Hopscotch: Delights and Inspirations


Julio Cortázar's Hopscotch has only the most skeletal of plots: Argentine writer and pretentious blowhard Horacio Oliveira lives in Paris with his lover La Maga, drinking and listening to old jazz records with a group of bohemian friends who call themselves The Club, and who are collectively fascinated with the obscure and pedantic Italian writer Morelli. Something disastrous happens to La Maga; she disappears; Oliveira returns to Argentina and has further adventures with his frenemy Traveler and Traveler's wife Talita. That's it, really, but Hopscotch's real claim to fame is its unusual structure. Cortázar offers his readers two choices of how to read his book: you can start at Chapter 1 and progress as normal to Chapter 56, stopping there and discarding the final 200 pages of the book (which contain Chapters 57-155, the "expendable" chapters). Or, you can follow a leap-frogging list that begins with Chapter 73, progresses to Chapter 1, and continues vaulting back and forth between the necessary and expendable sections until you've eventually read the entire book...or have you? (I read it according to the second, "hopscotching" method.)

Hopscotch was an extremely complex and contradictory reading experience for me. So much so, actually, that my so-called "review" grew to an unacceptably epic length, and I decided to split it into three separate posts. Thus, this week at Evening All Afternoon will be all Cortázar, all the time. I thought about pruning, but I really do feel the genuine need to write about all three of these topics, if only to get them out of my system. Hopefully at least Sarah, my one blog friend I know for sure has read this book, will find such an extended bout of Cortázar interesting, and hopefully the rest of you won't give me up in disgust. So here we go. I'm starting with the good, progressing to the bad, and ending up with the wacky.

1. Things that Inspired and Delighted Me

By far, the highlights of Hopscotch for me were the scenes in which Cortázar deals with music, compulsiveness, and the absurd. The Club's late-night blues-listening sessions were a special treat for me personally, as early blues (Ma Rainey, Memphis Minnie, Bessie Smith) are one of my own favorite musical genres, and I hardly ever get to read such lively prose involving them. Cortázar's descriptions of the smoky, boozy Paris apartment where the Club talks and listens to scratchy records into the wee hours reminded me a bit of Kerouac's late-night bop passages, except that I liked Cortázar's much better.

But it was Cortázar's depiction of the absurd avant-garde piano concert Oliveira stumbles into that really impressed me. Only in Kazuo Ishiguro's The Unconsoled have I come across such a lusty portrayal of modern "art" music--one that may revel in the absurdity of a particular performance, but still holds the concept of experimental classical/art music to have power. I love how Oliveira's irony and odd sincerity are woven together, in this passage, with the exodus of the other concert-goers and the manic desperation of pianist Berthe Trépat; it's masterfully done. [Alix Alix is the ostensible composer of the piece.]

In the two or three minutes that followed, Oliveira had some trouble in dividing his attention between the extraordinary stew that Berthe Trépat was boiling up at full steam and the furtive or forthright way in which young and old were leaving the concert. A mixture of Liszt and Rachmaninoff, the Pavan was the tiresome repetition of two or three themes which then got lost in innumerable variations, bits of bravura (rather poorly played, with holes and stitching everywhere) and the solemnities of a catafalque upon a caisson, broken by the sudden fireworks which seemed to delight the mysterious Alix Alix. Once or twice Oliveira was worried that the towering Salammbô hairdo of Berthe Trépat would suddenly collapse, but who knows how many hairpins were reinforcing it, amidst the rumble and tumble of the Pavan. The orgiastic arpeggios which announced the end came on, and three themes were successively repeated (one of which had been lifted bodily from Strauss's Don Juan), and Berthe Trépat let the chords rain down with growing intensity, modified by the hysterical repetition of the first theme and two chords composed of the gravest notes, the last of which came out markedly false for the right hand, but it was something that could happen to anyone and Oliveira applauded warmly; he had really enjoyed it.

