BORN: 1914, Brussels, Belgium
DIED: 1984, Paris, France
NATIONALITY: Argentine, French
Final del juego (1956)
Las armas secretas (1959)
Blow-Up, and Other Stories (1968)
Spanish literary innovator Julio Cortázar played a key role in the growth of twentieth-century Spanish American literature as one of the seminal figures of the “Boom,” a surge of excellence and innovation in Latin American literature during the 1950s and 1960s. Like Gabriel García Márquez and other contemporary Latin American writers, Cortázar combined fantastic and often bizarre plots with commonplace events and characters. Much of his fiction is a reaction against the Western tradition of rationalism and is an attempt to create new ways in which literature can represent life.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Early Writing Career in Buenos Aires Cortázar was born on August 26, 1914, in Brussels, Belgium, to Argentine parents, Julio José Cortázar and his wife, María Herminia Descotte de Cortázar. His parents were on a business trip when they became caught up in World War I, as Belgium was invaded by Germany and occupied during the war. In 1918, after the main fighting of the conflict ended, Cortázar moved with his parents to their native Argentina, where they settled in a suburb of Buenos Aires. An excellent student and voracious reader, Cortázar began writing at a young age, completing a novel by the time he was nine years old.
After attending school in Buenos Aires, Cortázar was certified in 1935 as a secondary and preparatory school teacher. He then attended the University of Buenos Aires but left after a year to help with the financial situation at home by teaching high school in two towns in the province of Buenos Aires. In 1938, he published Presence, a collection of poems, under the pseudonym Julio Denís. In 1944, he was hired to teach French literature, including surrealism (a movement in the visual arts and literature that produced fantastic images using unnatural juxtapositions and combinations and that was popular between the 1910s and 1940s), at the University of Cuyo. At the time, Argentina was politically as well as militarily unstable and suffered a series of military coups in the 1930s and 1940s. Cortázar was arrested for participating in a demonstration against president-to-be Juan Domingo Perón. Perón was the secretary of labor during the unpopular presidency of General Pedro Pablo Ramirez and had built up his own support through organized labor before being removed from power in October 1945. Perón was to have been elected president of Argentina in February 1946.
After the arrest, Cortázar resigned his position and returned to Buenos Aires, where he became the manager of a publishing association. In 1946 his first short story, “House Taken Over” was published in the journal Anales de Buenos Aires, edited by Jorge Luis Borges. At this juncture, Cortázar began his studies in public translating, a field combining languages and law. The combination of work and school was so exhausting that Cortázar suffered from stress-related ailments, including nausea, that would later provide inspiration for some of his classic stories.
Literary Career Continues with Life Abroad In 1949, Cortázar published “The Kings,” a dramatic poem based on the classical legend of Theseus, the Athenian king who slew the half-bull, half-human Minotaur. Cortázar reversed the outcome of the story, making the Minotaur the hero. Although “The Kings” was greeted with indifference, Cortázar's first collection of short stories, titled Bestiary, was well received. Nevertheless, Cortázar left Argentina to take advantage of a government scholarship to study in Paris. In 1952, he began work as a translator for UNESCO, the educational agency of the United Nations, a job he continued throughout his life. The following year, he established permanent residency in Paris, becoming a French citizen in 1981 while retaining his Argentine citizenship as well. In 1953, Cortázar married Aurora Bernandez, with whom he later collaborated in the translation of the prose works of Edgar Allan Poe.
End of the Game, Cortázar's second collection of short stories, was published in his early days in France in 1956. It included “Blow-Up” as well as a longer short story, “The Pursuer.” In 1960, Cortázar published The Winners, his first novel. The Winners concerned a group of Argentines on a cruise. In the novel, the passengers are denied access to the ship's stern and must decide whether or not to challenge the authorities. He followed The Winners with Cronopios and Famas, a collection of miscellaneous fables and flights of fancy. The “Instruction Manual” section of Cronopios and Famas was inspired by a conversation Cortázar had with his wife about a staircase. In “The Instruction Manual” Cortázar describes in precise detail such everyday occurrences as crying, singing, climbing stairs, and combing hair. “Cronopios” and “famas” are two types of people he created for the book, with the cronopios being the playful innovators, while the famas are the respectable traditionalists.
Experiments with Novels Cortázar next published Hopscotch (1963), an experimental novel that included a “Table of Instructions” informing the reader to read the first fifty-six chapters before leapfrogging to chapter 73 and thus “hopskotching” all around. The main character in this elaborate design is Horacio Oliveira, an Argentine expatriate adrift in Paris. Oliveira surrounds himself with a small circle of friends, including his female companion La Maga (The Magician) who, although more intuitive and straightforward than the other members of the group, is perceived by herself and others as intellectually inferior. After La Maga's son dies unattended while the adults are discussing the meaning of life, Oliveira journeys to Buenos Aires, either to look for La Maga or his own identity, before stopping off at a one-room circus and an insane asylum. Interspersed with this quest for identity is a plot about reconstructing the novel as an art form.
