Letter to a Young Lady in Paris (Carta a una señorita en París)
Introduction by Kit Caless.
I wish I could choose multiple Julio Cortázar stories, but I can’t, so I’m selecting my favourite, “Letter to a Young Lady in Paris”.
Cortázar’s language is the thrill in this short story, both in Spanish and in its English translation – he writes poetically, unnervingly, and under-the-skiningly, plus other adverbs.
Cortázar is very matter of fact with his surrealism, initially allowing bunnies to jump out of his protagonist’s mouth without drawing exclamatory attention towards the image. His descriptive language makes the surreal seem real and the real seem surreal, but whatever you believe, you certainly feel. Vomiting up bunnies that go around nibbling things in the house isn’t something I’d ever pictured before reading Cortázar but it’s certainly something I’ll never forget. Some say the story is a comment on repressive politics in Argentina, but that’s never clear, in the most Cortázar way. He’ll always leave it to you to decide what you want to believe.
Letter to a Young Lady in Paris
Andrea, I didn’t want to come live in your apartment in the calle Suipacha. Not so much because of the bunnies, but rather that it offends me to intrude on a compact order, built even to the finest nets of air, networks that in your environment conserve the music in the lavender, the heavy fluff of the powder puff in the talcum, the play between the violin and the viola in Ravel’s quartet. It hurts me to come into an ambience where someone who lives beautifully has arranged everything like a visible affirmation of her soul, here the books (Spanish on one side, French and English on the other), the large green cushions there, the crystal ashtray that looks like a soap-bubble that’s been cut open on this exact spot on the little table, and always a perfume, a sound, a sprouting of plants, a photograph of the dead friend, the ritual of tea trays and sugar tongs … Ah, dear Andrea, how difficult it is to stand counter to, yet to accept with perfect submission of one’s whole being, the elaborate order that a woman establishes in her own gracious flat. How much at fault one feels taking a small metal tray and putting it at the far end of the table, setting it there simply because one has brought one’s English dictionaries and it’s at this end, within easy reach of the hand, that they ought to be. To move that tray is the equivalent of an unexpected horrible crimson in the middle of one of Ozenfant’s painterly cadences, as if suddenly the strings of all the double basses snapped at the same time with the same dreadful whiplash at the most hushed instant in a Mozart symphony. Moving that tray alters the play of relationships in the whole house, of each object with another, of each moment of their soul with the soul of the house and its absent inhabitant. And I cannot bring my fingers close to a book, hardly change a lamp’s cone of light, open the piano bench, without feeling a rivalry and offense swinging before my eyes like a flock of sparrows.
You know why I came to your house, to your peaceful living room scooped out of the noonday light. Everything looks so natural, as always when one does not know the truth. You’ve gone off to Paris, I am left with the apartment in the calle Suipacha, we draw up a simple and satisfactory plan convenient to us both both until September brings you back again to Buenos Aires and I amble off to some other house where perhaps… but I’m not writing you for that reason, I was sending this letter to you because of the rabbits, it seems only fair to let you know; and because I like to write letters, and maybe too because it’s raining.
I moved last Thursday in a haze overlaid by weariness, at five in the afternoon. I’ve closed so many suitcases in my life, I’ve passed so many hours preparing luggage that never manages to get moved anyplace, that Thursday was a day full of shadows and straps, because when I look at valise straps it’s as though I were seeing shadows, as though they were parts of a whip that flogs me in some indirect way, very subtly and horribly. But I packed the bags, let your maid know I was coming to move in. I was going up in the elevator and just between the first and second floors I felt that I was going to vomit up a little rabbit. I have never described this to you before, not so much, I don’t think, from lack of truthfulness as that, just naturally, one is not going to explain to people at large that from time to time one vomits up a small rabbit. Always I have managed to be alone when it happens, guarding the fact much as we guard so many of our private acts, evidences of our physical selves which happen to us in total privacy. Don’t reproach me for it, Andrea, don’t blame me. Once in a while it happens that I vomit up a bunny. It’s no reason not to live in whatever house, it’s not reason for one to blush and isolate oneself and to walk around keeping one’s mouth shut.
When I feel that I’m going to bring up a rabbit, I put two fingers in my mouth like an open pincer, and I wait to feel the lukewarm fluff rise in my throat like the effervescence in sal hepatica. It’s all swift and clean, passes in the briefest instant. I remove the fingers from my mouth and in them, held fast by the ears, a small white rabbit, only ever white and very thoroughly a rabbit.
