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“[T]he privileged horror…of the constellation”: Cortazar’s use of the Gothic in 62: A Model Kit

Victor SAGE

Texte intégral

1The main external evidence for the Argentine writer, Julio Cortazar’s relationship to the Gothic lies in the fascinating essay, “Notes sur le Gothique vu du Rio de la Plata”, which he wrote for the famous Cahiers de l’Herne issue on Romantisme Noir. In that piece, he describes the fantastique tradition of the writers from the river River Plate, which links Argentina and Uruguay: Lugones, Quiroga, Borges, Adolfo Bioy, Silvina Ocampo and Felisberto Hernandez. Cortazar invokes the cultural isolation of the region, and the fact that, from an early age, he was brought up, with a stress on imaginative freedom rather than strictness of knowledge, “par une mère éminemment gothique dans ses goûts littéraires et par des maîtresses d’école qui confondaient pathétiquement imagination et savoir.” His account of the house is full of the Gothic:

Ma maison, vue dans la perspective de l’enfance, était elle aussi gothique, non par son architecture mais par l’accumulation de terreurs qui naissaient des choses et des croyances, des couleurs mal éclairés et des conversations des grandes personnes après dîner. Les gens simples, leurs lectures et leur superstitions laissaient transparaître une réalité mal définie, et, tout jeune, j’appris que le loup-garou sortait les nuits de pleine lune, que la mandragore était un fruit de la potence, qu’il se passait dans les cimetières des chose a faire dresser les cheveux sur la tête, que les ongles et les cheveux des morts poussaient interminablement, qu’il y avait dans notre maison un souterrain ou personne ne se risquerait a descendre, jamais. Curieusement, cette famille portée aux pires inventaires de la peur, avait aussi le culte du courage, et tout enfant, on exigea de moi des expéditions nocturnes destinées à m’aguerrir. Ma chambre était un grenier, éclairée du haut de l’escalier par un morceau de bougie, ou la peur habillée en vampire ou en fantôme m’a toujours attendu. Personne n’a jamais su de cette peur ou du moins on a fait semblant de l’ignorer. (358)

  • 1  See ‘Limites non frontières du Surréalisme’, Nouvelle Revue Française, 48, 1, (1937), translated a (...)
  • 2  Here I must declare my indebtedness to the work of Steven Boldy on the Spanish text, who has inves (...)

2Cortazar is, of course, a remarkably sophisticated and difficult writer, who spent much of his career in exile in Paris after the war. His grasp of form is far from the popular nineteenth century Gothic he was brought up on. He is influenced by two other writerly contexts: Surrealism, and the self-conscious experimental postwar writing tradition coming up through Sartre, Beckett, and the “Nouveau Roman”. But there are well-known links between the Surrealists and the Gothic: Breton’s Surrealist exhibition essay of 1936 is fascinated by the “roman noir”, which includes, for him, the English Gothic.1 The preoccupations of Calvino (in for example, Invisible Cities)with aleatory form and the rejection of linear narrative, his experimental manipulation of the combinatoire of the Structuralists, are overlapping contemporary preoccupations which Cortazar manages to blend with his Gothic heritage, in his extraordinary novel, 62: Modelo para armar (first Argentinian edition, 1968) translated into English by Gregory Rabassa in 1972 and published in England by Marion Boyars in 1976. It is the relationship between this radical text and the traditional popular Gothic that I wish to consider below: I want to examine the hypothesis that the Gothic as a popular genre is converted by Cortazar into a self-conscious discursive motif that becomes one of the master codes - the “privileged horror… of the constellation” (18) - of 62:A Model Kit.2

3The sharing of certain preoccupations with Calvino brings us to Cities. This novel is inherently urban: it takes place in Paris, London, and Vienna, which are frequently made to overlap, or are laid over one another, so that incidents which apparently took place in one City are dismantled and reassembled for enactment in another. Any remnant of historicity implied in the teleology of conventional narration is subjected in this text to an often uncanny form of repetition – reading itself becomes a form of “déjà vu” - which has the effect of dissolving the syntagm into its elements before the reader’s eyes.

4The author explains in his preface that the title of this novel derives from chapter 62 of his aleatory epic, Hopscotch. The method of narration is a kind of carousel of points of view, which continuously violates the orthodoxies of third-person novelistic presentation. The characters are a group of young people of different nationalities, most of whom are émigrés in the city in which they find themselves, whichever that happens to be: Juan, a South American simultaneous translator working in various cities, and living in Paris and Vienna; Tell, a young Danish woman living with Juan in Vienna who moves to London; Hélène, a Paris anaesthetist; Nicole, a graphic artist, and book illustrator, actually in love with Juan, but living in bad faith with Marrast, a sculptor, both in London; and “the Tartars” (i.e. Russians? Actually, Argentinians.), Polanco and Calac, also in London; Celia, an adolescent in Paris who has run away from home; Austen an English lutanist who moves from London to Paris, and who eventually falls in love with Celia, and finally a mysterious, oblivious young woman called Feuille Morte (“Dead Leaf”, perhaps after Verlaine’s lyric?) who appropriately drifts here and there, constantly on the move in Paris but who appears in London towards the end, and who is incapable of utterance beyond the words “Bis Bis. Bis Bis” (Latin for “twice”, French for “encore”).

5This loose group is constantly changing in relation to itself ( a “constellation”, which harbours, for the perceiver, the illusion of shape and form) as its members combine and recombine, often erotically, in space and time, the narrative point of view shifting, startlingly and often pleasingly, between subject and object, sometimes across two consecutive sentences. This collectivity of association seems to have some relation to the notion of an “exquisite corpse” – the construction of collective narratives by the French surrealists. In 62: A model Kit, the weightless lives of these expatriates form a group distraction, a thin veil of ice on which they skate, hand in hand, over the yawning gap of the néant. Reality lies beyond language, just out of reach, like a memory on the tip of the tongue, which, even as it enters the language of recollection, is already dissolving. These characters live in what is called the City, or the Zone – i.e. the Ideal City, which lies beyond its individual manifestations – in which an infinite number of perspectives is generated, often by the random play of language, so there is nothing integral about point of view and there is no “outer frame” to the text that is not undercut or qualified by arbitrary fictionality. Narrative becomes an endless struggle to achieve a perspective that is more than merely provisional and liable to repetition.

