“What good is a writer if he can’t destroy literature?” The question comes from Julio Cortázar’s landmark 1963 novel Hopscotch, the dense, elusive, streetwise masterpiece that doubles as a High Modernist choose-your-own-adventure game. Famously, it includes an introductory “table of instructions”: “This book consists of many books,” Cortázar writes in it, “but two books above all.” The first version is read traditionally, from chapter one straight through; the second version begins at chapter seventy-three, and snakes through a non-linear sequence. Both reading modes follow the world-weary antihero Horacio Oliveira, Cortázar’s proxy protagonist, who is disenchanted with the tepid certainties of bourgeois life, and whose metaphysical explorations form the scaffolding of a billowing, richly comic existential caper. Of his magnum opus, Cortázar said, laconically, “I’ve remained on the side of the questions.” But it was the novel’s formal daring—its branching paths—that hinted at what was to be the Argentine author’s most persistent and most personal inquiry: Why should there be only one reality?
That suspicion of grand narratives—both in literature and in life—informs much of Literature Class, a newly published collection of eight lectures the writer delivered at the University of California, Berkeley in 1980. The consequent lectures—originally delivered in Spanish and translated adeptly by Katherine Silver—are erudite, intimate, charmingly fragmented, and anecdotal, covering a range of topics, from “Eroticism and Literature” to “The Realistic Short Story.” The unifying through line is Cortázar’s abiding insistence on the elasticity of literary art, the better to capture what he saw as a fleeting, contentious, and ever-fluid reality. At one point, Cortázar tells his students, “I had lived with a complete feeling of familiarity with the fantastic because it seemed as acceptable to me, as possible and as real, as the fact of eating soup at eight o’clock in the evening.” The fantastic, then, was a means of leavening the flatness of the widely accepted, or the merely prosaic. The sentiment becomes something of a refrain. For Cortázar, like his creation Horacio, the joyless—and, in cases, politically expedient—narrowing of lived possibility was forever conspiring with a larger falseness, one he called “the prefabricated, pre-established world.”
While Cortázar doesn’t explicitly explain what he meant by this, his work suggests a deep distrust of the very everydayness of life, a suspicion that it constitutes a paralysis masquerading as a soothing routine. “It occurred to me like a sort of mental belch,” Horacio says in one of Hopscotch’s lengthy internal monologues, “that this whole A B C of my life was a painful bit of stupidity, because it was based solely on…the choice of what could be called nonconduct rather than conduct.” Elsewhere, in the short story The Instruction Manual, Cortázar writes with similar misgiving, “How it hurts to refuse a spoon, to say no to a door, to deny everything that habit has licked to a suitable smoothness.” The lectures take up arms against that smoothness with a disarming candor: “Why do people accept that things are the way they are when they could be some other way?” he asks his students in a lecture called “The Ludic in Literature.” It seems a simple, even banal, question, yet it animated his work to an extraordinary degree.
By the time of his Berkeley sojourn, Cortázar was no stranger to undermining these kinds of assumptions. Indeed, for the offshoot of literary modernism referred to as the Latin American Boom—in which Cortázar played a definitive role in its 1960s heyday—a radical reevaluation of reality came with the territory. The Boom, which included the fertile works of Gabriel García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, and José Lezama Lima, among others, helped to shatter the barriers between the mundane and the fantastic. Cortázar himself brought a kind of cosmopolitan cubism to the novel in which time, place, language, even the literal text itself, became sites of contention, participation, and play. The read-as-you-like instructions of Hopscotch, then (“The reader may ignore what follows with a clean conscience”) should not be taken as mere gamesmanship or avant-garde posturing; rather, they actively pushed up against a literary realism that no longer suited the fragmented textures of contemporary Latin American life.
