Literature Class, Berkeley 1980

By Henson, George | World Literature Today, September/October 2017 | Go to article overview

Literature Class, Berkeley 1980


Henson, George, World Literature Today


Julio Cortázar. Literature Class, Berkeley 1980. Trans. Katherine Silver. New York. New Directions. 2017. 303 pages.

When one thinks of Argentine literature, two names immediately come to mind: Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar, usually in that order. I read them both assiduously as an undergraduate Spanish major at the University of Oklahoma, where both had delivered lectures, in 1969 and 1975 respectively, as invited fellows to the Puterbaugh Conference on Writers of the French-Speaking and Hispanic World (known today as the Puterbaugh Festival of International Literature and Culture).

When, in October and November of 1980, I was reading Cortázar's short stories "Axolotl" or perhaps "Casa tomada"-I had not yet begun to tackle Rayuela-and listening to anecdotes from my professors who had spent time with Cortázar during his brief stay in Norman, one hundred students at the University of California at Berkeley were attending a minicourse, made up of eight classes, taught by the late novelist and short-story writer.

Structurally, Literature Class is comprised of eight classes, transcribed from thirteen hours of recordings, labeled simply 1st Class, 2nd Class, etc., and two public lectures, which appear as Appendixes I and II. Thematically, the lectures, or classes, center narrowly on Cortázar's own oeuvre and broadly on the Latin American canon. Entitled "A Writer's Paths," the first class is largely biographical before going on to introduce students to the historical antecedents of the short story as a genre and its impact on Latin American literature. The second class, "The Fantastic Short Story: Time" opens, not unlike any college class, with a "logistical announcement," in which Cortázar, now an American professor, announces additional office hours to meet the demands of his students, before going on to offer a historical panorama of the roots of the fantastical short story in Latin America. Classes 3 and 4, "The Fantastic Short Story: Fate" and "The Realist Short Story" respectively, continue the author's foray into this genre. In the fifth class, Cortázar departs from the short story to discuss the themes of "Musicality and Humor," while classes 6 and 7 are devoted to the author's magnum opus, Rayuela, Hopscotch in English. The eighth (and final) class is titled "Eroticism and Literature."

Literature Class concludes with two appendixes, "Latin American Literature Today" and "Reality and Literature: With Some Necessary Inversions of Values," which, as already stated, were public lectures delivered in Berkeley to packed audiences. The first of these appendixes requires little explanation. The topic of the second, however, is not as apparent. It speaks to, and about, an inevitable convergence of a new geopolitical reality, which emerged in Latin America in the wake of the Second World War, with a new literary reality. "Like Coleridge's ancient mariner," he writes, "many Latin American writers woke up 'sadder and wiser' during those years, and this awakening meant directly and deliberately confronting the extraliterary realities in their countries. …

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