SOMEWHERE IN LA MANCHA, in a place whose name I do not care to remember

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.


Filed under Cervantes, Miguel de, Modernist fiction, Spanish

15 responses to “SOMEWHERE IN LA MANCHA, in a place whose name I do not care to remember

  1. I haven’t read this but have a copy and tell myself one of these days. It’s true what you say regarding the familiarity of the tale. It’s one of ‘those’ books. Even though you haven’t read it, you feel as though you have somehow–which isn’t true, but it’s one of those iconic books that seems to have always been there.

  2. Like Guy, this is one of those classics that I have owned for years and not read. I rather like your approach of deliberately treating it as two books and leaving some time in between — I’ll see how that works when you get to part two.

  3. Guy, interestingly apparently all the bits we all know are from this first book, none from the second.

    Kevin, it’s what I did with Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, and it worked very well there. A rather forbidding epic poem became a positive pleasure.

    Part two should be imminent in the reading, though the write-up’s probably a little way off (I’ve got to read it first after all and I already have a backlog).

  4. I believe treating it as two books is wise. I believe it is – or they are – two books. Part II is quite different.

    Does Josipovici mean anything other than that DQ looks like the “first modernist novel” in retrospect?

  5. That’s my understanding Tom, thanks for the confirmation.

    I think he does. His thesis (brutally summarised) is that modernism is an exploration of the disenchantment of the world – disenchantment used in quite a literal sense. I agree with him on that. He argues that the metatextual elements of Cervantes are an example of modernist techniques, and that’s where I part company with him as I think that they are rather part of an earlier literary tradition which simply happens to predate naturalism and realism.

    I’m doing him a gross disservice obviously in summarising what are quite carefully thought out arguments in a couple of lines. I discuss it more at my review of his book, which I link to from the piece above.

  6. Many people in Spain hate this book because, for years, they made you read it at school, and frankly, sometimes you are too young.

    I love it to bits. And it’s indeed daunting. Of course, here in Spain you have to read it in ancient Spanish 😉

  7. I’ve spoken before of the dilemma teachers face. Take the opportunity you’re given with children to teach them something great, and risk ruining it for them forever (which seems the usual outcome), or teach them something merely ok and risk that being their main exposure to what literature has to offer.

    I’m glad it’s not a choice I have to make.

    I recall Jonathan of Ruthless Culture fame couldn’t read Zola or Balzac as he did them in school (he’s bilingual and was French or Swiss educated, I forget which). I still can’t bear Steinbeck. There’s something about slowly crawling through a book with some 30-odd other kids most of whom just do not care which really helps you develop a loathing of it.

    Plus the compulsory element. The Grapes of Wrath may well be a great book, my teacher certainly seemed enthusiastic, but I couldn’t then (and I doubt I could now) get excited about reading something I’m forced to read regardless of my mood and which at the end I’ll have to sit an exam on.

    All that and in ancient Spanish too! If there’s one thing Don Quixote teaches us it’s that Spain is a cruel place. Making children read DQ in the original antique Spanish just shows that ain’t nothing changed.

    Good tapas though. Even if it’s not real tapas to a Granadan since you don’t get it free with your drinks most places.

  8. Well, I would do it as I did with Victoria and Doctor Who. Instead of forcing her through the first not-so-brilliant episodes, I asked her to watch Blink. So, I think that you can ask a class of boys to read some good excerpts from a book and try to pique their appetite for the entire thing. I can’t think of a better way. Also, movies based on the book, as long as they are reasonably faithful, usually help a lot.

    Yeah, ancient Spanish, and without any censure on the profanity. I swear a lot, and some of the cursewords I read there I dare not say in public XD

  9. You should have been a teacher. I do think that’s a better approach. I’m still not sure I’d choose a near-1,000 page novel as my way of introducing children to literature though.

    We watched the Polanski Macbeth movie in English class, huge fun and I still love the play. That said, it’s a very good play.

  10. Lots of scattered thoughts about this review.

    To be honest, I wasn’t aware it was such a HUGE book. (in number of pages, I mean). A good translation is crucial.

    Funny. When I saw your post about this one, two thoughts popped in my mind:
    1) how is he going to write about such a monument of literature ? I suppose you can only write about your experience as a reader with such a book.
    2) this one is on the daunting list. (you forgot Moby Dick. The idea of a brick book featuring a whale after a horrible experience with The Old Man and the Sea puts it on top of my list).

    This might be anecdotal, but
    “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).” made me stop.
    Isn’t it great to read a book where a man acts silly because he’s read too much stories? Usually, men writers create female characters who are disconnected from reality because they’ve read too many (romance) novels. How novels corrupt the feminine mind is quite fashionable in the 19thC. literature. It’s refreshing to hear about a man stricken by the same disease.

    The more I was reading, the more I thought about Candide and how Voltaire was probably inspired by Cervantes.

    You know I agree about force-feeding literature to children. I stayed away from Balzac and Maupassant for years after reading them in school. At home, we’re currently suffering through Perceval ou le conte du graal. I may read it to support my daughter and try to discuss it with her.

    Of course, I’m far from being as erudite as Josipovici, but aren’t there other books where the writer addresses the reader that way? It sounds familiar in old French literature. Perhaps in Rabelais? (I haven’t read Gargantua and Pantagruel. They’re sitting next to Don Quixote on the daunting virtual shelf) Or did I misunderstood what you meant?

    Anyway, happy reading with the second part.

  11. It’s one of those books I own but never read. I don’t think I know any other novel whose characters I hear mentioned as often as those from Don Quixote, which is strange.
    The only thing I find daunting in a book is size therefore, to me, Game of Thrones is as daunting as this. I’ve read Ulysses and Gravity’s Rainbow at a time when I didn’t mind long books that much. I’ll have to overcome that again as I still would like to read War and Peace and this as well.
    Like Emma, I try to understand why Josipovici thinks it’s the first modern novel. I guess it may be less because of the intrusion of the author, which doesn’t necessarily have to be metafictional, but because he adds metafictional elements.
    I was really not aware that there are two parts and that they are quite different. I hope you don’t lose momentum and read part II as well.

  12. I felt Grossman breathed life into the text some how I had read this before I read her translation a much older translation and fopund it hard going ,I loved this version .I felt after reading it that there isn’t nothing new or modern really in books because Cervantes had already done it ,all the best stu

  13. Sorry for the slow replies.

    Emma, absolutely on the translation. This is a really good one and that is essential.

    Moby Dick, good call. I think with anything like this, or Jane Austen or Joyce or whatever, you can only write your own thoughts. I wanted at least to say to people that you don’t need a masters in comparative literature to read this. You can just read it, like any other book, and enjoy it or not like any other book. There’s no entrance exam for it.

    Nice thoughts on women and the supposedly pernicious influence of the novel. I hadn’t thought of that, but you’re right, it is a nice twist.

    I do Josipovici’s argument a disservice by summarising it as I have, he’s more subtle than I have space for here, but I do think he doesn’t give sufficient weight to the fact that many of the techniques used here were more common in Cervantes’ period than they are in our own.

    Caroline, size increasingly daunts me, particularly if not linked to extraordinary quality. If a book is over 400 or 500 pages I want to know why. Why was so much space required? What was being accomplished that required so many words? Often the answer is that the book is flabby and lacks discipline, and I lack the lifespan for that (I’d lack the lifespan if I lived another thousand years).

    The intrusion of the author, and in particular the flagging of the novel by the author as a work of created artifice, is central to Josipovici’s thesis. To be fair he too had limited space, a book but still limited space. His book is interesting, I recommend it.

    Stu, the Grossman translation is tremendous. Really lively. I know what you mean about after Cervantes what is there that’s new or modern. It’s why I dislike the term experimental fiction – most of the experiments in question were conducted literally centuries ago.

  14. Pingback: By my faith, Señor Master, other people’s troubles don’t matter very much | Pechorin's Journal

  15. Pingback: Looking back on 2013 | Pechorin's Journal

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s