Wednesday, December 19, 2012

saints are misunderstood and scorned: uncollected thoughts regarding Don Quixote

I’m almost finished with Cervantes’ Don Quixote, and I have nothing to say to you about it. Why write on a blog about Don Quixote? Who’s going to go read it? Who cares about Cervantes? What can I possibly say about this 400 year-old pair of novels that hasn’t already been said much better by much smarter readers? I don’t know. I will say that, in case anyone’s wondering, the reason this book remains in print after four centuries is because it’s a good book, a book worth reading. As Dwight says, once you read the Quixote, you start to see its influence everywhere. Not that Cervantes invented the picaresque (he was influenced by Apuleius’ The Golden Ass, or at least he stole one of the more colorful incidents and a great deal of the premise from Apuleius), or the satire (I’m sure Cervantes had read some Aristophanes and I think he mentions Horace by name in Don Quixote), or the tale of romantic knights. I’m not going to claim any familiarity with Spanish/European literature around 1600 beyond the Elizabethan playwrights so I can’t say just what Cervantes did, if anything, that was different from his literary predecessors. But when I read Don Quixote, it feels new, somehow. I get the sense that Cervantes was synthesizing his elements into a fresh form. It’s experimental, tentative here and bold over there and the sense of the author’s fun being had is very strong in a great many passages. In the latter parts of Book II, Cervantes starts playing more with the layers of narrative, with commentary cropping up about the marginalia of the original Arab author, who heard the tale from other sources and had his doubts about some of the events, and then there is the layer of commentary from the translator (not Cervantes) of the original Arabic, who has his doubts about some of the events that the Arab author apparently took at face value. There are other cracks in the presumed reality of the narrative, where one of the narrators (we don’t know if it’s Cervantes, the unnamed translator, or the Arab author) informs us that Don Quixote (the fictional character) recanted some of his tales later on, and of course there’s the whole problem of Book I (as well as the unauthorized sequel by a writer other than Cervantes) having been written, published and widely-read during the five minutes of “story time” that occurs between Book I and Book II. There’s not enough time within the narrative for these books to have been written and read, but there they are, a constant presence in Book II. Apparently the counterfeit sequel appeared while Cervantes was writing chapter 59 of his own sequel and he couldn’t resist commenting on it (Don Quixote roundly condemns the counterfeit sequel, of course, and changes his plans at one point merely to make a liar of the non-Cervantes author). Oh, what larks.

Anyway, this is a good book and if you haven’t read it, you should. Book II is much better than Book I, though Book I has all of the famous episodes people associate with Don Quixote de la Mancha (the windmills, the barber, the inn where Quixote gets knighted, etc). Quixote is a pain in the ass and at the end of Book I we’re wondering why Sancho Panza puts up with him and his arrogance, but Book II paints the Knight of the Sad Countenance (for a while calling himself the Knight of the Lions (an allusion to de Troyes le Chevalier au Lion? I don’t know)) in a more sympathetic light: once Quixote’s story is known over Spain, people begin to fabricate “adventures” for him to reinforce the knight’s delusions and to have a laugh at him. After not very long, the “adventures” take on a cruel edge and we’re presented with a story of bear-baiting a madman. He’s mad, yes, but he’s also noble and of good heart and he is in many ways a better man than the sane folk who are humiliating him. Why all this cruelty, I wondered? Why’s Cervantes being such a bastard? Of course it’s because a man like Don Quixote would be laughed at and made a figure of fun, even by those he’s sworn to serve, even by those he admires, even by those he’d die to defend. What’s the point of all this, then? That chivalry is a madness? That people ain’t no good? That saints are misunderstood and scorned? Maybe. I don’t know. Don Quixote de la Mancha is a good book, though. It’s well worth the time, so go read it, whyncha? I’m going to read something more current next, though. Something from this decade, possibly. It could happen.


