Robert Laxalt: A basque who wrote
"I am not a Basque scholar or even a Basque writer; I am just a Basque who writes"
David Río

This is an interview extracted from Newsletter, a publication of the Center for Basque Studies, University of Nevada, Reno.

Our gratitude to David Río and to all who work in the Center for Basque Studies, specially to Jill Berner.

This next interview is publicated here as a homage to Robert Laxalt, who had a good and unceasing relationship with Eusko Ikaskuntza-Basque Studies Society.

Robert LaxaltIn this humble way Robert Laxalt used to define himself whenever asked about his role in the expansion of Basque studies in the United States or about his literary contributions to Basque culture. This extreme humility was one of the features that most struck me about Bob Laxalt when I first interviewed him in the spring of 1995. At that time I was familiar with his impressive literary career and admired him for his imaginative writings on the Basques. In the following years, until our last meeting in September 2000, I had the pleasure to visit Bob almost every summer and to discover his deep humanity. Over time, my admiration for Bob Laxaltīs literary gift was equaled by my high respect for his remarkable human values.

During these long interviews with Bob Laxalt I was primarily interested in his Basque roots and, above all, in his creative writings on the Basques. In considering his work, we cannot forget that Bob Laxalt was not just "a Basque who wrote", but the voice of Basque immigrants in the United States, as exemplified in his masterpiece "Sweet Promised Land" (1957) and in his superb trilogy of the Indart family, which was composed of the novels "The Basque Hotel" (1989), "Child of the Holy Ghost" (1992) and "The Governorís Mansion" (1994). Likewise, he displayed a similar artistic power when portraying the traditional lifestyle of the Basque Country in The land of my fathers...non-fiction books such as "In a Hundred Graves: A Basque Portrait" (1972), "A time We Knew: Images of Yesterday in the Basque Homeland" (1990) or "The Land of My Fathers: A Sonís Return to the Basque Country" (1999), and also in the novella "A Cup of Tea in Pamplona" (1985). In fact, Robert Laxalt may be regarded as the most talented American author writing on the experience of Basques both in America and in Euskal Herria.

In spite of my interest in Laxaltīs impressive achievements as a literary interpreter of the Basques, Bobís characteristic modesty sometimes prevented him from expanding on his writing. I remember that during these long interviews he would tell me from time to time: "Just let my works speak for themselves!". However, it was so interesting to hear about both his Basque roots and his literary production that I evaded his request and we went on talking for hours on these topics. The following passages are an extract from one of our talks of 1995. They summarize both his intimate connection with the land of his ancestors and his literary commitment to offer an honest portrait of the Basques.

-Mr. Laxalt, could you start by describing your Basque roots and the early experience of your family in the United States?
Well, when I went with my father to the Basque Country, back in the 1950s, I was totally surprised, I didnít know anything about the Basque Country, nothing about its history or culture. However, my first language was Basque. My brother Paul and I spoke Basque while we lived on the Basque ranches. But when we moved to Carson City and went to school, none of the other children spoke Basque, so we had to leave it. And it wasnít fashionable to be ethnic. Now. It is, but then it wasnít. So we forgot Basque as quickly as possible.

-When did you start to explore your Basque roots?
When I went with Papa to de Basque Country, I fell in love with the place. I couldnít imagine anybody leaving such a beautiful country. I didnít take any consideration at all because most of them were poor and they had no opportunities there. But I had been raised in the desert, so I was totally in a trance when I arrived there. I couldnít believe it. I was feeling that I had always been there. It was just somewhere in my folk memory. Besides, the people in the Basque Country were beautiful people. I never felt alienated there at all. They were my kind of people: they were strong and forthright. The second time we went there, I missed it so badly that, when we got to Garazi, I cried. I donít cry very easily. I just loved the country.

-When and why did you think that the Basque Country end the experience of Basque immigrants in the United States could attract the interest of the American audience? In Fact, your first book, "Violent Land: tales the Old Timers Tell" (1953), does not deal with this subject.
Oh, no, and itís the same with A Lean Year and Other Stories (1994). Most of those arenít Basque, they are American. It wasnít until Sweet Promised Land that I started my Basque period, but it was difficult to convince publishers in New York that the Basques were something worthy to write about. Publishers only thought about money and market and there werenít many Basques around. So I was discouraged. At first, I couldnít understand why they werenít interested in Basque things. Then, however, as Bill Douglass pointed out, this worked to my advantage because Sweet Promised Land became an immigrant book. It was not particularly a Basque book because I didnít know so much about the Basques. But that book attracted so much attention that it opened up a whole new field and other Basques began to write, and non-Basques began to write, too.