  • 3  Some of this information is supported by a conversation with my colleague Ms Lela Banakas-Agnostop (...)

6One of the instruments of this extension of a witnessing procedure to a group experience is the notion of “my paredros”. The term paredros (lit.: “one who sits by the side of”) is a legal term from ancient Greek; it is a word for a co-adjutor or judges’ assistant in the Athenian court system. (Pauly-Wissova, 1949, 136, cols 1420-28), but it also has a secondary meaning in ancient magic as a “familiar spirit” “or attendant spirit” (from the verb paredrevo which means “to attend upon”), (P-W, cols 1428-1453). The word has survived in Modern French paredre and preserves these two Greek contexts of the legal and the magical or mythological. (Sense 2. Of the Grande Larousse (1875), p.3972) gives the following note: “Dans la mythologie grecque, se disent des dieux inférieurs, dont le culte s’associait a celui des divinités plus puissantes.”).3

7These two different contexts for the term “paredros” reinforce the central ambivalence (daylight and dark) of the relation between the City and the Individual in this novel: the city – be it Paris, Vienna, London, Buenos Aires - often seems to be portrayed as a site of the uncanny – a labyrinthine Hell of arbitrary repetition, not the benign interlock of systems which it turns out to be in Calvino’s Invisible Cities. Even the Ideal City is portrayed as a kind of Hell – there is an “iron claw” (22) of pain which descends out of its timeless permutations, and the uncanny nature of its potentially infinite crossings and recrossings has an underworld aspect.

8This is how the term (or rather the phrase “my paredros” which is its textual form) is introduced into the text. The term “zone” refers to the psychic energy of the group itself. The point of view is apparently Juan’s:

The city was not explained; it was. It had emerged sometimes in conversations in the zone, and although the first one to bring news of the city had been my paredros, being or not being in the city became almost a routine for all of us except Feuille Morte. And since we’re already talking about that, it could for the same reason be said that my paredros was a routine in the sense that among us there was always something we called my paredros, a term introduced by Calac and which we used without the slightest feeling of a joke because the quality of paredros alluded, as can be seen, to an associated entity, a kind of buddy or substitute or baby-sitter for the exceptional, and, by extension, a delegating of what was one’s own to that momentary alien dignity without losing any of ours underneath it all, just as any image of the places we had walked could be a delegation of the city, or the city could delegate something of its own (the square with the streetcars, the archways with women selling fish, the north canal) to any of the places through which we walked and in which we were living at the time. (20)

9This notion of “delegation” bears something of its ancient context in magic (“a familiar spirit”), but is, as we can see, tied to the notion of the City, which overlaps with the idea of the group (becoming “the zone”). The examples given in parenthesis of delegated fragments (the “square with the streetcars” etc) are all in fact sites of the uncanny in the wandering narratives that form the provisional structure of the text: for example, the “north canal” (a version or “delegation” of which is the Canal Saint Martin in the North East of Paris) is the site of a sinister barge passing with Frau Marta on it, on the banks of which Styx-like stream, Nicole (said to be “hopelessly” in love with Juan and having betrayed her partner, Marrast, the sculptor who is deeply in love with her) decides, towards the end of the novel, to commit suicide. The “square with the streetcars” is another of these uncanny sites of “delegation”, in which a nightmare is played out, this time Juan’s almost Orphic search for Hélène who is carrying a parcel with a doll in it through a criss-crossing – out of one and into another - of crowded trams. He loses her. But in the narrative, the problem of this repeated failure is partly “solved” when Hélène is sent the doll that is in the parcel she carries everywhere, and which, smashed, becomes a symbol of her rape and betrayal of Celia, and out of which is born in pain and violence her cruel and frank denial of Juan. Undercut by the perpetual presence of the random, these scenes are nevertheless climactic.

10So the occurrence of “delegation” on the individual or City level (sometimes the intersection of the two), which takes the verbal form of metonymy or synechdoche, and links the unique point with the collective system, is a source of uncanny repetition, robbed from the perpetually present void of the Unsaid. This presents itself as a purely neutral form of figuration, a kind of philosophical complex of metaphor to describe meaning. But it is not at all neutral; it is a source of nightmare that weaves darkness and fear.

11This is, for me, the primary paradox of the whole text. Insistent and powerful story lines are created by this metonymic method of verbal association, selected and privileged like scenarios of memory, conjured for the reader’s struggling expectations in repeated allusions that look like someone’s memories, and yet which are of hallucinatory fictivity, created out of language (‘the combinatory art of memories and circumstances” (28)), which rise to various disquieting Gothic crescendos.

12Take, for example, the beginning. The novel’s “arbitrary” opening is a combination of opposites of this type, (purely random, but strongly associative) which yet has a strongly Gothic flavour:

“I’d like a bloody castle”, the fat diner had said.

  • 4 62A Model; Kit, London, Marion Boyars, translated from the Spanish by Gregory Rabassar 1972 (Random (...)

