Blow-Up and Other Stories
Blow-Up and Other Stories
Blow-Up and Other Stories
by Julio Cortázar
THE LITERARY WORK
A collection of 15 short stories set in various times and places; first published in Spanish in the volumes Bestiario (1951), Final del juego (1956), and Las armas secretas (1959); published in English in 1967 as End of the Game and Other Stories, in 1968 as Blow-Up and Other Stories.
The 15 stories include realistic or fantastic plot lines, ranging from a photographer’s investigation of an adolescent boy’s bizarre seduction, to the final days in the life of a talented but self-destructive jazz musicran, to an illuminating game of charades by three young Argentines.
Born in Brussels, Belgium, to Argentine parents, Julio Cortázar (1914-84) moved with his family to Banfield, a suburb of Buenos Aires, when he was four years old. Soon after, his father abandoned the family and young Julio became interested in literatura fantástica (fantastic literature), which he viewed as a genre that blends the believable with the supernatural to broaden human understanding of the surrounding world. Later in life, Cortázar taught in the secondary schools of Bolivar and Chivilcoy and at the University of Cuyo (from which he resigned in protest against Juan Domingo Perón, an army officer who became president of Argentina in 1946). Subsequently Cortázar worked as a manager for the Argentine Publishing Association and then passed examinations to become a freelance translator for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Frustrated with Perónian repression, he moved to France in 1951, where he composed a number of short stories, novels, and essays. His success in Europe was impressive. It can be measured in part by the fact that filmmakers made features based on his stories—for example, Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up, adapted from the story of the same name.
Switching icons: from Perón to Guevara
Once the South American leader in cultural and democratic advances, from 1946-55 Argentina was ruled by the dictator Juan Domingo Perón. These years were marked by a shift in power from the traditional bourgeois oligarchy (a middle-class ruling elite preoccupied with private property and commercial interests) to a single, charismatic leader (Perón) whose authority was anchored in the popular support of the working class (los descamisados, or “the shirtless ones”). To solidify his power, Perón promised workers economic and cultural liberation in the form of increased wages, freedom from foreign capital, increased military strength, and renewed commitment to the precepts of the Catholic Church (such as the traditional two-parent family). Having risen to leadership in the wake of World War II, Perón was influenced by fascism, a right-wing political philosophy exalting nation and race over the individual and operating under the leadership of a military-backed dictator. Many Argentine workers—and to a lesser degree the middle-class nationalists who advocated national solidarity but without military tyranny—saw in Perón’s fascism an effective resistance against foreign imperialism and control by the domestic bourgeoisie. However, Perón was never truly committed to a national, grass-roots revolution; instead he used the language and symbols of working class revolt to secure his successive elections. As early as September 1951 the nationalist Rodolfo Irazusta attacked the Perónian “reformation”:
Instead of the truly national revolution we wanted … we have class struggle; instead of a national consciousness, we have a strengthening of the mentalities of class; instead of citizen participation, we have iron discipline; instead of prosperity, we have poverty; instead of liberty, we have popular tyranny.
(Irazusta in Rock, p. 175)
The growing conviction among nationalists, strangely enough, was that in Peronism, a movement influenced by right-wing fascism, lay the seeds of communism (the political system of the radical left, advocating collective economic ownership and characterized by a state-run bureaucracy). By the mid-1950s, the nationalist Mario Amadeo asserted that the communists intended to take over the Perónist movement, “since the Marxist Left only objects to Perón himself, but looks at his movement as a powerful weapon against imperialism” (Amadeo in Rock, p. 182). Peronism’s apparent fascist-to-communist metamorphosis became even more blurred when Perón changed his earlier promise to workers and opened up the Argentine economy to global sources of capital, an unheard-of move for proponents of either ultra-right-wing or ultra-left-wing persuasions. Such political incongruity eventually led to Perón’s demise, and when he finally fell in September 1955, the nationalist wing of the Argentine army vowed to prevent Peronistas (who, in its view, now simultaneously represented sellouts to global capital and ineffectual leaders of the national revolution) from regaining power.
