Don Quixote and Melancholy Wednesday, Sep 5 2007 

On the heels of finishing the first part of Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, I came across this interesting passage, from Peter D. Kramer’s Against Depression:

The Renaissance sustained several simultaneous traditions of melancholy. Cervantes began his literary career with a long pastoral poem, full of pining and tearful shepherds suffering from unrequited love. Don Quixote makes use of a different version of melancholy, the comical inspiration of the madman. These traditions flourished for centuries, but they have not been sustained by it. Jean Canavaggio, the great biographer of Cervantes, writes that:

[M]adness–as Michel Foucault has brilliantly demonstrated–is now a source for uneasiness for us: it is incongruous, even indecent, to make fun of a madman, as our ancestors loved to do; and we preceive as tragic the loneliness of the hero that Cervantes shows us misunderstood by everyone. In a word, the distance that separates our view of Don Quixote from the one that classical Europe formed of him reflected, beyond any doubt, a profound evolution of customs and sensibilities.

In the case of insanity, what it is to us changed to meet the medical understanding. And then what emerged in our reading of the Quixote was the hero’s loneliness and alienation from his fellows.


Cervantes’ Stand Monday, Aug 20 2007 

I finished the first part of Don Quixote a few weeks ago. This is the second time I have attempted what literary critics call, “the first modern novel.” The first time was a little over a year ago and I did not get past the first forty pages. This time I was adamant that I was going to finish and I am glad that I stuck to my resolution. This is, as I have noted below, one of the greatest comedies I have ever read. For example:

The innkeeper told everyone in the inn about the lunacy of his guest, about his standing vigil over his armor and his expectation that he would be dubbed a knight. They marveled at so strange a form of madness and went to watch him from a distance, and saw that with a serene expression he sometimes paced back and forth; at other times, leaning on his lance, he turned his eyes to his armor and did not turn them away again for a very long time. Night had fallen, but the moon was so bright it would compete with the orb whose light it reflected, and therefore everything the new knight did was seen clearly by everyone. Just then it occurred to one of the muledrivers in the inn to water his pack of mules, and for this it was necessary to move Don Quixote’s armor, which was on the trough; our knight, seeing him approach, said in a booming voice:

O thou, whosoever thou art, rash knight, who cometh to touch the armor of the most valiant knight who e’er girded on a sword! Lookest thou to what thou dost and toucheth it not, if thou wanteth not to leave thy life in payment for thy audacity.

The muleteer cared nothing for these words-and it would have been better for him if he had, because it meant caring for his health and well-being; instead, he picked up the armor by the straps and threw it a good distance away. And seeing this, Don Quixote lifted his eyes to heaven and, turning his thoughts – or so it seemed to him to his lady Dulcinea, he said:

Help me, Senora, in this the first affront aimed at this thy servant’s bosom; in this my first challenge letteth not thy grace and protection fail me.

And saying these and other similar phrases, and dropping his shield, he raised his lance in both hands and gave the muledriver so heavy a blow on the head that he knocked him to the ground, and the man was so badly battered that if the first blow had been followed by a second, he would have had no need for a physician to care for his wounds. Having done this, Don Quixote picked up his armor and began to pace again with the same tranquility as before. A short while later, unaware of what had happened – for the first muledriver was still in a daze – a second approached, also intending to water his mules, and when he began to remove the armor to allow access to the trough, without saying a word or asking for anyone’s favor, Don Quixote again dropped his shield and again raised his lance, and did not shatter it but instead broke the head of the second muledriver into more than three pieces because he cracked his skull in at least four places. When they heard the noise, all the people in the inn hurried over, among them the innkeeper. When he saw this, Don Quixote took up his shield, placed his hand on his sword and said:

O beauteous lady, strength and vigor of my submissive heart! This is the moment when though needs must turn the eyes of they grandeur toward this thy captive knight, who awaitheth so great an adventure.

