Julio Cortazar and a 1967 Example of Circular Form in the Short, Short Story….

I should preface my remarks today by saying that in the history of my own exposure to circular form, Julio Cortázar’s short short story “A Continuity of Parks” (translated by Paul Blackburn in the Ann Charters anthology I’ve mentioned before, The Story and Its Writer) is not the first example of circular form I’ve run across.  This is a particular kind of circular form, not simply that of a story which begins and ends at the same point rhetorically, in a rather humdrum way, but a form which circles in on itself almost solipsistically, and yet “looks” more like a spiral thus than like a circle, because it has implications of story which continue indefinitely instead of applying closure to the fiction.  Here’s a simple example of what I mean, from my own first exposure to the idea of spiral circular form; it may in actual fact have been either previous to or immediately after (and possibly inspired by) Cortázar’s story in actual historical terms, though I saw it long before I read “A Continuity of Parks,” because it too is from the 1960’s, from a time in my early childhood when I had escaped parental supervision enough to watch an afternoon horror film.  In this film, the title of which I likely never knew and which probably wasn’t memorable even at the time, a man is sitting in a chair reading a book.  As he sits, he reads aloud that a man (who seems to have his name) is sitting in a chair reading a book.  He then reads that a panel opens up behind the man’s head silently, and a pair of hands comes out, which in fact happens (and this inartistic pursuance of  the form strains credulity rather fast in a way which takes away from the true enjoyment of the spiral form in a way which “A Continuity of Parks” does not).  He then reads that the hands close around near to the man’s neck, which in actual fact the real hands do.  Then, he reads that the man is strangled, and so he is.  The rest of the movie was not even as artistic or as memorable as that rather weak attempt at postmodern form, but several more people are killed as in any horror film.  That I only remember that one death points to the singularity of its nature fictionally, and perhaps also not a little to my at the time immature and inattentive mind.

Cortázar’s story is far more intense and valid as a fictional essay at raising hairs on the back of one’s neck, and also points up the contract that each reader makes, willy-nilly, with each fiction he or she reads, just like the contracts and business of the reader’s daily life.  In the story, we are first told that a man had started to read a novel “a few days before,” but has had other urgent business to attend to and so has let the story drop for a while.  Then we read that he has signed a power of attorney and discussed “a matter of joint ownership with the manager of his estate,” and we can’t help but wonder if the man is ill, or aged, or is in some way expecting not to be around much longer, but this speculation doesn’t hold us for long, because promptly we are told that he takes up the novel again in “his favorite armchair” in “the tranquility of his study” and gradually we become absorbed in the story he is reading, about a couple who meet in a mountain cabin, the man armed with a knife.  We read of the reader, “He tasted the almost perverse pleasure of disengaging himself line by line from the things around him, and at the same time feeling his head rest comfortably on the green velvet of the chair with its high back….”  We are told that he is reading the “final chapters” of the book, and we follow along breathlessly, wondering if the male lover is getting ready to kill the female with the knife.  We read “Nothing had been forgotten:  alibis, unforeseen hazards, possible mistakes.  From this hour on, each instant had its use minutely assigned.  The cold-blooded, twice-gone-over reexamination of the details was barely broken off so that a hand could caress a cheek.  It was beginning to get dark.”

Next, though, instead of the male character stabbing the woman in the story (and they are the only two characters in the inset story so far), we are told “they separated at the cabin door.  She was to follow the trail that led north.”  He, by contrast, follows an “avenue of trees which led up to the house.”  In this last long paragraph, we read, “The dogs were not supposed to bark, they did not bark.  The estate manager would not be there at this hour, and he was not there.  He went up the three porch steps and entered.  The woman’s words reached him over the thudding of blood in his ears:  first a blue chamber, then a hall, then a carpeted stairway.  At the top, two doors.  No one in the first room, no one in the second.  The door of the salon, and then, the knife in hand, the light from the great windows, the high back of an armchair covered in green velvet, the head of the man in the chair reading a novel.”  Thus finally in the story, we see that the contract a reader makes with the novel is one in which he or she is at risk of losing something (in this fantastic, surreal case a life) in addition to what he or she gains in the reading of the novel.  The fictional reader has lost a life, by “contracting” to read the book, and we as the most external readers of this fiction have, in true postmodern form, lost our innocence, which is our ability to immerse ourselves in a fiction and to treat it as a whole, real fact, as a species of reality.  It is fiction, and only fiction, self-consciously so, and we must be self-conscious as we read it and as contemporary readers must learn to enjoy the puncturing of the balloon of a “whole, real” traditional kind of fiction.