A number of changes in Argentine society resulted from Perón’s collapse. Among them was a heightened awareness (and, some have argued, a dash of paranoia) among nationalists regarding a global communist menace. Nationalists asserted a new doctrine of national security that, in effect, called for resistance to the “subversive hidden enemy” and the “world conspiracy” of communists against the West (Rock, p. 195). Interestingly, considering Julio Cortázar’s residence in France at this time, much of this possibly paranoiac geopolitical perspective came from French military specialists who instructed Argentine officers that:
The nuclear age had produced a military stalemate between East and West… [and communists would be] taking control of key institutions like the trade unions, the political parties, the mass media and the universities. . . . Thus, “a new form of war, lateral war, revolutionary war,” had begun which would determine the future course of the world.
(Rock, p. 196)
By the late 1950s Argentine politics was largely a fight between two factions: liberal nationalists who sought a strong military rule that would usher in a return to a conservative, bourgeois tradition and undo working class gains; and leftist radicals who favored state initiative in industry, anti-imperialism, working class solidarity, and the 1958 presidential election of Arturo Frondizi. The following year, Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolution would decidedly influence this volatile debate.
Argentina’s Marxist left wing found in Castro and Castro’s charismatic third-in-command, the Argentine expatriate Ernesto “Che” Guevara, significant new leaders for the revolution that Perón had not delivered. Whereas Perón had actually suppressed a proletarian revolution through spurious claims that he would transfer power from the bourgeoisie to the working class, Fidel Castro seemed to be making good on that promise.
Though they never met, Julio Cortázar and Che Guevara were in many respects kindred spirits. Both men were idealistic seekers who challenged the status quo, and actualized in their own lives a level of personal and collective freedom typically curtailed by tyrannical men of power (such as Argentina’s Juan Perón and Cuba’s Fulgencio Batista). And, of course, they were both Argentines who did the bulk of their life’s work outside their native country. Although Cortázar was at first apolitical, years after the Cuban Revolution he began to sympathize with the rebels. As one observer noted, “Cortázar has become increasingly political in his pronouncements, and through hindsight has tended to interpret his entire oeuvre as a political gesture, as though his questing characters were faltering prototypes for Che Guevara’s New Man” (Riley and Mendelson, p. 128).
On January 1, 1959, a little more than three years after Perón’s fall, Castro and his force of 5,000 guerrillas deposed Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. As a Marxist-Leninist (a term derived from the names of communism’s early architects, the German Karl Marx and the Russian Vladimir Lenin), Castro called for workers to liberate themselves from imperialistic capital interests. During the 1960s, the decade in which Blow-Up and Other Stories was translated into English, Castro’s (and, for that matter, Guevara’s) revolution reverberated strongly throughout Latin America. The left in Argentina used the Cuban Revolution as a source of inspiration and guidance for its own radicalization, especially as it grappled with its ongoing, if not always clearly delineated, fight with the nationalists. By the end of the decade, the line between these two opposing groups was almost indistinguishable. In May 1968 Sánchez Sorondo, editor of the nationalist publication Azul y Blanco, prophesied “that a [leftist/nationalist] popular insurrection would match the recent explosion in Paris”—a significant claim, given the serious unrest ignited in that city during a leftist student-led protest (Rock, p. 212). The communist explosion was in full force around the globe, and the once-fascist Argentina appeared to be under its sway.
Ernesto “Che” Guevara was born June 14, 1927, in Argentina to middle-class parents. He received his medical degree in 1953 and immediately set off to experience life abroad in Venezuela. Guevara met the Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro for the first time in Mexico City in the summer of 1954. Renowned for his skill in guerrilla warfare, Guevara would go on to help lead the Cuban Revolution, which toppled the Batista dictatorship and ushered in a decade of global left-wing revolutionary activity. In the process, he showed a strong sense of camaraderie, calling his guerrillas che (“pal” or “buddy”), which prompted them to dub him with the nickname.
Sur versus Contorno: A battle between the generations
If leftist/nationalist relations colored politics in late 1950s and 1960s Argentina, then the contributors to Sur (high-society publisher Victoria Ocampo’s literary magazine) and Contorno (the literary magazine of Buenos Aires’ university students) waged the primary battle in the field of cultural criticism. Though other publications (such as Annales de Buenos Aires, Verbum, Conducta, and later Primera Plana casa de las Americas, and Mundo Nuevo) offered observers a lens through which to observe and discuss significant events of the day, Sur and Contorno most clearly illustrated a shift in literary commitment, style, and purpose among Argentine writers.