-Do you think that the key factor for the success of "Sweet Promised Land" was the fact that it is not a novel, but a non-fiction story, told in an intimate, personal style?
Sweet promised landI never analyzed why it was successful. It came as a shock to me. I tried for a year to start that book. Finally, when I started to write it, I was ready to give up. I couldnít write it as a novel because something was missing. I think that the poignancy of the trip to the Basque Country moved me very much. I guess that it was a story of discovery for me too, but I never went in that direction because it was my fathers story. Then I said I would try one more time and I took the paper and the typewriter. I wasnít even thinking and I wrote: "My father was a sheepherder and his home was the hills". Then when I wrote that one line and I did realize what Iīd written, I knew that I got the book.

-What was the general reaction of readers toward "Sweet Promised Land"? Can we talk about a more favorable response by the immigrant groups, particularly the Basque community in the United States?
Well, first the critics. There was a massive amounts of reviews. They came here from everywhere, New York Times and others. And then England picked it up. I never expected that. And about the reaction of the Basque-Americans, at first I was apprehensive about my father. But their response was amazing. Other immigrants also liked the book, but the Basque ĖAmericans really loved it.

-You said once, "Itís a very difficult thing to write about the Basques or any other nationality unless youíve seen them in their own land". What was the influence on your work of your different trips to the Basque Country?
I knew the Basques here, but there was always something missing in the Basques that I knew in this country. The cycle wasnít complete. There was something in seeing them on their own land and with their own people, as I could see in my two years over there. I saw their reactions and I saw how differently they reacted here. Here they always seem like other immigrants that react almost as if they didnít belong here. And when you think about it, they donít.

-Most of your books show a positive image of the Basque Country, even an idyllic one, except perhaps "A Cup of Tea in Pamplona" and "Child of the Holy Ghost". Do you agree with this?
Child of the holy ghostOh, I tried to be honest when writing about the Basque Country. Well, Child of the Holy Ghost was written because I was really triggered by what happened to my mother there. I genuinely felt it. I didnít try to portray the village as cruel. I was just the way things were. In a way that was good for me because it gave me objectivity. I could see that there could also be cruelty and then I remembered all those wonderful movies about incidents in England and Ireland and the cruelty of village life. So it worked. And A Cup of Tea in Pamplona was a real thing in the sense that i saw people there being denied an opportunity, poverty...Itís an honest view. I love the Basque Country and the Basque people, but that does not deny me the right to say when theyíre wrong. Otherwise, I couldnít be honest.

-Finally, what do you think about the future of literature about Basques written by the new generation of Basque-Americans?
I canít really predict the future generationsī attitude. More and more the youngest seem to be interested in their heritage. Monique [Laxalt, Robertís daughter], for example, has identity with the Basque people and the Basque Country, and she can write very well. And there are others who might do it for some old, romantic, exotic sense, but on the whole I cannot tell. I canít predict because being in love with ancestors happens in some people and doesnít happen in others. But as long as you have writers like Monique- and she is an honest writer- I guess you can be optimistic about the future.


Robert Laxalt and David Río at Bob's house near Carsan City, Nevada.

David Río is a professor of American Literature at the University of the Basque Country in Vitoria. He wrote foreword to the Spanish edition of "Sweet Promised Land: Dulce Tierra Prometida", recently published in Spain by Ttarttalo.

Author Robert Laxalt, son of Basque immigrants, died March 23 in Reno, Nevada, a t the age of 77. Laxalt had been Director of the University of Nevada Press since its beginning in 1961 until his retirement in 1983, and was instrumental in forming the Center for Basque Studies.

At a memorial service on March 28, former UNR President Joe Crowley called Laxalt "one of Nevadaís greatest authors", and said that "the University was privileged to have him for many years as one of our leading citizens-as creative administrator, a teacher of writing, a lover of books, a friend to students and colleagues". He impressed students in his writing classes with his encouragement and expertise, and his ability to guide them in finding their personal writing style. Many of his internationally acclaimed books were included in the Basque Book Series published by the University of Nevada Press, including "In a Hundred Graves: A Basque Portrait" (1972), "The Basque Hotel" (1989), and "A time We Knew: Images of Yesterday in the Basque Homeland"(1990). "Sweet Promised Land", first published in 1957, established him as an expert on Basque culture and as a spokesperson for Basque Americans.

In 1986, Laxalt was awarded the Tambor de Oro (Golden Drum Award) by the city of San Sebastián, Spain for his contributions to the Basques and spreading their culture. He received many other honors throughout his career, and was twice nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in fiction. He has been lauded for his many contributions to the University and to the state of Nevada.

Robert Laxalt will be greatly missed by all who knew him. Goian bego, Robert.


Photos: John Ries, "Nevada Appeal" and Joyce Laxalt


Euskonews & Media 132.zbk (2001 / 7 / 20-27)


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