Why did I go into the Polidor restaurant? Why, since I’m asking that kind of question, did I buy a book I probably wouldn’t read? (The adverb was already a trick, because more than once it had occurred to me to buy books with the tacit certainty that they would be lost forever in the bookcase, and yet I bought them; the enigma was in buying them, in the motive that possibly demanded that useless possession). And into the chain of questions now: Why, after going to the Polidor, did I go to sit at the rear table, across from the large mirror that precariously duplicated the faded desolation of the room? And another link to put in place. Why did I ask for a bottle of Sylvaner?4

13We are allowed to see the creation here of the novel’s Gothic plot out of a series of random associations. The Polidor (lit. Greek “many gifts”) chimes with Polidori, the author of an early vampire story. We are in Paris, on the literal plane; but this beginning comes out of the City, the City beyond words, in which “a mirror of space and a mirror of time had coincided” (27). Juan, who is a simultaneous translator, has just bought a book by Michel Butor (La modification) which mentions in the preface Chateaubriand’s Atala. The fat diner in the mirror opposite Juan has actually said: Je voudrais un chateau saignant – he’d like his Steak Chateaubriand rare. Juan, who is remembering his trip on Christmas Eve to the Paris restaurant, has ordered a bottle of the German or Austrian white wine, Sylvaner, which leads us directly (i.e. by accident) to: Transylvania:

And to order without previous reflection a bottle of Sylvaner, which contained in its first syllables, as in a charade, the middle syllables of the word in which there beat in turn the geographic centre of a an obscure ancestral terror, couldn’t really go beyond a mediocre phonetic association. (21)

14So there’s a paradox: the “free association” of words recreates “…the mediocre chronicle that Juan had read years before, so long before Hélène and Frau Marta and the house of the basilisk in Vienna.” (14). The legend in question is that of Erzebet Bathori, the Bloody Countess of Hungary, who bathed in the blood of young Transylvanian peasant virgins.

15This “constellation” is both claimed as arbitrary, produced by the random and accidental association of words, and it is the beginning of a Gothic story, which takes place in Vienna in the Blutgasse (Blood Alley), in which there is a kind of nameless horror that repeats and replays across the text in two counterpointed modes; one quotidian, the story of Hélène’s rape of Celia and rejection of Juan, and the other an overt structure of allusion, the legend of the Bloody Countess. The act of perception appears to be one, but in the reading process it is layered severally between motifs which belong to both arbitrary fictivity and memory; and yet in the midst of all this playful scepticism about the narrative medium of language, whether Juan is making this up or not, there is a foreboding happening at some level or another and that foreboding is inseparable from the “philosophical” idea of the connection of things:

Impossible to separate the parts, the fragmented sentiment of the book, the countess, perhaps the bottle of Sylvaner, the coagulation remained outside of time, the privileged horror, exasperating and delightful, of the constellation, an opening for the leap that had to be taken and which he would not take because it wasn’t a leap towards anything definite and not even a leap. (18)

16Here the scepticism about fictionality collapses, in the English translation at least, into the Gothic (bloody) metaphor of “coagulated” (Sp. coagulo), and even as Juan is presented as revealing the arbitrariness of this constellation of associations, it is reinforced as a story, a drop of narrative blood that leaks and congeals out of Nothing, or the space between languages, or what is called “the city” or the “zone” of infinite permutation. So the mysterious narrative of horror arises arbitrarily out of a set of puns and grows into an insistent story, the story of what happened in the King of Hungary Hotel, in Vienna, when the Old Woman, the Countess, replayed as Frau Marta, goes upstairs to the room of the English Girl. Juan and his Danish girlfriend Tell, the latter described as “in those days mysterious and rather Sheridan le Fanu” (81), who have gone there deliberately to find the story of what happened in the appropriately named Blutgasse, provoked by the uncanny echo of the Basiliskenhaus, having overheard the old lady at breakfast making up to the English girl, leave their own comfortable hotel, the Capricorno, and follow her to the old-fashioned King of Hungary Hotel. There, in a cinematically frightening scene Juan follows Frau Marta into the girl’s bedroom which is pitch-black, apart from the “dark lantern” the Old Woman is carrying:

Not knowing what to do, deprived of all the logical sequences that the situation demanded, there was nothing left to do but stay in the same position, hiding as much as possible against the wall and just in case holding his shoe against the door jamb, because interruptions in logic stem its flow with prodigious speed, and on both sides of the spark of an exception the endless yawns of pure infallible causality open up. The dark lanthern for example. It was fated at that point in things that there should be a burst of the beam of vivid light from a dark lanthern, and that was what happened six feet from the door; on the floor a quivering circle was sketched out which wavered from right to left as if looking for a definite direction. (166-7)

17This passage alludes to the visual style of the expressionist cinema as well as the rhetorical darkness of the Gothic novel: the wavering disk of light mediates the action of the scene as it flickers across the dark floor, picking out the bedclothes and then some blonde hair as it climbs towards the English girl in the bed, where the old woman will reach out of the dark for her throat. But the scene is also made out of arbitrary details of quotation. Frau Marta plays the Countess. Juan is the Jonathan Harker figure, the terrified sweating witness pressed against the wall. The scene is ready made; from the Gothic horror novel, from Carmilla, for example, from Sheridan le Fanu, from Valentine Penrose, and from later pulp horror and Empire adventure fiction (the “Raffles” stories) . The “dark lanthern” is an archaic and oxymoronic literary “prop”, it turns out:

Simultaneously with that coming and going of something that wasn’t even a thought, I realised that the oscillation of the circle of light that was touching and leaving the purple rug was in time to Frau Marta’s soft panting as she was sunk in some part of the dark room. In back of the fear that grew with every oscillation of the beam of light I remembered Raffles, Nick Carter, any one of the books of childhood where there had always been a dark lanthern, and the wonderful (because it was incomprehensible) association of those two words; but this time it was really for real. (167)

18This final claim is a patent attempt to establish belief in the “real” by the narrator, Juan, when the reader knows all along the story has been a game by which they (he and Tell) have courted randomness in true Surrealist fashion, seeking adventure to spice their boredom with each other, and yet the story forms a climax despite the fact that all its motifs have been laid bare as a mosaic of merely verbal props. Here, it seems, language has created reality, or at least, the conditions of readerly belief. Not only is the “dark lanthern” a cliché from the Empire adventure story of the late Victorian and Edwardian period, but also the English girl is expecting Frau Marta, sitting up with her eyes open and the whole scene is part of an uncanny process of repetition, which is more threatening than the original vampiric activity:

 (…) and Erzebet Bathori’s light has also vaguely lighted up the black hair of the countess as she approached the bed where a servant girl tied had and foot was struggling with a gag in her mouth, so different from the English girl, although perhaps after the first visit they all waited for the Countess like that. All of them were probably sitting up in bed, no longer with bonds or gags, joined by another deeper bond to the visitor who put the dark lanthern on the night table so that it would keep on lighting up the profile of the girl who hadn’t moved, the throat which Frau Marta’s hand slowly uncovered by pulling down the lace collar of the pajamas. (181)

19What is going to happen here? The vulgarity of “suspense” seems impossible, because the plot is made out of a series of references to readings in the Gothic tradition of Tell and Juan, the characters who are witnessing the scene. The earlier allusion to Sheridan Le Fanu I quoted suggests that we need to add Le Fanu’s Carmilla, the Countess Karnstein, to the erotic sadism of Valentine Penrose’s The Bloody Countess, which is a prime candidate for the “mediocre chronicle” that Juan read years before.