From the early 1930s through the mid-1950s Sur dominated Argentine literary life. Its contributors included international writers such as T. S. Eliot, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Aldous Huxley, Graham Greene, D. H. Lawrence, George Orwell, William Faulkner, and André Breton, along with Latin American writers such as Cortázar, Jorge Luis Borges, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Octavio Paz, Carlos Fuentes, Miguel Angel Asturias, Gabriel García Márquez, and Mario Vargas Llosa. With such contributors (and subscribers), Sur was unsurpassed among literary magazines in Latin America. Catering to an affluent, educated audience that desired in its literary diet European sophistication and bourgeois sensibility, the magazine offered an alternative to the worldview promoted by Argentina’s succession of dictatorial leaders.
However, as the younger writers of Contorno would begin to point out, Sur represented an elite sector of Argentine society, as disinterested in cultural revolution as was Perón himself. The Contorno writers acknowledged that the authors revered by the Sur audience were indeed technically excellent, but also saw a certain impotence in them:
Writers such as [Eduardo] Mallea and Borges had demonstrated more than adequately their mastery of words and procedures: they were doctors of technique. But their writing lacked vital substance, a result of their own lack of interaction with the reality in which they lived. . . . The fanciful escape into dreams, playful intrigues, and conceptual labyrinths . .. typified [by] the Sur group… [was more] a negative factor when it confused the reader’s comprehension of history and worked against his advancement of consciousness.
(Katra, pp. 57, 61)
Contorno writers such as Adolfo Prieto, Juan Carlos Portantiero, Noe Jitrik, and León Roz-itchner emerged largely from the universities; they instigated a new cultural criticism that championed the writer as social activist. Their aim was to discern “how the intellectual, through his writing and moral example, could best influence and hopefully guide society’s active forces in the creation of a more just order” (Katra, p. 27). The Cuban Revolution inspired, and possibly legitimized, this position.
On the other hand, true to its own character and evolution, Sur turned its back on Cuba, “thus rejecting much that was innovative in Latin American culture in the 1960s… [while] the younger generation of critics… [became] increasingly… ‘third-worldist’ and socialist” (King, p. 167). Sur’s anti-Cuban stance reduced its influence in defining the Argentine nation. By the end of the decade, unable to effectively comment or act upon such developments as Marxist guerrilla violence, a radicalized middle class, and a combative trade union movement, Victoria Ocampo stopped publishing the magazine. Contorno, on the other hand, continued to flourish, providing a significant voice for the period’s Marxian revolution.
Following the repression of Perón’s decade-long dictatorship, the 1960s were also considered the “boom” years in Argentina. In economic terms this meant an increase in commercialization and consumption; in cultural terms, it meant widespread public revolt and experimentation. Contorno writers contributed to this atmosphere by reassessing the Marxian vision of social justice. They were inspired by French intellectual Jean-Paul Sartre, who insisted that Man is not merely an abstract being to be manipulated within a global class struggle, but is distinctly human and therefore is able to have an intentional impact on his destiny. In keeping with this philosophy, Contorno writers sought through literature and criticism to raise the consciousness of the working class in order to improve its material circumstances.
The surreal socialist
Cortázar sought a socialist destiny for Latin America that would permit individuals their personal liberties, but he believed that Peronism would prevent such a reality from ever coming true. In 1951 Cortázar fled Argentina and moved to France. From Jean-Paul Sartre’s native country he would argue: “My idea of socialist man is a man in a more just society where no one is exploited or is an exploiter, but a man who doesn’t lose any of his individual capabilities. [Up] to now, no society has achieved that” (Cortázar in Garfield, p. 9).
During his more than three-decade stay in France, Cortázar continued to pursue two childhood loves—jazz music and surrealism—and added to these an interest in psychology and consciousness. Surrealism, a movement in 1920s art, literature, and film, featured startling combinations that resulted in fantastic images, designed to challenge and disrupt the everyday, conventional understanding of reality. By the “boom” years of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Cortázar came to feel that intellectuals had a duty to unite with the repressed and lead them toward their goals of revolution. His unique literary style suited this belief; he had developed a literatura fantástica that attempted to subvert all known structures of reality in the name of personal and collective liberation. Also in keeping with this belief, Cortázar became in 1968 a writer “committed to socialism” and began to produce work that was “scattered among everyday concerns” (Vargas Llosa, pp. 251-52).
