Fantasy Is a Writer’s Most Powerful Weapon: Literature Class, Berkeley 1980

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UC Berkeley, 1980. The great Argentinian writer Julio Cortázar is giving a class on literature, a series of eight lectures in which he will discuss short stories, novels, and his own writing. “I want you to know that I’m cobbling together these classes very shortly before you get here,” he says near the beginning of the first lecture, disarmingly. And the lectures, at times, do feel cobbled together—but in the best way, in the way of art that thrives in complexity and contradiction. They are made from pieces of Cortázar’s life, his writing, his experiences as a young writer in Argentina and an as exile in Paris, his deep engagement with literature and cinema and politics, and they show the mind of a writer at work, asking questions and unearthing new possibilities.

Literature Class, Berkeley 1980, transcribed from recordings and translated from the original Spanish, collects Cortázar’s lectures and presents them in the order they were delivered. It also includes, in an appendix, two public lectures Cortázar gave during the same time period, “Latin American Literature Today” and “Reality and Literature: With Some Necessary Inversions of Values.” For readers unfamiliar with Cortázar, this book will be a wonderful introduction; for those already familiar, it will be an indispensable addition to his body of work.

Cortázar’s class begins with a discussion of the stages of his development as a writer, then moves through discussions of short stories, the relationship between music and literature, the role of humor in literature, an extended analysis of Cortázar’s own novel Hopscotch, and eroticism in literature. Cortázar is a warm and engaging guide to this territory, weaving in anecdotes, discussions of Latin American politics, and excerpts of his own writing. The lectures are packed with insight. He welcomes questions from students. He strays from his subject, then circles back, making surprising connections. He comes across as a vivid personality, both thoughtful and playful, serious and funny. This tension tracks with Cortázar’s writing, which memorably switches among different registers.

At the center of it all is the relationship between fantasy and reality. When he was a child, Cortázar says,

the fantastic never seemed like the fantastic but rather like one of many possibilities or existences that reality can present to us when, for some immediate or indirect reason, we manage to open ourselves up to the unexpected. That’s probably where fantastic literature comes from; in any case, that’s where my stories come from. It’s not escapism; it’s a contribution to living more deeply in this reality.

Over the course of his career, Cortázar would continue to draw on the fantastic, even as he moved away from literature for its own sake, toward literature engaged in the moment. In the first lecture, Cortázar breaks his creative development into three stages: aesthetic, metaphysical, and historical. The terms are loose, intended to convey the spirit of his composition at each stage without being overly deterministic. Even at the beginning, when he and his friends “valued literary activity for literature itself,” Cortázar was reaching for more:

something told me that literature—even the more imaginative kind of fantasy or fantastic literature—didn’t exist only in what I was reading, in the books in libraries, and in café conversations. From a very early age I sensed I was in touch with the things, with the streets, with everything that makes a city, that made Buenos Aires a sort of continuous variable, magical setting for a writer.

As he moved into his metaphysical phase, character became the focus of his interest; eventually, influenced by revolutionary politics in Latin America, he would come to believe in the importance of historical circumstance. But he never lost sight of fantasy in thinking about the world, or the way its interaction with reality could produce tension and insight. Stories like “Apocalypse in Solentiname,” reproduced here in its entirety, or “Second Time,” fuse historical atrocity with a fantastic mechanism that conveys the irreducible essence of suffering. The reality of the horror cannot be put into words, cannot be realistically described; it can only enter through imagination. Fantasy, Cortázar says, “is a writer’s most powerful weapon.”

The excerpts of Cortázar’s work in Literature Class are engaging in their own right, revealing Cortázar to be a master of the use of tone and language to achieve specific ends. The range of his modes of writing is astonishing, from the parable-like “The Southern Expressway,” in which a traffic jam outside of Paris strands drivers for weeks, forcing them to form small communities among themselves and trade for supplies, to the whimsical excerpts from his stories about the imaginary beings he called Cronopios. Along with Cortázar’s convivial presence on the page and his deep understanding of literature and its functions, they make Literature Class a joy to read.

In his discussion of Hopscotch, which stretches across several lectures, he talks about the many ways that book can be read, saying “The author of Hopscotch is a writer who asks for reader accomplices.” Readers of the book are active participants in its construction and interpretation—fantasists along with the author. It’s a cool way to be asked to read a book, and it reflects a central concern of Hopscotch and of Cortázar himself: the questioning of received reality.

For Cortázar, this is more than a game. The protagonist of Hopscotch, Oliveira, distrusts language, sees critiquing it as a necessary component of living authentically. “This is not only a literary metaphor,” Cortázar says.

It’s some kind of mental hygiene that I think is indispensable in the revolutionary process as much as in the exclusively literary process; it is a basic for anyone who wants to convey new messages and communicate experiences that in some way are out of the ordinary.

Cortázar very clearly succeeded at communicating experiences that are out of the ordinary. His work is still influential—a “mobile opera” recently performed in Los Angeles was inspired by Hopscotch—and, in a historical moment when authoritarianism is ascendant, his thoughts on the uses of literature to question received wisdom and accepted reality are more useful than ever.

John Flynn-York is an MFA candidate in the UC Riverside–Palm Desert low residency creative writing program. He writes fiction, poetry, and essays. More from this author →