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Black and white photo of a man smoking a pipe in a library.

Julio Cortazar As A Professor


The novelist taught a seminar in Berkeley that was – fortunately for us – registered in this book.

Throughout his life, Julio Cortazar rejected several invitations extended by American universities asking him to teach, lecture or receive homages for his work. The novelist distrusted the American interests in communist countries, especially those relating to Cuba, and he always cultivated a meticulous distance from ‘the Empire’. This is why Clases de Literatura. Berkeley. 1980, edited by Alfaguara is a rare and happy moment for those that share love for the author of Hopscotch, A Manual for Manuel and All the Fires of Fire.

“You should know that I am improvising these courses”, says Cortazar, while we inevitably imagine him speaking his native Spanish inflected by the French he adopted while living in Paris. Professor Cortazar had decided to let the novelist teach the course, meaning, to lecture following a novelistic form: “I am not systematic; I am neither a critic nor a theoretician, so that as problems arise in my work, I search for their solutions.”

Black and white photo of Julio Cortazar sitting in front of a chalkboard.

Between October and November 1980, Cortazar spoke in Berkeley on eight different occasions, spread over 15 hours, before an auditorium full of enthusiastic readers, university students, stunned critics and editors. The text is, well, the transcription of the tapes “probably made by a student who left his recorder on the table” which made their way to Cortazar’s widow, Aurora Bernardez in 2005, where the oral teaching, made to be absorbed immediately and then surpassed, remains written in a silent dialogue with time.

“If this is of any comfort to you, I am more uncomfortable than you are, because this chair is awful and the table… is more or less the same”, he told the group that attended his third class. Being uncomfortable is a stand that Cortazar negotiates with: the classroom is not a playground, and it is certainly not a café nor is it a public space “where we could form a circle and come closer together”. He is limited by the forms, or they give him an image of himself that is very different to the domestic one: that of the writer facing his blank page, typing, working, to give him back his image transformed into that of a service provider, a university professor.

I am under the impression that I am a dentist waiting every half an hour for a patient and the student also feels like a patient”. In this manner he combines the diagnostic and health, waiting and the appointment, with issues like Cuba, Fidel and “committed” writing, of which Cortazar always says that the politically committed writer “must lead to a literature worthy of literature, which at the same time contains a message that is not exclusively literary.

The greatest of wordsmiths was 66 years old at the time; he would die at 70, only four years after his time at Berkeley. According to the editor of the book, Carles Alvarez, these classes would be “the last happy moment of Cortazar’s life”, since merely six months after his return to Paris, Carol Dunlop, the second greatest love of his life, passed away.

But in the heart, sadness gives way to the memory of the rebel: that which accepts to go against the image that others have of him, of the safety of the page towards the peril of the voice: a warrior of words.

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