"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

June 12, 2012

Don Quixote (Book Review, Classical Literature)

The Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes (first published in 1605; part two in 1615) has undergone the sad fate of so many classical novels: everyone has heard about the book and more or less knows what it is about (it has after all given us expressions like "tilting at windmills" and "Quixotic"), so nobody reads it. On top of that, those who have read it did so when children, which means they only know this great book in a shortened, infantilized and badly translated version.

Especially in the case of Don Quixote that is a shame. This is a first-rate masterwork and the first truly modern, psychological novel. Moreover, it is a story about a protagonist in the progress of losing his illusions and what is the history of modern literature other than a history of coping with "lost illusions?"

Here are some crucial points why this is such a great book (see Wikipedia when you need a full summary of the novel):
  • The Quixote is the classical reflexive parody: the adventures of a mad geriatric "hidalgo," a lover of chivalric literature, who sets forth to realize the purely literary ideal of the "wandering knight." Parody is everywhere, for part 2 of the novel parodies part 1 - here Don Quixote has become a famous man thanks to the publication of the first part of the novel about him! In Part 2, Cervantes also incorporates and reacts to criticism made of Part 1, and deals in a comical way with an apocryphal second part published by a rival author.
  • Don Quixote is very similar to today's otaku and fans of anime and manga, who like our mad hero are "passionate obsessives" engaging in "cosplay" or costumed role play - this is exactly what Don Quixote does when he dresses up like a knight without being one (he is just a member of the petty gentry), and rides around the countryside on his old nag, in full armor and with lance in hand. The only difference is that Don Quixote is not inspired by Sailor Moon, but by Amadis de Gaula and the Arthurian legends of the Round Table.
  • Obsession is something of all times, and can lead to real problems, as when Don Quixote in his delusion attacks others and commits crimes. He is punished by reality with such severe, repeated beatings that Nabokov characterized the novel as "an encyclopedia of cruelty."
  • On the other hand, we all to a certain degree need illusions - we can not live without dreams, just as Don Quixote dies when his illusions are broken. 
  • The Quixote is the start of the "self-conscious" genre in fiction, which continues with Fielding and Sterne in England and Diderot in France, and sees its greatest flourishing in the twentieth century with such authors as Queneau, Borges, Nabokov, Calvino, Pyncheon and Fowles. [The "self-conscious" genre is the opposite of the "illusion of reality" genre, where the author steps back and pretends that the story is a faithful imitation of reality.] 
  • In this genre, writers systematically show-off their artifice and reflexively engage their own procedures and techniques. It is an anti-illusionist art that makes us aware of the author and that finds its sources in the tradition itself. The artist does not imitate nature but other texts. Parody is therefore - as indicated above - an important device. In our novel, the most interesting moment in this respect comes at the end of Chapter Eight, when Cervantes suddenly claims to have run out of text just at the moment that Don Quixote is engaged in a fierce sword battle, leaving him frozen in time with his sword in the air (in Chapter Nine he "finds" the continuation of the story).
  • Cervantes was one of the first professional authors who tried to make a living from their writings. This meant a decrease in social class of authors but it was accompanied by a rise in invention and importance of the author (the higher classes only slavishly imitated older literature). By the way, Cervantes was a contemporary of Shakespeare - both died on almost the same day in 1616.
  • The world of The Quixote was a complex, multi-cultural world. Cervantes gives a realistic description of the Spain of around 1600: a well-ordered, modern state with a strong police force (as Don Quixote will notice) projecting its power to its colonies in South America but with a ruling house that was gradually weakening. As it was only a century after 1492, when the last Muslim state on Iberian soil had been conquered, there was also still a certain Muslim influence felt; and Spain also clashed with the "Moors" in the Mediterranean and North-Africa - Cervantes himself was captured by Algerian corsairs and spent five years in their captivity. In the novel, the story of Don Quixote is ironically attributed to an Arabic source. 
  • Finally, interesting is the multi-perspectivism in the novel: the writer speaks the truth but also engages multiple perspectives and opinions about that truth. In the novel, there even seem to be multiple perspectives within each individual, making them conflictive beings.
Don Quixote was already translated into English in 1612 and became an international bestseller. There are more than 12 English translations. Which is the best one? When you read the novel on the internet, you have no choice for the only edition available is the one by John Ormsby from 1885. This is an honest translation, with no things left out or added, and it has become the basis for various 20th century reworkings. It is, however rather stiff, and all those "thous" and "dosts" get rather boring. (The same is true for the Jervas translation that went before it, in 1742, and which forms the basis for the Oxford Classics edition). Moreover, these "Puritan" translations don't manage to bring out the fun of the original. That problem has finally been addressed in our century, with translations in truly modern English by John Rutherford (in Penguin Classics) and Edit Grossman (Ecco/Harper Collins). I started with the Ormsby version (also because the Librivox audio recordings are based on that version), but soon switched to the Penguin Classic translation by Rutherford, which I found very stimulating.

The Penguin translation also has the advantage of a foreword by Cervantes and Spanish literature scholar Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria of Yale University - and interestingly, on the Yale channel at Youtube, there is a long series of lectures by Professor Gonzalez about the Quixote, which I can warmly recommend - they greatly enhanced the understanding of the novel for me. Start here:

And now start reading the novel...

My assessment of the important points of the novel in the above was helped by Robert Stam, Literature through Film; Realism, Magic, and the Art of Adaptation (Blackwell Publishing, 2005).