- Writing and Heritage in Contemporary Spain: The Imaginary Museum of Literature by Stuart Davis
The study of the forces at play in the formation of the Spanish literary canon has garnered a great deal of critical attention in recent years, as evidenced by publications such as Wadda Ríos Font’s The Canon and the Archive (2004) and Joan L. Brown’s Confronting Our Canons (2010). Professor Stuart Davis’s new book, Writing and Heritage in Contemporary Spain, takes the discussion of Spain’s canon and literary identity into new territory, arguing that the theoretical values and identity politics that sustain Spain’s museological culture are indelibly linked to the textual practices of Spain’s modern and contemporary eras. By examining museums and literature together, Davis seeks to understand the broader role of heritage in recent Spanish culture, as he also unveils the numerous ways in which museums and literature similarly engage with questions of material culture, history, and memorialization.
The first two chapters of Davis’s book, “Presenting the Museum” and “Never-Ending Story: Canon Fever,” offer an exceptionally researched survey of the history of the museum and the literary canon as legitimizing repositories of culture and identity. While this portion of the book offers a valuable “state of the theoretical debate” on these institutions, from their foundational moment in the eighteenth [End Page 228] and nineteenth centuries to the present day, its greatest contribution is found in the way it links the truths and traumas of the museum to those of the archive and the canon. Drawing on André Malraux’s conception of the musée imaginaire, Davis suggests that ultimately the museum, like the canon, lives beyond the limitations of any physical structure, and exists as the negotiation “between cultural products and the heritage practices that shape those products” (6). As a corollary to this argument, Davis investigates the importance of the archive and institutions such as Spain’s Biblioteca Nacional to reveal how these spaces, as much as the museum, seek to identify the past and respond to it, thereby working to define the nation and articulate its heritage.
Each of the subsequent chapters of Writing and Heritage opens with a visit to a Spanish museum or monument, whose memorializing practices are then aligned or sometimes contrasted with those of one or more literary texts. Davis pairs institutions as diverse as the Casa Natal de Cervantes, the Valle de los Caídos, the Museo del Prado, and the Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa with texts that represent some of Spain’s most provocative literary production from the last century. I found the organizing principle of the museum visit at the start of each chapter to be a novel idea, and one that in each case offered an innovative pathway into the critical practices of the literature under study.
Building on rigorous close readings of works by the hyper-canonical novelist, Juan Goytisolo (chapter three), the Uruguayan poet exiled in Spain, Cristina Peri Rossi (chapter four), the young men and women of the Generación X (chapter five), and finally, by Ángeles López, a first-time memoirist writing a tragic civil-war-era family history (Conclusion), Davis offers a sweeping view of how contemporary Spanish literature questions and ultimately assimilates its recent history. Some of Davis’s greatest insights are offered here, as he identifies the combatting forces of preservation and destruction that underpin the creation of Spanish heritage. Through literary passages that reveal “the use of the museum as narrative backdrop to intertextuality, the revoicing of dominant cultural narratives, Hispanic or otherwise, and an ethical imperative” (197), Davis demonstrates how Spanish authors feed a sense of cultural identity among their readers and perpetuate a national heritage. To my mind, chapter four, which forces a dialogue between the Museo del Prado and Peri Rossi’s contestation of the authoritative male artistic gaze, best outlines the functioning of “destructive” narratives in the “re-presentation” of heritage. Chapter five, wherein Davis looks at how the Generación X both reinscribes and questions the value of membership...