Don Quixote, by Miguel De Cervantes and translated by Edith Grossman, the first volume
How do you write about a book widely considered as being the first modern novel, the first novel in the sense in which we use that word today? A book thought by many, some of whom have even read it, as one of the greatest ever written? Well, the same way as any other I guess. Nothing kills literature faster than treating it with respect.
Emma of bookaroundthecorner has mentioned in the past having a mental category of daunting books. If ever a book fit that category, it’s Ulysses. And perhaps Gravity’s Rainbow. But however you cut it, Don Quixote is probably in the top three.
It’s not just a question of sheer physical bulk, though the Grossman translation clocks in at around 940 pages which isn’t to be sniffed at (though by way of comparison, the first two Game of Thrones’ novels alone add up to over 1,500 or so). It’s also a question of complexity, of unfamiliarity, and if I’m honest of the question of whether I’m up to a book that important.
What does it mean though to be up to a book? It speaks to us or it doesn’t. We enjoy it or we don’t. If others get more from it, well, that’s great for them but it doesn’t diminish our own experience of it (or shouldn’t anyway). If I knew more about early 17th Century Spain, about chivalric literature, about the cultural scene Cervantes was part of there’s no doubt that I’d take more from this book. That isn’t, however, a reason not to read it.
What’s odd when you start Don Quixote is of course how familiar so much of it is. Don Quixote, the old knight driven mad by his books of chivalry who imitates what he read in them as if it were all true. Sancho Panza, his loyal if not particularly bright squire. Rocinante, Don Quixote’s broken down old nag of a horse. The makeshift armour, and of course the windmills.
If it were just all that this would be a fun book, but not perhaps a great one. It’s also though a satire of contemporary politics and of popular fiction, it embraces exploration of psychology rather than mere recounting of deeds, it mixes tragedy and comedy so that as I read it I alternated between laughing and being appalled. It asks whether it’s better to live in a mediocre and indifferent reality rather than a glorious but wholly fallacious fantasy. It’s all that and more. It’s slippery.
Don Quixote inhabits a dream of a better world, a dream informed by the chivalric romances that he has read so many of (and which the book sets out to skewer, an element of satire perhaps slightly less topical now than when it was written). His is a kingdom inhabited by noble knights, beautiful and virtuous maidens, sorcerors both helpful and maleficient, giants and magical devices of great power. It is literally a wonderful place, driven by grand passions. A knight errant can do great deeds, be remembered in this world and rewarded in heaven.
Don Quixote inhabits a Spain driven by commerce and petty cruelty. His world is one inhabited by grasping innkeepers, lecherous prostitutes, irreligious priests, bandits and poverty. It is a profoundly vulgar place, driven by self-interest. A man can do what he likes and can get away with, but in the end he like everyone else will die and be forgotten.
“That’s the way,” said Sancho, “I’ve heard it said in sermons, we should love Our Lord: for Himself alone, not because we hope for glory or are afraid of punishment. But I’d rather love and serve Him for what He can do.”
It’s that contrast, the gap between Don Quixote’s shining and beautiful dream and his grubby reality, that drives the book’s comedy and its tragedy. I loved watching Don Quixote justify to Sancho Panza the absurd outcomes of their adventures by reference to evil enchanters and strange illusions and truths that only a true knight can see. At the same time, it’s hard to avoid the realisation that much of the book consists of an old man with dementia being repeatedly humiliated and beaten.
Much of the comedy is at the character level, but there is a great deal too at a metatextual level. In one scene two characters go through Don Quixote’s library in his absence, deciding which books should be burnt as dangerous and which preserved as worthwhile:
But what’s that book next to it?” “La Galatea, by Miguel de Cervantes,” said the barber. “This Cervantes has been a good friend of mine for many years, and I know that he is better versed in misfortunes than in verses. His book has a certain creativity; it proposes something and concludes nothing. We have to wait for the second part he has promised; perhaps with that addition it will achieve the mercy denied to it now; in the meantime, keep it locked away in your house, my friend.”
