Cortázar, Julio Entries

Hopscotch: The Wacky Structure


In case you're just joining in, I'm spending this week writing about Julio Cortázar's experimental 1963 novel Hopscotch. For an idea of what I loved and hated in the book, please visit my posts from Tuesday and Thursday. On Tuesday I also summarized the novel's unique structure (I think this is the first time I've ever quoted myself on my own blog!):

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?

Which leads us to today's topic:

3. Effects of the Narrative Structure

I didn't want to write a Hopscotch review that ignored the psychological effects of zig-zagging through a text according to an unpredictable, non-linear program. The first thing I noticed was that flipping through the book after every chapter (and many chapters are quite short) obviously disrupts the reading experience. It's more difficult to get into the swing of things if one is constantly paging around, which makes Cortázar's occasional longer chapters, with their concentrated bursts of narrative brilliance, that much more striking. On the flip side, finding a new location after almost every chapter also forces the reader to pause for a few seconds and think about the chapter she's just read. As I spent more time with Hopscotch, I came to an appreciation of this built-in period of contemplation. I found myself thinking about connections I might not have considered without the break, which made me a more female—excuse me, I mean ACTIVE—reader.

After I'd been reading a while, two more things hit me: constantly paging back and forth means both that the reader has no idea how far along she is in the novel, and that, insofar as normal "book time" still exists within the first 56 chapters, it moves incredibly slowly. For every ten pages one moves forward in Chapters 1-56, after all, one actually reads twenty. The end effect combines a feeling of frenetic back-and-forth with the sensation of impossibly slow-motion movement, like in those dreams where you're attempting to run against a tremendous, invisible resistance. Not only that, but the reader has little concept of event sequences. In most books, I can read a scene that reminds me of another passage earlier in the novel, think to myself "Oh, that was about 50 pages ago," or "Oh, that was before X event and before Y," and locate it successfully. In Hopscotch I found myself taking copious notes in the back of the book, cataloging all the passages I loved and hated, out of the fear that if I didn't note them down I would likely never be able to find them again. It strikes me that this effect also mirrors the world of dreams, in which locations and events switch places or fail to turn up where they ought to be, and time plays tricks on the dreamer.

So too, the book messes with our sense of completeness: usually, one reads every page in a book, starting with the first and ending with the last--after which, one has read the whole thing. According to Cortázar's schema, though, there could easily be a chapter adrift in the text, unconnected with the overarching order of chapters, and the reader wouldn't necessarily realize she'd missed anything. In fact, that chapter is #55. If you're not paying attention (or insufficiently compulsive), and you're reading the "hopscotching" version of the book, you will miss Chapter 55 completely. Given the novel's preoccupation with Oliveira's and La Maga's compulsions, it's undeniably clever, if arguably obnoxious, of Cortázar to replicate the same behaviors in his readers.

Cortázar also uses his non-linearity to mimic psychological states in his characters and readers. Take Horacio's reaction to the disaster that befalls La Maga: leading up to the event, the chapters alternate fairly regularly, with one or two "expendable" chapters for every one "regular" chapter. There is then a long (and extremely uncomfortable) "regular" chapter (#28), followed by a barrage of 22 "expendable" chapters that send the reader flying back and forth between #154 and #63 before finally returning to #29. Similarly, within the narrative at that point, Horacio himself abandons La Maga to go on a week-long bender, and our "return" to Chapter 29 coincides with Horacio's return to their erstwhile apartment.

Similarly, Cortázar uses the structure to deprive the reader of any definitive "ending" to the novel. Normally, one can't help but privilege the final line of a book: it's the last, strongest impression, the one we remember as we walk away. But in the case of Hopscotch, where should that privilege settle? On the final page of the physical book, which one reads when one is only about halfway done? With the final page of Chapter 56, which ends the standard chapters? Or with the infinite recursive loop between Chapters 58 and 131, which ends the hopscotching version of the book? I admire Cortázar's commitment to exploring all the possibilities of this new format he invented, even if I wouldn't want to adopt it as the new default.

Some people (frustrated by the stoned high-school student sections I wrote about on Thursday) recommend taking Cortázar's first recommendation on reading this book over his second: to read only the standard chapters, skipping the expendable chapters and the more experimental hopscotching chronology. I disagree. They're often irritating, but in the end I found that Cortázar's odd structural choices really did enforce and deepen my experience of his novel's themes. The "adrift" Chapter 55 alone, when compared with the more fleshed-out version of the same events one gets in the expanded version, convinced me that I made the right choice, at least for myself.

And in the end...

After all that, I really have no summation to offer. The disappointing things in this novel did not cancel out the inspiring things, nor did the fascinating things make up for the offensive things. Obviously, I needed to spend an entire week of blogging to fully appreciate, exorcise, and process the reading of this book, and I will say this: it was unforgettable.

