By my faith, Señor Master, other people’s troubles don’t matter very much

Don Quixote, volume two, by Miguel De Cervantes and translated by Edith Grossman

If you’ve not read Don Quixote, there’s a few things you probably don’t know about it. The first is that although everyone talks about it as if it were one novel, it’s not. It’s two novels, written ten years apart. We put them together as one title now, but that’s not how they were originally published. Trying to read them in one go makes for a much tougher read than is actually necessary.

The second thing you probably don’t know is that every famous incident from Don Quixote, everything people who’ve not read the books have heard of, is from the first book. The irony of that is that while it’s the first volume that made Cervantes famous, the second is actually the more interesting and enjoyable.


The events of the second volume take place a while after the first. During the break between adventures the first volume has been published and become a bestseller. In fact, it’s already had a sequel written, but it’s a copycat work written by another author – a crude pastiche that pretends to tell the story of what happened next but that’s not a patch on the original and that makes caricatures of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza (all of this really happened by the way, the characters therefore come to comment on their own fictional portrayal).

Don Quixote has been avoiding chivalric fiction so he doesn’t know that he’s now a celebrity until Bachelor Sansón Carrasco, a gentleman of Don Quixote’s village and of known good character (“people like him can’t lie except if they feel like it or it’s very convenient”), breaks the news. Naturally, Don Quixote is curious to hear how his story has been received:

“but tell me, Señor Bachelor: which deeds of mine are praised the most in this history?”

“In that regard,” responded the bachelor, “there are different opinions, just as there are different tastes: some prefer the adventure of the windmills, which your grace thought were Briareuses and giants; others, that of the waterwheel; one man favors the description of the two armies that turned out to be two flocks of sheeps; the other praises the adventure of the body that was being carried to Segovia for burial; one says that the adventure of the galley slaves is superior to all the rest; another, that none equals that of the two gigantic Benedictines and the dispute with the valiant Basque.”

“It seems to me,” said Don Quixote, “there is no human history in the world that does not have its ups and downs, especially those that deal with chivalry; they cannot be filled with nothing but successful exploits.”

“Even so,” responded the bachelor, “some people who have read the history say they would have been pleased if its authors had forgotten about some of the infinite beatings given to Señor Don Quixote in various encounters.”

Quite. To quote myself from my review of the first volume of “this great and accurate history” – it’s hard to avoid the realisation that much of the book consists of an old man with dementia being repeatedly humiliated and beaten.

Carrasco continues to explain the criticisms volume one received:

“One of the objections people make to the history,” said the bachelor, “is that its author put into it a novel called The Man Who Was Recklessly Curious, not because it is a bad novel or badly told, but because it is out of place and has nothing to do with the history of his grace Señor Don Quixote.”

Again, quite. This was also one of the issues I mentioned having in my review of volume one. There were actually two interpolated novels, and Carrasco is right that they weren’t badly told, it’s just that neither remotely fit the rest of the book.

It turns out that there isn’t a single criticism I had of the first book that some contemporary of Cervantes didn’t also have, and Carrasco covers pretty much every one of them. It may not sound it, but it’s incredibly funny. Volume one wasn’t a quick read and while I loved it overall there were definitely parts that I had to push my way through. There is something quite joyous in starting volume two and seeing Carrasco and Don Quixote candidly discussing those failings. Carrasco even covers the various plot holes:

some have found fault and failure in the author’s memory, because he forgets to tell who the thief was who stole Sancho’s donkey, for it is never stated and can only be inferred from the writing that it was stolen, and soon after that we see Sancho riding on that same donkey and don’t know how it reappears. They also say that he forgot to put in what Sancho did with the hundred escudos he found in the traveling case in the Sierra Morena, for it is never mentioned again, and there are many who wish to know what he did with them, or how he spent them, for that is one of the substantive points of error in the work.”

It’s incredibly audacious, and utterly modern. That’s perhaps an odd thing to say of a book written in the early 17th Century, but it’s one of the most striking things about it.

Soon after their conversations with Carrasco, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza fall back into their old madness and folly and decide to go back on the road. The difference this time though is that pretty much everyone they meet knows who they are from reading volume one. Where once they deceived themselves, now they find themselves deceived by others as strangers play to Quixote’s madness hoping to see him act as he did in the book they read.

Whether the result is funny or tragic depends in part on the individual reader. In a way it’s both, and I’ll return to that below.

People prey upon Quixote’s madness for their own amusement, inventing elaborate schemes in the hope of leading him to greater follies. For much of the book he falls in with a duke and duchess who put him to a variety of sadistic trials, testing his chivalry for the diversion of their court.

At the same time Quixote and Sancho are more knowing here. At one point Sancho deliberately deceives Quixote, relying on Quixote’s madness to avoid the consequences of Sancho’s own misdeeds. Another time, Quixote goes alone into a cave and comes out telling of strange adventures he had within, which is fine and in line with his normal behaviour except that some of his later comments suggest he knows perfectly well that he simply made those particular exploits up.

What we’re seeing then is a loss of innocence. In the original Quixote is purely mad, Sancho purely a fool. Here Quixote is still mad and Sancho still a fool, but through Carrasco and Cervantes they have a greater sense of what they are. They are becoming disenchanted.

That’s what makes it hard to say whether this book is comedy or tragedy (of course the truth is it’s both at the same time). In some ways it’s crueler than the first book, because where previously they were beaten or humiliated by reason of their own misunderstandings here people see their innocence and take advantage of it. In a sense they meet Cervantes’ readership, laughing at them.

What makes it perhaps worse is that while Quixote’s chivalry is a romantic nonsense that doesn’t change the truth of his goodness. Time and again it’s commented how wise and intelligent he is when speaking to matters outside of his madness. His madness though drives him into the world to help others, to defend the weak and help the helpless. It’s a divine madness.

Sancho Panza seems avaricious, lazy and vulgar, but that isn’t of course what defines him. Rather it’s his wonderful loyalty. When eventually he is given a governorship as he was long promised (the result of another of the duke and duchess’ pranks) he turns out to be rather good at it because when put to the test his desire to do what right is greater than his desire to line his own pockets. He passes sensible laws and makes careful judgments. He is a good man. His folly lies in his faithfulness to Don Quixote even though he knows perfectly well that Quixote is mad, but it’s a folly that brings out his better self.

Quixote’s madness then is elevating. It makes Quixote risk himself for others, it makes Sancho Panza deny himself for others. It is a beautiful dream that is better than the savage Spain that is the reality around them. The comedy is how their dream is so ill-fitted to the world they live in, and the tragedy is that too.

I’m starting to make it sound gloomy, and perhaps it is but the act of reading it isn’t gloomy at all. It’s packed with sharp little one-liners and asides, much of the best dialogue of course going to Sancho Panza (“Señor, the devil has made off with my donkey.”). There’s a wonderful comic double-act between him and Quixote, with Sancho peppering his speech with quotes and sayings in such profusion that his meaning gets quite lost (although as he astutely observes sometimes his meaning remains quite clear and Quixote is simply indulging in snobbery, refusing to understand because he finds Sancho’s manner vulgar).

Sancho’s dialogue and insights are much more sophisticated here than in the first volume. So much so in fact that the translator within the fiction (the conceit is that Cervantes has had the work translated into Spanish) comments that he considers some passages apocryphal on the basis that they show more intelligence in Sancho than he possesses. We’re back to that ultra-modernity there of course, a text that comments on itself and that casts doubt on its own authority – therefore underlining its own artificiality. It’s much clearer to me having read this volume why Josipovici called it the first modernist novel.

For all his greater intelligence though, Sancho couldn’t get to the point if his life depended on it. At the court of the mischievous duke and duchess he tells a nicely observed story about the realities of power. It needs about two paragraphs. At this point he’s already half a page into it:

“Well, then, Señores,” Sancho continued, “I say that this nobleman, and I know him like I know my own hands because it’s only the distance of a crossbow shot from my house to his, gave an invitation to a farmer who was poor but honorable.” “Go on, brother,” the cleric said at this point. “You’re on the way to not finishing your story until you’re in the next world.”

“I’ll stop when I’m less than halfway there, God willing,” responded Sancho. “And so, I say that when this farmer came to the house of this nobleman, and may his soul rest in peace because he’s dead now, and he died the death of an angel from what people tell me, since I wasn’t present at the time because I had gone to Tembleque to work in the harvest—”

“On your life, my son, return quickly from Tembleque, and without burying the nobleman, and unless you want more funerals, finish your story.”

“Well, the fact of the matter is,” replied Sancho, “that when the two of them were ready to sit down at the table, and it seems to me I can see both of them now as clear as ever …”

I quote that because it’s easy when discussing this to make it sound terribly serious, whereas much of it in fact is closer to a Morecambe and Wise sketch set in early 17th century Spain. The point perhaps is that it’s just not possible to do justice to a book like this.  Theses have been written on it. It’s been the subject of literally centuries of scholarship. I could write 10,000 words and barely have scratched its surface and along the way I’d have lost the sheer fun of it.

