Teaching Faulkner and the Spanish American Novel 
Deborah Cohn, Indiana University

In an age of NAFTA and globalization, it is easy to think of the Americas as a unit, linked by economics, politics, and cultural exchanges.  The current interest in academia in inter-American studies reflects the growing importance attributed to relations between the North, Central, and South American nations.  This interest is, however, fairly recent—and, in the case of literary studies, it has been a long time in coming.  For many years, departments of Spanish and Portuguese have struggled to expand the traditional definition of “America” (used interchangeably with “the U.S.” in common parlance) and of “American” literature to include the Latin American nations and their cultural production.  Over the years, some university administrators have even prevented authors such as William Faulkner and Henry James from being taught in inter-American literature courses alongside of Spanish American authors because they did not consider the latter to be “American” enough.  And yet, U.S. literature has long played an extremely important role in the development of Spanish American literature—so much so that, to a certain extent, Latin Americanists must also be comparatists by trade. 

 

The work of writers such as John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, and Faulkner (in addition to that of European writers such as James Joyce, Franz Kafka, Marcel Proust, and Virginia Woolf) had a profound influence on Spanish American writers starting in the late 1930s.  At this time, a group of writers including Victoria Ocampo, Adolfo Bioy Casares, Jorge Luis Borges, among others, founded Sur [South], which for many years was the premiere journal in Spanish America.  As John King details, Sur sought to open the region up to new cultural currents from Europe and North America (see Sur:  A Study of the Argentine Literary Journal). The widespread dissemination of modernist works throughout Spanish America owes much to this journal, for writers such as Faulkner, Joyce, and Woolf, as well as numerous philosophers and critics, appeared in Spanish for the first time here. The gradual rejection of realism also had its roots here, as did the adoption of more modern and experimental stylistics by authors such as José Donoso, Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel García Márquez, and Mario Vargas Llosa, who brought Spanish American literature into the international limelight in the 1960s with the movement known as the “Boom.”

 

From this period until the present day, the Boom writers mentioned above, as well as numerous others, have expressed their debt to and deep admiration for Faulkner. While much has been written about the influence of modernism on Spanish American literature,[1] and while authors have long professed their literary debt to Hemingway, Joyce, Woolf, and others, it is Faulkner who has been invoked as a model most frequently over the years, and who continues, even now, to be the object of homages.  The strength of his legacy is due both to the liberating influence of his style and techniques and to the fact that Spanish American writers saw in the experiences of the South—e.g., war, marginalization, underdevelopment, poverty, post-plantation societies, the decline of a social order, and racism—a history similar to that of their own region.[2] 

 

Faulkner and Spanish American Literature:  The Development of a Syllabus

Over the past few years, as interest has grown and institutional obstacles have been overcome, it has become possible to discuss such commonalities of “American” experience, as well as Faulkner’s legacy to Spanish American literature, in courses on the literature of the Americas.  In 1997, I decided to move my research interests into the classroom, and developed a graduate course entitled “The ‘new narrative,’[3] the Boom, and their Stylistic Influences,” which I taught, in Spanish, in the Hispanic Studies Department at McGill University.  In order to give the students an overview of the development of Spanish American fiction in the twentieth century (the necessary backdrop for studies of Faulkner’s influence), the course began with Don Segundo Sombra, by Ricardo Güiraldes, which is one of the best-known novelas de la tierra, or novels of the land, a regionalist genre that dominated Spanish American fiction during the 1920s and 1930s.  This genre represented, essentially, the mode and style that authors starting to write in the late 1930s and afterwards claimed to be writing against:  they saw realism as stylistically bland, limited, and limiting, as well as outdated, especially in comparison with the experimental stylistics of modernist fiction, which journals such as Sur were then beginning to disseminate.  The novel of the land was also rejected because it was seen as foregrounding each nation’s local characteristics and problems at a time when intellectuals sought to move away from the cultural nationalism that dominated the region and, instead, to cultivate a pan-Spanish American consciousness and identity.  For representative works of modernist fiction, the students read Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! We then read works by José Donoso (Coronation), Carlos Fuentes (The Death of Artemio Cruz), Gabriel García Márquez (Leaf Storm and The Autumn of the Patriarch), Juan Rulfo (Pedro Páramo), and Mario Vargas Llosa (The Cubs).

