I was asked to give a talk to a small reading group this evening. They are reading Don Quixote and for some reason I can’t quite put my finger on, I’ve become known as something of an expert on the subject. Now I’m not really an expert, but I do know a whole lot more about Don Quixote and Cervantes than any reasonable person does.
I agreed to do this a couple of months ago, but now that it is upon me, I’m a little freaked out. The woman running the reading group told me not to worry. They don’t much know anything and it is all relaxed. But I’m not the kind to walk into such an event unprepared. So this is going to serve as my lecture notes. It should be useful for anyone thinking about reading this masterpiece.
Because of the size of what we have come to think of as Don Quixote, the group will have only read Part 1. I was told that many people end up not finishing novels. In a sense, there is nothing wrong with this. I don’t finish Don Quixote a couple of times a week. That’s one of the great things about it. It is episodic, and you can pick it up any day, read a chapter and be satisfied.
But I hope that everyone will read Part 2. Because Don Quixote is not a novel. It is two novels. And those novels are quite distinct. To be honest, I’m kind of bored with Part 1. To me, its greatness is that it laid a foundation for Part 2.
This isn’t to say that Part 1 isn’t great. It’s just that I’ve spent so much time with it. Also, I’m something of an iconoclast and so of course I’m going to move away from the novel that has the the windmill scene in it. But since I mention it, let’s talk about it.
The Windmill Scene
If there is only one thing that people know about Don Quixote, it is the windmill scene. But what is it that we are to take from this scene? I’m afraid that in the popular imagination, there are two characters in it: Don Quixote and the windmill. This is not it at all. If that were all it were, it would be little more than a modern story of a senile man wandering into traffic and getting hit.
The Windmill scene is important because it is the first real scene between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. And it is a scene that the two of them will replay over and over throughout both books, but especially the first. The formula for these scenes are quite simple:
- Don Quixote sees something bizarre (giants)
- Sancho tells him there is no such things (windmills)
- Don Quixote attacks his delusion
- Quixote and Sancho discuss what just happened
In the case of the windmills, as in almost all, Don Quixote will not admit that he was wrong. Instead, it was Freston, Don Quixote’s evil nemesis who turned the giants into windmills thus depriving the great knight of the glory that surely would have been his. (Personally, if you can’t defeat a windmill, I’m not sure you’d do much better with giants. But as we see throughout Part 1, Don Quixote’s insanity goes a long way in helping him.)
My favorite example of this happens sometime later when a most unfortunate barber is riding down the road with his wash basin on his head. Don Quixote mistakes it for Mambrino’s helmet. After gaining the “helmet” and terrifying the barber, Don Quixote first claims that it is what he sees. But eventually, he comes around to seeing things Sancho’s way. Someone must have taken Mambrino’s helmet, melted it down, and turned it into a wash basin.
No one can say that Don Quixote is not clever.
What works really well in Part 1 is how Cervantes takes what seems to be little more than an episodic tale and pulls it all together as we find most of the people who Don Quixote has harmed back together at the end. For example, the farmer boy who Don Quixote “saves,” leaving it to his the farmer to do what is right. At the end, we find that what later happened was exactly what we expected. And the boy begs Don Quixote that should the boy ever be in the worst trouble in the world to leave him alone. There is nothing so horrible that Don Quixote cannot make it worse.
There is also the story arc of Sancho who starts off by believing Don Quixote’s folderol, but slowly learns that the great man is just crazy. This transition is not completed in the Part 1. It takes us until Part 2 for this to become complete, even while Sancho remains as true to Don Quixote as any squire in an Amadís de Gaula book.
I don’t want to say a great deal about Part 2 since you haven’t read it. But I do want to tell you why it improves on Part 1. The first Don Quixote is about a man who has been driven mad by literature. But the novel was a bestseller. And its major conceit is that it is true. Indeed, Cervantes didn’t even write it. He’s just paraphrasing a translation of Hamete Cide, a Muslim historian who wrote about this crazy man. So in Part 2, a number of the people who come upon Don Quixote and Sancho Panza already know them. Indeed, much of the second novel is taken up with the Duke and Duchess who play terrible pranks on our two heroes. Although their actions only makes us admire Don Quixote and Sancho all the more.The Duke and Duchess also set up an “island” for Sancho to become governor where he turns out to be quite a good ruler.
But in Part 2, Cervantes takes his discussion of literature to a new level. In Part 1, characters are affected by literature. In Part 2, literature itself becomes reality. It is a shockingly modern novel. I know of no writer who did anything quite so brilliant for at least 300 years. I usually tell people that while Part 1 was the first modern novel, Part 2 was the first postmodern novel.
So for those of you who have read the first part of Don Quixote, I highly recommend that you pick up part two as a whole new novel — even if it is filled with characters you already know, and hopefully love.
(There was a time when the novels were published as two different books. I wish they still were. Unfortunately, you have to go back rather far. And the only translation I can really recommend that you can find in two volumes in the Putnam translation.)
The First Modern Novel
The reason that most people read Don Quixote today is because it is considered the first modern novel. Unless you are an academic, I think this is a terrible reason for reading it. The reason I first read it — and the reason I continue to read it is that it is a a very funny book. There are a lot of similarities to it and another of my very favorite books, John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. And this is why I recommend that people read the John Rutherford “Penguin Classics” translation of Don Quixote. Rutherford wrings every bit of comedy out of the book. I find I still laugh while reading it.
