I wouldn’t confess my secret either.
I have never described this to you before, not so much, I don’t think, from the lack of truthfulness as that, just naturally, one is not going to explain to people at large that from time to time one vomits up a small rabbit.
—Julio Cortázar, Letter of a Young Lady in Paris (translated from the Spanish by Paul Blackburn)
If Jorge Luis Borges is the literary scientist who excels at exhibiting impossible geometries in miniature, Julio Cortázar is the long-winded, mussy-haired standup act with something direly unsettling about each of his stories, something you really want to pin down, but—no matter how closely you listen—you never will.
When I feel that I’m going to bring up a rabbit, I put two fingers in my mouth like an open pincer, and I wait to feel the lukewarm fluff rise in my throat …
For those unfamiliar with Borges, perhaps I should be playing on a comparison with another short-piece writer closer to the Western ear who was also Cortázar’s contemporary: E. B. White.
Julio Cortázar (1914–1984) was an Argentine writer, and part of the flourishing Latin American literary scene of the 50s and 60s.
E. B. White (1899–1985) was na American writer, known for his contributions to the The New Yorker all of which are firmly grounded in reality. (Although, of course, there’s his fiction for children, such as Charlotte’s Web.) My literary-minded readers will know him for the Strunk & White writing manual that contains such classical advice as Omit needless words, Be clear, and Place yourself in the background.
Now for the comparison.
Within the bastion of brilliant writing, Cortázar is the polar opposite of White.
Let me spell that out:
- Cortázar does not omit needless words,
- Cortázar is not clear,
- Cortázar does not place himself (or, rather, the narrator) in the background.
The first point speaks of Cortázar’s style: easygoing, seemingly unedited, discursive, transferring meaning through hints and through osmosis rather than at the edge of a blade. However, he doesn’t resort to a wordiness common to the preceding ages, such as the fin de siècle cloying headiness brought upon by (the just demonstrated type of) adjectival pile-up. Also, the French conte cruel, which explores similar phenomena, namely the “cruel” twists of fate (albeit usually socially distasteful, grotesque, appalling, bizarre), does so either explicitly or opaquely, but it doesn’t leave you wondering what just happened. Your curiosity is extinguished because you are satisfied, or because you don’t care. Not with Cortázar.
The second point speaks of Cortázar’s subject matter: he treats the impossibly, subtly nightmarish that gets under your skin without you knowing why. It is ill-defined, indefinite, indescribably balanced on the boundaries of perception. Some of his stories could be called Dahlesque (or indeed some of Roald Dahl’s stories, like Royal Jelly, come close to what is found in Cortázar’s Bestiary), but where Dahl gives you the satisfaction of a clear, if distinctly disturbing ending, Cortázar usually does not. Like in Borges’s There Are More Things, you are left wondering what you would have seen had the camera panned the other way.
The third point is arguably the hardest to transfer from non-fiction to fiction. I’ll make the transference anyway: in fiction, place yourself in the background means leave the narrative surface unbroken. In other words, let the reader skate over all the mechanisms, issues, trickery that underly successful fiction; let them enjoy the scenery. Cracks in the narrative surface, hills and ravines, narrative surfaces within narrative surfaces, warped reflections and startling linguistic legerdemain are the domain of magical realism and metafiction. Cortázar offers one or both admirably.
(it’s almost lovely to see how they like to stand on their hind legs, nostalgia for that so-distant humanity, perhaps an imitation of their god walking about and looking at them darkly; besides which, you will have observed — when you were a baby, perhaps — that you can put a bunny in the corner against the wall like a punishment, and he’ll stand there, paws against the wall and very quiet, for hours and hours)
Aren’t you yearning to find out how the rabbit conclave ends?