Events, Readers

Delve Seminar Summary: Julio Cortazar: Hopscotch & Blow-Up

[by N.T. Arévalo]

“ . . . I realized that searching was my symbol, the emblem of those who go out at night with nothing in mind, the motives of a destroyer of compasses.”

Julio Cortázar, HOPSCOTCH

The black winter night, the wine, the heat of talking Paris: it all made my first Literary Arts experience—my search for a symbol of literary engagement in this city—rich with the question of not only “Who am I as a writer?” (I was looking to Cortázar, to a fellow player through consciousness), but “Who am I, this reader, this person, when the compasses are destroyed?”

Before the seminar, I knew a few scattered shorts from Julio Cortázar but had no idea the rabbit hole of language, narration, story, and being before us. Although three of the participants had already read Hopscotch, we all fell into and populated that rabbit hole together. We found in Cortázar a flaneur of the mind, challenging our conception of reality. Foremost was the question of our own identities as readers.

Our guide—translator, writer, and graphic designer, Ivonne Saed—navigated, prodded, and celebrated this “destroyer of compasses” of every concept of consciousness, character, language, structure and, ultimately, reality. She brought forth rich, tangled, beautiful depths of language and literature and had done this before for Literary Arts—with Rulfo, Azuela, and Fuentes; Oz, Yehoshua, and Keret; and Virginia Woolf and Paul Auster—and beyond with her own fiction.

Each week, we read a selection of short stories from Blow Up and sections of the novel Hopscotch, encountering a range of brilliant, concise storytelling on one extreme—whole imagined worlds in the short stories—and, on the other, the mind in the form of a novel, which vacillated between a near prose poem to a stream of consciousness hypertext via music, place (Paris, Buenos Aires), the existential, and identity. Hopscotch was our labyrinth, no turn predictable aside from our encounter with a density of intention and Cortázar’s continual play.

Cortázar put everything, all his poetics, into Hopscotch. With his short stories, we saw a master of the literary surreal: moments inside moments inside thought, being, until our lenses were not just switched, but embodied in another. It was this that first drew me to Cortázar, and the electricity of those story experiences still linger, for you are never where you were before you began the story. Cortázar has the gift to make a story consume your being until there are no words left.

His work, perhaps mirroring his history—straddling identity and philosophical quests—plays with doubles of persons but also with a layered and synchronistic view of parallel times. There is a hyper reality to the worlds he creates. As Ivonne often identified, the question of free will and choice—in the characters and in the reader—is what Cortázar keeps polishing to bring to the surface, not just for literature, but in order for the reader to question their being.


First, you must cue the music and from there? Let go.

To relinquish oneself to Cortázar is to abandon Macondo and the magic realism that defined late 20th century Latin American literature and delve into the fantastic, the surreal. It is part of the reconstruction and rearranging of story that both Cortázar and Borges (both educated, upper-class Argentines) are known for. Cortázar was post-modern before post-modernism existed: crossing genres, playing with language, and experimenting without embedding himself in any movement. He was from a life of privilege, an Argentine who lived in Paris, and the questions of “Where are you real?” and “What is real?” permeate the work. For those of us who have spent our time between such worlds, the almost dis-reality of experience is experience. Cortázar was also an amateur musician, and it is jazz—the improv and scatter of linked notes of the mind—that influences one’s appreciation of Hopscotch and any of Cortázar’s work. The stream of consciousness flow of the thoughts and story were in vogue at the time, as Cortázar was in a Paris alive with the influence of surrealism, existentialism, and psychoanalysis. Yet it is the metaphor of walking—of the flaneur’s movement through city streets—that provides a shape to how the book comes together. Often, very little action takes place. Yet the narrator reveals heart, humor, and offers us masterful encounters with characters quite alive and questions of art, life, and what each is doing. This flips the usual escape-read into, ultimately, a conversation.

The gauge of Cortázar’s conversation, and the meaning or lack thereof, is what lingered for many of us Delvers. We grasped onto what resonated—a character, a discussion of writing, the musical interplay in the text—while trying to find our way through what can only be described as a literary labyrinth, grounded in two cities, in one main character, and always searching, searching . . .