This is a novel packed with perceptive insights into psychology and society, personal power and political, the nature of fiction and how we engage with reality. It has in Don Quixote and Sancho Panza two of the funniest and yet saddest characters ever to inhabit literature. Along with the duke and duchess we read about the two of them and their adventures, and we laugh at them, but the true joke is on us because they inhabit marvellous dreams while we only live in a crass reality of our own making and our adventures are lived through them.

Cervantes isn’t a romantic, and he’s not one to offer pat interpretations. Any conclusion I could try for would be defeated by some quote, some passage from the book which refuted it. I won’t therefore try for any kind of final judgement on the book. It’s too good for that, too magnificent. Instead I’ll end by urging you if you’re still reading this to read Don Quixote, ideally in this marvellous Edith Grossman translation. Literature literally does not get better than this.


Filed under Cervantes, Miguel de, Modernist fiction, Spanish

20 responses to “By my faith, Señor Master, other people’s troubles don’t matter very much

  1. Blogging doesn’t get much better than this, either. Irresistible advocacy and I’ve just ordered the paperback (I’ve got the hardback somewhere but I’ve only ever dipped into it and God knows where it is). Thanks!

  2. That’s very kind Lee, thanks. I read it on kindle, which makes the sheer bulk a bit more manageable. I would definitely recommend though doing as I did – read it in two parts, give a month or two (though not more ideally) between the two. It makes it all a lot more manageable and makes it a pleasure rather than some form of endurance test.

  3. I myself only scratched the surface of the first volume when I read almost ten years ago. Time to read the second volume, I guess. Thanks for this encouraging piece!

  4. You’ve really piqued my interest in a book that I had never really considered before. An excellent post, thank you.

  5. Wonderful post on a wonderful book 🙂 You’re exactly right when you say that it’s this second novel which makes the ‘book’ a classic. It’s a piece of writing which many contemporary authors could learn from (and it’s definitely both a tragedy and a comedy). It’s also a shame that people see it as a big, off-putting book; it’s actually a joy to read.

  6. Pingback: Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

  7. Oh dear, this wonderful post made me revisit my own incoherent ramblings about DQ … I had forgotten how inane they were.
    That’s good advice about taking a break between the two, but I suspect that DQ is also one of those works where the novice reader really benefits from a helpful introduction in a Penguin or Oxford Classics version.

  8. The first time I read Don Quixote, it was in the old JM Cohen version in Penguin Classics. It has a reputation if being scholarly and accurate, but dull. I’m afraid it made little impression. Later, I turned to the classic translation by Tobias Smollett, and it was full of vitality and life: I loved it. Of course, Smollett was a great novelist in his own right, and I think he gave us Don Quixote filtered through his own novelistic sensibility, which, fine though it is, cannot really compare with that of Cervantes. More recently, there have been three translations that have been very well received – by Edith Grossman, by John Rutherford, and by Tom Latham. I think I’ll read the Rutherford version as that is the version currently on our shelves (my wife having read it – and loved it – a couple of years or so ago), and I think, having read your excellent post, that I should re-read this sooner rather than later.

    Works of such stature as this resist summary. I agree with you that the second part is more consistently enjoyable than the first; nonetheless, there are episodes from the first part that so wonderful, that they imprint themselves the reader’s mind: the attack on the windmills, the armies of sheep, Don Quixote’s penance, and so on . By the end f the second book, I find it all unutterably sad, but that is perhaps more a reflection on myself than on the book: with a work so multi-faceted as this, we often take out of out little more than what we are predisposed to see. But I know of nothing sadder in all literature than Don Quixote on his deathbed renouncing his knightly ideals.

    Thank you for your post. There are many books on my to-be-reread list, too many books where I know I didn’t get enough out of them at previous readings: thanks to your post, Don Quixote is now near the top of that list.

  9. Every so-called innovation in fiction was already present in Don Quixote.

    Two books, absolutely, yes, these are two individual books.

  10. Alastair Savage

    Cervantes clearly caught something timeless in the Spanish character. Even today with the economic crisis, people here are in exactly this situation: ” It is a beautiful dream that is better than the savage Spain that is the reality around them. The comedy is how their dream is so ill-fitted to the world they live in, and the tragedy is that too.”
    Magnificent review. I have to read this book now.

  11. kaggsysbookishramblings

    What an excellent review – I have only read the first book and feel better knowing I should regard it as standing apart from the second – which I now feel I want to pick up and read straight away!

