Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar, book of a lifetime: 'The deadpan formal playfulness still thrills'

 

In Fort Lee, New Jersey, there used to be a shop called The Book Cave. It was run by two women, one of whom was maybe in her twenties and the other in her thirties, but I can hardly be sure of that because, in my time as a customer at The Book Cave, I was between the ages of 12 and 14 and my perceptions of many things were unreliable, including the ages of women.

I was shy, and very pale, and the only things I could be sure of were books, and the worlds they contained. I lived in London, but I spent the summers with my father and step-mother, who in those three years in the mid-1970s lived in Fort Lee. Most days I would visit The Book Cave, to choose what of world literature I was next going to consume. Possession, when you can count up the things you own, is a magical act. Each new book I bought was an act of identification so strong that it was a kind of incorporation.

Some of the books I bought then are still with me: Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, which elicited concern from the younger bookseller, who wondered if I was quite ready for that one – and she was right, I wasn't. And Hopscotch by Julio Cortázar.

Hopscotch (originally published in 1963; translated into English in 1966) is probably a young person's book. Argentinian émigrés in 1950s Paris have long arguments about art and philosophy. It rains. They fall in and out of love to a jazz soundtrack. The book itself is in love with the modern city and chance collisions. The narrator returns home and disintegrates over the course of the increasingly fragmented novel, whose form provides a more reliable cohesion than consciousness.

Prefacing the book is a "table of instructions" in which the author informs us that "this book consists of many books, but two books above all. The first can be read in a normal fashion and it ends with Chapter 56… The second should be read by beginning with Chapter 73 and then following the sequence indicated at the end of each chapter."

There's an exhilaration of structure, a deadpan formal playfulness that still thrills. And while the young-man yearning doesn't have the same significance for me now as when I first picked it up in The Book Cave, I still love Hopscotch. It's the book that taught me most about reading. And, not entirely coincidentally, it's the book that made me realise I was going to become a writer.

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