The simplest way for a modern reader to approach Hopscotch is to see it as a hypertext: a mimic of the Internet experience before the Internet existed. It is divided into three sections: the first two offer a chronological tale that follows central characters, particularly the residue of the flaneur and person-in-waiting, Horacio Oliviera; the final section offers us the musings of Morelli, the other writer-narrator, who discusses the front sections and assemblage of the book and interweaves cut scenes that reveal hidden elements of characters, streams of philosophy, observations, and, in some cases, a manual. The final section of Hopscotch is a novel fully conscious of itself, while the first two sections allow us to be in a world. This is a novel interested in the construction of story and reader and throughout is a sophisticated pull of head and heart in search of life’s ultimate truth. That sounds lofty, yet the best way to put it may be that those questions—or characters/plots, depending on one’s perspective—are interjections that mirror life. We travel from third- to first-person narration, with some moments in second person—characters addressing each other, often in pleas, in private thoughts of castigation or story. We often feel closest to Morelli and his thoughts on the book or the meanderings of Oliviera. Oliviera often plays with language—e.g., a chapter of overlapping sentences, two narrations in one, a made-up language, a play with phonetics—while Morelli often questions (or is questioned, in absentia) the construction of the story. Much of the book takes place in Paris, and Ivonne discussed how the city is evoked in many of our imaginations, even if we haven’t been there before. It is “pop,” part of a long culture, the images and experience of Paris resonating for so many. For the lucky amongst us, Cortázar is taking us through streets we know before he returns Oliviera “home” to Buenos Aires after his flaneur fails.

In the opening Table of Instructions (translated more accurately by Ivonne as Tablero de Direccion or the “Direction Dashboard,” as in a car’s dashboard), the reader is given two choices: to read the first 56 chapters chronologically and dismiss the remaining third of the book or to read the novel in a deliberate meander, as Cortázar suggests. Ivonne challenged us to go forth at Cortázar’s direction. The few who were rereading the book may have known where they were headed—key and lingering moments and themes—but even they had new things to grasp. The remainder of us either let go into the blanks, given all the references (musical, philosophical, political, literary, etc.), or dived into the encyclopaedic search before us.

Early comparisons to Joyce’s Ulysses arose as the question of whether Cortázar shared Joyce’s intention to keep scholars and readers deciphering the text for years by confounding the reader under an avalanche of references. Cortázar also reminded one participant of Ezra Pound.

For many, it was an agony to follow the hopscotch, never-ending ride that Cortázar directed: they could not let go, they could not follow, and the references were merely additional stumbling blocks to the travel of the mind. The interruptions and digressions, even if minor, even if deeply poetic, drowned some in frustration—but that frustration was always holding onto a question: perhaps less of “Where are we?” than “Why are we?,” and the “why” was an indictment of our protagonist. Many characters were artists that mocked a beloved, simple, ever-present non-intellectual in their midst (La Maga, a woman who would suffer greatly). They distressed some readers as their salons gathered only time. Though, I must say, the writer had me laughing in recognition of how artists who are not actively attentive to life or creating are visibly destructive, in the hell of disengagement from meaning.

Our main character, Oliviera, began in the category of unlikable characters for the heartbreak and intentional cruelty of his inaction and thoughts. His lack of love and dominance of the mind and the mind’s questions over magic (the literal translation of la maga) distanced him from readers as surely Cortázar knew it would. The reaction of my fellow Delvers reminded me that perhaps some go to books to touch that love and, in fiction, perhaps to escape the closet (or labyrinth) of our minds. Cortázar resists our needs, like he resists La Maga and love itself, taking us through unrelated material or, as Ivonne put it, “fake streams of consciousness.” While intentional, it could be maddening less you surrender to the poetry of it and allow the meanderings to rise for what they also are: electric, real.