20Here I need to leave the scene dangling in the dark, as does the novel, and make a brief textual diversion. The sudden intrusion of Hélène, a character in another story, remote in space and time from this one, cannot be understood by the reader at its first textual appearance (28), but it in fact layers Hélène’s perfectly quotidian, if tragic, story into this Gothic pre-text. Hélène wears a brooch with a basilisk on it, and this motif is a one of a series of “rhymes”, details which act as vehicles of “delegation” or fictional transference, uncanny overlaps between apparently separate narrative spaces in the text : for the reader, it is the signal that there is something sinister about Hélène, that she is a kind of associative echo of Frau Marta, and therefore a variant (“delegation”) of the Countess.

21Hélène, a French doctor working in Paris, though a member of the expatriate crowd that frequents the Cluny, is a withdrawn figure, who hovers on the edge of everything in a very cold, self-contained and aloof fashion. She becomes despairingly obsessed with a young man at whose killing she, as the anaesthetist, feels she has assisted one afternoon. She goes over this dreadful event again and again, associating him, because of a superficial resemblance, with Juan, with whom she has never been intimate:

But right from the start, when that morning she had made the obligatory visit of the anaesthetist to the patient who would be operated on in the afternoon, something about the way his hair was cut, the decisive line of his nose, and the thin premature wrinkles round his mouth reminded her of Juan. The interview hadn’t gone beyond the usual friendly ceremony, the making of contact in order to observe the patient’s characteristics and his reactions, but all that had been necessary was for the boy to straighten up in bed and stretch out a bony hand to her and then for him to listen to her with courteous attention, before she would see him again that afternoon naked in the operating room and he, recognizing her, seeing her lean over him to prepare his arm, smiled at her with Juan’s same slightly curved smile and said to her: “See you later,” only that before the black surge of the pentothal… (106)

22In Hélène’s reconstruction, she, the anaesthetist, who initiates the “usual friendly ceremony” is like the hangman who shakes his client’s hand in order to determine the length of the drop. Hélène, trying to face up to this nightmare memory in the tunnels of the Metro, hugs it to her and tries to rearrange it like a cherished dream:

“I’ll forget you,” I said to him. “I’ll forget you very soon, it has to be, you know, I too, will say to you “See you later” the way you did, and both of us will have lied, poor thing. But stay a while now, we have all the time necessary. That, too, sometimes, is the city.” (107)

23Ending up at the Cluny, she is joined by Celia, a young adolescent, to whom Hélène is like an aunt, a friend of the family. Celia is a hanger-on in the group of expatriates, who has run away from home, and Hélène offers the girl her small apartment as a refuge. This crucial and very disturbing scene at Hélène’s apartment on the rue de la Clef is narratively cut with the vampire scene between Frau Marta and the English girl at the King of Hungary Hotel.

24The other necessary motif that structurally “rhymes” and discursively associates with the Gothic register, through magic, sorcery and fetishism, is the story of the dolls of M.Ochs (Ox). This French joker makes china dolls and before finishing them he puts something into the insides of the dolls: in one case, 1,000 francs, (which causes many a mother all over France to smash their dolls to get the money) in another, a dildo. After a mother complains when her daughter finds this latter “polychrome object”, M. Ochs is disgraced, imprisoned and obliged to work at Saint-Ouen. The “tartars” find him and befriend him. M.Ochs has a ring with a basilisk on it. Here is an example of the overlapping technique, delivered by Juan the narrator, whose consciousness acts as paredros, the lightning conductor or connecting rod, the agent of delegation, the “babysitter for the exceptional”:

 (…) in the same way that Hélène’s little basilisk was quite different from the one which in other days Monsieur Ochs wore on a silver ring, a green basilisk that gave off inexplicable fire from its tail. So that on that night the Viennese alleys led me to basilisks, which was the same as saying Hélène, just as in the old, worn air that the stones of the doorways seemed to exude, the Blutgasse was always present and then having remembered Monsieur Ochs was perhaps not so much a consequence of the basilisk house which had brought me to him, passing through Hélène’s brooch, but of the dolls, to the degree that the dolls were one of the signs of the countess who lived on the Blutgasse, for all of Monsieur Ochs’s dolls had ended up tortured and torn after the episode on the Rue du Cherche-Midi. (98)

25The conjunction of the Impasse de L’Astrolabe, the rue du Cherche-Midi and the rue Vaugirard in the 15th Arrondissement is where the little Ripaillet girl has broken open her doll and exposed what was inside it. All roads for Juan, including those roads, lead back to Hélène, as he warns us in advance and we gradually come to realise. And it is this tissue of connections which “governs” (i.e. is present in, synechdochically) the rape-incident with Celia in her flat in the ironically named Rue de la Clef. The cross-over with the Gothic incident in the King of Hungary Hotel becomes more and more evident to the reader.

26Tell, Juan’s girlfriend, decides to send one of these dolls to from Vienna to Hélène in Paris. This is a prophetic action, or a narrative prolepsis, because Juan has always been obsessed with Hélène, who wears the basilisk brooch. Tell has intuitively understood that she can’t go on inventing adventures with Juan, that their relationship is over. This sinister doll is at Hélène’s apartment, the night Hélène brings Celia back and Celia puts it to bed like a little girl on a chair outside the bathroom.

