Thursday, June 4, 2009

The Reading List: "Don Quixote"


Back in my teaching days, one of my students once turned an analysis of an African novel which seemed to have a singularly spare plot. I was intrigued by this novel in which so little seemed to have happened, and decided to read it myself. This turned out to be too bad for the student, for I soon realized that his entire analysis was based on the first five or six pages.

I was reminded of this incident while reading Don Quixote because everything I knew about this well-known cultural icon turns out to happen in the first 60 pages of the 939 page book. The madness from having read too many chivalric romances, the scruffy horse, the scruffy squire, the bit with the windmills -- all of this happens right off the bat. Indeed, the episode of the windmills is of no particular importance in the novel; it is just one of numerous misadventures that befall our hapless hero, and by no means one of the more remarkable ones. It makes me wonder if its cultural promenance comes from dramatic or cinematic adaptations, or from its suitability for metaphor (tilting at windmills and all that), or just from the collective memories of several generations of people who only read the first few chapters.

What we now regard as the novel Don Quixote is really two books, the original and its sequel. The two are quite different. The original is highly episodic, following the hapless night as he staggers from one adventure to the next. Quixote imposes his delusions on everything he sees. Since he generally responds by unseathing his sword and charging bravely into the teeth of danger, he is a terror to anyone he comes across minding their own business in the fields or along the roads. Since his valor generally exceeds his skill at arms, though, he takes at least as good as he gets. Throughout both books, he regularly gets the crap (and the teeth) beaten out of him. The first book is also notable for long digressions, in the form of long speeches from people that Quixote and Panza meet along the way and of whole novellas, completely unrelated to the main plot, that they discover and read in their entirety.

The sequel was written after the original became something of a Rennaissance best-seller and after the publication of an unauthorized sequel by another writer. It is as quirky and self-referential as any post-modern novel, tracing the adventures of Don Quixote in a world where everyone has read the first book and knows all about Don Quixote. Since everyone is delighted to meet the literary celebrity and wants to play along with his madness, he is further confirmed in his delusions, and the nature of reality gets ever more complex. Meanwhile, Cervantes misses no opportunity to attack the unauthorized sequel or to respond to criticisms of the first book, all within the fictional world of the novel. It is weird and fairly marvelous stuff.

Don Quixote is often held up as the first real novel. Not having much of a grounding in the other literature of the period, I can't evaluate that claim. It is, however, fairly awe-inspiring how much of what it is easy to think of as "modern sophistication" Cervantes packed into books that were published in 1605 and 1615. By imagining the effects of his knight's simple but well-intentioned morality in real-world situations, Cervantes implicitly comments on simplistic rules-based moral codes in general. He continually puts Quixote and Sancho Panza in scenarios where they have different perspectives on what is true, or encounter minor characters who have emerged from a given situation with two different stories of it. His treatment of women is almost unbelievably sympathetic for his age, and in the episode of the shepardess Marcela in Chapter XIV of Book One he all but anticipates feminist deconstruction of traditional courtship behavior.

Still, this is clearly a book from a few centuries back. The first book, in particular, is far more episodic than would be considered acceptable in a standard modern novel. It is also rather more blunt in its exposition; we are never made to infer Don Quixote's madness from his behavior, for instance, because Cervantes tells us right up front that he is mad. There's a running gag in which Sancho Panza is always piling proverbs on top of each other, which is pretty good, but unlike Cervantes a modern novelist probably wouldn't feel the need to point out the joke every few chapters. There is also a layer of cultural difference that is difficult to penetrate, although Edith Grossman's translation (more about which in a future post) does a great job of rendering the Spanish wordplay and social context as transparent as possible through judicious footnoting. Still, throughout the second book there are all manner of people who play practical jokes on Quixote, egging him on in his insanity. I read these portions completely unsure whether I was supposed to be appalled, or thinking the jokes were jolly fun, or if I was supposed to be exactly as unsure as I was. Puzzling.


Plot: A gentleman farmer, having read too many books about chivalric knights, decides that he will become one himself. In acting in the fashion of the heros of that kind of literature, he gets himself and everyone he meets into all manner of trouble.

It is a peculiarity of Don Quixote that it can be read as sheer parodic comedy, but also as the most poignant of tragedies -- that of a good man whose moral code exposes him to defeat, humilation, and obscurity. As for myself, the book is enough of a historical artifact that I neither wept for the brave knight's misfortunes nor laughed out loud at Sancho Panza's antics. But, I found that the book retains its power to move and to amuse, which is not bad at all 404 years on.

6 comments:

Elaine said...

I don't know whether to feel sorry for you or admire you! I read a large chunk of this (with copious footnotes--in particular the lengthy explication of Rosinante's name sticks in memory)without feeling at all enriched. The entertaining picaresque nature of the tales did not make up for the hard work of plowing through them....

Serendipity said...

DQ was one of the books I read for my comp exams, and I really enjoyed it, but I probably would have enjoyed it more had I not read it in two very long days. (I had a schedule to keep, y'know.)

I always like it when you tackle discussing a classic like this--you mediate well between the big picture and your personal experience. It's like you were designed to write general introductions!

Gratuitous connection: I can never think of Don Quixote without thinking of Charlotte Lennox's The Female Quixote, which is on my (re-)reading list for the summer...

Nichim said...

I love what you say about Don Quixote and how you say it. I'm really looking forward to reading this translation when I get done with my current slog through the Spanish. I just have it sitting at the table to read while eating or drinking tea, though, so it might be a while. I'm on page 140 or so of 1000+.

andrea said...

As a Spanish person I must say I feel a little bit ashamed that I have never read this. Not even the chapter we had to read and summarize in School when I was 14. My mum did that for me.

boo said...

Coincidentally this is on my summer reading list as well. I have read so many excerpts and I may have actually read the book once, but I never seems to get all the references to it and that irritated me enough this year to order it on audio for walks.

I love going into it with this in my head already.

MJ said...

Glad to know you enjoyed it. I must confess i only read the 1st part, i'm ashamed. Especially because it was one of the best surprises i had in secondary school. It is a surprisingly modern book. You've made me want to read the 2nd part. Maybe this year...