Thursday 22 April 2021

 Inspirational People: No 3

Julio Cortazar

An Argentine writer, born in Belgium 1914 and died in Paris 1984. There's a mixture! I was curious about the birth, but since discovered his father was a diplomat, perhaps an ambassador, so Belgium it was. Paris? Well, what writer does not want to die in Paris? If I can get there in time for my demise, I will happily use Paris as a gateway to whatever awaits me on the other side. Hopefully, Julio himself.

I was already a committed short story reader and writer when I first came across a story by Julio Cortazar. Ellen Datlow, the fiction editor for Omni Magazine, had just taken one of my own speculative fiction tales and of course I ordered half a dozen copies of the mag. In the same edition I found an absolute gem entitled 'The Most Profound Caress', a Kafka-esk tale of man who begins the day looking forward to his date with his girlfriend in the evening. The problem is, he's slowly sinking into the ground and continues to do so throughout the daylight hours - up to his knees by midday, up to his shoulders by late afternoon and by the time his beloved comes looking for him he is under the street and is only able to reach up and touch the sole of her shoe - the last caress before he sinks forever into the earth. It reads better than my explanation and I admired it most for its simplicity and its inventiveness. I suffered the usual short story writer's agony - I wished I had written it. I was now well and truly hooked as a follower of the Argentine writer, Julio Cortazar.

This introductory story was well enough, but I was unprepared for the absolute joy of finding that his other tales were not just simple and inventive, but blindingly brilliant. 'The Most Profound Caress' was merely a signpost to a golden library. These stories are superb:

House Taken Over

End of the Game

Blow Up (made into a film starring David Hemmings)

We Love Glenda So Much

A Change of Light

The Southern Highway


the rest of his tales are merely awe-inspiring.

Now, here I should warn you of spoilers, because I'm going to talk about one or two of the stories above. Myself, I don't mind a spoiler when it's literature. I can reread Poe and Hawthorne time and again when I obviously know the endings of the tales. I read them for the style, structure and originality: the talent and wonder of the writing.

So, I'll start with the second of Cortazar's stories that I read, namely 'We Love Glenda So Much'. This has at its heart a fan club who meet regularly to discuss the films of their idol, Glenda. The scene opens with the fact that Glenda has retired from film making at the height of her career and every film she has made has been perfect. However,  later in life she announces to the world that she's going to make a come-back. The fans are horrified and they meet to discuss this terrible news, certain in their minds that any film she now makes will be bound to have flaws. Thus, they draw lots to choose one of their number to act and though nothing is explicit, one gathers what is going to happen with the last line of the story. 'On the untouchable heights to which we had raised her in exaltation, we would save her from the fall, her faithful could go on adoring her without any decrease; one does not come down from the cross alive.'

My second favourite is 'The Southern Highway' which at certain times has a traffic jam which goes back miles into the countryside south of Paris. The reader is taken onto the highway where traffic has come to a standstill for days. There are people foraging in the fields for food, there are love affaires between the occupants of different vehicles, gangs have been formed to protect themselves against rival gangs. Then suddenly one day things begin to move again and drivers and passengers rush back to their vehicles. The groups and communities shatter and scatter. Lovers part, foragers drop potatoes and cabbages and run for their cars. We follow one of the male lovers who once he enters Paris turns in a different direction to the woman who has been his temporary bedfellow. The sorrow is strong, deep.

The third and the last that I am going to spoil is 'House Taken Over'. This is truly a diamond of speculative fiction. A brother and sister live in a house left them by their parents. They seem content and occupy themselves with their own interests, but always in the same room. One day the brother says, 'They've taken over the back part of the house.' So, they lock the door that leads to that place and go on with their lives, until another room is 'taken over' and the door to that room is locked. Gradually there is no room left that has not been 'taken over' though we never learn who or what has invaded their peaceful lives. They leave, dropping the keys down a drain. Given that it is a brother and sister, my own conclusion is that it involves incest and once the act has soiled a room, entry is then barred to that room - but, I could be totally wrong and it could be aliens or ants.

When asked once by a would-be creative writer, 'How do I start a story?' Julio replied, 'You start in the middle and develop the story into a tornado using concentric circles.' Well, that isn't an actual quote, but I can't find the original and that's how I remember it.