27Hélène thinks that the distracting presence of the healthy adolescent Celia in her bed, will help her forget the death of the young man at the hospital that afternoon. But, instead, she cannot sleep, finding herself lost in a labyrinthine recurring dream, and when she leans over to attend in a motherly fashion to Celia, who is still crying herself to sleep, Hélène finds herself at the centre of a series of cross-overs and substitutions:

Hélène sat up, leaning on her pillow. She put on the lamp and turned toward Celia to dry her eyes with the edge of the sheet. Almost without looking at her, because she felt that Celia was sinking into a wordless shame, she smoothed the wrinkled sheet, thinking distantly about the stupid ritual that was being repeated in every detail, the child who puts her doll to bed with great ceremony and then lets herself be put to bed in turn and waits to have the same gestures repeated with her, for her hair to be smoothed on the pillow, for the sheets top be drawn up to her chin…Someone had drawn a white sheet up to the dead boy’s chin, and then Tell’s doll was Celia, who was the dead boy, and I had decided and complied with the three ceremonies, tight and distant all the while, because the sedative was beginning to drag me down… (172)

28The switch from third to first person here is typical of the book’s narrative technique, because, as Hélène later has time to reflect, “my paredros is right when he says that Sartre’s crazy and that we’re much more the sum of the acts of others than our own.” (257). Here, the child and the doll, the figure of Celia as Hélène puts her protectively to bed, and then finally the drawing up of the sheet to the dead boy’s chin in the hospital that afternoon, are all “ceremonies”, ritual scenarios that imply each other, through overlapping items of detail, even though they are apparently remote in both time and space. And this means that Juan is present too, because of the boy that looks like him. Hélène at this point seems unaware of what the reader has begun to understand, that it is Juan who is looking for Hélène all along, it is he who has asked Tell to send her the doll, because she is his only chance to get free of these repeatingly unfinished orphic nightmares, in which he loses her on streetcars in the City as she carries the package with the green cord.

29Hélène therefore “is” Frau Marta in the King of Hungary Hotel, or a “delegated” version of her, and as Tell and Juan stand there in the pitch-black room, watching Frau Marta panting softly, reaching for the girl’s throat, something happens to the relationship between the watchers and the scene: the scene trembles on the edge of a breakthrough from fragmentation to some kind of revelation, but the suspense of the vampire ceremony is actually a reflexive emblem of the consciousness of the watchers, who tremble, Juan thinks, on the verge of total reality. Why is it that Frau Marta and the English girl in the scene before them give no sense of having heard the two of them, himself and Tell, whispering and moving, even though they’re in the same room?

“Wait, wait,” Juan said, trying to tie in relationships that were getting away from him like threads that might get to be relationships and were at the point of being lost now that suddenly and obscurely he thought he understood why Frau Marta had not given any hint of their presence, why the door had remained ajar and Tell had been able to get to him so easily, why the English girl was awake; the same as the night in the Polidor restaurant when he passed like a flash through something that wasn’t exactly memory suddenly there, in an absolute violation of time, everything at the point of being explained without any possible explanation; and that feeling already about to flee put – how else could it be said? – the fact that Frau Marta’s lips still hadn’t come to rest on the English girl’s throat, and that the mark of consummation could only be guessed at as two tiny purple dots that might be taken for two moles… (185)

30The feeling about to, as Rabassa translates it, “flee put” – an extraordinarily naked paradox which is right at the edge of meaning – belongs, or would have belonged, to Juan, the watcher. It is the sense of perceiving the actual organic unity of an event (an obsession of Cortazar’s Hopscotch), improbably and yet powerfully grafted on to the old already-too-late moment of horror in Le Fanu’s Carmilla, in which the vampire has left the unobtrusive “mark of consummation” in the guise of two “tiny purple dots”, i.e. the sign that the event has fled. Juan has grasped that he is living inside an allegory. But as they watch, Tell, who is much more conventionally horrified and involved, not seeing the event as, itself, a representation and therefore expecting an action, breaks the spell:

 (…) something that might have had an image and a name, if at that very moment, Tell’s hand had not squeezed his biceps in such a way that was like a starter’s shot exploding the perfect immobility and plunging a crowd of perfectly dry people along the edge of the pool into the water. “Ah, merde,” Juan pronounced morally, knowing at the same time that he had been unable to get to tie up the loose threads as he had been that night in the Polidor restaurant, just as at many other times he had been the victim of a pathetic hope, and that Tell’s hand on his arm was the same as a slightly involuntary alibi now that everything came together again in a passive acceptance that wasn’t too far removed from complicity. (185)

31For Juan, Tell’s hand on his arm has punctured the event and collapsed it into the hell of the quotidian through his own inability to act as paredros and babysit the exceptional any more. This moment of (almost) “complicity” is “a slightly involuntary alibi” which effectively means the end of their relationship, though they haven’t quite realised this – both they and the reader are too busy with the scene in which they are performing the role of witnesses.

32But the delayed action of the Sheridan Le Fanu horror scene keeps on running inertially in front of their eyes, as Frau Marta slowly undresses the girl, preparatory to biting her:

In spite of the apathy, every detail of the ceremony reached them with unbearable and relief and detail, although it was like a perception without reason, without any moral reply; the only human thing really was Tell’s trembling, her fear now as Frau Marta slowly leaned over, as if holding back her pleasure. And then, with an unexpected movement, she brought her hands to the English girl’s waist and began lifting up the pink pajama top, without encountering any shyness or resistance until the bottoms of her breasts were uncovered, and the girl, as if she had been waiting for that moment, so as not to become uselessly fatigued, raised her arms with the gesture of a ballerina and let the article of clothing be removed, letting it drop on the foot of the bed with the precise shape of a lap dog curling up at its mistress’s feet. (186)