 

I originally designed the course (or at least, so I thought) as an exploration of the use of modernist techniques and themes by the Spanish American authors.  It was not until I revised the course two years later that I realized the extent to which the course had, in fact, focused on the development of Faulknerian paradigms: narrative perspectivism and challenges to historiography; foundational narratives that revolve around patriarchs who are both founder and emblem of the prevailing order, whose relationships to the members of the community determine their position within it, and whose deaths parallel the end of the historical era; historical backdrops of civil war, cycles of boom and bust, and the changing of orders; and conclusions that hinge upon the death of the patriarch or family through whom national history is allegorized, signaling either the downfall of the way of life with which they were coextensive or, occasionally, its continuity.[4]  Since the course was now to be taught at the undergraduate level, I needed to remove a number of readings from the syllabus in order to lessen the workload.  This apparently simple act soon led me to revise my understanding of the course and its focus.  Time constraints forced me to eliminate Don Segundo Sombra and one of the modernist novels. I originally planned to remove Absalom from the course and focus primarily on To the Lighthouse. I would, however, include “A Rose for Emily,” so that the students could gain some familiarity—however limited—with Faulkner’s work and, even more importantly, because this story had a set of stylistic and thematic elements that appears in The Cubs and The Death of Artemio Cruz, as well as in Juan Carlos Onetti’s “La novia robada” [The Purloined Bride], which I added to the syllabus that year. These elements include:  1) a protagonist who has been emotionally paralyzed by a traumatic event in the past and who stays, emotionally, in that moment, ignoring the passage of time in the world around her; and 2) the alternation of a third- and a first-person-plural narrative voice, which serves to underscore the character’s relationship to her community.

 

I planned to add Rosario Ferré’s Sweet Diamond Dust (1988) at the end of the syllabus as an example of the continuity of Faulkner’s legacy over time, but with significant modifications, most notably the perspective of an author who sought to revise history and society from the perspective of women and blacks and to challenge the “truths” of the “white” patriarchy.  I found Sweet Diamond Dust to be especially interesting because Ferré herself translated the original work, Maldito amor, introducing additional Faulknerian themes and motifs into a story that already exhibited minor parallels with Absalom.  Both the Spanish and the translated versions of the novel, for example, feature family houses built by French architects; characters who are ultimately revealed to have “black blood” but are initially described as being of Spanish origin; characters named Eulalia (extremely uncommon in Spanish American literature); marriages that are arranged as financial transactions in exchange for services rendered; and incestuous relationships.  Both, additionally, are narrated from several conflicting points of view, challenging traditional views of historiography even as their subject is the rise and fall of the plantation owner whose life encapsulates the history of the region. In the denouement of Sweet Diamond Dust, however, Ferré introduces a miscegenation subplot, twinning anew the motifs that dominate Absalom, but treating miscegenation as a positive factor rather than a threat.[5]

 

While Ferré alludes to other works by Faulkner elsewhere, Sweet Diamond Dust, her most Faulknerian work in both theme and structure (and the conjunction of both), invokes only Absalom. When I revised the syllabus, it became clear to me that there was no point in including Sweet Diamond Dust without also reading Absalom.  More importantly, I realized at this point just how much was to be lost from the course as a whole by removing Absalom from the syllabus.  Faulkner’s novel essentially frames it, giving it a coherence rooted in several paradigms that go far beyond the novel’s modernist characteristics, as noted above.  Each of these elements is at the core of Pedro Páramo, Leaf Storm, The Death of Artemio Cruz, One Hundred Years of Solitude, and The Autumn of the Patriarch, and I realized the extent to which the course was far more a study of Faulkner and Spanish American literature than of modernism and the same field.  In the end, then, I had to remove To the Lighthouse from the syllabus, leaving Absalom and adding “A Rose for Emily.”

