Barry McNamara  |   Published October 07, 2021

From Nothing to Something

Monmouth professor Israel Rolon-Barada played key role in bringing Spanish author Carmen Laforet’s works back to light.

MONMOUTH, Ill. – In 1987, Monmouth College literature and language professor Israel Rolon-Barada had a magical moment. While pursuing his master’s degree at Georgetown University, he attended a talk given by Spanish author Carmen Laforet. The event would change the course of his academic life and Laforet’s literary legacy.

ISRAEL ROLON-BARADA: Monmouth professor met Spanish author Carmen Laforet in 1987. ISRAEL ROLON-BARADA: Monmouth professor met Spanish author Carmen Laforet in 1987.“It was a Friday afternoon in April,” said Rolon-Barada, who joined Monmouth’s faculty last fall after teaching at several major universities. “She was the author of one of the classic novels of the 20th century – Nada, which means ‘nothing.’ I thought, ‘Let’s see what this lady has to say.’ She was so impressive, this distinguished visitor who had come all the way from Spain.”

More than 40 years earlier, Laforet had her own magical moment, as Nada, her debut novel written when she was in her early 20s, received tremendous critical acclaim, winning the inaugural Premio Nadal prize for Spanish literature, an impressive honor any year, but even more so for a female author during that time in Franco-ruled Spain.

“She was a pioneer in a lot of aspects,” said Rolon-Barada, who noted that many call Nada her “masterpiece.”

A Spanish Salinger

The success of Laforet’s first novel was not unlike what J.D. Salinger would experience roughly a decade later with A Catcher in the Rye, and the similarities between the authors do not end there. Like Salinger, Laforet, who would’ve turned 100 in September, chose to seek refuge from fame, rather than bask in its glory.

CARMEN LAFORET: When she was in her early 20s, Spanish author wrote Nada, what many c... CARMEN LAFORET: When she was in her early 20s, Spanish author wrote "Nada," what many critics consider to be her masterpiece.“She turned into kind of a Salinger,” said Rolon-Barada of the American author, who became reclusive and published less frequently. “The very same thing happened to Laforet. … She’d prefer to be out of the public eye. Writing letters became not only her pastime, but her favorite genre of writing, her life.”

Many of those letters were sent to California professor and prolific Spanish author Ramon Sender, who Laforet met on one of her six trips to the United States. The first of those trips was by invitation of the U.S. State Department. Distinguished American scholar Roberta Johnson, who has been Rolon-Barada’s mentor for many years, coordinated the other five trips.

Eventually, though, even writing letters dried up for Laforet, who died in 2004.

“She was sick the last 10 years of her life – no writing and, eventually, no speaking,” said Rolon-Barada. “She said she couldn’t even look at a piece of paper or a pen. She said ‘I have the sickness.’ She called it ‘graphophobia,’ a phobia of writing.”

And that’s where the Monmouth professor again enters the scene.

“I wanted to do my dissertation on Carmen Laforet,” said Rolon-Barada, who completed his doctorate in Spanish literature and theory in 2008 at the University of Málaga in Spain. “I wanted to bring back that magic moment of meeting her at Georgetown,” and of another magical moment he had later that year, traveling to Barcelona and reading Nada right in the area of the city where much of the novel’s action takes place.

“I was on the actual street (Aribau) where it was set, as I was reading it. I was fascinated by it. It was so real.”

Back on the literary map

As Rolon-Barada did his dissertation research, he realized that with the exception of Nada, Laforet’s other novels – including La Mujer Nueva (The New Woman), which he considers her best work – were out of print.

As an undergraduate student, Rolon-Barada studied marketing. As he considered the state of Laforet’s works, he thought to himself, “This is a marketing case.”

He approached the Spanish publishing house Ediciones Destino – the same company that sponsored the Premio Nadal and which previously printed Laforet’s works but had stopped. He asked for that to change.

NEW EDITION: One of the books that Rolon-Barada helped bring back to print was La Mujer Nue... NEW EDITION: One of the books that Rolon-Barada helped bring back to print was "La Mujer Nueva," which the Monmouth professor considers to be her best work.Perhaps inspired by his moxie, “They told me, ‘Sure, why not? You have a point. … Let’s re-edit everything by Carmen Laforet.’ I was really lucky, don’t you think?” said Rolon-Barada, who edited and published four of her novels, including La Mujer Nueva.

Rolon-Barada’s persistence has not only brought Laforet’s literary works back into the public eye, but he’s also personally collected many of her letters, either in their original form or copies. His pursuit began with Laforet’s correspondence with Sender and grew to include many others.

Along with another professor, Anna Caballe, Rolon-Barada authored “the” biography of Laforet, a comprehensive volume based in large part on the 500-some letters he collected. The prize-winning Carmen Laforet: Una Mujer en Fuga (A Woman on the Run) is now in its fourth edition.

A WOMAN ON THE RUN: Rolon-Barada has co-authored a comprehensive biography of Laforet, now in its... A WOMAN ON THE RUN: Rolon-Barada has co-authored a comprehensive biography of Laforet, now in its fourth edition.Laforet wrote her last novel in 1963, and she’s been gone for 17 years, but Rolon-Barada has helped put her back on the literary map. He was interviewed for an article about her around the time of the centennial of her birth last month. Titled “To the Rescue of the Writer Carmen Laforet,” the article appeared in El Nuevo Dia (The New Day), the largest newspaper in Puerto Rico.

“I put her books back on the shelf,” said Rolon-Barada. “I did well for her. I feel very satisfied.”

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