33The suspense that has been cancelled by Juan’s awareness of Tell’s hand on his arm is still felt by the tremulous Tell, but the sado-masochistic aspect of the writing, the Gothic “ceremony”, has in fact started undoing itself, falling apart into the arbitrariness of its elements, as Juan suddenly begins to perceive:

There’s something that shouldn’t be the way it is, you can sense it. Don’t be afraid, she won’t bite her. It wasn’t to bite her that she undressed her. She doesn’t even know that herself. Look at her. It’s as if she’d stayed outside of what she was about to do. She’s lost. Look at her.. Take a good look. Look how she turns around to pick up the pajama top and gets it (…) (187)

34Frau Marta has stepped outside the frame of the ritual for a moment and done something “that wasn’t what had to happen” (187). And this is finally linked by Juan to the moment of distraction when he felt Tell’s arm on his when the “event” dissolved:

The throat is till there, naked with its two small marks, but you’ll see that she’s not going to bite her, that everything’s been overturned, that things have taken place in a different way, maybe because of us, because of something I was on the point of understanding and didn’t understand. (187)

35The witnesses have betrayed the strange necessity of the event whose compelling nature, as it moved outside the frame, had to be imagined absolutely by the two of them, - each paredros to the other, - or dissolve. All they can do now is follow Frau Marta, as she, having dressed the girl as awkwardly as “a dead person” (187), follows her out into the night, a procession without a destination.

36This image of a dream-like pursuit of the pursuer, which hovers midway between anti-climax and the beginning of something else - is built out of the collapse of the already-existent, worn-out Gothic “ceremony”, its failure to become an “event”. However, whatever is to transpire at this moment is arrested and abruptly cut with Hélène’s violation of Celia in her bed at the Rue de la Clef. We know that Frau Marta is a “delegation” of Hélène, so the connection between the apparent opposite registers of the dark (the mythic) and the daylight (quotidian) is actually a narrative continuation. In fact, the pastiche Gothic melodrama of the King of Hungary Hotel and the weary quotidian reportage of the event in the Rue de la Clef have changed places. Hélène’s bed is where the horror and darkness reside:

“Aren’t you asleep?” Celia asked absurdly, and her voice sounded as if from far away, still on the beach or by the pool and mixed in with the salt and the heat that couldn’t break away from the hand against her neck, which rather confirmed it now that the fingers had hardened against the base of her throat, and something like a dark wave rose up beside her, blacker than the darkness of the bedroom, and another hand clutched her shoulder. All of Hélène’s body seemed to burst forth beside her. She felt her at the same time on her ankles, her thighs, stuck fast to her flank, and Hélène’s hair lashed her mouth with the marine smell of her dream. She tried to sit up, reject her without violence, persisting in thinking that she was sleeping and dreaming; she felt Hélène’s two hands looking for her throat with fingers that caressed it and hurt it. (188)

37Seen from Celia’s still sleeping and dreaming point of view, the horror is still not quite present. The darkness (“something like a dark wave”) is common to both registers here, and has invaded this quotidian narrative. This later presents itself as an act of sexual violence or erotic frustration on Hélène’s part, rather than a controlled vampiric “ceremony” of sado-masochism; but it looks remarkably to the reader as if the ritual action of Frau Marta has suddenly risen to the surface of this narrative, especially if, as we have been given to understand from Juan, Frau Marta is a delegation of the Countess and the Countess, in her turn, a delegation of Hélène.

38Hélène herself is in fact, as she suspects, unreachable in this process. From her own point of view, she has told Juan the story of the boy on the operating table who “is” him, and thus she has indicated to Juan that she has already killed him. Juan, however, is imprisoned in the perspective of the romantic male; he searches for Hélène in order to “possess” her, in the traditional and entirely deluded fashion that supposes she has “substance” and is therefore a kind of object, and that the narrative in which they find themselves is a linear one with at least an ending. When they finally meet at her apartment, this is what he seeks to do: possess her physically, with what he thinks of as the violence necessary to initiation and conquest, as the symptom of their love. After all, the sorcerer-lover, has he not prompted Tell, at the expense of their relationship, to send Hélène the doll-fetish and is Hélène not doomed in her turn to carry a package towards its destination, which he dreams of as, finally, a meeting with himself?

39Self-delusion. This is Don Juan in Hell. Despite the apparent success of their climactic night of love-making, it is not the scene which Juan thinks it is. For most of that description, the reader is trapped in Juan’s point of view – the projection of the sexually desiring male - which only once during their climactic encounter perceives the truth that Hélène is not “there”, - not the lover his desire fashions her as - and instantly rejects this momentary truth. Hearing her laugh in the shadows, he leaps out of bed and puts on the light. The monstrous details of her strong, resistant, body appear “out of the nothingness”:

The jab of light speared the end of Hélène’s laugh and in her wide-open eyes with dilated pupils Juan saw an expression of primordial evil, of an ignorance that denied her own desire, which was taking refuge now in the hands and legs that knotted themselves round Juan’s body (…) (270)

40The irony suggests here that Juan doesn’t recognise Hélène’s perversity, her casual cruelty, fatalism, and sheer taedium vitae, and her desire to be left alone with or without her own sex, despite the fact that he sees it momentarily here in her eyes. He is too busy being a kind of phallic St George spearing the dragon of “primordial evil”: the Gothic register belongs crucially to him at this point, and produces an irony that hangs like a mist over the graphic clarity of the book’s sexual climax. Like John Donne, Juan believes her body thinks and talks and is disguising the “ignorance” which he must pursue orgasmically to its lair.

41In an earlier conversation soon after he has arrived (244), Juan is completely shocked by Hélène’s indifference to the naked broken doll in her flat. But (locked into her own obsession with her murder of his substitute, the boy on the operating table), she volunteers no information to him about it, and he interprets this reticence as “revenge” on him because it is he who (via Tell) has sent the doll as a love-token. He cannot know that it is he who has thus unknowingly triggered (by a sorcery of chance association, a fetishism of the random coincidence) the sexual attack on Celia. In that conversation Juan doesn’t know what he is saying when, showing off, he casts himself fatally as Actaeon:

“ (…) Do you know what my paredros called me one day? Actaeon. He’s very cultured, you know.”