And with this he acquired, it seemed to him, so much courage that if all the muledrivers in the world had charged him, he would not have taken one step backward. (pg.32-33)

I am going to argue (at least through Part One) that the madness of Don Quixote serves as metaphor towards the converts to Christianity. The “madness” of Don Quixote is brought on by the intense reading of books of chivalry. Don Quixote responds to these books so intensely that he is converted. He travels on “adventures” of madness in order to save the downtrodden only to promote more problems than he solves. It should be noted that along the way he entraps Sancho Panza with tales of glory and his own governorship.

Towards the end of Part One, after Don Quixote is captured by his concerned priest and barber and all of the various subplots reach their conclusions, our valiant knight is debating with the canon who is introduced towards Part One’s conclusion:

Is it possible, Senor, that the grievous and idle reading of books of chivalry could have so affected your grace that it has unbalanced your judgment and made you believe that you are enchanted, along with other things of this nature, which are as far from being true as truth is from lies? How is it possible that any human mind could be persuaded that there has exited in the world that infinity of Amadises, and that throng of so many famous knights, so many emperors of Trebizond, so many Felixmartes of Hyrcania, so many palfreys and wandering damsels, so many serpents and dragons and giants, so many unparalleled adventures and different kinds of enchantments, so many battles and fierce encounters, so much splendid attire, so many enamored princesses and squires who are counts and dwarves who are charming, so many love letters, so much wooing, so many valiant women, and, finally, so many nonsensical matters as are contained in books of chivalry? For myself, I can say that when I read them, as long as I do not set my mind to thinking that they are all frivolous lies, I do derive some pleasure from them, but when I realize what they actually are, I throw even the best of them against the wall, I would even toss them in the fire if one were near, and think they richly deserved the punishment, for being deceptive and false and far beyond the limits of common sense, like the founders of new sects and new ways of life, and for giving the ignorant rabble a reason to believe and consider as true all the absurdities they contain. [emphasis mine] (pg. 423)

Don Quixote’s response:

Don Quixote listened very attentively to the canon’s words, and when he saw that he had concluded, he looked at him for a long time and said:

It seems to me, Senor, that the intention of your grace’s discourse has been to persuade me that there have been no knights errant in the world, and that all the books of chivalry are false, untrue, harmful, and of no value to the nation, and that I have done wrong to read them, and worse to believe them, and worse yet to imitate them by setting myself the task of following the extremely difficult profession of knight errantry which they teach, and you deny that there ever were Amadises in the world, whether of Gaul or of Greece, or any of the other knights that fill the writings.

That is precisely what I meant; what you have said is absolutely correct, said the canon.

To which Don Quixote responded:

Your grace also said that these books have done me a good deal of harm, for they turned my wits and put me in a cage, and it would be better for me to alter and change my reading and devote myself to books that are truer and more pleasant and more instructive.

That is true, said the canon. [emphasis mine] (pg 424-425)

I have had conversations with Christian zealots and must say that they have gone similarly to Don Quixote’s conversation with the cannon.

Most hardcore zealot converts are quick to fall back on thousands of examples from the Bible to serve as their refutation to anything said that may contradict their metaphysical belief structure. Don Quixote’s madness is something that the Western world has been struggling against the Christian ethic for two thousand years. To be sure there are “good things” that have evolved from the Christian ethic, but that does not excuse the harm.

Don Quixote’s adventures have him so twisted that he feels that he is the righter of wrongs and triumphant over inanimate objects while for the most part his squire sees the real insanity – to a point. Sancho also wants to believe in the end result, a kingdom for him to rule that his knight will give him so long as he remains faithful in Don Quixote’s abilities as a knight. Sound familiar?

In the end Don Quixote’s madness gets him into more trouble than it is worth, and Sancho also gets his fair share of beatings as a result of keeping faith. So what is Cervantes attempting to explain?

Are we to take away that his Don Quixote is a critique on faith? Is Cervantes attempting to sneak something past the power of the Catholic Church? I believe he is and I believe that what we are shown is the madness of zealous belief that harms the believer with a madness that insulates him from any outside criticism.

