The Heart of the Artichoke


It was a struggle, but I wrested myself out of lethargy and returned to reading this week. Part of the impetus came from finding an apartment in NY to go with the new job. In two weeks I will no longer be a librarian, simply a busy bibliophile.

I have been reading Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar and have just finished the initial read-through. I was a bit surprised when I opened it up and found on the very first page, before any dedications or ephemera, a list of instructions. I am to read through chapters 1 -53 first, and follow by reading the outlined "hopscotch" pattern which incorporates a significant number of additional chapters. After completing the first read-through I felt mainly confused, and then a bit wary. The final chapters show Horacio in the asylum (where he works...he's not a patient), confronting the results of his confusion of one woman with another. Just as he and his best friend Traveler are said to doubles of one another, he believes Talita (Traveler's wife) is the double of La Maga, the woman for whom he seems to be weighed down by guilt.

Horacio is awake in the middle of the night, obsessed with the idea that Traveler is going to come for revenge because of the kiss that Horacio and Talita shared earlier (due to the confusion of women, or course).

Horacio's defense consists of a confusing edifice of (I think) strung up string and randomly placed basins of water. The idea is to create the effect of unseen cobwebs and wet pools to the unsuspecting victim who enters the darkened room. Horacio is at this point very distant from the calculating and cold metaphysical flaneur of the first half of the story, but it's hard to believe he is entirely mad.

I ended this first reading certain that this wasn't an ending, and that I needed to read a second time through. A lot of the themes are very unclear to me still.

But simultaneous with this adventure of reading, I was finally devoting myself to reading Sylvie by Gerard de Nerval, a novella that I learned of in a lecture by Umberto Eco in the "Interpretation and Overinterpretation" series. He had mentioned it briefly as a spell-binding work and very secretive about its methods. I picked up a copy from the library and read through it (very spell-binding and fog-like as Eco described, almost as if one has been submerged beneath the weight of memory and the imagined self of the past. There is a heady perfume and quieting song about the stories), but the real surprise came in reading Aurelia, the second story included in the edition I had selected.

Aurelia is Nerval's asylum-written account of dreams and visions. It is helpful to know that he begins by mentioning Swedenborg and that Proust has found Nerval to be extremely influential. There is an enormous amount of submerged discussion of the continuous self, of sleep v. wakefulness, or religion v. spirituality. There is also, strangely enough, an emphasis on the double or Doppleganger, and a bizarre section describing a dream in which the dreamer is described as being on a long wire, advancing toward an earth transversed by brightly colored veins of metals above which are suspended free-floating pools of water.

Now, the obvious danger of advancing an interpretation of Cortazar's story as illuminated by this passage from Nerval's work is clear to me...I did mention Eco's series of essays about this very danger. And I have not done an ounce of research into any sort of connection between Nerval and Cortazar, but Cortazar spent much time in Paris and is clearly interested in Dopplegangers, sleep v. wakefulness and time spent in asylums. So there may be a connection between Horacio's constructed defense of basins and cobwebs, and Nerval's vision of molten veins and floating pools.

Either way, it has been an excellent weekend of reading, just enough to sate me for dealing with a whole lot of packing, moving, and bubble-wrapped stress.