Widespread political turbulence was an inescapable feature of that experience, even as a concomitant concern with what it meant to be a politically engaged Latin American artist took shape beside it. A new wave of fiercely complex, narratively adventurous novels like Augusto Roa Bastos’s I, the Supreme, a barely concealed censure of the Paraguayan dictator Alfredo Stroessner, and Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Time of the Hero, copies of which the Peruvian military burned, showcased the potency of literature as a means of speaking to dictatorial power. “I think it is now clear that the inevitable dialect that always exists between reality and literature has evolved deeply in many of our countries through the force of circumstance,” Cortázar tells his students in “A Writer’s Paths,” the most nakedly autobiographical of the Berkeley lectures. Literature Class is punctuated by such candid remarks, and suggests that the sparkle and audacity of Cortázar’s work, to say nothing of the Boom as a whole, are in many ways inextricable from that tumultuous mid-century political moment. Cortázar’s mid-career epiphany that literature should be “born out of the process of the populace, the peoples that the author belongs to” arguably came out of this experience; it represented a radical awakening to a frankly political, though never crudely didactic, art. “I had to switch my emphasis to the condition of being Latin American,” Cortázar says in the same lecture, “and take on everything that came with that responsibility and that duty.”
No small part of that duty was Cortázar’s project of reality-testing. Just as in his novels and short stories, that word—“reality”—appears dozens of times throughout Literature Class. Over the course of the lectures, the word accretes a kind of moral gravity until one begins to understand it as Cortázar himself appeared to: a battlefield over which opposing forces grappled for control. This was no mere abstraction. During the brutal regimes of Perón, Batista, Somoza, and others, officially sanctioned reality lost any claim to the real; rather, it served as a kind of malignant fiction in which the State was the unquestioned narrator. (The Trump administration’s insistence on “alternative facts” is only the latest iteration of this tactic.) Cortázar’s experience of this encroachment would be sporadic—he had lived in Paris since 1951—but profound. The so-called “Dirty War” saw thousands of his countrymen killed or “disappeared” in the 1970s as anti-communist death squads ruthlessly eliminated supposed dissidents. “It is in this realm,” Cortázar says to his students in the lecture “Latin American Literature Today,” “so stained with blood, torture, prisons, and depraved demagoguery, where our literature is fighting its battles.”
Cortázar’s quest for reality, then, became indistinguishable from his critique of it. In a 1976 edition of the international literary quarterly Books Abroad, he wrote, “Nothing seems more revolutionary to me than enriching the notion of reality by all means possible.” No matter what form that enrichment took in his fiction (the branching paths of Hopscotch, the visionary naïveté of Cronopios and Famas, the genre instability of Blow-Up: And Other Stories), its objective, as he suggests in “The Realistic Short Story,” was to produce “reality as it is, without betraying it, without deforming it, allowing the reader to see beneath the causes, into the deeper workings, the reasons that lead men to be as they are or as they are not.” Always something of a moving target in his work, reality, finally, wasn’t meant to be found, much less achieved. It was an endless pursuit, morally malleable, generous, radically free. “When you reach the limits of expression,” he says in another lecture, “just beyond begins a territory where everything is possible and everything is uncertain.” In Cortázar’s terms, we’ve reached Eden: the ultimate state of grace.
The classroom, of course, was another story entirely. Cortázar might have seen it as a place where official narratives, that “pre-established world,” could be nurtured and legitimized for students—an irony he was doubtless abundantly aware of as he lectured. Indeed, almost immediately one can feel him chafing beneath the authority conferred by the lectern. “I want you to know that I’m cobbling together these classes very shortly before you get here,” he says on his first day. “I’m not systematic, I’m not a critic or a theorist.” Later, in the lecture “Writing Hopscotch,” he reveals the ultimate source of his apprehension: “How can [the writer] denounce something with the tools that are used by the enemy, that is … a language already used by the masters and their disciples?” Whatever the ostensible topic of a given lecture, these evasions continue to surface like an anxious tic. Taken together, they comprise the enormously enjoyable subtext of Literature Class: the ambivalence of a great writer who seeks to interrogate the efficacy of a weapon he has no choice but to use.
Coming at the end of Cortázar’s life (he would die less than four years later), the lectures of Literature Class form a capstone to a remarkable career. While it’s tempting to endorse the seductive, ready-made narrative such a collection invites—conquering literary hero dispenses distilled wisdom to ravenous devotees—Cortázar himself would probably have rejected that facile framing. “I want to say that I am deeply grateful for your loyalty,” he tells his students before their final parting, “and the attention with which you have attended this, that wasn’t really a class, that was more like, I think, a dialogue, a connection.” The distinction is instructive. One recalls his remark concerning Hopscotch, “I’ve remained on the side of the questions”—and little wonder. For Julio Cortázar, reality was just that: a question without need of an answer, an endless conversation, the breathless plunge when solid ground gave way to something falling, something freeing.