Dr. Leopoldo Bernucci is Professor of Spanish and Portuguese, and The Russell F. and Jean H. Fiddyment Chair in Latin American Studies at the University of California at Davis. His research interests span Colonial and Modern Latin American Literature from Brazil and Spanish America. He is the editor of the annotated edition of Euclides da Cunha’s Os Sertões in Brazil. Last month we sat to down to discuss his experience teaching the work of João Guimarães Rosa at both Yale University and UC Davis.
Felipe Martinez: Professor, thank you for speaking with me.
Leopoldo Bernucci: It’s my pleasure. I think the A Missing Book project is very interesting and important, and I am happy to contribute in whatever way I can. What is it you would like to discuss?
Felipe Martinez: To begin, I would like to know about your own personal experience with the work of Guimarães Rosa, how you came to be interested in his work, and what your particular areas of research have been.
Leopoldo Bernucci: Yes, well, as a student of literature I completed my B.A. in Brazil, and that was the first time I was exposed to the work of Guimarães Rosa. The way I was exposed was not by reading his works chronologically—I wish I had in those years—but by going straight to Grande Sertão: Veredas. Because, that was the book everyone was talking about. As you know, Brazilians count Grande Sertão: Veredas as the Irish do Ulysses—the greatest book of the twentieth century. Of course I knew Grande Sertão: Veredas was not a very accessible book, though I did not think I was missing too many things when I read the book. However, today, with a different reading knowledge, after so many years of dealing with literature, and teaching literature, I read it in a different way, obviously, and I notice there is a huge gap between my first reading and my reading now. What I’m trying to say is that I don’t think I missed a lot in terms of enjoying the book, grasping the main issues that Guimarães Rosa addresses. The whole of the work he does, on the level of language per se, is what I think I missed in those early years, in my first reading, because obviously I wasn’t doing a very meticulous or very systematic reading of his grammar, of his style, of the way he composes the book. I was mainly focused on the narrative as a story—which is not rare for a young reader—and as a story, I think you can read it, and, true, most people would read it with difficulties, but ultimately end up enjoying it. So that was in the early 70s in Brazil. (I received my B.A. from the University of São Paulo, and there I studied under great people who had written extensively about Guimarães Rosa: Antonio Candido and João Alexandre Barbosa—just to mention two, well known critics and scholars. Candido was one of the first scholars to really produce a first-class critique of Guimarães Rosa’s work.) So the first time I read Grande Sertão: Veredas, I didn’t read with the preoccupation of understanding Guimarães Rosa in his totality. I just read the book, period. I didn’t touch anything else by Guimarães Rosa until I came to the United States in 1978, when I began to pursue my master’s and Ph.D. It was then that I started reading more of Guimarães Rosa’s work. My Ph.D. was not directed to Brazilian Literature, it had more to do with Spanish American Literature. I wrote my dissertation on La Guerra del Fin del Mundo by Mario Vargas Llosa, who was inspired by Os Sertões (The Backlands), by Euclides da Cunha, the sertão, the entire culture of the backlands—which also inspired Guimarães Rosa. So naturally, Guimarães Rosa had to be a point of return for me. I was very pleased when I read Sagarana for the first time, here, in the United States. I read it in Portuguese first, and then in English later. When I left the University of Michigan where I was trained and got my two degrees, I went to teach at Yale, and there I felt that I had to, somehow, teach Guimarães Rosa; I had to expose my students to Guimarães Rosa because, in those years, we’re still talking about the Boom Generation: Rulfo, Vargas Llosa, Fuentes, Donoso…and Guimarães Rosa was very much revered by his Spanish American counterparts. Critics considered him a major part of the group. But right away I noticed that if I was going to teach Guimarães Rosa at the undergraduate level, I was going to face some problems—even with earlier volumes like Sagarana. Just because there’s so much culture stuff there that needs to be contextualized and Guimarães Rosa is so subtle in the way in which he uses the Brazilian Portuguese language—if you do not contextualize, minimally, what’s happening around the story, there will be students who understand, but that understanding would be left only on the surface—which is not a bad reading, but as a teacher, you sometimes feel frustrated and find the need to deepen the level of understanding for your students. And given that it was Yale, I thought it a level that could do well with Guimarães Rosa. So, I grabbed Harriet De Onís’ translation of Sagarana, I selected three to four stories, and I taught them to my students. Then one year I attempted to teach Grande Sertão: Veredas, but I don’t think it was very successful. In large part due to the difficulty and length of the work. It wasn’t the only novel I was teaching. It wasn’t a seminar on Grande Sertão: Veredas alone. The students thought it was great, but I wasn’t so sure the course had produced as successful results as the previous courses in which I’d taught Sagarana.
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