On finishing Don Quixote Sunday, Aug 19 2007 

7075756.gif Most of this post will be about the second half of Don Quixote and the ending, so if you don’t want to hear about it, you might want to save this post for later. I loved the way the second part of the novel became a kind of commentary on the first (is this what people are talking about when they say that everything comes together in the second half?), how everyone Don Quixote and Sancho Panza meet have read the novel’s first half and so are in on the story of his peculiar form of madness. Most of them decide to have some fun playing jokes on the two, to see just how far the madness of Don Quixote will go. So, in addition to all the metanarrativity that was already going on in the first part — the multiple authors and the long conversations on storytelling and the frequent mentions of Cide Hamete Benengeli — Cervantes adds his critique of the false sequel to Don Quixote published in between his two volumes and mixes up real life and fiction even more by having Don Quixote confront the results of his literary fame again and again.

It is this playfulness about fiction and authorship that I will remember about the book, long after I’ve forgotten individual episodes — episodes it probably won’t take me all that long to forget, in truth, because some of them dragged on a bit and my attention wandered. But I love that self-interrogation is built into the structure of one of the first novels ever, depending on how one defines “novel,” or, at the very least, one of the earliest and most influential novels. Don Quixote is a novel about madness, friendship, adventure, and love, but it’s also very much a novel about novels, and it starts a very long tradition of novels that reflect on themselves, a traditional so influential that even ostensibly realistic novels usually have some kind of self-reflexive element to them.

About the novel’s ending: it is so sad! I didn’t expect to see Don Quixote regaining his sanity, and even less did I expect that moment of sanity to be rather depressing:

“Señores,” said Don Quixote, “let us go slowly, for there are no birds today in yesterday’s nests. I was mad, and now I am sane; I was Don Quixote of La Mancha, and now I am, as I have said, Alonso Quixano the Good. May my repentance and sincerity return me to the esteem your graces once had for me, and let the scribe continue.”

And he goes on reciting his will. It’s this melancholy at the end that convinces me (even further than I was already convinced) that Cervantes has great affection for his two main characters, in spite of their foolishness. It’s the energy of their madness that carries the story forward, so that as soon as Don Quixote regains his sanity, there is no story anymore, and the novel abruptly ends. Without Don Quixote’s madness, Cervantes has nothing. So, yes, Cervantes mocks Don Quixote’s foolish and naïve way of reading, but I think he glories in the energy and the fun of it too. To me, Don Quixote comes across as admirable in his imagination, his resourcefulness, his persistence, and his liveliness. I realize this is a very contemporary way of looking at the novel, and earlier readers may not have seen anything admirable in Don Quixote whatsoever, but I can’t help reading as a contemporary person, can I?

Nabokov’s Lectures on Don Quixote: Two Portraits: Don Quixote and Sancho Panza Thursday, Aug 16 2007 

Yes, I still plan on reading and posting on the entirety of Nabokov’s Lectures on Don Quixote. I stopped in May because so much of what Nabokov spoke of would have “spoiled” the book for those still reading it, and I would have to take great care not to mention any specific events that occur later in the text. Now it’s September, and quite a few have finished with the novel, and even those yet to finish have read enough so that I don’t have to worry about ruining (quite so much). Onward!

Nabokov does not think very highly of Sancho Panza. His first true lecture, “Two Portraits: Don Quixote and Sancho Panza,” begins:

Even if allowance is made for the falling away of the Spanish in the twilight of translation, even so Sancho’s cracks and proverbs are not very mirth provoking either in themselves or in their repetitious accumulation. The corniest modern gag is funnier.

I disagree with this and, judging from what I’ve read, most of the members of this group probably do as well. But this stance fits with Nabokov’s general approach to Don Quixote, namely to highlight the cruelty of the book and not its whimsy. His reading of the book’s two main characters is the first aspect of this approach:

The Knight of the Mournful Countenance is as unique individual; with some reservations, Sancho of the matted beard and tomato nose is the generalized clown.