“I wasn’t the one who undressed it,” Hélène said again, as if she hadn’t heard. (244)

42This looks like a mutual disavowal, but the “as if” of Hélène’s legalistic reply about the doll is also articulated rather ominously here, if seen from Juan’s ignorant point of view. The attendant spirit seems to have conjured up these fatal words on Juan’s part, and the ambiguity of the exchange partly resides in the question whether the phrase “my paredros” here indicates Greek (or French paredre) sense (1) or sense (2): the fiction of a co-adjutor or an attendant spirit (lesser deity). If the first, then it indicates a total responsibility for chance occurrences (legal judgement), if the second, a certain lack of responsibility for things that happen by chance (“a baby-sitter for the extraordinary”).

43But Helen did hear him, as she reveals later, when she makes an apparently frank, brave declaration to him:

“ (…) Who can say whether Diana gave herself to Actaeon or not? but what counts is that afterwards she set her dogs on him and probably enjoyed watching them tear him apart. I’m not Diana, but I feel that in some part of me there are dogs waiting, and I wouldn’t want them to tear you to pieces. Intravenous injections are used now, symbolically, of course, and mythology takes place in a living room where English tobacco is smoked and stories that are also symbolic are told. You kill someone long before you receive him at home and give him whiskey and cry over his death while he offers you his handkerchief. Take me if you want. You can see that I’m not promising you anything, that I’m still the same. If you think you’re stronger, if you imagine you can change me, take me right now. It’s the least I can give you and it’s all I can give you.” (248)

44Hélène, the determinist of chance, both asserts and at the same time denies her self-hating perversity here, throwing down the gauntlet of an indifferent libertine to Juan the romantic worshipper of chance. She has, in her view, already murdered him. But is this a demonic challenge, or a frank statement of her obsession with the murdered boy and the “dark surge of pentothal”? Who seduces whom here? It seems to be both: it is at once a confession and a counsel of despair, which Juan, the seducer, because he cannot understand it, cannot resist. However we read this earlier scene, Hélène has not told him at this point about her betrayal and rape of Celia. When he learns this, despite his “conquest” of her, his climactic seduction of Hélène’s naked body, which is spiced with deceptive erotic violence, and which results in her eloquent surrender, is rendered null and void.

45It is at precisely, at this point, that the Gothic register of the Uncanny returns like a swell of music:

“Why didn’t you tell me about her last night when we came in?”

“We weren’t naked,” Hélène said. “What did you expect, grand confessions in the doorway with gloves still on? Now, yes, we’re really naked, now you know every pore of my skin. All that was left was to go from the doll to Celia. The step’s been taken. It wasn’t easy, although that doesn’t matter now; who knows whether or not I was expecting to find you here ,too, that this was what you wanted, that something in me wanted, too. Now I know that it wasn’t, and then only this was left, telling you the end of it, finishing clean. I love you in some way, but you also had to know that Celia meant the same as you or whatever tomorrow brings, because I’m not entirely here. Something is still somewhere else, and you know that, too.”

“In the Blutgasse,” Juan thought. (273)

46Hélène, unlike Juan, knows she’s a synechdoche: she “is” the Bloody Countess and yet, even as he understands it, he resists the image that closes over her again, determined to keep searching for her, doomed to be unable to catch up with her as she steps down from the streetcar with her package, in the combinatoire of the already running story, the very delegation of the city.

47He leaves her, to search for her. Hélène herself, carrying her parcel, which is getting heavier by the minute with the rottenness that’s inside it, seeking an endlessly expected and repeated rendezvous at a hotel in which she will finally hand it over, is stabbed in the sudden, unfamiliar darkness of what is a different building altogether by Austin, the English lutanist, in revenge for Celia’s betrayal. As she falls, she falls on the package and breaks what’s in it, becoming herself the doll, the doll which she thinks of as “stuffed with filth”:

“Here I am,” Hélène said.

Out of the shadows came Austin, the amateur’s short knife, the clumsy gesture of raising it for the kill. Someone, perhaps a woman, cried out in the bed, one single time. Hélène was unable to tell where it came from, who caused that fire that was opening up full in her chest, but she did manage to hear the blow of the package against the floor, even though she couldn’t hear herself falling onto something that broke under her weight for the second time. Austin bent over to clean the knife on the hem of Hélène’s skirt. Someone cried out again, fleeing through a door in the back of the room. Face up, Hélène’s eyes were open. (278)

48She has been anticipating a meeting with her murdered boy to put an end to her endless walking of the city, but the cry here seems to be Celia’s in her bed, the second cry being followed by Celia’s exit, and when Juan appears, he finds Hélène’s corpse as in a dream, back in her own apartment, like a doll whose eyes open when you lay them down face up:

Juan made a gesture as if shooing a fly a fly from her face. He didn’t have to kneel beside Hélène to spot the package crushed against her body, the cord untying like another trickle of blood (…) (279)

49So much for “coagulation”: vampire blood keeps on flowing. This flat, in which we suddenly finds ourselves, overlooks the north canal, and as Juan goes out and descends to the water, a sinister black barge slips along noiselessly. This is the final Gothic image. Nicole, who is hopelessly in love with Juan is on the barge, and sees him. She holds out her arms to him and looks as if she’s going to throw herself down into the blinding strip of water between the barge and the bank. Wearily, he prepares to throw himself in after her. But then he notices another figure behind her on the deck:

Then he saw the second figure on the barge, the tiny figure of Frau Marta coming up behind Nicole, taking her lovingly by the arm, speaking into her ear, and although from the door it was impossible to make out her words, nothing could have been simpler than to understand what was happening, how Frau Marta was explaining to Nicole the advantages of a quiet and reasonable hotel, how little by little she was taking her away from the deck of the barge and taking her with her to introduce her to the manager of the hotel where they would give her an excellent room on the third floor over-looking the old streets. (280)

50There are just faint signs here, in the tense and the syntax of this totally uncanny, sinister scene (“nothing could have been simpler to understand”), of Juan’s resistance to what he sees, signs which contradict the insidious vampiric seduction the reader takes as Hélène’s, the Bloody Countess’s, victory back in the Blutgasse, now with a fresh, new young girl to prey upon. But as she has put it earlier herself to Juan, closure in this structure is impossible: “Why try to imagine it consecutively, when maybe everything’s been resolved in the city and this is the proof?”