As I’ve mentioned before in writing about Ann Charters’s anthology, she has also supplied a casebook of remarks made both by the authors of the stories and by other readers and critics which shed light upon the stories and their forms and conventions.  In a section pertaining to “A Continuity of Parks” entitled “On the Short Story and Its Environs” (written by Cortázar in 1986 and translated by Thomas Christensen), the author quotes one of the “Ten Commandments for the Perfect Story Teller” by Horacio Quiroga:  “Tell the story as if it were only of interest to the small circle of your characters, of which you may be one.  There is no other way to put life into the story.”  Though one could argue that there may be infinite other ways to put “life” into a story, which only have to be thought of to become a new tradition, one can certainly see that this sort of “circular” thinking is one which Cortázar finds natural and inspirational to his way of writing.  He goes on to say “This concept of the ‘small circle’ is what gives the dictum its deepest meaning, because it defines the closed form of the story, what I have elsewhere called its sphericity; but to this another, equally significant observation is added:  the idea that the narrator can be one of the characters, which means that the narrative situation itself must be born and die within the sphere, working from the interior to the exterior, not from outside in as if you were modeling the sphere out of clay.  To put it another way, an awareness of the sphere must somehow precede the act of writing the story, as if the narrator, surrendering himself to the form he has chosen, were implicitly inside of it, exerting the force that creates the spherical form in its perfection.”  This in fact is a very good description of what happens in this particular short story–the narrator himself as a character steps forward (in one sense) to close the fiction off in its “sphericity” and (in another sense) to open up a space for himself in the spiral, from the inside of which he “exerts the force,” like a dynamo perpetually active in generating a circle.  What sets the dynamo going?  It is the reader, who by picking up the book in the first place initiates a “contract” giving “power of attorney” and “joint interest” in his or her worldly “estate” to the book itself, entrusting himself or herself to the fortunes of fiction instead of the fortunes of war!

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4 Comments

Filed under Articles/reviews, Literary puzzles and arguments, What is literature for?

4 responses to “Julio Cortazar and a 1967 Example of Circular Form in the Short, Short Story….

  1. ”Tell the story as if it were only of interest to the small circle of your characters, of which you may be one. There is no other way to put life into the story.”

    The whole act of writing is quite a selfish thing; one writes and assigns characterisation based on their own experiences. It is rare indeed that an author can create a character based on little to no experience of the fictional form’s life events.

    Your discussion did raise an interesting idea. Someone reading a novel, and by doing so progressing the events leading towards their own demise? And how one would not realise that it was so as they were reading?

    • Yes–the point of the postmodern approach is to break through or puncture our ability (the ability of the actual readers) to treat the fiction as a picture of real life. Hence, many maneuverable devices and stratagems in postmodernism for shocking the reader into self-conscious reading. Julio Cortazar also wrote a novel called “Hopscotch” in which the chapters could be read in any order: you see what I mean.

      • Chapters that can be read in any order? That is quite a feat in and of itself. Trying to break the human brain and its tendency to seek and maintain order. The closest I know to such a thing are Quentin Tarantino movies. ‘Pulp Fiction’ and its scenes are deliberately out of sequence, and ‘Kill Bill’ had a semblance of it also.

  2. I’m not as bold with film as I am with fiction, I’m afraid. I didn’t see “Pulp Fiction,” but I did watch “Kill Bill I and II” with my brother, only he had already seen it, and did me the favor of telling me when particularly gory scenes were coming up so that I could look away. Coward that I am! Though I can’t say that I noticed anything with sequences awry–but then, if you’re only seeing 3/4 of a film due to pusillanimity, what can you expect?–I did notice a lot of shifting from place to place.

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