Cortázar, etc.

by craigepplin

I’ve been rereading Julio Cortázar’s Rayuela for a class I’m teaching in the fall. It’s somehow both better and worse this time around—tedious and brilliant by turns, sometimes both at once. I’m hoping it’s mostly the brilliance that shines through to my students next term.

In the middle of my reading, I was alerted to a very thoughtful review of Late Book Culture in Argentina. In it, Víctor Goldgel-Carballo makes some really insightful points about my book, including some of its limitations, and it strikes me that Cortázar can help move the dialogue forward.

Cortázar makes only a small appearance in my study. This isn’t an oversight; it rather owes to the fact that, initial appearances aside, I don’t think he has a ton to tell us about the book as a medium. I have the feeling, however, that this conviction, which I’ll explain below, does not line up with the conventional wisdom. After all, his novel Rayuela is often thought of as a forerunner of hypertext and other nonlinear forms of writing. For just one example, check out his inclusion in the Electronic Labyrinth.

This often assumed parentage with later forms of writing, forms at odds with the putatively linear nature of regular books, has to do with the structure of Rayuela. This book, the first page tells us, is many books, but mostly it’s just two. The reader selects one of two ways of reading: straight through from chapter 1 through chapter 56, or skipping around, reading those same chapters mostly in order but with others, numbered 57 through 155 interspersed among them. “Rayuela” means “hopscotch” in Spanish; hopping from one square to another is inscribed in the name of the novel.

I think that there is a limited measure of freedom for the reader in this form, but it’s basically the freedom to choose among two preset options, one of which eschews the normal pattern of page-turning but doesn’t really alter the experience of reading in an order laid out by the author. In this way, I think that the structure of the novel actually shores up the position of the author, rather than empowering the reader.

But it also does something else. It proposes a certain model of reader—one that makes the “right” choice (the nonlinear one) at the outset, a reader that is open to literature as an adventure or experiment. This is why Cortázar subjects his reader to very boring passages like that of chapter 133, where the redundancies of an obscure writer are reproduced for us to plod through, even as the character reading them criticizes this redundancy. It’s why he criticizes the sentimentality of Benito Pérez Galdós, interspersing a passage from one of his novels among his protagonist’s condescending comments on it. It’s why this same character, the often intolerable Horacio Oliveira, criticizes not just this passage but the woman (his lover) who would read it. Rayuela is, above all, a lifestyle guide, and it seeks to inscribe its ideal reader into a certain sort of reading practice, which is also a practice of living.

That literature should be more than entertainment, that it should wound us, that it should take us beyond the crummy, tawdry reality of everyday life—this is an old idea. One of the clearest influences on this novel, André Breton, made as much clear in Nadja. So did numerous contemporaries of Cortázar. So does he in numerous passages of Rayuela.

For example, take one part that I do cite in my book: the theory of the “male reader,” who ventures undaunted into the serious business of experimental literature and who is unlike the “female reader,” who demands “demotic writing” or else regrets the money wasted on the book. This is where Cortázar has something to say about the book as medium, or rather the book as commercial object. And what he says is that when it’s conceived as such, well, it’s a real shame. The book is meant to be something better than just a commodity, something like a pack of gum or a pack of cigarettes.

To make this point, I think, is to take the book for granted, at least the book as conceived within the parameters of modern literature, where it is understood as the vehicle for something really very important—a convenient container for expressions of a national identity, a human universality, a transcendent encounter. And this taking-for-granted is why Cortázar doesn’t make much of an appearance in my study, for which the central point is that, in the corpus I outline, the book is a problem to be solved, not a given object.

This brings me to the review, and in particular the question that seems most pressing in it, which is prestige and the multifaceted social machine that confers it on certain writers. After all, Cortázar was, still is for many, a very prestigious author. So are, among a (significant) minority of readers, the writers I study in Late Book Culture in Argentina. But they work differently. Cortázar was and is also really popular. César Aira, less so (though he’s not entirely unpopular either). I think we might explore this comparison further.

Specifically, if experimentation with the medium of the book owes partially to technological change, as I claim, then why is it not more widespread today? After all, as Goldgel-Carballo points out, my corpus is identified with a minority of readers. In spite of their successes, they are certainly not (Aira’s recent international acclaim aside) bestsellers. The logical question to ask is, why study them as representative of anything at all, given their relatively small reach?

It’s a good question, and I think that Goldgel-Carballo is basically right when he holds that my study ultimately and unwittingly reveals that, in many ways, literature hasn’t really changed much since the modern period. It still works as a relatively autonomous field, guarded by gatekeepers. And yet, it is precisely that relative autonomy that allows writers to play, to experiment, to say something about the world that might not be said otherwise. In other words, I believe still believe, somewhat naïvely and really only sometimes, in the avant-garde and its importance. And without that faith, there would be no reason to think much about writers who write for a (shrinking) literary public.

Here’s where the parallel with Cortázar can be instructive and revealing of what actually has changed. Both he (in the sixties) and Aira (in the nineties on), were or are experimenting with how literature could take form. Of course, they did or do so against the backdrop of the assumptions typical of their respective eras. Cortázar, I think, really wanted to find out what sort of experience he could inflict on his reader within the literary medium available to him: the print book. I think Aira wants something else—to explore the continuum of literary economy and literary medium and literary enunciation. Both experiment, in their own way, but for Aira (and a significant cluster of loosely affiliated writers) the book is the—or at least a—main object of this experimentation. And I think this change has largely to do with our technological horizon, in which the book is less easy to take for granted.