Let’s consider them each in turn.

The Man Don Quixote

Nabokov first considers the “gruesome details” of the Don’s appearance: he is gaunt and grizzled, with a suit of armor that is “old, black, and moldy,” and a horse that is the image of its master. Despite this less-than-inspiration exterior, Nabokov considers Don Quixote to be “a gallant gentleman, a man of infinite courage, a hero in the truest sense of the word,” even insisting in parenthesis “(This important point should be kept in mind.)” Nabokov’s Don Quixote is “without malice” and “trustful as a child.”

In explaining Don Quixote’s madness, Nabokov reveals a highly amusing anecdote about his choice of food:

At fifty he plunged into the reading of books of chivalry and took to eating heavy suppers, including what one translator (Duffield) renders as “resurrection pie” (duelos y quebrantos — literally, pains and breakage), a “pot made of the flesh of animals who have died accidental deaths by falling down precipices and getting their neck bones broken.”

More important is Nabokov’s insistence that Don Quixote views the world in dual form: “Reality and illusion are invterwoven in the pattern of life.” He also remarks upon the fact that the Don, unlike many epic heroes (Odysseys and Aeneas are cited), does not have any divine support for his mission – he is completely on his own.

The Man Sancho Panza (The Pig Belly on Crane Legs)

Nabokov’s study of Sancho Panza is less than illuminating. After I finished it, my only thought was that Nabokov clearly did not find Sancho funny, at all, and that this is a flaw in his reading of the book. He insists that Sancho is a “product of generalization” who is “never as detailed as Don Quixote.” This is true only in the fact that Don Quixote is the namesake of the text, and Sancho the secondary character. He is remarkably round for a supporting actor, and far from the “perfect bore” that Nabokov portrays.

Near of the end of his lecture Nabokov slips in a nasty attack on readers with different taste than his, claiming that “all readers can be separated into Don Quixotes and Sancho Panzas.” You have one guess to determine which one Nabokov thinks that he is.

Nabokov’s determination not to see any humor in the book is a serious shortcoming, and one that will concern me as a read the rest of his lecture series. Read this, and you’ll see why:

Scholars who speak of sidesplitting episodes in the book do not reveal any permanent injury to their ribs. That in this book the humor contains, as one critic puts it, “a depth of philosophical insight and genuine humanity, in which qualities it has been excelled by no other writer” seems to me to be a staggering exaggeration. The Don is certainly not funny. His squire, with all his prodigious memory for old saws, is even less funny than his master.

Don Quixote and the Invention of the Modern Novel Monday, Jul 30 2007 

Alexstuart_2So, I’ve finally knight-erranted my way to the end of the first part of Don Quixote.  I’m not quite at the mid-point of my copy yet (I have about 50 pages to go) but very nearly.Is it too much to say I’m proud of myself? Because I am. You’ll remember that there was a time I didn’t think I was even going to make it to page 200 but now the end is (a little) nearer and I’m actually enjoying myself.  I’ve raced through the last couple of hundred pages, taking in the resolution of events at the inn (I do hope we get to find out what happens to Cardenio, Dorotea and Zoraida et al) and the journey back to La Mancha, complete with the discussion between DQ and the canon.  I even conjured a smile for the mock-elegiac poetry that finished the volume.  I’m bathed in a blissful sense of achievement.

And now that my chivalric companion is back safe a-bed in La Mancha, it seems like a good time to take a break and reflect back on what I’ve read so far.  I’ve been rolling some ideas around in my head for a while, most particularly about the the novel’s style (or styles) and its place in the history of literature.  Of course, I’m familiar with the idea that Don Quixote is the first ‘modern’ novel, and that Cervantes is the ‘inventor’ of the form as we know it.  At first, I was incredulous about this – how could one text be the ‘founding’ text? – but the more I read and the more I think about it, the more I recognise the novel’s extroadinary qualities: its stylistic plurality and breadth of social ventriloquism, the scope of its technical ambition and its irrepressibility.  It contains so many of the qualities and quirks of later works (even unto contemporary fiction).  It’s all there: the author as fiction; combined with an unreliable and intrusive narrator (or two); and split screen action; with cliffhangers and reveals; even the novel within a novel.  So much so that it begins to remind me of a designer’s sample book – a kind working manual from which later novelists have picked and chosen techniques/scenes/events to make up innumerable new novels. 