I set it in the palm of my hand, I smooth the fluff, caressing it with two fingers; the bunny seems satisfied with having been born and waggles and pushes its muzzle against my skin, with that quiet and tickling nibble of a rabbit’s mouth against the skin of the hand. He’s looking for something to eat, and then (I’m talking about when this happened at my house on the outskirts) I take him with me out to the balcony and set him down in the big flowerpot among the clover that I’ve grown there with this in mind. The bunny raises his ears as high as they can go, surrounds a tender clover leaf with a quick little wheeling motion of his snout, and I know that I can leave him there now and go on my way for a time, lead a life not very different from people who buy their rabbits at farmhouses.
Between the first and second floors, then, Andrea, like an omen of what my life in your house was going to be, I realized that I was going to vomit a rabbit. At that point I was afraid (or was it surprise? No, perhaps fear of the same surprise) because, before leaving my house, only two days before, I’d vomited a bunny and so was safe for a month, five weeks, maybe six with a little luck. Now, look, I’d resolved the problem perfectly. I grew clover on the balcony of my other house, vomited a bunny, put it in the clover and at the end of a month, when I suspected that any moment… then I made a present of the rabbit, already grown enough, to señora de Molina, who believed I had a hobby and was quiet about it. In another flowerpot tender and propitious clover was already growing, I awaited without concern the morning when the tickling sensation of fluff rising obstructed my throat, and the little rabbit reiterated from that hour the life and habits of its predecessor. Habits, Andrea, are concrete forms of rhythm, are that portion of rhythm which helps to keep us alive. Vomiting bunnies wasn’t so terrible once one had gotten into the unvarying cycle, into the method. You will want to know why all this work, why all that clover and señora de Molina. It would have been easier to kill the little thing right away and… Ah, you should vomit one up all by yourself, take it in two fingers and set it in your opened hand, still attached to yourself by the act itself, by the indefinable aura of its proximity, barely now broken away. A month puts a lot of things at a distance; a month is size, long fur, long leaps, ferocious eyes, an absolute difference. Andrea, a month is a rabbit, it really makes a real rabbit; but in the maiden moment, the warm bustling fleece covering an inalienable presence… like a poem in its first minutes, “fruit of an Idumean night” as much as one as oneself… and afterwards not so much one, so distant and isolated in its flat white world the size of a letter.
With all that, I decided to kill the rabbit almost as soon as it was born. I was going to live at your place for four months: four, perhaps with luck three tablespoonfuls of alcohol down its throat. (Do you know pity permits you to kill a small rabbit instantly by giving it a tablespoon of alcohol to drink? Its flesh tastes better afterward, they say, however, I… Three or four tablespoonfuls of alcohol, then the bathroom or a package to put in the rubbish.)
Rising past the third floor, the rabbit was moving in the palm of my hand. Sara was waiting upstairs to help me get the valises in… Could I explain that it was a whim? Something about passing a pet store? I wrapped the tiny creature in my handkerchief, put him into my overcoat pocket, leaving the overcoat unbuttoned so as not to squeeze him. He barely budged. His miniscule consciousness would be revealing important facts: that life is a movement upward with a final click, and is also a low ceiling, white and smelling of lavender, enveloping you in the bottom of a warm pit.
Sara saw nothing, she was too fascinated with the arduous problem of adjusting her sense of order to my valise-and-footlocker, my papers and my peevishness at her elaborate explanations in which the words “for example” occurred with distressing frequency. I could hardly get the bathroom door closed; to kill it now. A delicate area of heat surrounded the handkerchief, the little rabbit was extremely white and, I think, prettier than the others. He wasn’t looking at me, he just hopped about and was being content, which was even worse than looking at me. I shut him in the empty medicine chest and went on unpacking, disoriented but not unhappy, not feeling guilty, not soaping up my hands to get off the feel of a final convulsion.
I realized that I could not kill him. But that same night I vomited a black bunny. And two days later another white one. And on the fourth night a tiny grey one.
