Dr. Mercedes Juliá presents her latest book
Dr. Mercedes Juliá, professor and chair of Villanova University’s department of modern languages and literatures, presented her recent book on the postmodern historical novel, Las Ruinas del Pasado: Aproximaciones a la Novela Histórica Posmoderna (The Ruins of the Past: Approximations to the Historical Novel in Postmodern Times). She spoke on Sept. 25 in Falvey Memorial Library. In her book, Dr. Juliá examines seven different approaches to the historical novel in postmodern times.
She explained that her interest in the historical novel began about ten years ago, sparked by two books. The first, Metahistory by Hayden White, analyzes the challenges and limits of objectivity for writers of history. Historians, for instance, cannot avoid the influence their personal background and ideologies have on their ability to understand their subject. “History,” Dr. Juliá continued, “is necessarily subjective, and it is closer to fiction than scholars would like to admit.”
The Politics of Postmodernism, by Linda Hutcheon, also influenced Dr. Juliá’s interest in the historical novel. Examining objectivity from a literary perspective, Dr. Juliá explained, Hutcheon asserts that two concerns preoccupy novelists in postmodern times: the writing process itself and also their subject’s cultural context. All novels, therefore, can “be considered metafictional historiography,” meaning that, in the book itself, the author “continually reflects on the process and complexities of writing and in the relation of fiction to reality.”
Comparing history and literature and studying how their relationship has evolved over the centuries, Dr. Juliá continued, makes their current relationship, and roles, difficult to define. She further explained that “we can only know pieces of events” from the past, making it impossible to know the past completely, which is the reason she titled her book The Ruins of the Past.
Since objectivity and a complete knowledge of the past are elusive goals, numerous approaches to the historical novel have developed since the middle of the 20th century, making the study of the historical novel a fascinating challenge. In her book, Dr. Juliá focuses on seven significant forms of the historical novel in postmodern times:
1. Inverting the interests emphasizes previously ignored perspectives and issues. The viewpoints of “poor people, criminals, losers of wars, children, old people and women,” for example, receive attention and the opportunity for expression.
2. Irreverent treatment—What we know about the past is an invention because memory alters our knowledge of it. Therefore, authors sometimes make fun “of history as it is known” and even invent new historical events. By doing so, they hope “to create a better future for mankind, in an ironic context because they are aware of its impossibility.”
3. The study of memory focuses on “the customs and idiosyncrasies of a particular place,” which have been passed down from one generation to the next via the oral tradition. Globalization, unfortunately, has diluted such knowledge as families move away from a region and customs from elsewhere are constantly being introduced.
4. The testimony of people acknowledges that writers from different parts of the world, such as one from a developed country and one from an underdeveloped country, bring distinct writing traditions to their work. Thus, two writers can produce different accounts of the same phenomenon, based on the writing traditions in their countries of origin.
5. The relation between history and poetry explores how poetry contributes to the understanding of history. It may, for instance, reveal hidden emotions.
6. The relation between history and autobiography illustrates how autobiographies “allow us to understand the world in which the author lived.”
7. The relation between present history and past history helps us to understand present situations by examining past events.
As Dr. Juliá concluded her presentation, she invited questions from the audience of University students, staff and faculty. She listened with a caring smile, giving each questioner plenty of time to speak, before responding.
“Why are novelists so fascinated with the past?” asked one audience member. “Are they trying to resolve their own issues?” Dr. Juliá responded, “If you’re not rooted in something, you’re nothing.”
Another person inquired about the professor’s personal motivation for this research. “It’s a challenge, an intellectual challenge, and it is a fascinating subject,” Dr. Julia said and added that she likes “to make the complex simple.” Dr. Juliá’s presentation demonstrated that last point very well.
Contributed by Gerald Dierkes; photograph by Natalie Tomasco. (We gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Dr. Juliá, who provided a printed copy of her remarks.)