Monday, November 26, 2012

Of the Unexampled and Unheard-Of Adventure Which Was Achieved by the Valiant Don Quixote of La Mancha With Less Peril Than Any Ever Achieved by Any Famous Knight In the World

I am reading Don Quixote, the best-selling 1605 novel by Miguel de Cervantes Saavadra. Don Quixote is the national epic of Spain, considered by many to be the first proper modern novel, a parody of the epic tales of knights errant and a picaresque novel of Spain on the verge of the Renaissance. While reading Qixote I can't help but think of Jose Maria de Eca de Quieros' novel The Illustrious House of Ramires, Benito Perez Galdos' Fortunata and Jacinta and of course Apuleius' The Golden Ass. Part of that has to do with subject matter, but mostly I am reminded of the comic tone of those three novels, which are all connected with the Quixote in one way or another. One also can't help but to think of Borges' many mentions of Cervantes in his own short stories. All of which is another way of saying that Don Quixote is a fine book and I'm enjoying the heck out of it. I'm about 200 pages in (I'm reading J.M. Cohen's 1950 Penguin Classics translation which tips the scales at 940-some pages) and Cervantes' joke has yet to wear thin, which is a pretty good sign.

This is a book I know through allusions in other books, and through excerpts I've read here and there over the years. I've had it on my shelf for a while now, one of those books I look at and tell myself that I'll read it later, having as I do plenty of time to catch up on the classics after I finish the last five volumes of Chekhov and read those final dozen Shakespeare plays (I've avoided the "history" plays all my life but at some point I'll get to them) and then there is all that Nabokov I haven't touched and reams of Dickens and Dostoyevsky and God knows what else. But having read Fortunata and Jacinta, I was put in the mood to finally face Senor Cervantes. I like to have a long book for the winter months (after Don Quixote I'm re-reading Ulysses and after that it's some Walter Scott and then, possibly, a re-read of Moby-Dick; some shorter novels will likely find their way into the spaces between those big books) but mostly, I guess, it was just time for me to read Don Quixote.

It's a rewarding read, and laugh-out-loud funny. A lot of the social commentary is obvious at this historical distance, and Quixote himself isn't such a charmer (one feels oneself drawn onto Sancho Panza's side as he replies, to Don Quixote's exhortation to keep a secret until after that good knight's death, that "I swear to hold my tongue about it till the end of your worship's days, and God grant I may be able to let it out tomorrow.") but the story is imaginative and swiftly-moving. The chapter where the local priest and the barber go through Quixote's library, deciding which books to burn and which to keep, is quite fine. The battle between the herds of sheep is also very good, as is the chapter describing Quixote's victory over the fulling hammers. I had no idea what a fulling hammer was (it's part of a weaving machine--an automatic loom, that is) but the incident is quite clever on Cervantes' part, with Quixote stepping out of the darkness to confront technology and finding no place for knightly action. That's a major theme of the book, nicely encapsulated in a single episode. 280 years later, Flaubert will build the whole of Madame Bovary out of just such thematically illustrative episodes.


  1. This is impressive. After Fortunata and Jacinta I vowed never to read a long book again. I suppose I will break that vow sometime.

    Strictly speaking, The Poem of the Cid is the national epic of Spain. Don Quixote is more like, I don't know, a religious text, as per Miguel de Unamuno's Our Lord Don Quixote.

  2. Oh, that's right: El Cid. I'll read that one day, too. I've heard of Unamuno but can't connect his name to anything in particular.

    The postman just delivered Our Friend Manso, the Galdos novel A Common Reader is currently blogging about. That's for sometime in 2013, I guess.

    Every reader's lament: the more I read, the longer my "to be read" list grows.

  3. One of my touchstones, and I'm seeing it everywhere now.

    As far as Unamuno goes, read Manso first, then Mist. Yeah, I'm adding to your TBR list (although it's a quick read), but you'll enjoy tracing the tie-ins from Cervantes through Galdos to Unamuno. And then... nah... I won't do that to you...

  4. This is a wonderful post that opens up the book to me some. I've never gotten very far in my past attempts, and I tend to blame the fact that I buy cheap copies with really small font because I'm not willing to really make the commitment.

    I need to get better at writing thematically illustrative episodes. Should I stop embracing chaos?

  5. Dwight, I'm also seeing the Quixote in everything. But you stay away from my "TBR" list, darn it. You and Tom at WE are killing me.

    Davin, Don Quixote is a wonderful read. It's actually pretty brisk, too (and my edition comes with a list of chapters you can skip, though I'm ignoring that list and reading straight through). Like I say, it's a comedy though there's plenty of violence and sadness to make it human.

    I have been thinking about your embrace of chaos, and wondering if you should force yourself to write a more structurally-unified novel. Then again, maybe not. Mona is thematically unified and the action is unified through repetition and similarity and the timeline is fractured so that everything sort of happens at once. So I don't know. But behind all of that is, I think, a standard three-act movement. I can't say if that's a strength or a weakness, so I don't know what to say about chaos' warm embrace. Sometimes I think you'd find it easier to write long-form fiction if you leaned on narrative form, but then I also think that might be the coward's way out, and you'd be disappointed in the work. I don't know. Maybe you can have both, though. Maybe you need the structure for the chaos to strain against?