Thursday, January 17, 2019

Julio Cortazar Visits New York in the '70s.

Frank MacShane

JULIO CORTAZAR, the Argentine novelist, was in New York to consult his publisher about his forthcoming book. “It's called ‘Libro de Manuel’ in Spanish,” he explained in a conversation. “We had some trouble with the English title.

'Manuel's Book’ seemed a bit dull, so Gregory Rabassa, who is my translator and loves to play with words, suggested ‘Manuel's Manual.’ But that seemed rather a mouthful, so it's going to be called ‘A Manual for Manuel.’"

Asked whether it was in any way like his famous novel, 'Hopscotch,' he replied that it is also placed Paris and that the characters are Argentine. “But whereas in ‘Hopscotch’ I was mainly interested in the inner lives and relationships of the characters, in this new book I am concerned with the effect of public events on them. That's the difference between now and then. Inevitably we have become politicized. The novel is about a group'of young revolutionaries, and is full of kidnappings torture-- all the things we read about every day in the newspapers.

“Naturally I did not want to make it a political tract — it is, after all, a piece of fiction — so I had to try establish an equilibrium between the private lives the characters and public events. I have tried to deal with what happens in the novel with some humor and to use comedy. Also, I have actual documents — headlines and articles from French newspapers, from the Paris Herald‐Tribune, and from Argentine newspapers as well, for the book takes place in 1971, when Lanusse was President of Argentina and the use of torture for political reasons became a common practice. While I was writing the novel, I was myself reading these headlines and articles, so I had my characters read them well.”

Mr. Cortazar noted that it was important to separate political opinions and beliefs from fiction. “When I write a novel,” he said, “I am writing directly from inside, myself. I am trying to express what I see and what I feel about the world around me. That is why have tried to set up the equilibrium between humor and documentation in the new book. At the same time I am a political person. I have actively tried to carry out my belief in the future of socialism the world without belonging to a political party because I believe it is better for a writer to be independent. It is my duty as a man to be politically active, but I don't think you should allow this to influence your writing. Let me tell you a story to illustrate what I mean: On one of my trips to Cuba 10 years ago met some guerrieros. I didn't really meet them because the room was kept so dark I could only see their hands. But they told me that when they were in the jungles of Venezuela, when they were trying to recover from their exhaustion, they liked to read from my book, ‘Cronopios y Famas.’ They didn't read Lenin or Marx: they read these stories, which are mainly fantasies. I was very moved when they told me that it was the same with Che Guevara: he didn't carry ‘Das Kapital’ in his pocket. He had a copy of Neruda's ‘Canto General’ with him.

Mention of his short stories prompted Mr. Cortazar to comment on the difference between writing long and short fiction. “For me,” he said, “a novel is a long process or development, dealing with a number of subjects that evolve along the way. For instance, Manual for Manuel’ has a lot to do with sex in Latin America. I try to go into that subject as far as I can; machismo and with notions of male superiority. This on top of the other things the book is about. So, a novel is a rich experience, something that opens as many issues and lets them unfold. A short story is very different. I think of it as a kind of glass sphere in which you try to enclose a few perceptions, a few feelings. It must be complete within itself and brief enough to have a tight form. Sometimes when I am writing a novel I think of something that doesn't belong there but has a life of its own. So I stop and make a short story of it if I can. A short story is more like a poem than like novel.”

Speaking of the so‐called “boom”—the literary explosion from Latin America that some people contend is an artificial phenomenon created by publishers—Mr. Cortazar pointed out the irony that it should be known by an English word. “No, I don't think it's artificial at all,” he said. “Let me tell you that when my novel 'The Winners’ was first published in this country, I was accused of writing an imitation of Katherine Anne Porter's ‘Ship of Fools,’ but the reviewers didn't bother to notice that in Spanish the book came out two years before Miss Porter's novel. The point is we were thought to be imitators—either that, or we had to write books full of local color, with señoritas 
and gauchos and tangos. In Latin America it was the same. Twenty years ago, our readers were only interested in the latest Faulkner or Steinbeck or Mauriac. Latin American literature was considered to be utterly inferior.

“What happened then was that a group of writers ‐Miguel Angel Asturias, Alejo Carpentier, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, myself and some others began to write novels that allowed Latin Americans to realize that within their own heritage there was material as rich as any in the world. It began to be recognized that we could write about all sorts of things without being accused of being imitators. We turned inward to try to discover the roots of our own being, and when we did that we ended literary colonialism in South America. Above all, we gained the confidence of our readers, and that is what the ‘boom’ is all about.”