Blow-Up and Other Stories is a collection of 15 short stories written primarily while Cortázar was living in France in the 1950s. “Blow-Up,” the title story, deals with one of Cortázar’s favorite subjects: the creative process and its relationship to life. The story begins with the musings of Roberto Michel, a French-Chilean translator and amateur photographer living in Paris:
It’ll never be known how this has to be told, in the first person or in the second, using the third person plural or continually inventing modes that will serve for nothing. If one might say, I will see the moon rose; or: we hurt me at the back of my eyes, and especially: you the blond woman was the clouds that race before my your his our yours their faces. What the hell.
(Cortázar, Blow-Up and Other Stories, p. 114)
It is a November day and, during a stroll through Paris, Michel comes upon a woman who seems to be trying to seduce an adolescent boy. Michel empathizes with the boy and compares his nervous innocence to a “terrified bird, a Fra Filippo angel, rice pudding with milk” (Blow-Up, p. 120). Michel senses the woman’s power over the boy—“her laugh, all at once, a whip of feathers, crushing him just by being there, smiling, one hand taking a stroll through the air”—and at first imagines the final seduction in her apartment (Blow-Up, pp. 122-23). But then he has a strange intuition that she is actually engaging in this cruel game as if she were exciting “herself for someone else, someone who in no way could be that kid” (Blow-Up, p. 124). Next, Michel notices a man who is wearing a gray hat and sitting in his parked car on the dock. When the woman sees Michel taking a photograph of her strange seduction and demands the film be given to her, the boy breaks away from her grasp, “disappearing like a gossamer filament of angel-spit in the morning air” (Blow-Up, p. 125). The original Spanish title of the story, “Las Babas del Diablo,” (The Devil’s Spittle) is taken from this scene, in which the boy-angel escapes and the man in the gray hat—the devil—appears. When the man menacingly approaches to retrieve the film, Michel refuses to give it up and leaves. Days later, after developing and examining his pictures, Michel concludes that his intervention permitted the boy’s escape. He then concludes that the woman was not propositioning the boy for her own pleasure, but instead for the homosexual man in the gray hat. The seduction scene begins to repeat itself in his head like an ongoing film with Michel screaming at its participants to stop. Unable to assist the boy, he finally moves forward into the photograph. The man and the woman turn toward Michel and once again the boy runs off. Michel closes his eyes and when he opens them he is seated at his windowsill, watching the clouds and the pigeons, relating his story to us, the readers.
The creative process and its relationship to life is also a central issue in “The Pursuer,” which features a jazz artist from New York. Inspired by the life of saxophonist and drug addict Charlie Parker, “The Pursuer” focuses on two characters: Johnny Carter, one-time brilliant musician and now tortured soul, and Bruno, jazz critic, analytical spectator, and confidante to the artist. The story opens as Bruno checks up on Johnny and his girlfriend Dédée, who are holed up in a seedy hotel, even though Johnny has just completed a fairly successful European tour. Bruno has recently finished a biography on the tormented saxophonist, and is upset to find out just how disconnected his anguished friend has become: “Every time, it was getting more difficult to get him to talk about jazz, about his memories, his plans, to drag him back to reality” (Blow-Up, p. 217).
Plagued by a personal anguish that accompanies his double life as a heroin addict and a genius, Johnny yearns for an authenticity that will fill the disturbing gaps he perceives in conventional reality. But each time he gets a fleeting glimpse of such authenticity through his transcendent music, the desire for it on a permanent basis grows even stronger. And so he lives his days swinging from one extreme (creative bliss) to another (existential torment). However, as Bruno acknowledges, Johnny is no victim: “I know now… that Johnny pursues and is not pursued, that all the things happening in his life are the hunter’s disaster, not the accidents of the harassed animal” (Blow-Up, p. 221).
Obsessed by this pursuit of the real, Johnny enters into his music as if compressing all experience—past, present, and future—into a soothing “now.” He despises self-assuredness and easy answers, coldly dismissing Bruno’s comparison of his music to a communion with God: “On top of everything, I don’t buy your God. … I’m never going to pray to him, because I don’t wanna know nothing about that… opener of doors in exchange for a goddamned tip ...” (Blow-Up, p. 243). Bruno, the critic, admits that he could never forgo the security of his everyday “coffee and cigarettes” to pursue a life that cannot exist unless everyone goes crazy. And yet he empathizes with Johnny’s attempts “to move forward with his decapitated sentences,” pursuing such a dangerous path (Blow-Up, p. 189). But Johnny’s heroin addiction and alcoholism will not permit the pursuit to go on any longer. During Johnny’s final days, Bruno simply keeps a watchful eye on his disintegrating friend, accompanying him to the few remaining jazz clubs willing to pay him, holding him up in back alleys so he can vomit away his pain. After Johnny dies, a conflicted Bruno eulogizes the man whom he both respected and pitied. He concludes that, although Johnny was valiant and brave in his quest, he was also a helpless “hunter with no arms and legs” (Blow-Up, p. 221).