Similarly, Cervantes has fun with the conceit that this isn’t actually his book but merely one that he has found and had translated (apparently a common literary device at his time):
Saying this, and grasping his sword, and protecting himself with his shield, and attacking the Basque were all one, for he was determined to venture everything on the fortune of a single blow. The Basque, seeing him attack in this fashion, clearly understood the courage in this rash act and resolved to do the same as Don Quixote. And so he waited for him, shielded by his pillow, and unable to turn the mule one way or the other, for the mule, utterly exhausted and not made for such foolishness, could not take another step. As has been said, Don Quixote was charging the wary Basque with his sword on high, determined to cut him in half, and the Basque, well-protected by his pillow, was waiting for him, his sword also raised, and all the onlookers were filled with fear and suspense regarding the outcome of the great blows they threatened to give to each other, and the lady in the carriage and all her maids were making a thousand vows and offerings to all the images and houses of devotion in Spain so that God would deliver the squire and themselves from the great danger in which they found themselves. But the difficulty in all this is that at this very point and juncture, the author of the history leaves the battle pending, apologizing because he found nothing else written about the feats of Don Quixote other than what he has already recounted.
Cervantes loves playing this kind of game with the reader. There’s often a sense of him winking at you, commenting on what he’s doing as he’s doing it and knowingly playing with the artificiality of his form. This is not a book you can disappear into, a sort of alternate reality that offers escape from the everyday.
Gabriel Josipovici in his What Ever Happened to Modernism? argued that Don Quixote was the first modernist novel, and while so far at least I don’t fully agree with him (I think he underemphasises the traditions that Don Quixote grew out of) he does still have a point. Most fiction does present a world that the reader can escape into, a sort of Quixotean alternative to the quotidian. Cervantes denies that. As you read he reminds you that you are holding a written artefact, crafted by a person behind the narrative. Ironically Don Quixote is a novel that precludes the reader from the Quixotean experience that fiction generally offers.
I don’t want though to give the impression that reading Don Quixote is a highbrow experience. The more you dig the more you’ll get out of the book, certainly there’s more in there than I’ve discovered, but it’s also deeply rooted in physical comedy and a certain theatre of the absurd:
“… come here and see how many molars and teeth I have lost, because it seems to me I do not have a single one left in my mouth.” Sancho came so close that his eyes were almost in his master’s mouth; by this time the balm had taken effect in Don Quixote’s stomach, and just as Sancho looked into his mouth, he threw up, more vigorously than if he were firing a musket, everything he had inside, and all of it hit the compassionate squire in the face. “Mother of God!” said Sancho. “What’s happened? Surely this poor sinner is mortally wounded, for he’s vomiting blood from his mouth.” But looking a little more closely, he realized by the color, taste, and smell that it was not blood but the balm from the cruet, which he had seen him drink, and he was so disgusted by this that his stomach turned over and he vomited his innards all over his master, and the two of them were left as splendid as pearls.
This is of course only a review of the first volume. The second volume was written about ten years after the first, which means that for the book’s earliest readers this first volume was all there was. I’ve found before with major classic works that were published over a space of years that it can be much more rewarding not to try to swallow them all at once. There’s a risk of turning a book into a chore if you don’t allow yourself a break, whereas if you take it in the original installments you can have the pleasure of looking forward to the next part.
In this case I’m particularly pleased to have taken that approach. The first volume of Don Quixote contains two interpolated novellas within the text. These are stories told by characters within the narrative which bear no particular relation to the wider story. One is a tale of the perils of too rigorously testing your wife’s fidelity, while the other is a romantic tale of adventure among the Moors. Apparently this sort of interpolated text was routine in Cervantes’ day, As the ever-helpful endnotes explain – “it was a fairly common practice to insert a romantic tale with Moorish themes into works that otherwise seemed to have little to do with either romance or the Moors.”
Unfortunately, I haven’t the faintest interest in romantic adventures with the Moors, and so I found that part of the book fairly heavy going. In the context of knowing that I was just reading the first part that was fine. There was plenty otherwise that I liked and there was an end in sight. Had I been going straight on to the second part I might have been a bit more demoralised by having to plough through a section that I just plain didn’t care about with several hundred pages to go afterwards.
My edition is the Edith Grossman translation. I’ve not read the original, but I can say that the language here is fluid and lively and a pleasure to read. The volume and content of the endnotes is well chosen – not so many that you drown in references, but illuminating and identifying elements I might have missed or explaining things that genuinely puzzled me. There’s also a nice sense of humour occasionally in the explanations, as here where Grossman explains a latin quote:
These lines are from Ovid, not Cato, and they translate roughly as “Nobody knows you when you’re down and out.”
As I write this I’m preparing to launch back in and read the second part. Perhaps that’s the best compliment I can make, both to the book and the translation. I’ve read some 450 pages so far and I plan to read another 500 or so more. I’m looking forward to them. This really is a great book, and like most great books while it can seem a little forbidding from a distance once you launch into it it’s quickly apparent why it’s lasted as long as it has.