Saturday, January 25, 2014

Man of letters

Alfagura began issuing this five-volume expanded edition of Julio Cortázar's letters in February 2012, but it's taken me a bit to get around to it, starting now with the third and fourth volumes, which cover the period between 1965, when Cortázar's name was still largely unknown outside of the Spanish-speaking world, to 1976, by which time his international reputation had been solidly established and he had already completed his last novel, Libro de Manuel.

We're no doubt nearing the point where collections of this nature, sadly, will no longer be produced, or needed. Cortázar, who died in 1984 and thus antedated the age of email, didn't seem to use the telephone much, but he did conduct a prodigious multicontinental (and trilingual) correspondence. I suspect that even this greatly enlarged edition of Cartas, which includes more than 1,000 previously unpublished letters, doesn't come close to collecting his entire output. Several important recipients seem to be absent or underrepresented, perhaps because their papers have not yet been made available to the public*; in a few years, if the state of the book industry permits it, we may well be looking at a seven-volume or even ten-volume third edition.

Where does one even begin to open these volumes, given the richness of the material? Is it best to strike out chronologically, or to follow the threads of literary history in the letters to individual recipients like José Lezama Lima, Paul Blackburn, Mario Vargas Llosa, or Ariel Dorfman? Pick an event in the history of modern Latin America — the death of Che Guevara, the overthrow of Allende, the assassination of the Salvadorean poet Roque Dalton — and you'll find Cortázar's reaction to it, in real time, as they say. The importance of these letters to Latin American literary history, on the other hand, is simply immense, given that Cortázar exchanged regular correspondence with not only the major writers of the continent, but the important publishers, critics, agents, and translators as well. His correspondence with translators and academics is particularly fascinating; unlike many writers, Cortázar, an experienced translator himself, was quite willing to discuss in detail and with great patience his intentions in writing particular works, even if at times he had to admit being stumped himself by stories like "Las babas del diablo" (which Antonioni transformed into Blow-Up).

Cortázar's writing, as well as his life, became increasingly political during the 1960s and the awful decade of the 1970s, which saw countries like Chile and his native Argentina fall under barbaric military regimes. His political activism may have taken its toll on some friendships, as his continuing (but not entirely uncritical) support for Cuba separated him from old friends who were becoming increasingly alienated from the Castro regime. After the publication of the very political Libro de Manuel in 1973, his commitments, as well as occasional bouts of ill health and the deaths of old friends, may have taken a toll on his literary production, but inside he remained the eternal cronopio, able to take delight in reading, of all things, The Lord of the Rings from cover to cover in August 1975.

NB: The new edition omits the useful list of biographical references from the first edition that provided brief identifications for the recipients of the letters, and has changed the index so that references to individuals are only indexed at the end of the volume in which they are mentioned. On the positive side, an index of cited works has been added, which makes it easier to find the letters in which Cortázar discusses particular stories or novels. The thoroughness and care of the editors in these volumes is admirable throughout.

*Letters to Carlos Fuentes held at Princeton University have apparently been restricted until 2014. It's possible that some of Cortázar's letters to Octavio Paz may have been destroyed in a fire in 1996.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Mexico City

I approach the heart of the city down a narrow, winding road that weaves among thick settlements of low buildings and clusters of trees. (I have been to Mexico City, many years ago. The geography doesn't correspond, but it does correspond to the topography of the city as I may once have dreamed it, perhaps, before I went there.)

It's morning and I set out by foot to change a bit of money. I find myself in a small gift shop attached to a restaurant. There are some stacks of books about contemporary Mexican artists; I pick one up and leaf through it, admiring the work, then set it down and look around to see what else they have. But the shop is small, there's just the one corner of books. I get on line at the cash register to change some money. When I get to the front of the line the cashier and the cash register have disappeared somewhere behind me, and I wander off outside. I go into a bank. "Se puede cambiar dólares por pesos?," I ask the teller, but she says no and gives me directions, which I can't follow, to another bank. After a while I enter a small building that looks more like a car repair shop. While I'm waiting in line someone knocks me down and begins rifling through my pockets; I come to and give the man a beating. A third man, waiting in front of me, helps me up and thanks me profusely, but I think it best to beat it; I stuff my money awkwardly into my pockets and exit through a long arcade. Here I have a commanding view of much of the city. I look at my watch — it's ten A.M. — and at the sun to orient myself, then set off in the direction where I think the center of the city lies. Off to one side there's a little wrought-iron pedestrian gate that opens into an old neighborhood; there's a name and date on a sign next to the gate. But I don't go that way; instead, I climb a long series of steps past a vacant lot overgrown with tall trees. A man in a pale polo shirt, who doesn't appear to be Mexican, is descending the steps; he says "buenas" as we pass. I start to mumble "buenas tardes" but remember that it's still only morning. The man steps into a small office, where another man listens sympathetically as he pleads, "necesito un poquito más sustancia que me den, para poder vivir." The other man nods and agrees; he will take steps.

I've emerged at the edge of a small college campus. I pass through it; on the other side there is an abandoned fairground. A sign reads "NY World's Fair" and there's a date: 1961. I wonder, is this where fairs come to die? Is this a cemetery for fairs? Everything is white and there are life-size calaveras strewn over the ground.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

"He was my brother"

The letter below was sent to the American writer Toby Olson on October 1, 1971. A few weeks earlier the poet Paul Blackburn, Julio Cortázar's translator, agent, and friend, had died in Cortland, New York. The letter was written in English, with a few minor errors; it was addressed from Paris.
Dear Toby,

I found your letter last night when coming back from Vienna. You see, I knew that Paul was dead, I had the feeling all the time since I got Joan and Sara's letters. The only thing I learned from you was the date, September 13. He was my brother, Toby, he was a wonderful friend, he was the first and most wonderful of cronopios, who he loved, who he made live in English. Toby, he sent me a letter, his last, in July 3, in full summer, he sent it to my small rancho in Vaucluse where he and Joan spent two or three weeks in 69, and where he finished his translation of the cronopios book. I was unhappy then and he came and he made me laugh and forget a lot of unpleasant things. He gave me hell with a tape of the Beatles which he played for hours and hours until I cried for mercy. We were so happy, we drank so much pastis, we read poetry, his and Latin American poetry, and he promised to come back in two years. Ah, Toby, is so tough and my English is so bad, forgive me, I just wanted to tell how I loved my brother, how I feel now. I'd like to be there with you and Jerry and Schwerner, in a way I'll be there, please count me there, Toby. I send you a photograph of Paul's last letter. He wrote a poem about the way he had to drive to get to my rancho. If you want to read that poem I'll be there to listen to it, with all his friends. I can't write no more, forgive me.


Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Back to the Garden

I bought a copy of the LP of this recording by the Stanley Buetens Lute Ensemble back in the 1970s and listened to it many times, but after CDs came along it was consigned to a box and I probably hadn't heard it for thirty years until recently, when I pulled it out and found that I still enjoyed it as much as I did back then. Many of the old Nonesuch LPs from that era have been out of print for years, but I was delighted to learn that just a year or so ago Raymond Buetens, Stanley's son, obtained a license for it and released it on CD and as a download.

This was the ensemble's only record, although Stanley Buetens, who died in 2009, appears on other recordings (including some by P.D.Q. Bach) and wrote several well-regarded instructional books on playing the lute. Most of the other musicians heard here were apparently not particularly well-known, and some may have been amateurs; the viol player, Lawrence Selman, was a chemistry professor who founded a business devoted to paperweights, on which he was an expert. Professional or not, they were accomplished players (and singers — Buetens himself sings tenor on several pieces) and this remains a very enjoyable set of music, one that spans the sacred and the secular and encompasses a wide range of styles.

Of one cut, the 15th-century Spanish "Dale si le das," the original liner notes state, "the lyrics are rather indecent and practically unusable on records today." The ensemble performed it as an instrumental, at a fairly slow tempo, and it comes across as a fairly dignified march with one odd feature — a curiously long line played just by the recorder. A more recent performance (below) by the Capella Virelai, however, gives it a brisker reading, and includes the full lyrics, which are, in fact, strikingly bawdy, though thankfully no longer "unusable." In each verse, a rhyme with the end of the previous line makes one anticipate a fairly crude obscenity, which is then safely transformed, as one singer is interrupted by another, into a perfectly innocent ending. It's a 15th-century precursor of "Mary Had a Steamboat" — but much bluer.

In A Medieval Garden can be obtained through Bandcamp.