You must love the handsome wardrobe in your bedroom, with its great door that opens so generously, its empty shelves awaiting my clothes. Now I have them in there. Inside there. True, it seems impossible; not even Sara would believe it. That Sara did not suspect anything, was the result of my continuous preoccupation with a task that takes over my days and nights with the single minded crash of the portcullis falling, and I go about hardened inside, calcined like that starfish you’ve put above the bathtub, and at every bath I take it seems all at once to swell with salt and whiplashes of sun and great rumbles of profundity.
They sleep during the day. There are ten of them. During the day they sleep. With the door closed, the wardrobe is a diurnal night for them alone, where they sleep out their night in a sedate obedience. When I leave for work I take the bedroom keys with me. Sara must think that I mistrust her honesty and looks at me doubtfully, every morning she looks as though she’s about to say something to me, but in the end she remains silent and I am that much happier. (When she straightens up the bedroom between nine and ten, I make noise in the living room, put on a Benny Carter record which fills the whole apartment, and as Sara is a saetas and pasodobles fan, the wardrobe seems to be silent, and for the most part is, because for the rabbits it’s night still and repose is the order of the day.)
Their day begins an hour after supper when Sara brings in the tray with the delicate tinkling of the sugar tongs, wishes me good night – yes, she wishes me, Andrea, the most ironic thing is that she wishes me good night – shuts herself in her room, and promptly I’m by myself, alone with the closed-up wardrobe, alone with my obligation and my melancholy.
I let them out, they hop agilely to the party in the living room, sniffing briskly at the clover hidden in my pockets which makes ephemeral lacy patterns on the carpet which they alter, remove, finish up in a minute. They eat well, quietly and correctly; until that moment I have nothing to say, I just watch them from the sofa, a useless book in my hand – I who wanted to read all of Giraudoux, Andrea, and López’s Argentine history that you keep on the lower shelf – and they eat up the clover.
There are ten. Almost all of them white. They lift their warm heads toward the lamps in the living room, the three motionless suns of their day; they love the light because their night has neither moon nor sun nor stars nor streetlamps. They gaze at their triple sun and are content. That’s when they hop about on the carpet, into the chairs, then tiny blotches shift like a moving constellation from one part to another, while I’d like to see them quiet, see them at my feet and being quiet – somewhat the dream of any god, Andrea, a dream the gods never see fulfilled – something quite different from wriggling in behind the portrait of Miguel de Unamuno, then off to the pale green urn, over into the dark hollow of the writing desk, always fewer than ten, always six or eight and I asking myself where the two are that are missing, and what if Sara should get up for some reason, and the presidency of Rivadavia which is what I want to read in López’s history.
Andrea, I don’t know how I stand up under it. You remember that I came to your place for some rest. It’s not my fault if I vomit a bunny from time to time, if this moving changed me inside as well – not nominalism, it’s not magic either, it’s just that things cannot alter like that all at once, sometimes things reverse themselves brutally and when you expect the slap on the right cheek. Like that, Andrea, or some other way, but always like that.
It’s night while I’m writing you. It’s three in the afternoon, but I’m writing to you during their night. They sleep during the day. What a relief this office is! Filled with shouts, commands, Royal typewriters, vice presidents and mimeograph machines! What a relief, what peace, what horror, Andrea! They’re calling me to the telephone now. It was some friends upset about my monasterial nights, Luis inviting me out for a stroll or Jorge insisting – he’s bought a ticket for me for this concert. I hardly dare to say no to them, I invent long and ineffectual stories about my poor health, I’m behind in the translations, any evasion possible. And when I get back home and am in the elevator – that stretch between the first and second floors – night after night, hopelessly, I formulate the vain hope that really it isn’t true.
I’m doing the best I can to see that they don’t break your things. They’ve nibbled away a little at the books on the lowest shelf, you’ll find the backs repasted, which I did so that Sara wouldn’t notice it. That lamp with the porcelain belly full of butterflies and old cowboys, do you like that very much? The crack where the piece was broken out barely shows, I spent a whole night doing it with a special cement that they sold me in an English shop – you know the English stores have the best cements – and now I sit beside it so that one of them can’t reach it again with its paws (it’s almost lovely to see how they like to stand on their hind legs, nostalgia for that so distant humanity, perhaps an imitation of their god walking about and looking at them darkly; besides which, you will have observed – when you were a baby, perhaps – that you can put a bunny in the corner against the wall like a punishment, and he’ll stand there, paws against the wall and very quiet, for hours and hours).
