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Julio Cortazar

Lessons on Literature by the Hand of Julio Cortazar


This book gathers the classes Julio Cortazar imparted in 1980 at Berkeley University.

Experience evinces that genius doesn’t always guarantee pedagogic talent and that creative mediocrity often coincides with teaching talent. Despite this, the history of literature provides examples of great authors who were also excellent communicators and pedagogues. Proof of this is Julio Cortazar.

But, what is teaching, after all? If it entails encouraging and activating students’ self-reflection, then, who better than someone who is used to practicing free thought and creation to motivate them? Imagine what rational mechanic classes taught by Nicanor Parra would have been like.

But if we refer to the Argentinean writer, the matter becomes more complex.

I have always written without knowing exactly why I do it, moved by fate, by a series of chances: things come to me as a bird that can fly through the window.

Therefore, the question is if someone whose creative practice is based exclusively on his muse’s whim can actually lead a beginner’s class through the labyrinth of literary creation. And, against all odds, it seems that the answer is affirmative.

The book, Clases de literatura: Berkeley 1980 (Literature Classes: Berkeley, 1980) gathers the masterly literature lectures imparted by Cortazar at the time, and does so thanks to the recovery of some recordings obtained by one of his students.

Loaded with books and ideas, Cortazar arrives in Berkeley with the desire to dismantle some of the ashen clichés of graduate education. In his third class he will blurt out to his students:

If it brings you some comfort, I am more uncomfortable than you, this chair is awful and the table… more or less the same.

Altogether, it would be eight sessions, a total of fifteen hours, before a Cortazar that would transform his classes into a journey through literature. A consecrated Cortazar that, thanks to his fame, would muster an enormous number of students who were eagerly willing to absorb each one of his proposals.

On more than one occasion, the writer declared that in his concept of the Fantastic there were barely any differences with the real, and that, to him, one world and the other were different sides of the same coin. This is why the axolotl observed in one of his stories ends up being the observer, and why, in his literature, a park and a book can share the same ground and the same misfortune. This is what his classes must have been like: a combination of literary fantasy and the abrupt interruption of the real.

In his first class, “The Paths of a Writer”, Cortazar reviewed his formative years, from Buenos Aires to Europe, summarizing his evolution in three phases:

I believe that throughout my path as a writer I have passed through three well defined stages: the first stage I would call aesthetic, the second stage I would call metaphysical, and a third stage, which lasts to this day, and I could call historical.

The threading of his vital vicissitudes with his development as a writer would serve as an example and incentive for his students, who saw how personal difficulties do not obstruct a writer’s past, but instead may be used as the necessary sustenance of his creative work.

Cortazar would talk about the short story and the novel, and also about poetry, three genres he cultivated with fortune. He crumbled the profuse literary knowledge which his library’s fifteen thousand volumes —together with his love for music and rich vital experiences— had left as his inner sediments.

In his classes, his fundamental method was conversing, his memory’s free reasoning and the exchange of opinions with his students.

I must tell you that I improvise these courses shortly before you come here: I am not systematic; I am neither a critic nor a theoretician, so I seek solutions to problems as they arise.

He taught in the same manner as he wrote: subjected to the demands of luck, open to chance and serendipity. He made use of that professional indiscipline that in Cortazar resulted in bountiful and exceptional fruits.

In one of his poetry books he would write:

Do not accept any order other than that of affinity, a chronology that is not that of the heart, a schedule that is not of inconvenient hours, those that are true.

This is how his classes in Berkeley must have passed.

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