Cortázar conceived 62: A Model Kit (1968) as a sequel to Hopscotch. This experimental work required that readers assemble their own novel. Cortázar found 62: A Model Kit his hardest novel to write because of the rigors of its precise instructions.
Political Coming of Age A Manual for Manuel (1978), Cortázar's next novel, reflected the author's growing political awareness. Cortázar interspersed the narrative of A Manual for Manuel with reprints of news clips, merging story with history, and donated proceeds from the book to two Argentine organizations that aided families of political prisoners. The novel, however, presented an ambivalent view of political protest. The main character, Andres Fava, an Argentine exile in Paris, attends meetings of a group of revolutionaries in exile called the Screwery but is less committed than the others. Finally, as the police close in on the group, Andres finds his cause: compiling a scrapbook of clippings for Manuel, the young son of two Screwery members.
By the time Cortázar wrote this novel, Perón had been removed from power for over two decades in favor of yet another military coup, but watched his country from exile in Spain. While several corrupt administrations followed, and by the early 1970s, Argentina's constitution had been suspended, and acts of terrorism became common. While revolutionaries were common, Cortázar, like Andres, refused to sacrifice his personal and creative freedom to a revolutionary cause. He did not completely ignore political events, however. Although Cortázar supported the Cuban revolution led by Fidel Castro in the 1950s to remove the corrupt dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, he, like other prominent Latin American intellectuals, signed a letter in 1971 protesting the imprisonment of Cuban poet Heberto Padilla for writing poetry deemed counterrevolutionary. Under Castro, life in Cuba became more repressive, and there was widespread restriction of any protest against the government.
In the 1970s, Cortázar frequently took part in the Thursday demonstrations outside the Argentine Embassy in Paris. These demonstrations were held to protest the Argentine government's involvement in the disappearance of thousands of Argentines, a common occurrence in this period, as many who opposed the government were imprisoned, tortured, and executed by the military. The Nicaraguan revolution of 1979 (which saw the corrupt regime of Anastasio Somoza overthrown by the Sandinista National Liberation Front and a more leftist government take its place) gave Cortázar new hope for a socialism that encouraged, rather than squelched, creative
freedom. He believed that fine literature itself was revolutionary. Some of Cortázar's experiments in form were so revolutionary they defied categorization. Around the Day in Eighty Worlds (1967), Final Round (1969), and A Certain Lucas (1979) were particularly daring collections of miscellaneous short stories, essays, poems, photographs, and vignettes.
Final Book Continuing to be concerned about others, 1983, Cortázar made his final trip to New York to address the United Nations Commission on International Humanitarian Issues. Cortázar wrote what became his last book, Nicaragua, So Violently Sweet (1984), with his companion Carol Dunlop shortly before her death from leukemia in 1982. After Dunlop's death, Cortázar's own health declined. He died on February 12, 1984, of leukemia and heart disease in Paris at the age of sixty-nine.
Works in Literary Context
Together with fellow writers such as Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel García Márquez, and Carlos Fuentes, Cortázar helped bring Latin American literature and politics to international prominence. Author of the short story that inspired Michelangelo Antonioni's 1966 film Blow-Up (1966), Cortázar was also well-known for his novel Hop-scotch. With its elaborate structure, Hopscotch evoked comparisons with the works of Marcel Proust and James Joyce.
Influence of the Avant-Garde Cortázar was a constant experimenter and a member of the literary avant-garde. His works probed the connections between the ordinary and the extraordinary, the individual and the state. Although Cortázar advocated socialism and supported the Cuban and Nicaraguan revolutions, he also upheld the need for individual freedom. Strongly influenced by the works of the French surrealists, Cortázar experimented with literary form to challenge the reader's view of everyday reality. He countered conventional adult logic with a childlike sense of wonder, professing a lifelong affinity with J. M. Barrie's character Peter Pan.
Many of Cortázar's short stories are representations of the surreal, metaphysical, horror-filled worlds that prevailed upon his imagination. In these works, he often expressed a conflict between real and unreal events by allowing the fantastic to take control of the mundane in the lives of his characters. Significant in this transformation from the ordinary to the bizarre is the compliant acceptance of extraordinary events by Cortázar's characters. In “Letter to a Young Lady in Paris,” for example, the narrator-protagonist, a man staying in the apartment of a friend who is out of town, begins to inexplicably vomit rabbits. Cortázar's own phobias also inspired his work. For example, he had a fear of eating insects hidden in his food, which gave rise to the surreal short story “Circe,” a tale about a woman who feeds her suitors cockroaches in the guise of candies.