Finally, in “End of the Game,” Cortázar turns his attention to adolescence and the issues of otherness and alienation. Letitia, Holanda, and an unnamed youngest sister (the story’s narrator) live above Palermo (an upper-class section of metro Buenos Aires), near the Argentine Central railroad tracks, the “capital city of the kingdom, the wilderness city and the headquarters of our game” (Blow-Up, p. 137).
Letitia, according to the narrator, “was the luckiest and most privileged of the three of us,” which means that she rules the kingdom in their game. Performed out by the willows in front of all the strangers passing by in trains, the game is a kind of charades consisting of two categories: Attitudes and Statues. The former requires expressiveness and acting ability (baring teeth and clenching fists for Envy, or making an angelic face and turning eyes to the sky for Charity), while the latter is achieved through costuming and ornamentation. After several days of game-playing, a note drops from one of the trains: “The Statues are very pretty. I ride in the third window of the second coach. Ariel B” (Blow-Up, p. 140). The blond Ariel, whom the girls decide is 18 and a student at some private English school (though more likely he is 16 and learning a craft at a local trade school), continues to drop notes off for the next few days. Finally, one note announces that he is going to get off at a nearby station the next day to meet the girls. For the first time, the game has been disrupted by an intruder, something the younger two sisters find upsetting, and the older sister finds exhilarating. But Letitia suffers from a partial paralysis, noticeable when she isn’t completely still. That evening she says that she does not feel well and will not be attending the rendezvous with Ariel. She writes a note to her admirer and seals it in a lilac envelope. The next day the other two sisters meet up with Ariel to deliver Letitia’s letter. He pockets it and departs. That night, when the girls are going to sleep, Holanda whispers to the youngest sister, “The game’s finished from tomorrow on, you’ll see” (Blow-Up, p. 147). Sure enough, the following day the three sisters again play Attitudes and Statues out by the train tracks, but this time Letitia brings their mother’s pearl collar and all of her rings. When her sisters inquire about the fine jewels, Letitia brushes them off, saying, “I would like you to leave it to me today” (Blow-Up, p. 148). She then bends her body backwards, assuming an incredible pose, “the most regal statue she’d ever done,” and waits for the train (Blow-Up, p. 148). When it zooms by, Ariel just looks at Letitia, who now has tears streaming from her closed eyes, without saying a word. He of course has read Letitia’s letter, the contents of which Cortázar keeps secret. The following day Le titia stays home and the other two sisters once again go out to the willows. “When the train came by,” the youngest sister reports, “it was no surprise to see the third window empty, and while we were grinning at one another, somewhere between relief and being furious, we imagined Ariel riding on the other side of the coach, not moving in his seat, looking off toward the river with his gray eyes” (Blow-Up, p. 149).
Psychology, jazz, and the tango
With the highest number of psychiatrists per capita in the world, Argentines have, not surprisingly, gained a reputation for being brooding and introspective to the extent that many of them fall prey to a particular form of depression: “El majarse… involves bitter introspection, but Argentines add to this emotion a clear sense of self-indulgence when they give in to a mufa. It is a depression, but with a cynicism about the depression itself, an awareness that it can feel good to throw practicalities aside… and contemplate one’s bad luck and its universal implications” (Taylor, p. 4). A mufa, then, is a type of self-indulgent depression common in Argentine society. This deep current of melancholy can be attributed to a variety of causes:
- Lack of roots in a pre-conquest indigenous civilization;
- The post-1880 wave of immigration that left three foreign-born people for every native Argentine;
- The continually high proportion of men to women that contributed to Buenos Aires’ position as a world-renowned depot of the white slave trade;
- The nostalgia and resentment of newcomers when dreams of owning land became impossible to realize and other forms of success remained elusive.
(Adapted from Taylor, p. 2)
Whatever the reasons, Cortázar’s lifelong appreciation of psychology is in many respects a product of such a cultural heritage. So, too, is his passion for jazz, which he once described as “the only surrealistic music” (Garfield, p. 8). Both disciplines can be found in his short stories: in Michel’s frenetic imagination in “Blow-Up,” the self-absorbed destruction of the jazz musician Johnny in “The Pursuer,” or the dreamy introspection of Le ti tia in “End of the Game.”