Ivonne asked many of the questions that the readings provoked: Do we as readers have to know each reference in a book? Is it really true we do not or cannot infer, or that these references—cultural, scientific, etc.—aren’t still informing life and conversation today? (Some readers frustrations mimicked the character La Maga’s constant questions that put Oliviera and his colleagues at dis-ease: “You convinced yourself that all this reading would help you understand,” the narrator says amongst characters.) Can we see how the author is providing us space between the difficult, engaging in layered conversations on conversations, weaving us through experience—for both a character purpose and to reach for a reality of consciousness beyond? More appropriately, Cortázar questions and unveils consciousness versus staying in the veil of aesthetics we often reach for in books. Ivonne argued that while Cortázar challenged the reader, he did not care much to attend to them. She felt this made his writing purer, less heavy with the target that can often overshadow and forestall the experience or turns it into a lie.

Still, some Delvers were uneasy with feeling lost in the book and were either resistant or surrendered to the prose poem and play of the text and its jumping structure. On my reflection of the book—as someone who loves story collections for that freedom to skip around, and as a former teacher—I can see the value for some readers to first take on the chronological story in the first two-thirds of the book and then return to the order laid out in the Table of Instructions—to read again, as Faulkner has argued. This would put a reader not yet ready for the experiment on a solid footing: they would know the core story of events and feel akin to the intelligence of the book, ready then to listen, endure, and ponder the other notes and jumps in thought that one experiences not just in the book, but in their own mind and experience.

I say this, yet I will note: when I didn’t relent but instead took back direction, I often felt that I had missed something the author had offered and spent much time doubling back. By the time we got to Buenos Aires (the second section), it was the hope alive in two new characters that brought the story to life for me (I may be a sucker for their love and the absurd), beyond the joy of Paris and the writing on writing that I was steaming along with. Morelli’s chapters, for any artist, bring this book to life in a whole other dimension that simply expands, and I can’t imagine Cortázar would have had it any other way. “Yonder” is what one character called it, and it may be the best name we have for something that language fails us on.

“And that’s why the writer has to set language on fire, put an end to its coagulated forms and even go beyond it, place in doubt the possibility that language is still in touch with what it pretends to name. Not words as such any more, because that’s less important, but rather the total structure of language, of discourse.”

Reading is a surrender. Perhaps so is life. Hopscotch is for those that feel it is time to go beyond what we pretend or chase. Perhaps some of us can accept this better when not faced with a tome but a sketch, as found in Blow Up. This compression of short stories offers Cortázar’s poetics in glimpses, rather than in the compilation of glimpses found in Hopscotch.

Blow Up & Other Stories

While the theme of unknowing continues within some of these stories—the author morphing time and place and being—they are each intensely evocative. Again, the questions of “What should I feel?” and “What should I know?” arose in our discussion, and yet, without words, Delvers clearly felt something and often realized that they knew the occurrence, bewildering as the slowed-down, drawn-out events may have been.

We began with “The Secret Weapons.” In this story, Cortázar uses words to make the reader feel, to reshape reality without saying what literally occurred, though every reader knows what Cortázar is referring to and, most importantly, they feel what is happening for the characters. Cortázar transfers consciousness throughout this collection—either from character to character or character to object. He brings spaces to life in a way I have not encountered in other writers. Readers feel the tension of place and time and conflict without it being drawn—or drawn without the literal, often, and with gaps. Details are chosen to leap us into a character’s experience or the energy between characters—or to witness, as in the case of “The Pursuer,” the great lengths of their obsessions or faults, to be worn by it ourselves.

I dare say that Cortázar wrote his stories in symbols—in snapshots, as he often has said. These snapshots destroy compasses because they take us deep into the still: into every layer, not as witnesses, but as full of color and breath as the story and characters themselves.

This is where the master shines. I found it transcending, as an artist and a reader. Time dissolved. The labyrinth exploded. The energy was transferred and, as often happened with Cortázar’s characters, the reader was embodied, engulfed in the moment. The still was still no longer.

The black winter nights kept on, the heat moved up the high ceilings. We Delvers did the work, whether we heard the music or not, and drank the wine, surrounded by tomes and sketches and our guide, who invited us onward through these images, into and past language, so we might let go and allow ourselves the free will to search, without a compass—to be alive in a room and in texts that only look still.

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