Hopscotch: Bores and Offenses


On Tuesday I talked about the things that delighted and inspired me in Julio Cortázar's experimental novel Hopscotch. Today we're moving on to the second, less savory portion of the program:

2. Things that Bored and Offended Me

I know we're dealing with South American Lit from the 1960s here, but Cortázar's level of animosity toward women in this novel really got to me. Not only is La Maga the stereotype of the ignorant/uneducated yet "intuitive" female (dear lord, if I never read another example of "I swim in the river / she IS the river," bullshit, I will die happy). Not only does the most interesting woman in the book gain her author's approval by ridiculing other, "normal" females for her husband's voyeuristic pleasure as he hides in the closet. Not only that, but through Morelli we are introduced to the concept of the undesirable "female-reader," the lazy person who doesn't want to do any work while reading:

...the type that doesn't want any problems, but rather solutions, or false and alien problems that will allow him to suffer comfortably seated in his chair, without compromising himself in the drama that should also be his.

Okay! Fuck you too, Julio.

It's only fair to remark that the hypothetical "female-reader" seems actually to be male, but a male who is inappropriately effeminate (by which Cortázar seems to mean passive, rather than active) in his approach to reading and literature. I'm not sure if that makes it better or worse. The idea that women are all right as long as they act like one of the boys is mirrored elsewhere in Hopscotch, so it makes a perverse kind of sense that men would only be acceptable as long as they don't act like women. I might go so far as to point out that using a word like "female" when what you really mean is "lazy" or "passive" is a pretty lazy lingual trick in itself, although I'm not sure how Spanish-to-English translation may have affected the "female-reader" term. I assume, however, that the "female" portion of it was not invented by the translator out of whole cloth.

Even more disturbing, there are a number of passages that seem either to make light of, or to actually praise, rape and sexual abuse. In one scene, Club member Ossip badgers La Maga into telling him about her early life in Montevideo, including a grisly rape. She doesn't want to talk about it, but eventually acquiesces - after which, club members make fun of how she "always" tells the story, belittle the seriousness of the experience, and offer joking compliments to the rapist ("That Negro was quite a guy."). (And yes, the depiction of the rape also struck me as fairly racist, incorporating the tired stereotype of the drooling, animalistic black man living in squalor and attacking an innocent, pubescent white girl.) Later on, the narrator speaks of La Maga's rapist having "dirtied and exalted" her body. Let's be clear, people: rape does not "exalt" anybody or anything. And that's not even to mention the scene in which Oliveira feels all proud of himself for "mistreating" and objectifying La Maga while having sex with her, and worries that as a result she will feel for him "that most subtle form of gratitude which turns to doglike love." This scene also features the cringe-worthy phrase "that ultimate work of knowledge which only a man can give to a woman" - which refers, nonsensically enough, to cunnilingus. Um. Dude is bohemian, but apparently not quite bohemian enough.

The narrator's/author's relationship to the characters is uneasy, and he definitely doesn't condone all their actions or attitudes. Oliveira is firmly an antihero, not a hero. However, even if half the misogyny in the novel can be passed off as thoughtful commentary on Horacio's machismo, what remains still goes beyond the normal range of casual sexism I'm ready to overlook on the basis of cultural differences. Although I hardly ever stop reading a book partway through, it grossed me out enough that I considered not reading any further. Overall I'm glad I continued; toward the end, the Talita character even began to recoup some of the respect I lost for Cortázar during the first three quarters of the book. Still, these attitudes severely tarnished my enjoyment of the novel as a whole, and Talita's assertions that she's "nobody's zombie" were, in my opinion, too little, too late.


My other main complaint is that, while much of Cortázar's narration is riveting, he does sometimes cross a line into sophomoric pseudo-intellectualism reminiscent of a stoned high-school student. To wit:

And Time? Everything begins again, there is no absolute. Then there must be feed or feces, everything becomes critical again. Desire every so often, never too different and always something else: a trick of time to create illusions. 'A love like a fire which burns eternally in the contemplation of Totality.'"

Duuuude...turn up the Zappa and pass that j!

Sometimes this kind of thing is present intentionally, to demonstrate Oliveira's pretension or intoxication, but at other times it seems sincere - and goes on, I might add, for pages and pages at a time. I think the problem is that there's a lot of Cortázar in Oliveira and Morelli. So while Cortázar is sometimes showing Oliveira/Morelli as a sophomoric windbag, at other times Cortázar himself is a sophomoric windbag. It's that much more painful because there's tangible evidence, sometimes on the previous PAGE, that the guy is a creative genius when he wants to be. Does he include all the faux philosophizing as the dreck that will make his gem-like narrative chapters shine all the brighter? If so, I hardly think it was necessary.

Up on Saturday: my thoughts on just what Cortázar's strange structural experiments do for his book as a whole (in which I return, in some degree, to being complimentary).

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.

June 2012

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography