“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.”