Sylvia Molloy's fascinating study of autobiographical writing in Spanish America, At Face Value, takes its subjects at anything but that. Her erudite and yet very readable book focuses on clearly autobiographical texts, but also places them within the context of the appropriate literary landmarks. Thus works with highly autobiographical elements, such as Jorge Isaacs' María, are juxtaposed with those of more pure autobiography, and the resulting insights are profound. [End Page 499]
Molloy divides her study into three parts. Part I, "The Scene of Reading," centers on the role that reading plays in the way her chosen authors invent themselves and their texts. Although Chapter One, "The Reader With the Book in His Hand," has a few minor irritations, it sets forth clearly Molloy's vision of the role of reading in authobiographical texts. Examples of irritations: although this may seem trivial, I object to her use of the masculine possessive in "his hand," particularly since one of the two authors studied in depth is Victoria Ocampo; She begins by relating one of Borges' most predictable stories, "The Gospel According to Mark," (which for some strange reason she never identifies within the text), a tale in which a man reads the Bible aloud to some illiterates who end up crucifying him. She wants to make this stand for Latin America's assimilation of European narrative: "Re-reading and re-writing the European book, this story tells us, can be a sometimes savage, always disquieting experience." It's hard to know why she classifies the Bible as a European book, or what it is about the story that makes her label it "near-perfect." However, even as I differ with her over trivialities, I recognize that this very example I have picked demonstrates that Molloy is always original and provocative, and never reads a work a certain way just because everybody else does. For example, she later provides a brilliant reading of María, a book that today is often dismissed unfairly as romantic drivel. She sees it as, "a legitimating text—not merely of the Romantic sentimental novel, Spanish-American style, but of an ideological posture. . . ." That posture is the conversion of the personal account of loss—here of the family home and of the protagonist's childhood—into a myth with significance for the society at large. Why quarrel with her inventing the verb "to legitimate" instead of using the existent "to legitimize"?—(and to be honest, free-form English is fairly common in the book). Here is incisive thought at work, however expressed.
Part II examines childhood and family ties in four memories of diverse type and authorship, and Part III looks at memory, lineage, and representation.
Molloy's selection of autobiographical texts is fascinating, and ranges from the very well-known, like Sarmiento's Facundo and Vasconcelos' Ulises criollo, to obscure gems like Mis doce primeras años, by the Countess of Merlin, originally written in French, and telling of her early childhood in Cuba. Molloy's innovative readings will delight scholars interested in the role of autobiography in Latin-American literature, but a much broader group could read this book for sheer intellectual pleasure.