Up, have never been translated at all and so are entirely unknown to readers who can not read him in the original. Later collections of Cortázar stories in English (for instance, All Fires the Fire) were generally organized so as to match the contents of the corresponding volumes in Spanish; whatever their merit, early stories like “Cartas de Mamá,” “Después del almuerzo,” and “Los venenos” were left to fall by the wayside. This has, I think, somewhat skewed our understanding of Cortázar’s canon, giving more emphasis to work set in Europe than to work set in Buenos Aires, and therefore giving us an image of Cortázar the writer that is less “Latin American” than it might be otherwise.

The US marketplace has long been notoriously unfriendly to translations, and in some ways we are the most provincial of countries as far as our choice of reading matter. The so-called “boom” in the Latin American novel was matched by a corresponding expansion in translations for the US market during the 1970s and early 1980s, but that era is now long past. While there are exceptions, (García Márquez, whose settings perhaps offer more of the “exoticism” that our readers expect from a Latin American writer, and Vargas Llosa, with his Nobel Prize and long relationship with a single US publisher), the overall picture remains fairly bleak. There are important book-length critical studies on Cortázar (some of them by now quite dated) and as I mentioned a trickle of new editions appear from small but valiant publishers, but no major concerted effort is being made to keep Cortázar’s works in print, in comprehensive editions, and to promote his work to a broad readership.

Having said that, it nevertheless can’t be said that Cortázar lacks a following in the US. His books are taught with regularity in university courses and are the subject of frequent scholarly articles, dissertations, and blog posts. Moreover, we have a growing Spanish-speaking population of readers who are not dependent on translations; there is even a Penguin paperback, La autopista del sur y otros cuentos, aimed at Spanish-speaking audiences. His novels and stories are well known to fellow writers, to Latin American specialists, to critics and college students of literature, and many others. Nevertheless, Cortázar, as erudite a man as he was, did not write for the benefit of academics and specialists alone, and the full disruptive effect of a book like Rayuela deserves to be felt, as I think it has been in Latin America and to some extent in Europe, by a broader audience. A comprehensive edition of the stories is overdue, as is a biography, though in the case of the latter it is probably better for the Spanish-speaking world to take the lead.

The best news, however, is that the work remains. Even those editions that have gone out of print are obtainable second-hand or in libraries for those who are willing to take the time to seek them out. The translations they will find are generally high-quality, and although there are gaps enough of Cortázar’s work remains available to demonstrate his importance and provide delight and stimulus for the reader, which I think was the author’s intent.

All the best,


Postscript: for a Portuguese-language translation of this article see Blog Morellianas.