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

I discovered this author via Chris Power’s Guardian series, A brief survey of the short story. In ‘House Taken Over’, Cortázar’s first published story, two siblings live peacefully together in an “old and spacious” house that “kept the memories” of their ancestors. The narrator seeks out new French literature, but “Nothing worthwhile had arrived in Argentina since 1939”; his sister knits shawls that are unlikely to be used, “Stacked amid a great smell of camphor.” The house has a back section into which they rarely go except to clean away the dust. One day, hearing noises, the narrator shuts and locks the connecting door and tells his sister, “They’ve taken over the back part.” The unspecified nature of this invading presence is fantastically eerie. The siblings continue to live in what they now think of as their part of the house, contentedly killing time, until one day they hear noises “on our side of the oak door”.

Originally published in Los Anales de Buenos Aires, December 1946. Published in English in End of the Game and Other Stories, Pantheon Books, 1967. Also collected in Bestiary: Selected Stories, Vintage, 2020

‘Axolotl’ by Julio Cortazar, translated by Paul Blackburn

This is one of the strangest stories I have ever read, and I am haunted by it. It has possibly the greatest opening paragraph ever:

There was a time when I thought a great deal about the axolotls. I went to see them in the aquarium at the Jardin des Plantes and stayed for hours watching them, observing their immobility, their faint movements. Now I am an axolotl.

With subtle shifts of perspective – from first to third person – Cortazar delineates a scenario in which reality is gently turned inside out. It won’t harm the reading of the story to say that we end with the narrator in the aquarium, an axolotl, paradoxically watching himself peering through the glass at the axolotls. This might be an account of over-identification or madness, or it might be a story about something much stranger, a kind of transference or metamorphosis. We will never know. We have only questions and possibilities. The effect is deeply unsettling.

First published in Spanish in Litereria, 1952 and collected in Final del Juego. First published in English in End of the Game, Pantheon, 1967 and collected in Blow Up and Other Stories, Pantheon, 1985

‘The Night Face Up’ by Julio Cortázar, translated by Paul Blackburn

This is another short story that I remember from my studies. I think I read it in my first year, nearly 15 years ago, and I still remembered it very clearly. Some elements have worn such grooves in my memory, that I found no surprises when I reread it for this. Cortázar is an astounding surrealist writer, and my introduction to him shaped my taste in literature and my expectation for fiction. In the story, a man has a motorcycle accident in contemporary time, and goes to sleep in the hospital ward where he dreams he is being hunted by Aztecs. Cortázar pushes the reader’s expectations for storytelling and for fiction to the limit in this story; in it he doesn’t write an unreliable narrator so much as he makes the case for an unreliable truth.

First published in Spanish as ‘La Noche Boca Arriba’ in 1956. Published in translation in The New Yorker, April 1967, and available to subscribers to read here; collected in Blow Up and Other Stories, Random House, 1967

‘Axolotl’ by Julio Cortázar

I love the way Cortázar writes the horrifying – in this story, a person becomes an axolotl; in another, people are sequestered in increments to a smaller and smaller area of their house by unspecified intruders – with a sparseness and rationality of tone. The first paragraph of ‘Axolotl’ is three sentences. The first is, “There was a time when I thought a great deal about the axolotls.” The third is “Now I am an axolotl.” I’m not going to attempt to pathologise the story – if it was easily reducible, then it wouldn’t be nearly so good – but I do think it’s doing some beautiful things about the relationship between obsession and transmutation, literal or psychological.  

First published in Spanish in Litereria, 1952 and collected in Final del Juego. First published in English in End of the Game, Pantheon, 1967 and collected in Blow Up And Other Stories, Pantheon, 1985

‘Axolotl’ by Julio Cortázar, translated by Paul Blackburn

Where is your narrator? A simple enough question, the narrator has to be somewhere.  But it’s something that, as a beginning writer, is easy to forget until you’re halfway through a story, or a chapter, and you’re left wondering why your story is proving so unwieldy. In this short piece Cortázar achieves a seamless shift in perspective, while the narrator remains constant, one mind to another mind. Some technical dexterity is required to get this right, and he gets it so right, all the way penetrating into this existential question, the “diaphanous interior mystery” of consciousness. 

First published in Spanish in Litereria, 1952 and collected in Final del Juego. First published in English in End of the Game, Pantheon, 1967 and collected in Blow Up And Other Stories, Pantheon, 1985

‘Axolotl’ by Julio Cortázar, translated by Paul Blackburn

If you wanted a way into the warped worlds of Cortázar, then ‘Axolotl’ provides it. I was utterly arrested by the opening paragraph (go find a copy, read it and tell me you don’t immediately need to know what happens next) and when I need something a little odd, a little fractured in my life, this is where I turn.

First published in Spanish in Litereria, 1952 and collected in Final del Juego. First published in English in End of the Game, Pantheon, 1967 and collected in Blow Up And Other Stories, Pantheon, 1985

‘The Island at Noon’ by Julio Cortázar, translated by Suzanne Jill Levine

As a teenager, I had the good fortune to spend many of my summer holidays in the library of an uncle who owned a substantial collection of Latin American literature in translation. While I greatly enjoyed the colorful company of Amado, Asturias, Lispector, García Márquez, and many others, the Argentine writer Julio Cortázar was unknown to me until a decade later, when I read his story ‘The Southern Thruway’ in a class taught by his close friend, the Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes. Cortázar, who seemed like a cosmopolitan kindred spirit, wowed me with the way he spun a story around a traffic jam, creating a stylish and surreal, time-stretching tale of how a sense of community can arise spontaneously and then briefly flourish before being swallowed up by humdrum reality. 

Since then, one story of his that has become something of an obsession for me is ‘The Island at Noon’. It is the tale of Marini, an airline steward on the Rome-Tehran run who becomes obsessed with a Greek island called Xiros that they fly over every other day at noon. Seen from the plane window,the island was small and solitary, and the Aegean Sea surrounded it with an intense blue that exalted the curl of a dazzling and kind of petrified white, which down below would be foam breaking against the reefs and coves.Marini eventually escapes his relentless schedule (of travel and brief trysts with stewardesses) and gets down to Xiros, where after a swim, he climbs up a hill and gazes up into the sky, wondering if he will be able to completely obliterate his past self. It happens to be noon, and flying overhead is his plane, which is now doomed. By the end of the story, a circuit is completed; past and present, death above and life below are finally re-connected. Entranced by this story, I wrote a sequel ‘The Island Hereafter’, published in 2016.

First published in Spanish in Todos los fuegos el fuego, Sudamericana, 1966. First translation in All Fires The Fire, Pantheon, 1973. Available online here. A video, in Spanish and French, of the writer talking about his night walks around Paris is here

‘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)