Anthony J. Cascardi addresses the ‘invention of the novel’ idea in an essay of the same name in the Cambridge Companion to Cervantes (edited by Cascardi). I defer to his expertise in the matter, since I only have a very vague conception of what came before Don Quixote. What he has to say is very interesting.  He begins by suggesting that it is difficult to think about DQ as the ‘first novel’ – surely (we, the contemporary readers, think) the form must have always existed, or at least was always meant to exist? The novel is so ubiquitous and so important.  How could it only be 400 years old? How could one man have conceived of its gregarious character and brought about such an important literary transformation?  He goes on to note that the question of the ‘beginnings of the novel’ are particularly challenging in light of the peculiar nature of the genre:

‘…one has to recall Henry Jame’s description of the novel as a ‘loose, baggy monster’ to realise that what Cervantes invented was something without any fixed form.  James was hinting at the novel’s ability to incorporate a seemingly limitless number of components and to assume an unpredictable variety of shapes.  Think of the differences between Dostoevky’s Crime and Punishment and Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, or between Stendhal’s The Red and the Black and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Year’s of Solitude.  All of these clearly count as novels, but they are novels of very different, even incompatible sorts… The novel is a polymorphous genre, with a capaciousness that seems to have been built in from the start.’

Following through, he suggests that DQ is the ‘first novel’ because it perfectly matches the criteria of this last sentence. Because it collects, eclipses and transforms pre-existing literary genres, taking fixed topos and forms – e.g. the Romance, the pastoral and the picaresque – and creating something (relatively) anarchic and endlessly potential out of them.   Cascardi evokes Bakhtin’s theory of ‘novelisation’ and concludes that the essence of ‘the novel’ as a genre is the ‘discovery that new forms originate from the transformation of old ones’.  In other words, the novel is the fictionalisation of fiction itself.  Which I think describes the DQ very well indeed.  (The essay says much more than this, and is very thought-provoking. Track it down if you can.)

Having read Cascardi, I started thinking more carefully about Cervante’s style and, more particularly, about his prose (in sofar as you can think about the question of prose in translation).  I admit that at first I was uninspired by the rhythms and cadences of Grossman’s translation – there are times when her sentence constructions feel odd and clumsy, though probably not through any fault of her own. I was under the impression that Cervantes’ style was a little work-a-day and that the story and not the writing was the point of his enterprise.  But I was so wrong!  How could I have missed how variant and practised he is at evoking stylistic tropes, and how sweetly he mixes the baroque and the bawdy?  I deserve a mental slap on the wrist for being so oblivious a reader.  Cascardi suggested at one point that I should go back and read certain passages of the book to get a sense of its plurality, and so off I toddled.  The first thing I noticed *was* Cervantes plain speech – how ordinarily the novel begins with ‘Somewhere in La Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, a gentleman lived not long ago…’ – but then how smoothly he can change voice and timbre, moving from the simple to the elaborate to the satirical.  I was drawn particularly to the description of the dawn in Chapter 2, Part 1, which is in the ‘lofty’ style associated with classical lyricism:

‘No sooner had rubicund Apollo spread over the face of the wide and spacious earth the golden strands of his beauteous hair, no sooner had diminuitive and bright-hued birds with dulcet tones greeted in sweet, mellifluous harmony the advent of rosy dawn, who, forsaking the soft couch of her zealous consort, revealed herself to mortals through the doors and balconies of the Manchegan horizon, than the famous knight Don Quixote of La Mancha, abandoning the downy bed of idleness, mounted his famous stees Rocinante and commenced to ride through the ancient and illustrious countryside of Montiel.’

