Thursday Fiction Corner: A Conversation with Julio Cortázar
Welcome back to the Thursday Fiction Corner. As always, we are proud to be distributing Dalkey Archive Press, the leading publisher in avant-garde fiction and literature in translation! From time to time in the Fiction Corner, we have delved into the amazing list of interviews included in past issues of Dalkey Archive’s Review of Contemporary Fiction. This week, we have done so again, looking back to a 1983 interview with influential Argentinian writer Julio Cortázar, in which Cortázar discusses the influence of Borges, creativity in literary criticism, and his belief that humanity has taken “the wrong path.” The entire interview can be found on the Dalkey Archive Press website.
A Conversation with Julio Cortázar
By Evelyn Picon Garfield
EPG: Let’s begin with some general questions. How would you characterize your writing within the context of a literary generation in Argentina and in Latin America?
JC: The question is somewhat ambiguous because there are many ways to belong to a generation. I suppose you are referring to a strictly literary generation. Let’s leave Latin America aside until later since the Argentine panorama is complicated enough. In order to understand generations you must have distanced yourself in time because while you are experiencing that generational context, you don’t realize it. I mean that when I began to write, or rather publish in 1950, I wasn’t aware of any generational context. I was able to discern some strengths, writers I admired in Argentina and others I detested; but now, twenty-five years later, I believe I’ll be able to say a few intelligent words about it. The first part of my work is situated along extremely intellectual lines, the short stories, Beastiary for example. It is rather logical to imagine that in the fifties I was inclined towards the most refined and cultured writers, and to some extent influenced by foreign literatures, that is European, above all English and French. It is necessary to mention Borges, at once, because fortunately for me, his was not a thematic or idiomatic influence but rather a moral one. He taught me and others to be rigorous, implacable in our writing, to publish only what was accomplished literature. It is important to point this out because, in that period, Argentina was very unkempt in literary matters. There was little rigor, little self-criticism. Someone as extra ordinary as Roberto Arlt, the opposite of Borges in every sense, was not at all self-critical. Perhaps for the best, since self-criticism might have rendered his writing sterile. His language is untidy, full of stylistic errors, weak. But it has an enormous creative force. Borges has less creative energy in that sense, but he compensates for it with an intellectual reflection of a quality and refinement that for me was unforgettable. And so I automatically leaned towards that hyper-intellectual bent in Argentina. But it is all ambivalent because at the same time I had discovered Horacio Quiroga and Roberto Arlt, populist writers. You know the division between the Florida and Boedo groups. I had also discovered those in Boedo. And what I called “force,” a moment ago, impressed me. So, for example, the whole “porteno” side of city life in the short stories of Bestiary, I owe—not as a direct influence but rather as rich themes—to Roberto Arlt. Because despite all that has been said about Borges’ Buenos Aires—a fantastic, invented Buenos Aires—that Buenos Aires does exist but it is far from being all that the city is. Arlt perceived things from below for cultural, vital and professional reasons and saw a Buenos Aires to live in and stroll through, to love in and suffer in, while Borges saw a Buenos Aires of mythic destinies, of a metaphysical mother and eternity. So you see, my place in that generation—which is not mine but the previous one—at the same time fulfills a kind of moral, ethical obedience to Borges’ great lesson, and a teluric, sensual, erotic (as you like) obedience to Roberto Arlt. There are many examples, of course, but this one should give you an idea of what I mean. Others in my generation followed similar paths at times, but I know of no one else who simultaneously encompassed those two poles. There were pseudo-Borgeseans who produced an imitative literature.
The worst one can do, as far as Borges is concerned, is try to imitate him. It would be like wanting to imitate Shakespeare. In Argentina, those who tried to copy Borges, with books full of labyrinths and mirrors and people dreaming they are dreamt by others—you know all those Borgesean themes—as far as I know, didn’t produce anything of value. On the other hand, those who tended towards a more populist approach, towards the Argentinian wan, like Arlt and Quiroga, there, many achieved extraordinary works. I would cite Juan Carlos Onetti’s case. He’s not Argentinian, but we make no distinctions between Uruguayans and Argentinians in literary matters. Quiroga was also Uruguayan. A man like Onetti, whose greatest early influence was William Faulkner, but, at the same time, the direct contact with the streets, the people, the men and women of Uruguay, had a personality that, in my opinion, made him one of the greatest novelists of Latin America. Onetti is a little older but we can be included in the same generation of those who were inclined towards realism and produced a more important work than those who sought the purely intellectual and fantastic side of Borgesean mythology. Unconsciously I ended up straddling the two sides because if you think about the short stories in Bestiary you will find what has concerned many critics and what everyone now knows, that my stories are, at once, very realistic and very fantastic. The fantastic is born of a very realistic situation, an everyday, routine episode with common people. There are no extraordinary characters like Borges’ Danes or Swedes or gauchos. No, my characters are children, youth, ordinary people; but the fantastic element suddenly appears. That was all completely subconscious for me. I’ve needed to read many critical studies to realize that. Really, I never know anything about myself; you critics are the ones who show me things, and then, I realize.