But it is interesting to consider what it means for Don Quixote to be the first modern novel. After all, weren’t their novels before it? I’ve already mentioned Amadís de Gaula. There were a number of books written about him. But they were different in an important way. They were really no different than The Iliad and The Odyssey — written over 2,000 years earlier. What they all have in common is that they are Romantic.
What I mean by that is that Hector is Hector. He’s the same man at the beginning of The Iliad as he is at the end. (Well, not completely; he’s dead at the end.) But Hector is not a real human; he’s a hero; he doesn’t grow and change. And I’ll go further: do we see much in terms of growth in Shakespeare? It’s always bothered me that Hamlet never does manage to lift his father’s curse. Yes, he kills Claudius, but not for the sake of his father. He does it for the sake of his mother. As far as I’m concerned, Hamlet’s father’s ghost is still roaming the chilly nights of Denmark.
In Don Quixote, the two major characters make enormous changes. That’s especially true of Sancho, who I think is the character that modern readers are most attracted to. He starts as a simple farmer, but one with big aspirations — the only kind of man who could be fooled by Don Quixote’s lunacy. And does he ever live through an odyssey! But by the end of Part 2, he has lived his dream and come to the conclusion that he is happy just being the man he always was.
Yes, I understand: you’ve read that before — many times! But before Don Quixote, you never read that. In the limited sense that you did, you never read it with such richly drawn characters.
There are a number of things that I would change in Don Quixote. In particular, writers since that time have greatly improved structure. Cervantes is no master at telling parallel stories, for example. But apart from this, I don’t see much different from a modern novel and either Don Quixote (but especially the second).
Cervantes: Failed Writer
I want to make a few remarks about Cervantes. We all have an answer to Barbara Walters question, “Who in all of history would you like to interview?” For me, there is no question. I’d probably have more to talk about with David Foster Wallace (because of his interest in math), but Cervantes is who I would most want to spend an evening with. He lived such an interesting life.
He was in the Spanish navy during the Battle of Lepanto, where he was badly wounded, losing the use of his left hand. On his return home, he was captured by Ottoman pirates. Because of a mix-up, they thought he was rich and held him for ransom for five years. During that time, he tried to escape multiple times — one of those attempts was quite elaborate and probably would have succeeded. Unfortunate, Cervantes was ratted out.
After returning to Spain, he spent most of his life as a tax collector. But that probably gives you the wrong idea of the job. Things were different then. Basically, he’d come to a village and say, “The king wants you to pay your taxes.” And so he would spend months negotiating with the town leaders trying to make a deal. The job wasn’t made any easier in that Cervantes had to pay for everything upfront. The King would only pay him (and his expenses) later — sometimes years later.
On at least one occasion, Cervantes found himself in prison for embezzling. But it is more likely that he was just a lousy accountant. Regardless, he managed to make it to the age of 57 when he published Don Quixote Part 1, and his fortunes changed quite a bit. That’s not to say that he hadn’t been writing before that. But nothing was successful. And there was a very good reason for that.
Cervantes always saw himself as a poet. So he wrote lots of plays and lots of poetry and no one really cared. I’m a big believer in reading books all the way through. But if you want to skip the poetry in Don Quixote, I can hardly blame you. He just didn’t have the gift. But he had two gifts that came together spectacularly in Don Quixote: a sense of character and a great wit.
Other things worth reading of his, if you get the chance, are Novelas Ejemplares (“Exemplary Novels”) and Ocho Comedias y Ocho Entremeses. One of my dreams is to translate that collection of 16 plays into English. I’ve only been able to find one of them in English, The Cave of Salamanca. It’s very funny.
It’s hard not to see Cervantes as Sancho: it took him into his late 50s, but finally, he figured out who he was. And the world is so much greater a place as a result.
I plan for this article to be printed out for the members of the readers group, so I expect you be able to see that portrait of Cervantes at the top. Sadly, that is not Cervantes. It is almost certainly a Victorian fake. In the preface to Novelas Ejemplares, Cervantes wrote, “This friend might well have caused my portrait, which the famous Don Juan de Jáuregui would have given him, to be engraved and put in the first page of this book, according to custom.” But the painting clearly states that it was made in 1600, when Jáuregui was just 16 years old. It was clearly meant to be a joke. However, we do know what Cervantes looked like, because he describes himself in that same preface. Part of it, has a special resonance for me: “teeth not much to speak of, for he has but six, in bad condition and worse placed, no two of them corresponding to each other.” Again, undoubtedly comedy. But there is doubtless truth in both claims: Cervantes’ teeth at 66 were probably bad and he probably did know Jáuregui (who would have been almost 30 by that time).
This has already gone on quite a while, so I will end it here. I’ll refer you to the following articles that are of some interest:
- Don Quixote in English Language Translation
- Translation Is Nothing to Be Pedantic About
- Translating Malaprops in Don Quixote
- The Meaning of the Ending of They Might Be Giants
- Lope and Cervantes: the Feud
- Don Quixote Parallel Passages: Part II, Chapter 35
- Carole Slade Saves Tobias Smollett