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Julio Cortazar: Biography, Short Stories & Poems

Instructor: Megan Pryor

Megan has tutored extensively and has a Master of Fine Arts Degree in Fiction.

In this lesson, we will learn about the Argentine writer Julio Cortázar. After a brief biography, we will discuss his body of work, including his short stories, novels, poems, and translations.

Introduction

Julio Cortázar was an Argentine writer. He primarily wrote short stories, but also wrote novels and poems in addition to working as a translator. Although his family was from Argentina, Cortázar spent most of his life outside of the country. Cortázar's most famous novel is Hopscotch, which uses experimental formatting to present more than one way to read the same novel.

Photograph of Julio Cortazar
Julio Cortazar

Biography

Julio Cortázar was born in Belgium in 1914. His father was an Argentine diplomat stationed there. His family moved around war-torn Europe for the first five years of Cortázar's life. He was five before they moved to Buenos Aires. A year later, his father left his mother, leaving her to take care of Cortázar and his younger sister by herself.

His childhood was an important influence on his writing. Because he was sick a lot, Cortázar spent a lot of time reading. His mother was multilingual and introduced him to different authors, including Jules Verne.

In addition to writing, Cortázar taught high school and college and worked as a translator. He eventually settled in France for political reasons, but he traveled frequently. Cortázar became more and more involved with politics as he grew older, and he was especially concerned with human rights abuses occurring in Latin America. He died in 1984.

Short Stories

Cortázar wrote in Spanish. His short story collections are Bestiario (Bestiary), published in 1951, Final del Juego (End of the Game), published in 1956, Las Armas Secretas (The Secret Weapons), published in 1959, Historias de Cronopios y de Famas (Cronopios and Famas), published in 1962, and Todos los Fuegos el Fuego (All Fires the Fire), published in 1966. Paul Blackburn translated many of Cortázar's short stories into English. A few of Cortázar's short stories also appeared together in a 1967 English-language collection originally called End of the Game and Other Stories. The title of the collection was later changed to Blow-up and Other Stories.

Blow-up and Other Stories features the following short stories: 'Axolotl,' 'House Taken Over,' 'The Distances,' 'The Idol of the Cyclades,' 'Letter to a Young Lady in Paris,' 'A Yellow Flower,' 'Continuity of Parks,' 'The Night Face Up,' 'Bestiary,' 'The Gates of Heaven,' 'Blow-Up,' 'End of the Game,' 'At Your Service,' 'The Pursuer,' and 'Secret Weapons.' While the collection only encompasses a handful of Cortázar's short stories, it features most of the title stories from his various collections.

Cortázar's short stories often bend reality, deal with hallucinations or obsessions, and explore the theme of identity. His short story, 'Axolotl,' is about a man who studies an axolotl (a type of Mexican salamander) through the glass at an aquarium in Paris. The man's fascination with the axolotl spurs him to visit the aquarium every day. As his fascination grows, his observation of the axolotl slips from third person into first person, until their identities are inseparable.

Novels

In addition to short stories, Cortázar also wrote four novels. His first novel, published in 1960, is called Los Premios (The Winners). The novel is about a group of Argentines who win tickets to a luxury cruise. While on the cruise, a disease breaks out, and tensions run high as the winners are put in quarantine.

His second novel, Rayuela (Hopscotch), was published in 1963. Hopscotch is uniquely formatted. It consists of 155 chapters, but only the first 56 are considered crucial to the plot. The extra chapters deal with subplots and minor characters. The novel can be read in two ways. The first 56 chapters can be read in the order they appear or the reader can follow directions placed in the books and read the 56 chapters interspersed with the additional chapters. This type of reading is referred to as 'hopscotching' since it involves jumping back and forth between the chapters, not unlike a child jumping in a pattern into numbered squares on a sidewalk. Hopscotch is without a doubt one of Cortázar's most experimental novels, both because of its unique formatting structure but also because of other narrative techniques, including stream-of-consciousness.

Cortázar also wrote the novels 62/Modelo para Armar (62: A Model Kit), published in 1968, and Libro de Manuel (A Manual for Manuel), published in 1973. Two additional novels were published after his death. While Paul Backburn translated Cortázar's short stories, Gregory Rabassa translated most of his novels. Cortázar got progressively more involved in politics as he grew older, and the last novel he published before his death, A Manual for Manuel, deals with the politics of Argentina and Latin America.

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