I’m going to tell you something, Evie. I don’t believe I’ve ever written anything intellectual. Some works lean in that direction; for example, Rayuela emerges from a concrete fact and the characters begin to talk, so they launch into theories. Well, you and I can also theorize now if we like. But it’s always on a secondary level. I wasn’t born for theorizing.
EPG: Before, you mentioned how to write short stories as if you exorcised them. Also you said you act almost like a medium. But many people can experience such sensations without writing short stories like “Las babas del diablo” (“Blow-Up”) or “Autopista del Sur” (“The Southern Thruway”) or “Todos los fuegos el fuego” (“All Fires the Fire”).
JC: That’s the great difference between the creation of fiction and the criticism of fiction. When I was young I respected the critics but I didn’t have a very good opinion of them. They seemed necessary, but to me creativity alone was of interest. I’ve changed a lot since then because, as some critics have studied my books, they’ve shown me a great deal that I’ve ignored about myself and my work. At times criticism is called a kind of secondhand creativity. That is, the short story author writes from a void while the critic begins with an already finished work. But that is also creativity because the critic has reserves, mental and intuitive powers that we authors do not possess. There is a sort of division of labor. The critic spends his time lamenting that he’s not a creator. Bruno complained he was not Johnny; but if I could speak for Johnny now, he would also complain about not being Bruno to some extent. I, myself, would like to be a kind of synthesis of the two, even for a day, for one day of my life, creator and critic. When I say creator, it is always with some embarrassment because it is a word loaded with Romantic significance from the nineteenth century; that is, the creator is a sort of minor god. I no longer believe that. The creator is a laborer like many others. There is no scale of values that places the creator above the critic. A great critic and a great author are absolutely on the same level.
EPG: With Historia de cronopios y de famas (Cronopios and Famas), and Rayuela, you begin to alter reality, to search for authenticity in life and literature, utilizing a good dose of humor and optimism.
JC: In the case of my books, altering reality is a desire, a hope. But it seems important to point out that my books are not written nor were experienced or conceived under the pretense of changing reality. There are people who write as a contribution to the modification of reality. I know that modifying reality is an infinitely slow and difficult undertaking. My books do not function in that sense. A philosopher develops a philosophical system convinced that it is the truth and will modify reality because he supposes he’s right. A sociologist establishes a theory. A politician also pretends to change the world. My case is much more modest. Let’s say Oliveira is speaking: let’s return to one of the constant themes in Rayuela. I am firmly convinced, each day more profoundly, that we are embarked on the wrong road. That is to say that humanity took the wrong path. I’m speaking, above all, of Western man because I know little about the Orient. We have taken an historically false road that is carrying us directly into a definite catastrophe, annihilation by whatever means—war, air pollution, contamination, fatigue, universal suicide, whatever you please. So in Rayuela, above all, there is that continuous feeling of existing in a world that is not what it should be. Here let me make an important parenthetical statement. There have been critics who have thought Rayuela to be a profoundly pessimistic book in the sense that it only laments the state of affairs. I believe it is a profoundly optimistic book because Oliveira, despite his quarrelsome nature, as we Argentinians say, his fits of anger, his mental mediocrity, his incapacity to reach beyond certain limits, is a man who knocks himself against the wall, the wall of love, of daily life, of philosophical systems, of politics.He hits his head against all that because he is essentially an optimist, because he believes that one day, not for him but for others, that wall will fall and on the other side will be the kibbutz of desire, the millennium, authentic man, the humanity he’s dreamt of but which had not been a reality until that moment. Rayuela was written before my political and ideological stand, before my first trip to Cuba. I realized many years later that Oliveira is a little like Lenin, and don’t take this as a pretense. It is an analogy in the sense that both are optimists, each in his own way. Lenin would not have fought so if he had not believed in man. One must believe in man. Lenin is profoundly optimistic, the same as Trotsky. Just as Stalin is a pessimist, Lenin and Trotsky are optimists. And Oliveira in his small, mediocre way is also. Because the alternative is to shoot oneself or simply keep on living and accepting all that is good in life. The Western world has many good things. So the general idea in Rayuela is the realization of failure and the hope to triumph. The book proposes no solutions; it limits itself simply to showing the possible ways of knocking down the wall to see what’s on the other side.
Read the rest of the interview on the Dalkey Archive Press website!