The strength of the satirical impact of that whole passage is in the way Cervantes both mimics and exaggerates the model – typing, I was struck by how much it resembles Milton’s Paradise Lost! I turn the pages and there are Petrarchan love lyrics, fables, murder plays, proverbs…the list of Cervante’s mimetics seems endless. 

As I’m musing on all of the references that I’ve missed, and how blind I’ve been to the virtuoso variety of DQ, I have to stop and smile at myself.  Because I realise that, of course, I wouldn’t necessarily notice these things right away.  I’m used to them –  the admixture of voice and tone is so common to the novel now, that none of it seems extroadinary until you start nosing around the foundations of the composition.  So I’m back to Cascardi’s observation that its difficult to conceive of DQ as a ‘first novel’.  I’d say that its even more difficult to read DQ as a first novel.  You really do have to step back and shed your baggage and forget everything you think you know.

(NB: I love the image I’ve used at the top of this post and think that it perfectly represents the multi-variant composition of DQ from many different parts and styles. Tis by a Mexican artist called Octavio Ocampo who seems to specialise in these sorts of pieces.)

Getting into the Swing Monday, Jul 16 2007 

Dq I’ll admit it. I haven’t been getting along with that gracious knight from La Mancha, Don Quixote. Despite all the wonderful discussion going on, and the headway being made by the rest of the crew at Tilting at Windmills, I’ve been lagging terribly behind.  If I’d been following the agreed schedule – 50 pages a week – I’d be past the mid-way point by now and into Part 2 of the novel; I’d surely know what all the fuss was about.

But, last Saturday, by the end of week 6 of the project, I was still dawdling around page 120. Why? Possibly, because I was reading it too slowly and only one or two days a week; possibly because the book is so heavy and I didn’t want to carry it around.  But also because, yes, I was a little disappointed in it – dare I say, bored?  The story began well, with the naming of Rocciante, the production of the tin-pot armour and the recruitment of Sancho Panza, and it moved swiftly in the first 50 or so pages with the iconic windmill scene and the conflagration of the books of Chivalry.  Before long, however, I felt like Cervantes was settling into a somewhat predictable pattern: Don Quixote encounters an ordinary circumstance, re-envisions it as cause for chivalry, takes some ridiculous action, before ending with a broken head and wounded pride.  This kind of repetition doesn’t seem to stand slow-reading; I felt as though I were re-reading the same 20 pages everytime I picked up the book!

Finally, this weekend in a fit of frustration, I took action.  I was going to visit my parents and decided that Don Quixote would be my sole companion for the train journey and for all my reading through Saturday and Sunday, evening and morning.  (This sounds truly terrifying to me now, but was actually only a return to the mono-reading of my pre-blog years.)  By Sunday I’d rip-roared my way through to page 266, despite a hectic social schedule and a (very fruitful) birthday shopping trip with my mum.  And I’d discovered something essential about DQ – you have to eat him up.  Reading for an hour at a stretch, rather than for two minutes snatched here and there, I began to realise that Cervantes’ writing is best taken in plentiful spoonfuls, if not shovelfuls.  He is so discursive, so genial, so…relaxed a writer that, imbibed sparingly, DQ seems positively snail-paced; but given adequate time and space to breath, it becomes something else entirely.  Expansive, deprecating, knowing.  I feel like a blessed convert.  Thank goodness since I have nigh on 750 pages to go and I’m determined to finish!

