Friday, March 07, 2008

Cortázar, my dumb review and theirs

Go to Amazon dot com and enter “Hopscotch” in the search engine (select books, of course) and you’ll see a slew of positive reviews and a few bad ones. Maybe three bad ones out of thirty-plus. One of the more annoying positive reviews reads, literally, like this:

“Oliveira's attempt to do just that most impossible of things, that is, to bring together at last the ‘conscious’ and the ‘unconscious’ is what makes ‘Hospcotch’ [sic] one of the greatest books ever written, and also one of the last. Yes, literature, whether of the traditional, naturalistically dumb sort or by modernists like Morelli, ended some years ago. It followed its enthusiasts to the grave.

"A proof, good sirs? Simply read the reviews here - and there are only 31! On Amazon! For a book such as this! - and you'll quickly discover just how REMOTE any prospect of even understanding Cortazar's and Oliveira's project has become so far as the younger generation is concerned. Exceptions and social miscarriages aside, they are as incapable of grasping what ‘this is all about’ as dodos were of flight.”

See my quasi-manifesto post and my opinion on calling works of art “dumb” and you’ll understand my feelings about this reviewer.

I am reading Hopscotch by Julio Cortázar. I have a lot to say about this book, not all of it positive. I may (MAY) be willing to say that it exists in a world outside of normal criticism, but that is not the same as saying—as many people do—that it exists outside of criticism. I hear that loathsome and lazy phrase used too often when people just don’t know how to say anything about a work of art. Oh, I saw that movie… I think it’s very bold, very daring. Really it exists outside of criticism, so there’s no use reading reviews. The critics just don’t get it.


I tire of this sort of summation. Say something, for fuck’s sake, even if it is moronic. And, to be sure, there are some moronic reviews of Hopscotch on Amazon. One girl relays her personal experience of trying to read the book three times until she finally waded through the fucking tome. She now regards it as the best book ever written, but I suspect she adopts this opinion simply because she is proud to have made it all the way through the novel. Look at me, I belong! And she admits that she read it because someone once told her that she was like La Maga from the book. I don’t necessarily know that this is the compliment she thinks it to be.

What really bothers me is not the lame criticism of this woman, or any of the others who will trip over their tongues, by way of fingers, to praise this book (my thoughts on it in a bit), but the reviewer quoted above who thinks that a mere thirty-one reviews on Amazon, and none of them very intelligent in his assessment, means that literature died in 1966 when this book was published. I can think of no more asinine a statement.

First: thirty-one reviews (thirty-six as of this writing) on Amazon is quite good for a work of literature, especially one in translation. The Man Without Qualities only has Twenty-one. And that’s just part one; part two boasts a mere three reviews. We Love Glenda So Much, a book of short stories by Cortázar—a book I prefer to Hopscotch—has one lone review. Love, Poetry by Eluard, a book that has never been out of print in France, has no reviews on Amazon. Sure, there are some books with more reviews, especially if they are books written in English, but the point I wish to make is that Cortázar is not going to net much more than thirty-one and this gentleman should understand that. Besides, if Hopscotch were more popular it would rob him of the pleasure he surely feels being so fucking smart. (I am assuming this is a he, by the way. I may be wrong.) Anyway, how many people were reading Hopscotch in 1966 anyway? Was it a best seller? Were there teams of intellectuals numbering in the millions who were scrambling to buy this book? Were reviews copious? Was Cortázar a revered figure with an army of loyalists? Or has he gained more recognition with time? I’d be willing to bet that is the case.

The second point that irritates me about this review is the indictment of “the younger generation” who fail to understand Hopscotch the way this enlightened prick claims to. Pretension, pretension, pretension. He has the gall to cite a quote by Cortázar that tells him, the brilliant reviewer, that Cortázar had a lack of understanding of his own work. What would that tell you, assuming it was true (and wasn’t just a matter of the author having a different opinion)? It would tell me that perhaps the author’s intention was different than my reading. And that would be fine. Authorial intention is less important than people think.

Really the problem comes form this reviewer’s opening line: “I'm finding myself at a bit of a loss for words here.” Nine ponderous paragraphs later, the review ends. Much of the review focuses on the “generalist” reader who misunderstands poor Cortázar. Calling the pre-modernists' work “traditional, naturalistically dumb” is another offense. So it took Virginia Woolf and T.S. Eliot to pull literature out of realist stupidity? Wow. Read Dostoevsky and shut the fuck up.

Anyway, enough ranting for now. I get more than a little tired of people claiming art is dead, that’s all. Art is not fucking dead. Anyone who says as much is a real ass. Grow up and look beyond your own myopia.

As for Cortázar… well, I have mixed feelings, yet I keep going back. I think the short stories of his that I have read are quite good. His poetry, which I’ve been reading concurrently with Hopscotch, is often very good, often full of throwaway lines. This stands to reason, as Cortázar's poems were mostly written haphazardly throughout the years and collected in a book he advised be read as randomly as Hopscotch. He wrote poetry constantly but seems to have devoted less time to the revision of these quick verses. Regardless, I like many of them.

As for Hopscotch: it deserves the reputation it has the same way Ulysses deserves its reputation. But I fear that many are praising both of these books for their flashes of beauty scattered through the longer sections of “experiment.” There’s an admirable amount of literary playfulness and invention that is impressive and, often, enjoyable, but there is also a great amount of tedium and disappointment. Cortázar was reaching for something in this book and I dare say he achieved it, but his achievement is not as pleasurable as it is intellectually fascinating. And this is far from the first novel where ideas and emotions combine. Or the conscious and the unconscious, for that matter. It’s not even the first to combine these elements and mix in jazz references, though it may be the first to mix these with maté. I don’t mind that this is not the first book to do anything, but the reverence for the novel seems predicated on that claim. It may be the first book to employ a sort of cubist approach to breaking the conventions of the novel and offering an unconventional manner of reading it, i.e. the second method of reading where we are invited to jump through the book from chapter seventy-three to chapter one to chapter two to chapter one hundred and sixteen, and so on. This alone assures the book’s reputation, but this alone does not make for a great work of art. The tail should not wag the dog.

And it doesn’t. I can say this because I am reading the book from start to finish in the conventional manner. Chapter one leads to chapter two to chapter three and so on. My explanation for this boring choice is a bit pretentious, I admit, but I stand by it: I am still so awed by the act of reading a good book that I need not enliven the experience through these literary hijinks. That said, I may go back someday and reread Hopscotch in the second manner, hopscotching around the book from the middle to the start to the end to the start to the middle until the idea of start, middle, and end are erased. I have that to look forward to, which, depending on how the rest of the book plays out, can be the equivalent of looking forward to visiting an old friend or visiting the dentist.

Until next time, I’m off to get some lunch and get on with the goddamn day.