At 5 A.M. (I slept a little stretched out on the green sofa, waking up at every velvety-soft dash, every slightest clink) I put them in the wardrobe and do the cleaning up. That way Sara always finds everything in order, although at times I’ve noticed a restrained astonishment, a stopping to look at some object, a slight discoloration in the carpet, and again the desire to ask me something, but then I’m whistling Franck’s Symphonic Variations in a way that always prevents her. How can I tell you about it, Andrea, the minute mishaps of this soundless and vegetal dawn, half-asleep on what staggered path picking up butt-ends of clover, individual leaves, white hunks of fur, falling against the furniture, crazy from lack of sleep, and I’m behind in my Gide, Troyat I haven’t gotten to translating, and my reply to a distant young lady who will be asking herself already if… why go on with all this, why go on with this letter I keep trying to write between telephone calls and interviews.
Andrea, dear Andrea, my consolation is that there are ten of them and no more. It’s been fifteen days since I held the last bunny in the palm of my hand, since then nothing, only the ten of them with me, their diurnal night and growing, ugly already and getting long hair, adolescents now and full of urgent needs and crazy whims, leaping on top of the bust of Antinoös (it is Antinoös, isn’t it, that boy who looks blindly?) or losing themselves in the living room where their movements make resounding thumps, so much so that I ought to chase them out of there for fear that Sara will hear them and appear before me in a fright and probably in her nightgown – it would have to be like that with Sara, she’d be in her nightgown – and then… Only ten, think of that little happiness I have in the middle of it all, the growing calm with which, on my return home, I cut past the rigid ceilings of the first and second floors.
I was interrupted because I had to attend a committee meeting. I’m continuing the letter here at your house, Andrea, under the soundless grey light of another dawn. Is it really the next day, Andrea? A bit of white on the page will be all you’ll have to represent the bridge, hardly a period on a page between yesterday’s letter and today’s. How to tell you that in the interval everything has gone smash? Where you see that simple period, I hear the circling belt of water break the dam in its fury, this side of the paper for me, this side of my letter to you I can’t write with the same calm I was sitting in when I had to put it aside to go to the committee meeting. Wrapped in their cube of night, sleeping without a worry in the world, eleven bunnies; perhaps even now, but no, not now – In the elevator then, or coming into the building; it’s not important now where, if the when is now, if it can happen in any now of those that are left to me.
Enough now, I’ve written this because it’s important to me to let you know that I was not at all that responsible for the unavoidable and helpless destruction of your home. I’ll leave this letter here for you, it would be indecent if the mailman should deliver it some fine clear morning in Paris. last night I turned the books on the second shelf in the other direction; they were already reaching that high, standing up on their hind legs or jumping, they gnawed off the backs to sharpen their teeth – not that they were hungry, they had all the clover I had bought for them, I store it in the drawers of the writing desk. They tore the curtains, the coverings on the easy chairs, the edge of Augusto Torres’ self portrait, they got fluff all over the rug and besides they yipped, there’s no word for it, they stood in a circle under the light of the lamp, in a circle as though they were adoring me, and suddenly they were yipping, they were crying like I never believed rabbits could cry.
I tried in vain to pick up all the hair that was ruining the rug, to smooth out the edges of the fabric they’d chewed on, to shut them up again in the wardrobe. Day is coming, maybe Sara’s getting up early. It’s almost queer, I’m not disturbed so much about Sara. It’s almost queer, I’m not disturbed to see them gamboling about looking for something to play with. I’m not so much to blame, you’ll see when you get here that I’ve repaired a lot of the things that were broken with the cement I bought in the English shop, I did what I could to keep from being a nuisance… As far as I’m concerned, going from ten to eleven is like an unbridgeable chasm. You understand: ten was fine, with a wardrobe, clover and hope, so many things could happen for the better. But not with eleven, because to say eleven is already to say twelve for sure, and Andrea, twelve would be thirteen. So now it’s dawn and a cold solitude in which happiness ends, reminiscences, you and perhaps a good deal more. This balcony over the street is filled with dawn, the first sounds of the city waking. I don’t think it will be difficult to pick up eleven small rabbits splattered over the pavement, perhaps they won’t even be noticed, people will be too occupied with the other body, it would be more proper to remove it quickly before the early students pass through on their way to school.
Kit Caless is the publisher of Influx Press.