  • 5  The sado-masochistic ceremony of torture and mutilation thus dominates the book as an uncanny repe (...)

51And yet, “try to imagine it consecutively” is exactly what we do, even as we realise we have failed again. The resultant story of atavistic torture and persecution is thus the “privileged horror of the constellation”, despite the author’s prefatory remarks about the purely subjective nature of the reading process.5

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Bibliographie

Boldy, Stephen. The Novels of Julio Cortazar. Cambridge University Press, 1980.

Breton, André. “Limites non frontières du Surréalisme”. Nouvelle Revue Francaise 48: 1 (1937), translated as “Limits not Frontiers of Surrealism”, in Herbert read (ed.), Surréalisme, (London, 1936), 106-11, collected in V. Sage (ed.), The Gothick Novel, (Macmillan: Basingstoke, 1990, pp.112-115.

Cortazar, Julio. “Notes sur le Gothique vu du Rio de la Plata”. Cahiers de l’Herne 34 (November 1978): 357-361.

——. 62A Model; Kit. Trans. Gregory Rabassar (Random House 1972), London: Marion Boyars, 1976.

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Notes

1  See ‘Limites non frontières du Surréalisme’, Nouvelle Revue Française, 48, 1, (1937), translated as ‘Limits not Frontiers of Surréalisme’, in Herbert read (ed.), Surréalisme, (London, 1936), pp.106-11. This extract is collected in V. Sage (ed.), The Gothick Novel, (Macmillan: Basingstoke, 1990, pp.112-115.

2  Here I must declare my indebtedness to the work of Steven Boldy on the Spanish text, who has investigated and annotated many of the allusive patterns and contexts of this novel. See S. Boldy, The Novels of Julio Cortazar, (Cambridge University press, 1980), pp.97-160. The full phrase from which my title is drawn is ‘the privileged horror… of the constellation’, in which this apparently Mallarmean term ‘constellation’ is also possibly an allusion to several contexts in Jung; for an exposition, see Boldy, op.cit., p.116, and note 25, p.206. See also note vii below.

3  Some of this information is supported by a conversation with my colleague Ms Lela Banakas-Agnostopoulou of the University of East Anglia, Norwich. Boldy, interprets the paredros as a form of a ‘collective double’ (which seems promising from a Gothic point of view), and he also goes on to present supporting evidence for the paredros in Cortazar as the superego. (op.cit., pp.105-109). It seems the Rabassa translation, in using the phrase “babysitter for the exceptional” has changed its meaning only for it to become ambiguous in a different way. The problem is: is the “baby-sitter” on the watch to nurse or preserve the exceptional from a quotidian (non-exceptional) point of view? Here is Boldy’s more literal translation of the passage which defines the paredros: ‘an associate entity, a sort of compadre or substitute or baby sitter of the exceptional’. A compadre is either member of the pair formed by the father and godfather of a child, i.e. a substitute father. A baby-sitter obviously fulfils the same role. (Boldy, op.cit., p.105). This evidence seems to fit the notion of the superego. My main point is that the paredros is dialectically presented in the novel partly because it has two different senses (the judge and the attendant spirit) and Boldy does go on to discuss other usages like the playing card metaphor (the joker, for example) for the paredros which seem to fit the notion of an agent rather than a guardian of the “exceptional” whether in events or language. In psychological and moral terms, this can still be a form of displacement, of course.

4 62A Model; Kit, London, Marion Boyars, translated from the Spanish by Gregory Rabassar 1972 (Random House), 1976, 5. All subsequent refs in parentheses to this edition. The novel was first published in Spanish by Editorial Sudamericano Sociedad Anonima in 1968.

5  The sado-masochistic ceremony of torture and mutilation thus dominates the book as an uncanny repetition, apparently outside history. We seem, in fact, to leap over the Second World War altogether, jumping from late nineteenth-century decadence (Sacher-Masoch is referred to) to postwar international bohemian youth (perhaps in the 1960s when the book was published). I wonder, however, about the choice of Vienna. There is, in fact, no direct evidence of anti-semitism as a theme, except for the menacing use of the setting and one passage on p.71, which becomes ambiguous in the historical context of Vienna. Typically, it is parenthetical: “(There, a few yards away, the Blutgasse began, with its unequivocal name, even if it didn’t refer to the countess’s, there one entered a territory of supposed coincidences, of forces that ended by imposing the name of the narrow street diagonally, making it coincide with the one that people must have muttered during the great terror.)” Which ‘great terror’? Erzebet Bathory’s castle was in Csjeth, Hungary. Might this be a historical reference to the post-Anschluss period of Nazism, which ‘coincides’ (even this is protected from referentiality by being a ‘supposed’ coincidence) with the Gothic legend of the Bloody Countess’s persecutions? It seems explicitly to be not simply a reference to the latter. The ‘Blutgasse’ was presumably literally associated at one time with a slaughterhouse. It looks as if a distinction between myth and history is implied here, but that the wanton associations of language (‘Blut’, ‘coagulation’) can then cross instantly in the mind of a reader from one category to another, from legend to mythology, from myth to history, and back, which is very much the technique of this novel.

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Référence électronique

Victor SAGE, « “[T]he privileged horror…of the constellation”: Cortazar’s use of the Gothic in 62: A Model Kit », E-rea [En ligne], 5.2 | 2007, document 5, mis en ligne le 15 octobre 2007, consulté le 26 mars 2017. URL : http://erea.revues.org/134 ; DOI : 10.4000/erea.134

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Victor SAGE

University of East Anglia

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