Now it may be that I’ve just reached a bit of the book that takes my fancy – DQ has been making his false penance in the mountains and we’ve just met the Jekyll/Hyde-esque Cardenio and the wonderfully feisty Dorotea (the second woman in the novel to catch my fancy after Marcela and methinks Cervantes does an excellent line in determined female characters) – but then again, I think not.  Rather, it seems to me that just by spending more time with Don Quixote, and coming to terms with it as a novel and as a narrative, rather than as an education-project in progress, I’ve come to know, appreciate and understand it better.   I also feel like I’m starting to see the logic (or rather, the non-logic) of our hero – its about saying, not seeing! – and beginning to comprehend the book’s context and implications.  More on all this another time though.  I was wondering, instead: did anyone else feel apathetic in the beginning? Or weighed down by the repetitiveness? Or squished under the pressure of reading a novel to a schedule?  Tell me I’m not alone!


(Cross-posted at Tilting at Windmills)   

Novel obsessions Tuesday, Jun 26 2007 

I’m wondering what people think about the conversation in Don Quixote between the canon and the priest in chapters 47-48. The canon at times seems very logical and at other times inconsistent. He criticizes novels of chivalry as “foolish stories meant only to delight and not to teach, unlike moral tales, which delight and teach at the same time.” And yet he says that he has read the beginning of almost every chivalric novel that’s been written. He can’t read to the end of any of them, though, because their plots are so repetitive. So why does he keep beginning them over and over?

In spite of being so critical of chivalric novels, he can’t seem to let them go:

Despite all the bad things [the canon] had said about those books, he found one good thing in them, which was the opportunity for display that they offered a good mind, providing a broad and spacious field where one’s pen could write unhindered, describing shipwrecks, storms, skirmishes, and battles …

and the canon goes on for a long paragraph listing all the wonderful things a writer of chivalric novels can write about. He ends his long speech describing how fabulous a chivalric novel could be if only people wrote them well:

And if this is done in a pleasing style and with ingenious invention, and is drawn as close as possible to the truth, it no doubt will weave a cloth composed of many different and beautiful threads, and when it is finished, it will display such perfection and beauty that it will achieve the great goal of any writing, which, as I have said, is to teach and delight at the same time. Because the free writing style of these books allows the author to show his skills as an epic, lyric, tragic, and comic writer, with all the characteristics contained in the sweet and pleasing sciences of poetry and rhetoric; for the epic can be written in prose as well as verse.

He’s so convinced the genre of chivalric novel can be saved, that he has tried to write one of his own and has written more than a hundred pages.

The canon sees so much potential in this genre that he seems obsessed with it. And I can’t help but think of Don Quixote itself when I read the last sentence of the above quotation — Don Quixote has its own “free writing style” that combines epic, lyric, tragic, and comic aspects, with a little poetry and rhetoric and a lot of prose. Is Cervantes speaking through the canon here, working his way toward the new genre that the novel will be?

The secret of making long stories short Tuesday, Jun 19 2007 

One of the books I’m reading is a book by Beongcheon Yu that focuses on Natsume Soseki’s academic and fictional works. Natsume was an early 20th century Japanese intellectual and his approach to Western literature was consciously from a Japanese outlook and more specifically based in his particular ideas about what principles govern literature. I thought that his take on Defoe’s fiction could be applied to Don Quixote.

At a point in his lecture “Eighteenth-Century English Literature” he addresses a not uncommon opinion that Defoe’s novels are way too long and asserts that the fault lies in the texts and not the readers. Yu summarises his point.

What…is the secret of making long stories appear short? It is what we call interest, composed of three things in fiction: character, incident, and scene. And the closer the second draws to the first, the more intense the degree of necessity; and the closer the second swings to the third, the more importance is given to chance. Most novels, being complex, contain all three in varying amounts. But all successful novels must achieve unity. And this unity of the three kinds of “interest” can be achieved through acceleration, development, and change. Out of this unity emerges the theme of a work.

My reaction to DQ fluctuates regularly, as my blog readers know. I present this question to the group to get a gauge of how y’all feel so far: is DQ working for you as a successful unit? Do you even agree with Natsume’s criticism, as conveyed by Beongcheon Yu?

Edit: Dorothy commented on my blog that really long, fairly repetitive books were a dime a dozen (my words) in 18th C Western literature which makes everything clearer now regarding Natsume’s particular choice of novelist for explicating his point.