Julio Cortazar was not keen on writing novels: he wrote six in all. Whereas he wrote many, many short stories and essays. He also wrote a wonderful non-fiction work 'Around the Day in 80 Worlds'. In one section he describes a boxing match, one of the combatants, Kid Azteca, being a favourite of his. The feints and dodges of the Kid, he writes, turned his opponent's chaos into a perfect absence by becoming an encyclopedia of holes. Those last four words thrilled me to the core. This man, I thought, is a master of his profession.

Cortazar was one of the founders of the Latin American Boom, along with Marquez and Llosa. A teacher and lecturer his poetic prose was used alongside his extensive knowledge of history to write stories that fill me with yearning to reach up and touch the pen in his hand.

Wednesday 13 January 2021

 Inspirational People: No 2

Carson McCullers

It appears that I haven't posted a blog since 2019! The last being my Inspirational People: No1. It's not that I've run out of people who have influenced my life: it's that 'interesting times' have intervened and also I've been immersed in my first love in the writing world, short stories. Since going into lockdown and beyond I've written ten speculative fiction short stories and have enjoyed immensely the freedom of not having to write a novel to keep bread on the table. The bread has been purchased with my two pensions, neither of which are great, but happily bread is still quite inexpensive. There are a few royalties still coming in, in dribs and drabs, and the backlist is still selling to translations abroad. So, being incarcerated has its benefits, but oh, I do miss my travels to cloudless climes and starry skies. A trip to Goa has been paid for and is on hold, a trip to Switzerland, likewise. Then there's my little hideaway in La Herradura, Spain, which is feeling neglected. I stare out of my apartment window in the port of Felixstowe at the mighty container ships going in and out, and dream of exotic lands beyond the cold, grey waves of the North Sea.

However, to get to Carson McCullers, a writer of Southern Gothic tales. Now, you might think that with a name like that you would be looking at a pony express rider of the American west. In fact for those who are not familiar with McCullers she was indeed an American and yes, she was a she and not some dusty cowboy with a fast Pinto. Carson McCullers was an exceptionally brilliant writer of short novels and short stories. She rivals my all-time favourite short story writer, Julio Cortazar, who's next on my list of inspirers.

The first of her short novels which came to my attention is still the one I love the most: Ballad of the Sad Cafe. It's love triangle between a male dwarf (sic) called Cousin Lymon; Miss Amelia, a robust and tough cafe owner, feared by the townspeople; and Marvin Macy, who 'has been to Atlanta'. Macy is a vicious and cruel character who was once married to Miss Amelia. Miss Amelia falls in love with Cousin Lymon, who returns her affections until Marvin Macy comes back to the isolated small town. Almost immediately, Cousin Lymon falls in love with Marvin and his worldliness and keeps repeating, 'Oh, Marvin Macy, he has been to Atlanta.' Macy goes to prison and when he's released he goes back to physically fight with Miss Amelia. Amelia is on the point of winning the contest when Cousin Lymon leaps on her and allows Macy to get the better of her. The two men then ransack and rob the cafe of anything value and then leave the town. It's not the ending I would have chosen, but I am not the writer. What impressed the hell out of me and made me fall in love with the novel is the quality of the writing and the sense of backwoods folklore. It is like no other novel I have read, completely without parallel, and after I put the book down I raised a shrine to McCullers in my head and was determined to read everything she had written.

Carson McCullers was born in Columbus, Georgia, in 1917. Her first novel is The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Again, the characters are a collection of misfits and pariahs in a deep South small town. Next came Reflections in a Golden Eye, which takes place in a military setting. The film starring Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor was excellent. After that The Member of the Wedding, where the reader is allowed to inspect the thoughts and dreams of a young girl attending her brother's wedding. The play of this novel had a long run on Broadway in the early 1950s.

Of her short stories, my favourite is The Jockey.

If you haven't read her, do try. The novels are short, so you don't have to plough through something as long as A Suitable Boy, to discover whether you like her writing. I have recommended her to others who have not found her work to their taste, but of course we all have different mental channels: some lead to marshes and bogs, while others happily lead to wide, blue oceans. I will always have a place in my heart for Carson McCullers' oeuvre and even as I write about those of her novels I read many years ago, I feel a thrill. 

Never without health problems Carson McCullers died at the age of 50 in Nyack, New York.