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Saturday, September 11, 2010

Have You Ever Read a Novel Out Loud?

It took me two months, but I just finished reading out loud Rayuela [Hopscotch] by Julio Cortázar, one of the most innovative and fun novels I have read in a long time. I have never before read out loud an entire novel, not even my own, and I felt as if I had returned to the days when stories were only communicated orally. I was drawn into the story in a multi-sensorial way which engaged me far more deeply than reading silently would have.

I discuss later why I chose to read out loud this stunning novel, a seminal work in Latin-American literature. First, let me fill in some background. Rayuela was published in 1963 by the Argentine Cortázar. Hopscotch, its translation into English by Gregory Rabassa, won the 1967 U.S. National Book Award.

The novel is an, at times, unruly journey through the life of Horacio Oliveira; first, as a expatriate living in Paris; second, upon his return home to Buenos Aires. It often employs stream of consciousness and is presented in two parts. The first, nearly two-thirds of the book, reads like a normal novel. At the end of each Part 1 chapter, one is directed to a specific section in Part 2, which Cortázar characterizes as expendable. Those selections contribute to the philosophical underpinnings of this unusual novel.

If Rayuela [Hopscotch] had to be read out loud to enjoy it, it would not have achieved its current renown. It has enough experimental technique, brilliant narrative, and spot-on dialogue to stretch one’s literary chops. And I have no doubt that the humor which pervades this novel would still be appreciated. That humor is especially remarkable because Cortázar is actually writing about serious themes like the purpose of life and the nature of consciousness.

That said, I have never laughed so hard while reading a novel as I did while reading Rayuela out loud in Spanish. Indeed, I frequently guffawed. I can’t think of the last literary work which has made me do that. I cannot unread the novel so I can’t say that the humor would have been less had I read it silently or in English. Reviews of this novel often cite its humor so it must be evident even with a silent reading.

Why, though, did I read Rayuela out loud? I tend to scan read. It became clear to me early on that I couldn’t do that with this decidedly nonlinear novel. To force myself to read more carefully, I started reading out loud. Doing so heightened my appreciation of Cortázar’s skill in making one feel uncannily present in a scene. The absurdities often present in normal casual conversation and in life suddenly seemed natural and appropriate. Such was Cortázar's skill with language that I often forgot I was reading and not actually present.

On a personal note, reading Rayuela out loud in Spanish recalled for me the Argentine accent and idiom I remembered from when I lived in Buenos Aires. Indeed, I became amused by how easy it was for my pronunciation and inflection to fall into the distinctive Argentine pattern. I even started drinking mate tea again. On another personal note, I want to acknowledge the masterful review of Rayuela [Hopscotch] by blogger Cuban in London, which prompted me to read the book in the first place.

My delightful experience with reading Rayuela out loud brought home for me that reading fiction works best when the reader is fully engaged in a multi-sensorial way. I hope that I will again make time in the future to read another novel out loud. It was an amazing experience.


Judy Croome said...

I haven't ever read a *whole* novel aloud. I'm about to do so with my own revised novel and am not looking forward to the process.


Brent Robison said...

Reading one's own work-in-progress aloud is an extremely valuable tool for a writer (I should do it more often). I've never tried reading another's work aloud, but the point you make about how it made you slow down and fully inhabit the scenes is SO important. I've often been disappointed to discover that readers of my own work have missed subtleties that I labored to include, because they're moving too fast, skimming the surface rather than going deep. Some have found the subtleties, so I know they're actually there. But the culture we live in pushes fast and shallow, so we should consciously resist that push. Reading aloud is a great way to retrain ourselves.

Mayowa said...

You know what I love about this review and your reading experience of this novel?


There are threads between your experience and the story world and that I think must make the experience richer. Reading aloud is a great sensory bonus too.

I'd probably have to get an audio book to get close to the same auditory experience.

Thank you for your great feedback yesterday, made my day.

Judith Mercado said...

Judy: May your passage through your revised novel be both pleasant and illuminative.

Brent: I agree that reading work-in-progress material is a valuable tool and it's one I have employed in the past. I have not, however, read from start to finish one of my novels without editing it in process. I don't know yet if or how this experience of reading Rayuela will change my editing practice.

Mayowa: Glad to have made your day. With respect to this post, thank you for characterizing the contextual aspect of it. It made me appreciate my own post better.

A Cuban In London said...

The key phrase in your marvellous review is 'multi-sensorial way'. I'd never thought of that but you're right. I'm a mate-drinker, but whilst reading 'Rayuela' my mate adopted a different taste. I could even smell the mate Oliveira brews when he still living in Paris.

Many thanks for the mention. I'm glad you liked it. I have to admit that it's only with age that I've come to appreciate books like 'Rayuela'. When I first read it I was too young, in college (high school) and a lot of the content simply flew over my head.

And you read it aloud. Who would have been a fly on the wall to hear you? :-)

Greetings from London.

Nevine said...

Judy, I have never read a novel out loud. But your description of the awesome fun you had doing it is making me feel like I ought to indulge. The problem is, I'm not sure how to decide with which novel I should enjoy this new experience. I have a few novels that I think might work with this, but now the dilemma is to pick only one.

Reading is such a pleasurable activity as it is, and I have only ever thought to read out loud certain passages from novels where I thought the language was sublime. I do read poetry out loud... in fact, I don't think poetry should be read any other way. But a novel? That will surely be a "novel" experience (no pun intended, but it happened, oh well)!

Thank you for the impassioned description. It is such a treat to read your reading and writing experiences... and to try and ditto some of them, at least.


Sun Singer said...

I read this novel several years after it was translated in English while serving in the Navy. After I read it, several others in the department read it, then started talking about whether anyone in the group knew just what the heck was going on. The structure, unfortunately, is the only thing I remember now, so perhaps I should read it again. Perhaps we should have read it aloud to each other on the ship.


Judith Mercado said...

Cuban, many thanks for suggesting the book. I certainly never intended to read it out loud, but now am thrilled that I did.

Nevine, if you ever do read a novel out loud, I want to hear about it!

Malcolm, I don’t know whether reading it in Spanish and/or out loud made the difference for me. I will say, though, that the so-called expendable Part 2 still has me mystified.

Michelle Davidson Argyle said...

I'm so glad this was a good experience for you! I've read my own novels out loud before, and now it is an essential part of editing for me. It'a an amazing experience!

Judith Mercado said...

Michelle, I always read at least part of a novel-in-progress but never the entire book. And then I usually end up editing along the way. This book was already published so it couldn't be edited! Very freeing. I got to enjoy what was already there. Truly an amazing experience.