 

Modernism and Sentence Structure

While this course is concerned with Faulkner’s thematic influence on Boom literature, I introduce the students to a number of the aforementioned issues with an exercise, entitled “Interiorized Discourse and Sentence Structure,” that focuses primarily on his—and modernists’ in general—stylistics.  On a handout, I place the following quotes, as follows:

1.  Don Segundo Sombra:  The brutal deed that I had witnessed sent me into deep thought.  That a man as calm and happy as Antenor had seen himself obliged first to fight, then to kill, was truly frightening to me.  Is one the owner of nothing of one’s own self, then?  An unexpected encounter has the capability of presenting itself like that, as destiny, and destroy one’s way of life? (284; translation mine)

 

2.  To the Lighthouse:  The gruff murmur, irregularly broken by the taking out of pipes and the putting in of pipes which had kept on assuring her, though she could not hear what was said (as she sat in the window which opened on the terrace), that the men were happily talking; this sound, which had lasted now half an hour and had taken its place soothingly in the scale of sounds pressing on top of her, such as the tap of balls upon bats, the sharp, sudden bark now and then, “How’s that?  How’s that?” of the children playing cricket, had ceased; so that the monotonous fall of the waves on the beach, which for the most part beat a measured and soothing tattoo to her thoughts and seemed consolingly to repeat over and over again as she sat with the children the words of some old cradle song, murmured by nature, “I am guarding you-I am your support,” but at other times suddenly and unexpectedly, especially when her mind raised itself slightly from the task actually in hand, had no such kindly meaning, but like a ghostly roll of drums remorselessly beat the measure of life, made one think of the destruction of the island and its engulfment in the sea, and warned her whose day had slipped past in one quick doing after another that it was all ephemeral as a rainbow-this sound which had been obscured and concealed under the other sounds suddenly thundered hollow in her ears and made her look up with an impulse of terror. (27)

 

3.  Absalom:  It was Shreve speaking, though save for the slight difference which the intervening degrees of latitude had inculcated in them (differences not in tone or pitch but of turns of phrase and usage of words), it might have been either of them and was in a sense both:  both thinking as one, the voice which happened to be speaking the thought only the thinking become audible, vocal; the two of them creating between them, out of the rag-tag and bob-ends of old tales and talking, people who perhaps had never existed at all anywhere, who, shadows, were shadows not of flesh and blood which had lived and died but shadows in turn of what were (to one of them at least, to Shreve) shades too, quiet as the visible murmur of their vaporizing breath. (303)

 

4.  Leaf Storm:  But the new movement is frustrated, my father comes into the room and the two times are reconciled, the two halves become adjusted, consolidate, and Señora Rebeca’s clock realizes that it’s been caught between the child’s parsimony and the widow’s impatience, and then it yawns, confused, dives into the prodigious quiet of the moment and comes out afterward dripping with liquid time, with exact and rectified time, and it leans forward and says with ceremonious dignity:  “It’s exactly two forty-seven.”  (77; translation mine)

 

Except for the first quote, each of these is, technically, a single sentence (and only one of many possible examples in each book).  The students are also referred to García Márquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch, which spoofs Faulkner’s desire to condense “everything into one sentence - not only the present but the whole past on which it depends and which keeps overtaking the present” (qtd. in Cowley, 115), in the many sentences that run on for pages, literally encompassing the events of numerous centuries, and, in particular, in the final chapter, some seventy pages long, which consists of a single sentence and which narrates the rise and fall of the empire, beginning and ending with the death of the patriarch who was considered immortal, and whose reign was thought to be eternal (Cohn, “’The Paralysis of the Instant’” 73 fn.11). 