  12. My original intention was to read Book 1, then wait a year or two and read Book 2. However I just read both books straight through. I did not find it a difficult read at all. It too is my best read of all. And always the Edith Grossman version.

  13. Karlo, perfect timing, get to it!

    Cathy, it really is amazing. You could make the two volumes numbers 747 and 748, though I appreciate you’ll want to work through the books you have first.

    Tony, thanks and I absolutely agree – a joy to read.

    Lisa, thanks for the link, I’ll have a read (and I’m sure it’s not inane). Good point on the intro. One thing I liked about the Vintage edition I read was that it had enough endnotes to provide me with a bit of support where needed, but not so many they were a distraction.

    Where they were incredibly handy is there are places where Don Quixote switches from informal to formal speech with Sancho Panza so as to indicate his anger. It’s very hard to translate as we have no such distinction in English. It’s that sort of thing where a little support helps, and the Vintage was very good at flagging them.

    Similarly there was a wonderful translators afternote. Generally, well chosen (not too many though, which is where I think Penguin often fall down) notes and a good introduction can really help.

  14. Thanks for the translation comparisons Oldargumentative, very interesting to read.

    With these kinds of works I tend to think it’s best to pursue a few strands of analysis that strike me, rather than to try and capture the whole of the book which would be a ludicrous impossibility.

    Also, it’s liberating. If I thought I was going to have to write a blog post which was some kind of definitive analysis of Don Quixote, or Ulysses, or any of the big beasts I’d be completely daunted. How could I possibly do such a thing? If all I have to do though is write my own honest response to it, however adequate or inadequate that may be, well, it’s my response. I might miss tons, but it’s still my response. It is what it is.

    Besides, with a great book I should miss tons, else what would be left to reread it for?

    Tom, yes, it makes experimental an odd term for fiction. It’s rather that we have the realist/naturalist tradition and another quite separate tradition of modernist/meta/experimental/whatever-label-you-fancy fiction. That gets called experimental because a lot of people don’t know how long standing it is, how much it forms part of its own tradition.

    Alastair, I hope you do take a look at it. It’s very current, I fear it will be for a long time yet.

    Kaggsy (should your title have a blog link in it?), you did totally the right thing stopping when you did. This is actually the more readable volume though, so if you stopped because you were feeling jaded I wouldn’t worry – I read this on my morning commute each day in half hour chunks and while doing that was a slog with the first half it worked really well with this volume.

    Otherwise, I hope you do get back to it. Let me know what you think if you do.

    Anokatony, I needed a break, but it must have had tremendous power without one. My next post should be my (much belated) best of 2013. I doubt it’s a spoiler to say this will be on that list.

    I see you just reviewed Greene’s Travels with my Aunt. I’ll pop over to yours later this week to comment. It’s an interesting book, I agree with you not the Greene to start with but it definitely has its moments.

  15. Wonderful post, Max, and one to tickle my appetite for taking on Don Quixote this summer for the first time in decades. I have the Rutherford translation, so it’ll be that one instead of Grossman, but I’m glad to see it too comes highly recommended.

  16. Great post, it’s still on the daunting list but it doesn’t sound so intimidating now. I’d have to investigate the French translations to find the one that would suit me best.

  17. Wowza: what a fantastic article! Your stuff has always been amazing, but I can’t help but feel that you’ve *really* stepped things up a level with this review! Amazing discussion about the inter-space (both textual and real-world) between the first and second volumes: I never knew any of that stuff.

    I’ve had a copy of this in my TBR pile for years (I had to read a few chapters here and there at university), but it’s definitely been pushed (much) closer to the top now.

    You really should blog more often. 🙂

  18. Tredynas Days

    Thanks for this, Max. Like some of the people above it’s made me want to move DQ further up my tbr pile – along with the Hayes you reviewed recently. I studied excerpts of DQ when doing A Level Spanish, and have always intended tackling the whole sprawling thing, but somehow never did. You’ve piqued my interest in a typically incisive and engaging review.

  19. Scott, thanks, and good luck!

    Emma, daunting is fair, there’s a lot of it, but you definitely shouldn’t be intimidated. It’s not Gravity’s Rainbow territory or anything like that.

    TomCat, that’s very kind. It’ll be back down a level with my next post or two no doubt. It’s the material. You can write a thoughtful post about a deep book like this. The Wheatley though is a potboiler thriller, so the odds on my writing something greatly insightful on that have to be much less. There’s just not the depth to bear it.

    Tredynas, thanks and I hope you do. The Hayes is also great. If you do read it let me know, I’d be fascinated to see your thoughts on it.

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

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