RAILROADS, URBAN GROWTH, AND FOREIGN CAPITAL
The population boom from the early twentieth century, when metropolitan Buenos Aires was a dusty, sparsely populated pampas region, to the mid-1950s, when the area boasted upwards of 3 million people, necessitated a more diverse public transportation system. From its inception, the railroad industry—which, in fact, included the story’s Argentine Central tracks—had been largely funded by foreign capital and labor. The first Argentine railroad, for example, was built with locomotives, rolling stock, and tracks imported from England, and was constructed with the aid of 160 British laborers. In 1928 Argentine taxi drivers began a colectivo service (minivan-type vehicles holding 25-30 people), which threatened the railways’ viability to such an extent that within four years, one-quarter of the train passengers had switched to colectivos. A few years later Argentine President Roberto Ortiz responded by advocating the complete nationalization of the railroad network: “As far as the public is concerned, they must be given the idea that they [have] an interest in the railways and be induced to cherish them, as it were, as part of a necessity vital to the country’s existence” (Randall, p. 184). By the end of World War II, however, the deteriorating railway system had accumulated a deficit of 40 million pesos and no longer served as an effective rallying cry. With the fall of President Juan Perón in 1955, any hope of nationalizing the railroad system came to an end.
Cortázar discovered in improvisational jazz and dream psychology insights that complemented his interest in challenging literary conventions and societal norms. He once argued that his short stories “oppose that false realism that [is]… part of a world ruled … by a system of laws [and] principles, of cause and effect relationships or defined psychologies, of well-mapped geographies” (Cortázar in Garfield, p. 12). Save for literatura fantástica, he rarely found in Argentine culture a comparable irreverent spirit. The controlled and self-conscious artists who danced the tango, for instance, seemed a far cry from the jazz musicians so spontaneous in their disregard for rules and procedures.
Nonetheless, one Argentine who did embrace Cortázar’s love of jazz—and, by extension, personal and artistic freedom—was the tango composer Astor Piazzolla. Once all the rage in 1930s Paris and New York, the tango (primarily an Argentine invention) declined in later years as young people heeded the rebellious spirit of rock-and-roll. But this all changed when, after an extended stay in Paris during the 1950s, Piazzolla introduced an updated version of the tango (El Tango Nuevo) that was a hybrid mix of jazz and classical music. As Piazzolla put it: “It swaggered back and forth between instinct and reason, pitting harmony against dissonance. It was complex and contradictory, the struggle of modern life set to music” (Piazzolla in Bach, p. 14). By the 1960s Piazzolla had a devoted following and by the end of the decade he was creating “tango-operitas” based upon the work of the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges (see “The South,” also covered in Latin American Literature and Its Times), a collaboration that gave him a stamp of approval within the cultural establishment.
Sources and literary context
“What I like about the snail is that he doesn’t have to return to his nest like spiders and other insects. He carries his nest with him and travels all over the world” (Cortázar in Garfield, p. 5). Cortázar traveled extensively throughout his career, relishing the textures and flavors of the cultures he encountered. He considered himself an international writer and his traveling perhaps contributed to a certain universality in his work, one that reflects a search for personal contentment. Like his contemporaries, Cortázar to some degree eschewed Spanish literature, and preferred French and English authors. Speaking of William Shakespeare and the English Romantics, Cortázar said, “For me, English is the language of poetry” (Cortázar in Garfield, p. 7). He is said to have been influenced by the Romantic poet John Keats, about whom he wrote a sizeable book. On French Surrealism, Cortázar commented: “It undeniably constituted the most intensive motivating force of all or nearly all of my books, something which can’t please me enough” (Cortázar in Garfield, p. 7). Like many of his Latin American contemporaries who were interested in literatura fantástica, Cortázar attempted in his fiction to apply a heightened awareness to daily reality in order to discover the extraordinary in the ordinary: “In my case, the suspicion of another more secret and less communicable order… [has] oriented me in my personal search for a literature on the out-skirts of a realism that is far too ingenuous” (Cortázar in Garfield, p. 12).