Works in Critical Context
In Julio Cortázar, Terry J. Peavler writes, “Julio Cortázar thus sought, as he himself declared, to be a Che Guevara of literature.” Cortázar viewed writing as a game of sorts—“a contest with words.” Critics believed that his novels and short stories bore the Latin American literary stamp of richness in language and imagery.
The Invading Creature Cortázar's stories are filled with examples of invading creatures such as a tiger that roams through the house of a middle-class family and a dead character who is more alive than the living. Rather than using supernatural forces to fuel readers' fears, Cortázar, according to Jaime Alazraki in The Final Island: The Fiction of Julio Cortázar, used “the fantastic” to expose “overly naive forms of realism.”
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Cortázar's famous contemporaries include:
Fidel Castro (1926–): Castro led the 1959 revolution in Cuba that overthrew the U.S.-backed regime of Batista and installed a Communist government that he would head until his retirement in 2008.
Che Guevara (1928–1967): A Marxist revolutionary and ally of Castro, the Argentine Guevara played a central role in the Cuban revolution and later in guerrilla insurgencies throughout Latin America, until his execution by the Bolivian military.
Jacques Lacan (1901–1981): A French psychologist, Lacan exerted a strong influence over French intellectuals because of his interdisciplinary approach, which combined psychoanalysis, philosophy, linguistics, literary study, and critical theory.
Allen Ginsberg (1926–1997): One of the leading poets of the American Beats, Ginsberg's poem “Howl,” was a direct attack on contemporary consumerism, conformity, and complacency.
Salvador Dalí (1904–1989): One of the premier surrealist artists, Dalí also worked in film, photography, and sculpture. His eccentric personality often captured as much attention as his art.
Hopscotch Hopscotch met with mixed reviews. While the New Republic hailed it as “a spiraling, convulsive, exploding universe of a novel … the most powerful encyclopedia of emotions and visions to emerge from the postwar generation of international writers,” the New York Review of Books called it “monumentally boring.” Published during an era of student protests in the United States, France, Mexico, and elsewhere, Hopscotch, according to Peavler, “reflects the dissatisfaction of the time,
and the search, no matter how futile, for something better.”
Responses to Literature
- Research the government of Argentina during the 1950s as led by Juan Perón. How did it treat artists and writers? From Cortázar's writings, can you conclude what his political opinions may have been?
- What is “magical realism”? Could Cortázar's work fit that label? Explain why or why not. Also, some writers object to the term “magical realism.” Why do you think that is?
- As part of a group, read several short stories by the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, such as “The Garden of Forking Paths” (1941). In discussions, talk about these questions: How does Cortázar compare with Borges, who was considered the master of Latin American fiction when Cortázar began writing? Do the compatriots have similar interests, and do they explore similar themes? How are they different? What was the relationship of the two writers?
- Research some of the French theorists that were influential during the 1950s, such as Jacques Lacan and Claude Lévi-Strauss. How would you describe their theories? What do they say about art, metaphysics, and time? Discuss what Cortázar's stories say about psychology, philosophy, language, and time. How are these themes influenced by French critical theory from the 1950s?
- Cortázar was writing around the same time as the American Beat writers such as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. Read some Beat poems or prose such as Kerouac's On the Road. What do the Beats have in common with Cortázar? How are they different? Consider the authors' philosophies, influences, approaches to music and other forms of culture, as well as styles and themes in order to construct your answer. Create a presentation for the class of your findings.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Cortázar's writings constituted but one facet of the Latin American literary renaissance of the twentieth century. Here are some other works of that rebirth:
The Magnetic Fields (1920), by André Breton. Written in collaboration with Philippe Soupault, this was one of the founding texts of the Surrealist movement, utilizing a spontaneous “automatic writing” approach. Breton's work would exert a major influence on later Latin American writers.
“The Garden of Forking Paths” (1941), by Jorge Luis Borges. One of Borges's best-known short stories, establishing his international reputation with a philosophical inquiry into the nature of time disguised as a traditional detective mystery.
Love in the Time of Cholera (1985), by Gabriel García Márquez. This novel by the Colombian author explores a love triangle spanning fifty years in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and themes of suffering in the name of love.
Aura (1962), by Carlos Fuentes. Written in second-person narrative, this novel plays with perceptions of past, present, and future, blending the three into an indistinguishable whole.
Alazraki, Jaime and Ivar Ivask, eds. The Final Island: The Fiction of Julio Cortázar. Tulsa: University of Oklahoma Press, 1978.
Colas, Santiago. Postmodernity in Latin America: The Argentine Paradigm. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1994.
Garfield, Evelyn Picon. Julio Cortázar. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1975.
Peavler, Terry J. Julio Cortázar. Boston: Twayne, 1990.
Stavans, Ilan. Julio Cortázar: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1996.