On his return to Paris, Mr. Cortazar hopes to finish up a series of short pieces—some only a page long—which are about incidents, places, people. They number more than a hundred. He is also waiting for the translation into English of two books of short stories. One of these has only recently been published, but not in his native Argentina, because he refused to allow it to appear with two of the stories omitted for fear of censorship.

Asked whether he was part of the literary life of Paris, he answered: “No, I am not. Of course I know the French writers, but mainly through their books. I really don't like being with writers as much as with painters and musicians. I was a friend of Pablo Neruda's when he was ambassador to France, and I see other Latin American writers when they come through. But the intellectual life of Paris is too professional for me. There are always panel discussions and meetings, which I don't like. Anyhow, I don't think in abstract terms nor do I make generalizations: I see things and feel them. And music is very important to me.”

Credits:  This article was originally published under the title 'Visit from Julio Cortazar' in 1978 in The New York Times.  It has been edited slightly for the sake of clarity.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Hitting the Streets by Raymond Queneau – review

Nicholas Lezard

You have to love an Oulipian. These were, or are, the writers who, as Queneau himself put it, are rats who build the labyrinths they try to escape from. You know, writing entire novels without the letter E, or telling the same very banal story (about a young man in a silly hat getting jostled on the bus and then being seen in a park a couple of hours later; really, it is banal) in 99 different ways, many of them absurd (and very funny). That latter wheeze, Exercises in Style, was Queneau's; and he co-founded the movement – whose name is short for "Ouvroir de littérature potentielle", or "potential literature workshop" – when he asked a mathematician for help in composing his work Cent mille milliards de poèmes. This involved each line of 10 different sonnets being printed on its own strip of paper, so that one hundred million million poems, give or take a million or so, can be constructed by the reader.

No such japes in this volume of poems, though – just an enormous number of headaches for the translator. But it is fun for the reader. In one of his poems, just four lines long, Queneau sets a number of traps, punning on, to take one example, different meanings of "fils" (son, or wires, take your pick), and ends with the challenge: "allez me traduire ça en anglais!" Which Rachel Galvin, naturally enough, renders as "go translate that into French for me!"

It's the spirit you have to get into above all here, and Galvin knows it. As she points out in her excellent introduction, Queneau's most famous work (and the one that released him from half a century of financial anxieties), Zazie dans le métro, begins with the word "Doukipudonktan". Fancy a stab at that? She also coins, in an attempt to translate the portmanteau word "fientaisie", the fantastic word "whimsicrap", which I have a feeling is going to come in very handy for us all.

So it is as well that this book comes with the French, too. Queneau was one of those writers who knew pretty much everything there was to know about literature, but he also loved word games, and the language of the streets. These combined to produce this book, which contains about 150 poems, almost every one of which is a love letter to Paris. Though maybe "love letter" isn't the right phrase to describe "Un beau siècle" ("One Fine century"), which goes "Conneries des années 1900 / Connerie de la belle époque" ("stupidity of the 1900s..." etc) all the way through to the year 2000, even though the book itself dates from 1967. ("Conneries" is rather stronger than "stupidity", but we don't have a word for it.)

But the thing I most want to impress upon you is that just about every single one of these poems is a delight – the kind you want to show to people. There is a very impish, almost mischievous sense of humour at work here; you get the impression that Queneau would have been a delight to meet and get to know. I'm thinking of "There was a Waterloo Passage / it's been demolished / it's just that we're patriots in Paris", or "Advice for Tourists", which lists, as attractions near the Boulevard Sébastopol, the Acropolis, Whitechapel, the Kremlin, the Pentagon … I could go on and on.)

Galvin quotes another Oulipian as saying "since Baudelaire, poetry has explicitly loved the big city", and Hitting the Streets is an extension of that project – especially as incarnated by the work of Apollinaire, who also made extremely witty and readable poetry out of avant-garde forms. Paris seems particularly suited to this kind of project; and Queneau is particularly good at it. The city becomes anthropomorphised, or at least given a vibrant and inimitable character; even its flies are, if that is the word, celebrated ("The flies of today / are no longer the flies of yore / they are less cheerful"). You might balk at the idea of paying nearly thirteen quid for 197 pages of poems, and French poems at that, but I promise you you'll love this. Especially if you love Paris.

(This article was amended on 5 August 2013 to correct misspellings in "Cent mille milliards de poèmes" and "Doukipudonktan.")

Credits:  This article appeared in 2013 in the US edition of The Guardian.

So Why Did I Defend Paul Bowles?

by Hisham Aidi  In the mid-1990s, I used to lead literary walking tours of “Paul Bowles’s Tangier” for friends or literary pilgrims visitin...