 

Each of these quotes represents a moment of interiorization and introspection.  The quote from Don Segundo Sombra is from the novel’s climax, where the protagonist has witnessed a brutal deed that causes him to contemplate the nature of humanity.  Despite the complexity of the ideas that he is considering, however, his vocabulary and, much more importantly, grammar, are extremely basic:  each thought is expressed simply, and in a single sentence.  (I should note that this is one of the more complex passages in the novel.)  The contrast between this passage and the other sample sentences is striking:  in the latter, the writers move back and forth between focalized and exterior perspectives; interior and exterior time; past and present; and also between the description of perceptions and emotions on the one hand and actions on the other.  Spanish American authors found this flexibility extremely attractive, and it lies at the heart of the transition from realism to modern narrative.  Such stylistic pyrotechnics are by no means, of course, exclusive to or the sole legacy of Faulkner.  It was, however, precisely this symbiosis of form and content, of modernism on the one hand and, on the other, the depiction of a world with many similarities to the experiences of the Spanish American nations, that both facilitated and furthered Faulkner’s influence on writers from the region.



[1] For general studies of Faulkner’s influence on Spanish American literature, consult works by: Deborah Cohn, Tanya Fayen, Mark Frisch, and Jacques Pothier.  For studies of his influence on specific authors, consult works by: Jean Bessière, John Christie, Florence Delay and Jacqueline de Labriolle, Wendy Faris, George Handley, Alfred MacAdam, Jean O’Bryan-Knight, Harley Oberhelman, J.P. Shapiro, Patricia Drechsel Tobin, and Lois Parkinson Zamora.  For studies of the influence of Joyce, Woolf, and modernism in general on Spanish American literature, see works by:  Alexander Coleman, Robin Fiddian, Gerald Martin. (Consult bibliography for full references.)  And, of course, Mark Frisch published “Teaching One Hundred Years of Solitude with The Sound and the Fury” in this newsletter (issue 9 [Spring 1996]:  2-5).

[2] I have discussed these issues in greater detail in “Faulkner and Spanish America” and History and Memory in the Two Souths (see especially chapter 1).

[3] The ‘new narrative,’ or la nueva narrativa, was the experimental movement that preceded the Boom in the 1950s.

[4] I discuss these paradigms in greater depth in “Faulkner and Spanish America.”

[5] I discuss Ferré’s revisions further in the conclusion of History and Memory in the Two Souths.

 


Works Cited

 

Bessière, Jean. “Carlos Fuentes Vis-à-Vis William Faulkner:  Novel, Tragedy, History.” The Faulkner Journal 11.1-2 (Fall-Spring 1995-1996):  33-42.

 

Christie, John. “Fathers and Virgins:  García Márquez’s Faulknerian Chronicle of a Death Foretold.” Latin American Literary Review  21.41 (1993):  21-29.

 

Cohn, Deborah.  History and Memory in the Two Souths:  Recent Southern and Spanish American Fiction, Vanderbilt University Press, 1999.

---.  "'The Paralysis of the Instant':  The Stagnation of History and the Stylistic Suspension of Time in Gabriel García Márquez's La hojarasca." College Literature 24.2 (June 1999):  59-78.

---.  “Faulkner and Spanish America:  Then and Now.”   Faulkner and the Twenty-First Century.    Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha, 2000. Eds. Robert Hamblin and Ann Abadie.  Jackson, MS:  UP of Mississippi (forthcoming).

 

Coleman, Alexander.    “Bloomsbury in Aracataca: The Ghost of Virginia Woolf.”  World Literature Today 59.4 (Autumn 1985):  543-49.

 

Cowley, Malcolm.  The Faulkner-Cowley File:  Letters & Memories, 1944-62   NY:  The Viking Press, 1966.

 

Delay, Florence, and Jacqueline de Labriolle.  “Márquez:  est-il le Faulkner colombien?” Revue de Litterature Comparée 47 (1973):  88-123.

 

Faris, Wendy. “Marking Space, Charting Time: Text and Territory in Faulkner’s ‘The Bear’ and Carpentier’s Los pasos perdidos.” Do the Americas Have a Common Literature?  Ed. Gustavo Pérez Firmat.  Durham: Duke University Press, 1990. 243–65.