When Cortázar gets into full story-telling mode, his prose is crisp and his sense of humor wicked. His longer chapters tended to be my favorites for this reason: given time to build up the absurdity of his situations and the strength of his narrative voice, he invariably left me in stitches. I have so many favorite scenes in this regard: the extended piano recital and subsequent walk home in the rain; the scene in which Horacio and Traveler build a plank "bridge" across the alley separating their apartment buildings; the several "expendable" chapters in which Traveler and Talita get hysterical over a book of crackpot political science; the early OCD-esque scene in which Oliveira tells us that he always feels compelled to personally pick up anything he drops or "something terrible will happen" to a person he loves whose name begins with the same letter as the dropped object (followed by a gut-busting account of dropping a sugar cube in a restaurant). Only occasionally did I feel like Cortázar was overdoing the absurdism; in his narrative chapters he generally strikes just that hard-to-achieve balance of hilarity and cohesion. In this passage, for example, Horacio, back in Argentina, has become unaccountably obsessed with the idea of straightening out a bunch of bent nails in the sweltering afternoon sun.

"God, it's cold," Oliveira said to himself, because he was a great believer in autosuggestion. Sweat was pouring over his eyes out of his hair and it was impossible to hold a nail with the hump up because the lightest blow of the hammer would make it slip out of his fingers which were all wet (from the cold) and the nail would pinch him again and he would mash his fingers (from the cold). To make things worse, the sun had begun to shine with full force into the room (it was the moon on snow-covered steppes, and he whistled to goad the horses pulling against their harnesses), by three o'clock the whole place was covered with snow, he would let himself freeze until he got to that sleepy state described so well and maybe even brought about in Slavic stories, and his body would be entombed in the man-killing whiteness of the livid flowers of space. That was pretty good: the livid flowers of space. Right then he hit himself full on the thumb with the hammer. The coldness that had got into him was so intense that he had to roll around on the ground in an attempt to fight off the stiffness that was coming on him from the fact that he was freezing up. When he managed to sit upright waving his hand around, he was wet from head to toe, probably from the melting snow or from that light drizzle that was mingling with the livid flowers of space and refreshed the wolves as it fell on their fur.

I mean, brilliant, right? The way his mind plays with itself and revises its jokes and those revisions are intermingled with and affected by his physical environment. Delicious.

And, of course, I loved Cortázar's unremitting experimentalism. He really is a stylistic master; in addition to the obvious structural oddness of Hopscotch there is a chapter which gives us interposed lines of text as Horacio tries to read a book while his mind is on other things; an "erotic" chapter told in a nonsense language invented by La Maga; exuberant alternation among various first- and third-person points of view; and much more. Of all these things, I could not get enough.

Up on Thursday: My thoughts on those aspects of Hopscotch I would have gladly done without, and which in fact almost stopped me from finishing the book.


  • I vote for two weeks of Cortázar, Emily! I took Rayuela down to Argentina with me last year, thinking it'd be a great book to read on my vacation, but it was so dense and my days so action-packed that I had to set it aside it for the moment at chapter 24 (following the "hopscotch" method). I think I'm going to try to pick up the trail again soon. In any event, loved the Berthe Trepat chapter both for the reasons you mentioned and the reasons you didn't (crazy old lady insanely thinking Oliveira was hitting on her and going into that weird mental space of hers!) and found some of Cortázar's experiments rewarding and others somewhat bothersome. I don't tend to mark up my books unless I have to write a long paper on them or something, but I remember feeling I could have flagged passages on every page or two where Cortázar's language, images, or humor struck me as just monumentally impressive in some way. Anyway, congrats to you for finishing this landmark and please bring on more posts if you need the space to unwind!

  • We're supposed to apologize for multi-part posts? What else are blogs for?

    Eager to hear more. It's such an exctiing book. I don't know why I haven't read it.

  • How did you get ahold of my tbr list? You've been reading so many books and authors lately that I want to read it is getting uncanny.

    The book sounds great and I was laughing at the last excerpt. When it gets so cold here I try to counteract it by complaining about how hot it is. I don't go quite as far as Oliveira though. I am curious because you didn't say, did you read the book straight through or "hopsctoch" around?

    Looking forward to more!

  • When I first started keeping track of the books I was reading (in a simple word document three years ago) Hopscotch was the first book on that list. I don't remember much from the plot, but I do remember simultaneously loving and hating it. I wish I had hopped around, but instead I followed the traditional story. Can't wait for part two!

  • Richard: Yay, I'm glad you're on board. :-) Yeah, it would make some heavy vacation reading, that's for sure. And while I nearly always mark up my books, it was taken to a new extreme with Hopscotch - not just because of all the note-worthy passages, but because, due to the hopscotching structure, I was afraid if I didn't note them I'd never find them again!

    Amateur Reader: True, I like YOUR multiple-part posts...I guess I'm just conscious that my posts are already longer than most peoples'. I feel ever so slightly embarrassed that this one is three times my normal length. And also that Thursday's will seem overly harsh without any "pillowing." But oh well.

  • Stefanie: Haha, we aim to serve here at Evening All Afternoon! :-) I added a note above about my reading method, but I hopscotched around. Important information; thanks for asking.

    Lu: Simultaneous love and hatred pretty much sums up my response as well! One of the most schizophrenic reading experiences I've ever had, as far as my emotional/mental reactions. Which I guess is pretty fitting given Cortázar's obsession with bizarre mental states.

  • You're whetting my appetite: it's been more than half a lifetime since I read Hopscotch; I read it front to back then, and I've always meant to read again hopscotch-style. The only thing that's really stayed with me of the story is that late-night, jazz-listening mood. He writes brilliantly about music.

    I hope you don't mind, Emily, if I share a link here: http://magnificentoctopus.blogspot.com/2006/07/jazz-virgins.html — for anyone who might want another sampling of Cortazar's prose

  • That scene with the plank bridge is one of my favorite absurd literary moments. So funny. I'm glad you found things to love about the book - I can't WAIT for Thursday's post about what you didn't like. :)

  • I loved hearing about this book, and the end of your post was a real cliff-hanger. What almost stopped you from reading the book -- I have to know! :) I'm glad to have more of a sense of what this book is like -- it sounds great (although my feelings my change later in the week!).

  • Not having read your BAD parts review yet, I have to say that I'm already a little wary abotu this book. The problem with experimental, avant garde writing is that sometimes it can be too focused on it's own cleverness. I'm ALL for trying something new, but sometimes a book that plays around with convention can feel like the author just thinks they're so damn clever for playing around with convention. Besides this, when the author is 'smart' enough to break the rules, there sort of comes in this overpowering hubris about everything they're saying, sometimes, so you end up with these books that are a little snotty about anyone or anything that disagrees with them. Jazz music, sadly, has the same problem. You had a few geniuses back in the day go 'wow, look, if we want to we can break the rules and go crazy and experiment'. So now you have a whole lot of people going 'yeah, yeah, we're crazy, we can experiment', and you end up with this tired scene focused on experimentation for it's own sake, that's lost the underlying purpose of itself. If you're experimenting, you hae to have something you want to accomplish, not just seeing if you can get away with it.

    I don't KNOW if this book is like that, of course. It's the same problem I run into with contemp fiction, though: the things I hate are there SO OFTEN, that it's just exhausting to try to find the gems in the mud :/. Which is a darn shame, because I LOVE the Boheme, edge of the world, mentality, when it ISN'T just 'damn, look at me, I can write a book that most people can't read.'

  • Isabella: Oh, of course I don't mind! Link away. That passage is fantastic, isn't it? He really does write brilliantly about music.

    Sarah: Haha, I'm glad people are excited for the bad parts! That scene with the plank is freaking hilarious.

  • Dorothy: (movie announcer voice) TUNE IN NEXT TIME for the BAD PARTS of JULIO CORTAZAR! :-) I suspect that some people wouldn't even be bothered by the things I was, so we'll see how Thursday goes.

    Jason: From the man who just read Finnegan's Wake! Interesting. Yes, I know that lots of folks have that wariness around experimentalism. I have to admit that for myself, all other things being equal, I really love texts that take an unorthodox approach to storytelling and language - that bend it and test it, and make it do things I haven't encountered before. Of course I've read unsuccessful narrative and stylistic experiments, but by and large I'm a fan. I like the sensation of being taken by surprise, being jolted out of what I was expecting, of having a narrative whose very form challenges me to think about what's going on, or to FEEL the situation in a different, unusual way. Just personal taste. :-) But if you tend to perceive Modernist/experimental lit as being cleverer-than-thou, I would not recommend Hopscotch. Its antiheroes are tremendously pretentious, and even though I don't think they're intended to be sympathetic in that regard, I can imagine it would still be a turnoff. (Although, as far as elitist I-wrote-a-book-no-one-can-read stuff, I don't think Cortázar is a huge offender - Hopscotch is really quite readable, especially in the narrative chapters. Doesn't even come close to Joyce in difficulty.)

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography