‘Letter to a Young Lady in Paris’ by Julio Cortázar, translated by Paul Blackburn

It wasn’t until university that I would find confirmation of my “short story as poetry” theory, in the transcript of a talk given by Argentinian writer Julio Cortázar published as ‘Some Aspects of the Short Story’. Here, Cortázar describes the short story as a “snail of language, a mysterious brother to poetry in another dimension of literary time.” More persuasive than Cortázar’s theories on this front, though, are his stories themselves. Shadowy figures take over a family house, a tiger stalks a countryside villa, a man slowly metamorphoses into an axolotl: these were not the realist fictions of the nineteenth-century, not even the poetic intensity of Mansfield—these stories were transporting, fantastic, and true.

‘Letter to a Young Woman in Paris’ shows both of Cortázar’s major strengths to their best advantage. The conceit of the story balances the surreal with the convincing in a way few other writers can manage. And the narrative itself is perfectly paced, with voice and structure pulling you towards the precipice you both crave and hope never to reach.

Included in Blow-Up and Other Stories, Pantheon 1967. For another translation online, see here

‘The Night Face Up’ by Julio Cortázar

(First a few words on publication: originally published in Spanish in 1956 in Final del Juego, and in English, as far as I can tell, in Blow Up and other stories (1967), a selection from different collections. I first read it in French in a collection called Les Armes Secrètes (1959, like the Spanish edition). My edition, a later one, collected under that name eleven stories instead of the original five. Show some respect, publishers!)

How do you express the unspeakable horror of a road accident? Of the trauma of hospital? Of being sacrificed to some blood-thirsty god, your heart torn out of you chest? Well, a careful writer might safely keep away, but Cortázar takes all of these face on and juggle them into a blur.

First published in English in Blow Up and Other Stories, Random House, 1967. Read online here

‘Axolotl’ by Julio Cortázar

Cortázar is right up there in my personal pantheon and I could probably have filled this whole anthology with his stories, from ‘Blow-up’ to ‘A Continuity of Parks’ to ‘The Night Face Up’ to ‘House Taken Over’ and on and on. Over the years, I have stolen from him shamefully and repeatedly. This great story, about the young man going again and again to see the axolotls in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, can easily — on account of our foreknowledge of the appearance of its subject — seduce us into thinking it’s a cute little story, kind of funny and kind of playful. It kind of isn’t, though. It’s kind of horrifying. Two lines (a half line in one case) spliced together, stop me in my tracks: ‘I began seeing in the axolotls a metamorphosis which did not succeed… They were lying in wait for something, a remote dominion destroyed, an age of liberty when the world had been that of axolotls’. Reading that, I come to think that we are all metamorphoses which did not succeed; we are all stalled and unfulfilled dreams, trapped forever in a larval stage of never-becoming. Happy New Year!

In Blow-up and Other Stories (trans. Paul Blackthorn, Pantheon Books, 1985) and available online here

‘House Taken Over’ by Julio Cortázar, translated by Paul Blackburn

There’s a kind of tenderness and intensity that I crave in short stories and ‘House Taken Over’ has it in spades. It’s a little dark and quite surreal: a house is slowly occupied by an unnamed force while its inhabitants strive to keep a hold of their kitchen. The last two sentences are an unexpected love note to humankind and another clear message is that in times of crisis one could do worse than getting on with one’s knitting.

This translation was first published in Blow-up and Other Stories, New York: Pantheon Books, 1963. Read Online)