 

Faulkner, William.  Absalom, Absalom! NY:  Vintage Books, 1972 [1936].

 

Fayen, Tanya. In Search of the Latin American Faulkner. Lanham, MD:  University Press of America, 1995.

 

Fiddian, Robin.  James Joyce and Spanish-American Fiction: A Study of the Origins and Transmission of Literary Influence.”  Bulletin of Hispanic Studies 66.1 (January 1989): 23-39.

 

Frisch, Mark. “Self-Definition and Redefinition in New World Literature: William Faulkner and the Hispanic American Novel.” Crítica Hispánica 12.1-2 (1990): 115–31.

 

García Márquez, Gabriel.  La hojarasca.  Barcelona:  Bruguera, 1986 [1955].

 

Güiraldes, Ricardo.  Don Segundo Sombra.  Ed. Sara Parkinson de Saz.  Madrid:  Ediciones Cátedra, 1995 [1926].

 

Handley, George.  Postslavery Literatures in the Americas:  Family Portraits in Black and White.  Charlottesville:  University of Virginia Press, 2000.

 

King, John.  Sur:  A Study of the Argentine Literary Journal and its Role in the Development of a Culture 1931-1970.  Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1986.

 

MacAdam, Alfred. “Carlos Fuentes: The Burden of History.” World Literature Today 57.4 (1983): 558–63.

 

Martin, Gerald.  Journeys Through the Labyrinth:  Latin American Literature in the Twentieth Century.  London:  Verso, 1989.

---.  James Joyce and Spanish American Fiction.”  Estudos Anglo-Americanos 7-8 (1983-1984):  106-30.

 

O’Bryan-Knight, Jean. “From Spinster to Eunuch: William Faulkner’s ‘A Rose for Emily’ and Mario Vargas Llosa’s Los cachorros.” Comparative Literature Studies 34.4 (1997):  328-47.

 

Oberhelman, Harley. “García Márquez and the American South.” Chasqui 5.1 (November 1975): 29–38.

---.  The Presence of Faulkner in the Writings of García Márquez. Graduate Studies No. 22.  Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 1980.

---.  “William Faulkner and Gabriel García Márquez: Two Nobel Laureates.” Critical Essays on Gabriel García Márquez.  Ed. George McMurray.  Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987. 67–79.

 

Pothier, Jacques. “Voices from the South, Voices of the Souths:  Faulkner, García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, Borges.” The Faulkner Journal 11.1-2 (Fall/Spring 1995-96):  101-18. 

 

Shapiro, J.P. “‘Une histoire contée par un idiot …’ (W. Faulkner et J. Rulfo).” Revue de Litterature Comparée 53 (1979): 338–47.

 

Tobin, Patricia Drechsel. Time and the Novel: The Genealogical Imperative. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978.

 

Woolf, Virginia.  To the Lighthouse.  New York:  Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1955 [1927].

 

Zamora, Lois Parkinson. The Usable Past: The Imagination of History in Recent Fiction of the Americas. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

---.  Writing the Apocalypse:  Historical Vision in Contemporary U.S. and Latin American Fiction. Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1989.

 


Appendix:  
Books included in course on Faulkner and Spanish America

 

Regionalist novels

Güiraldes, Ricardo.  Don Segundo Sombra

 

Modernist works

Faulkner, William.  “A Rose for Emily” and Absalom, Absalom!

Woolf, Virginia.  To the Lighthouse, “Modern Fiction”

 

Spanish American works

Donoso, José.  Coronation

Ferré, Rosario.  Sweet Diamond Dust

Fuentes, Carlos.  The Death of  Artemio Cruz

García Márquez, Gabriel. 

            Leaf Storm 

            The Autumn of the Patriarch

Onetti, Juan Carlos.  “La novia robada” [The Purloined Bride]

Rulfo, Juan.  Pedro Páramo 

Vargas Llosa, Mario.  The Cubs