Thursday, December 21, 2006

Interview with Julio Cortazar

Evelyn Picon Garfield:Let's begin with some general questions. How would you characterize your writing within the context of a literary generation in Argentina and in Latin America?

Julio Cortázar: The question is somewhat ambiguous because there are many ways to belong to a generation. I suppose you are referring to a strictly literary generation. Let's leave Latin America aside until later since the Argentine panorama is complicated enough. In order to understand generations you must have distanced yourself in time because while you are experiencing that generational context, you don't realize it. I mean that when I began to write, or rather publish in 1950, I wasn't aware of any generational context. I was able to discern some strengths, writers I admired in Argentina and others I detested; but now, twenty-five years later, I believe I'll be able to say a few intelligent words about it. The first part of my work is situated along extremely intellectual lines, the short stories, Beastiary for example. It is rather logical to imagine that in the fifties I was inclined towards the most refined and cultured writers, and to some extent influenced by foreign literatures, that is European, above all English and French. It is necessary to mention Borges, at once, because fortunately for me, his was not a thematic or idiomatic influence but rather a moral one. He taught me and others to be rigorous, implacable in our writing, to publish only what was accomplished literature. It is important to point this out because, in that period, Argentina was very unkempt in literary matters. There was little rigor, little self-criticism. Someone as extra ordinary as Roberto Arlt, the opposite of Borges in every sense, was not at all self-critical. Perhaps for the best, since self-criticism might have rendered his writing sterile. His language is untidy, full of stylistic errors, weak. But it has an enormous creative force. Borges has less creative energy in that sense, but he compensates for it with an intellectual reflection of a quality and refinement that for me was unforgettable. And so I automatically leaned towards that hyper-intellectual bent in Argentina. But it is all ambivalent because at the same time I had discovered Horacio Quiroga and Roberto Arlt, populist writers. You know the division between the Florida and Boedo groups. I had also discovered those in Boedo. And what I called "force," a moment ago, impressed me. So, for example, the whole "porteno" side of city life in the short stories of Bestiary, I owe--not as a direct influence but rather as rich themes--to Roberto Arlt. Because despite all that has been said about Borges' Buenos Aires--a fantastic, invented Buenos Aires--that Buenos Aires does exist but it is far from being all that the city is. Arlt perceived things from below for cultural, vital and professional reasons and saw a Buenos Aires to live in and stroll through, to love in and suffer in, while Borges saw a Buenos Aires of mythic destinies, of a metaphysical mother and eternity. So you see, my place in that generation--which is not mine but the previous one--at the same time fulfills a kind of moral, ethical obedience to Borges' great lesson, and a teluric, sensual, erotic (as you like) obedience to Roberto Arlt. There are many examples, of course, but this one should give you an idea of what I mean. Others in my generation followed similar paths at times, but I know of no one else who simultaneously encompassed those two poles. There were pseudo-Borgeseans who produced an imitative literature.
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