Despite his European sensibilities, Cortázar was influenced by two major Argentine writers: essayist and short story writer Jorge Luis Borges, with his intellectualism and universality; and fiction writer Roberto Arlt, with his sensuality, eroticism, and earthiness. From the former he learned to be demanding and “ethically implacable with himself as a writer”; from the latter he “sensed an enormously intuitive creative force” (Garfield, p. 6). However, Cortázar himself professes not to have consciously employed their techniques:
I never register influences consciously. In my case, the critics must point them out. … I learn a lot about myself because actually there are many interpretations that I believe to be either completely or partially accurate. Thus they show pieces of my own mosaic, or my unknown unconscious. They show me my nocturnal self, nocturnal in the psychological sense, and in that sense I’m very grateful for that kind of interpretation.
(Cortázar in Garfield, pp. 7-8)
Cortázar influenced other Latin American writers of the mid-to late-twentieth century, encouraging the works, for example, of Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa, reading and correcting their manuscripts before they became famous. In fact, Cortázar’s fiction helped forge the path for the “New Novel” of the 1950s and the “Boom Novel” of the 1960s in Latin America. Unlike their predecessors, the New Novelists approached fiction not as a mirror with which to reflect reality but as a universe of the imagination in which it was appropriate to indulge in fantasy. Not only did Cortázar’s stories engage in fantasy, but they also prefigured other elements in later Latin American fiction, such as the treatment of popular culture (like jazz music, in “The Pursuer”). In the 1960s Cortázar wrote a novel, Hopscotch (1963), about a jazz-loving Argentine exile who lives in Paris and the novelist himself, who instructs his audience to jump forward to this chapter and backward to that one, calling for an unconventional reading of his story. Hopscotch ushered in the tradition of the Boom Novel, which stressed the intercon-nectedness of all time, included “flights of fantasy,” and carried with it “the conviction that it is possible [for Latin American authors] to write new literature and that this will have a purifying effect on [their] society” (González Echevarría and Pupo-Walker, p. 232).
Unlike some of Cortázar’s other works, Blow-Up and Other Stories received a warm reception when first published (as End of the Game and Other Stories). In the Times Literary Supplement, critic Daniel Stern wrote:
In [End of the Game and Other Stories] the shorter form allows no time for the merely tricky. Yet what magnificent tricks Cortázar does play.… [Cortázar manipulates the absurd and the mysterious] with sufficient skill to make the contrived seem impressively natural. . . . Cortázar writes with all the ambiguity, irony and attention to objects common to [certain other current authors]. . . . The difference is that Cortázar, in [his] stories, knows precisely when to stop.
(Stern in Nasso, p. 196)
Donald A. Yates noted that, “His genius here lies in the knack for constructing striking, artistically ‘right’ subordinate circumstances out of which his fantastic and metaphysical whimsies appear normally to spring” (Yates in Nasso, p. 197). Neil Millar suggested poetically that “The very young accept the world’s mystery. … To us older children the world is no less mysterious, and if we forget that fact our mornings come stale and too easy upon us … our perceptions drowse behind their dusty windows. Cortázar stings them alert again … he engulfs us in his dreams of Earth” (Millar in Nasso, p. 197).
—Emerson Spencer Olin
Bach, Caleb. “Astor Piazzolla: A New-Age Score for the Tango.” Amencas 43, nos. 5-6 (September-October 1991): 14.
Cortázar, Julio. Blow-Oρ and Other Stories. Trans. Paul Blackburn. New York: Pantheon, 1967.
Gonzales Echevarría, Roberto, and Enrique Pupo-Walker. Cambridge History of Latin American Literature. Vol. 2 Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Garfield, Evelyn Picon. Julio Cortázar. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1975.
Katra, William H. Contorno: Literary Engagement in Post-Perónist Argentina. Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1988.
King, John. Sur: A Study of the Argentine Literary Journal and Its Role in the Development of a Culture, 1931-1970. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
Nasso, Christine, ed. Contemporary Authors. Vols. 21-24. Detroit: Gale Research, 1977.
Randall, Laura. An Economic History of Argentina in the Twentieth Century. New York: Columbia University Press, 1978.
Riley, Carolyn, and Phyllis Carmel Mendelson, eds. Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 5. Detroit: Gale Research, 1976.
Rock, David. Authoritarian Argentina: The Nationalist Movement, Its History and Its Impact. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.
Taylor, Julie. Paper Tangos. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1998.
Vargas Llosa, Mario. Making Waves. Trans. John King. New York: Penguin, 1998.