By Horus Alas
In the Palermo neighborhood of Buenos Aires, there’s a square dedicated to the Argentine novelist and short story writer, Julio Cortázar.
The Plazoleta Julio Cortázar stands at the intersection of Jorge Luis Borges and Honduras streets. There, you’ll find rows of artisan kiosks selling handmade knick-knacks and trinkets, and surrounding the square there are bars, restaurants, cafés, etc.
William Fewer-Reed, a jazz savant from Philly with whom I studied at the time, dragged me down there on occasion to peruse wares, drink Quilmes and Coca y Fernet, check out the Argentine ladies, etc.
No, the city wasn’t quite magical. But I would wake up some mornings in my apartment on Jorge Newbery street and think to myself, “Holy shit. This is happening. I’m living in Buenos Aires.”
It wasn’t until after I left B.A. that I read Cortázar’s magnum opus, Hopscotch.
The modal novel was focused on the life of an Argentine writer in Paris, Horacio Oliveira, who runs with a group of artists and intellectuals called the Serpent Club. In Paris, he has adventures with his hip, bohemian friends and his magnetic mistress, La Maga.
The death of La Maga’s infant son and his subsequent falling out with the Serpent Club, prompt Horacio to return to Buenos Aires, where he picks up odd jobs with his friend Traveler. The two-part book follows Horacio’s incessant quest for metaphysical quidditas¸ which the protagonist, for all his wit, seems less able to grasp than everyone around him.
Accolades abound for Hopscotch, but his most well-known novel is just a facet of the writer’s legacy.
In terms of short stories, Cortázar was known for melding the realistic with the fantastic. And in terms of their construction, he often deferred to a technique called “État Second,” which called for an intuitive fusion of concentration and free-flowing abstraction.
“This allows us to sustain that a certain gamut of stories is born in a trance state, abnormal for the canons of normality of use, and which the author writes while in what the French call an état second. That Poe managed to write some of his best stories in this state … proves past all testimonial evidence the traumatic, contagious, and for some, diabolical effect of ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ or ‘Berenice’” (pp. 38-40).
(Cortázar, Julio. “Del Cuento Breve y Sus Alrededores.” Último round. 1969.)
An editor of mine suggested that I try out the technique myself in composing this article. And while I’ll readily admit there’s been too much deliberation in what I’ve written so far, that’s all about to change.
There is a terminus to what I’m writing. There has to be.
Insofar as I’m not endless, the words I set down must likewise be bound by a beginning and an end. Poe said in “The Philosophy of Composition” that “it is only with the dénouement constantly in view that we can give a plot its indispensable air of consequence…”
His pronouncement bugged me out. When I first read Poe’s essay, as an incipient short story writer, my main editor at the time told me I had a perturbed look on my face. I wasn’t always quite so methodical. I would sometimes write without an entirely clear view of my endpoint in mind.
I said as much not long ago, seated at a round table with Katherine, Morgan, and John.
“Poe says that as a writer, you always need to know exactly where it is you’re going with your story. You can’t just improvise,” I told them.
“I don’t necessarily think that’s true,” said Morgan, as she puffed on a menthol American Spirit and leaned forward with her elbows on the table. “There are plenty of good writers who’ve used improvisation as a technique.”
In that moment, I thought back to Miles Davis. I thought of how he gave his band chord progressions rather than a fixed key in Kind of Blue, and then proceeded to overlay that tapestry of sound with whirlwind notes from his trumpet, and how there would often be two improvised lead melodies on a given track, and how outright glorious it sounded.
I thought back to Jack Kerouac and his splendid yellow roman candles that exploded like small supernovae in the quietude of the spangled night. I thought back to Hemingway: “You’re an expatriate … Fake European standards have ruined you. You drink yourself to death. You become obsessed with sex.”
I poured another swig of Jim Beam into my glass and looked at them—Katherine, John, Morgan. They were each mad and fantastic in their own way. That’s why I liked them.
And did they ever suspect they’d become characters in someone else’s rendition of reality?
Featured Photo Credit: Courtesy of Ministerio de Cultura de la Nación Argentina’s Flickr account.
Horus Alas is a senior philosophy major and can be reached at email@example.com.
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