  1. To further complicate matters, I attempt to reconstruct the authorial timeline of the fictional Don Quixote manuscript:

    The first third of Book I is written by a Spaniard, apparently Miguel Cervantes. He writes until he knows no more of the tale. At some point later on, he discovers a manuscript in Arabic (by (fictional) historian Cid Hamet Benengeli) and pays a man to translate it into Castilian. From that point on, the novel held by the reader is Cervantes' edition of the translation of Benengeli's Arabic original. Got it so far?

    During Book II, however, which is a continuation of the Cervantes edition of the translation of Benengeli, the text itself refers to the widely-read book of Cervantes. So apparently the Arab historian Cid Hamet Benengeli is able to remark about a Castilian translation of his original Arabic manuscript, a translation that is made after he writes his original history. That's some tricky. It's like me talking today about a Hindustani translation of this blog post that will happen a decade from now.

    Is Cervantes making some metafictional comment about the pretense, the artifice, of stories? I don't think so. I think he's just having fun in the realm of the preposterous, hoping his readers will get the jokes.

    Also, I need to re-read James Branch Cabell's "Poictesme" books.

  2. Cervantes saves his best joke for the end: Don Quixote and Sancho Panza meet a character from the counterfeit Don Quixote, Book II, a man who has had adventures with the counterfeit Don Quixote and the counterfeit Sancho Panza! I know: spoilers, but I can't help myself. This was too good. I'm going to miss the Knight of the Sad Countenance.

  3. You are the first person to make me want to read this book, although I've wanted to in the past only because everyone likes it so much. I like the idea that the book feels "new." What other books feel new to you? Woolf always feels new to me. Shakespeare feels new. Murakami feels new. Hemingway, Faulkner...

  4. Yeah, "newness" might become one of my new critical measures!

    Woolf, Shakespeare, Joyce, O'Connor, Hemingway, Chekhov (the plays are amazing and so so new; the stories are more familiar and beloved in style to me), Nabokov (read Pnin and The Defense), Oates, Gordon (Lord of Misrule), Gordimer, Francine Prose, Layne Maheu, Andrea Barrett (read her collection People of the Map). Probably more. Go read Don Quixote, though. It's episodic so you can read other stuff at the same time if you want. Spend six months with Cervantes.

  5. Read Mikhail Bulgakov's Master and Margarita. It's weird and uneven but it's always new to me. And really funny. There's a cat named Behemoth who carries a loaded pistol. It's the novel that really pushed me into writing my own novels.

  6. I'm pretty sure Master and Margarita was the first book you endorsed when I met you. It has always stuck with me. Whenever I go to a used book store I look for it.

  7. While we're on Cervantes, someday try the Exemplary Stories, at least "The Dialogue of the Dogs" and any preface. As you saw, Cervantes had a deft hand with the preface.

  8. Are the Exemplary Stories any good? They get a lot of bad press, as far as I can see. Though not as much bad press as the plays get. Have you looked at any of them? I wouldn't mind spending more time with Cervantes.

    Cervantes would've made a great essayist, I think.

  9. Exemplary Stories are uneven but some spots are wonderful.

    Stephen Marlowe’s The Death and Life of Miguel de Cervantes will be fun for you now that you've read Don Quixote. Marlowe applies a lot of what's in the novel to his fictional autobiography. But there's more, too.

    Not to add to your TBR pile...just file it away for when you see it in a used bookstore!

  10. The one Cervantes play I have read is a period piece, with nothing of the imagination of Calderón de la Barca or Lope de Vega.

    A couple of the Exemplary Stories are romances like those that mar, or, let's see, complicate, the end of Book I of Don Quixote, but others are pretty wild.

  11. "The Curious Tale" in Book I is certainly just padding. I'll keep an eye out for Exemplary Stories and I'll probably pick up any plays I see, just out of curiosity. I can always build more bookshelves, right?

    I'll have a look at the Marlowe book. Fictionalized biography is more honest than straight biography, you know.