Storytelling Sunday, Jun 10 2007 

My reading in Don Quixote is zipping along; I’m nearly up to p. 300 and enjoying it immensely. I’m now in the middle of the first of what I understand will be several long interpolated stories; I remember people saying they get a bit dull and make one long for Don Quixote and Sancho Panza to return, and I will probably feel that way eventually, but for now I’m enjoying the story of Anselmo and Lotario from “The Man Who Was Recklessly Curious.” Isn’t that a great story title?

These interpolated stories are nice reminders of just how interested Cervantes is in storytelling, and I like how he includes one just after the chapter in which the characters — Don Quixote excluded — discuss the value of those chivalric romances DQ is so obsessed with. We get discussions about the value of stories and then we get the stories themselves, so we can think about them theoretically — maybe that’s too strong a word, but we can think about what their purpose is and what makes them work along with the other characters — and then we can experience them directly. I haven’t gotten to the end of “The Man Who Was Recklessly Curious” yet, but I’ll bet when it’s finished, the characters will have a discussion of the story’s merits and perhaps of the quality of the reading (the priest reads the story out loud). I love the way Cervantes includes all these layers of story and response — and I’m only talking about the interpolated stories here, when they are only a small part of all the self-reflexivity going on.

I really got a kick out of reading Chapter 32, the one mentioned above about the merits of chivalric romances; when the priest tells the story of how these romances turned DQ’s brain, the innkeeper launches into a defense of them:

The truth is, to my mind, there’s no better reading in the world; I have two or three of them, along with some other papers, and they really have put life into me, and not only me but other people, too. Because during the harvest, many of the harvesters gather here during their time off, and there’s always a few who know how to read, and one of them takes down one of those books, and more than thirty of us sit around him and listen to him read with so much pleasure that it saves us a thousand gray hairs; at least, as far as I’m concerned, I can tell you that when I hear about those furious, terrible blows struck by the knights, it makes me want to do the same, and I’d be happy to keep hearing about them for days and nights on end.

Cervantes is clearly having a laugh at these people and the simplicity of their enjoyment and their response (they sound like modern-day boys going to see thrillers at the movies because they like the violence and the special effects), but there’s also something charming about this story of the harvesters gathering around and listening to the stories of chivalry. Their pleasure in them is infectious.

After the innkeeper speaks, several other characters give their assessment; the innkeeper’s wife, speaking to her husband, says she likes chivalric tales “because I never have any peace in my house except when you’re listening to somebody read; you get so caught up that you forget about arguing with me.” Maritornes likes the love stories, and the innkeeper’s daughter enjoys feeling sorry for the knights who are mourning the absence of their ladies. These are all unsophisticated ways of reading, and I think Cervantes wants the readers of his novels to read in more complicated ways than these characters do, but I also think Cervantes hopes his readers get some simple pleasure out of his novel too; he knows just how much fun it is to sit around and listen to stories with others or to read them in privacy, so just as much as he’s making fun of the inkeeper and his family, he’d like to be able to entertain them too.

The priest and the innkeeper then to go on to debate the truthfulness of the chivalric tales; the priest tells the innkeeper that some of the books are full of lies, while others tell stories that are based on historic events. He seems to be trying to keep fact and fiction separate and therefore to be a much more sophisticated reader than the innkeeper, who believes, much like Don Quixote does, that many of the obviously fictional tales are real. But even the priest has trouble telling what’s what; of the adventures of Diego Garcia de Paredes, one of the real-life heroes of literature, he says:

he [Diego Garcia] recounts them and writes about them himself, with the modesty of a gentleman writing his own chronicle, but if another were to write about those feats freely and dispassionately, they would relegate all the deeds of Hector, Achilles, and Roland to oblivion.

Even the priest, trying hard to teach the innkeeper how to be a more sophisticated reader, ends up mixing fact and fiction, real life and literature himself.

So when the priest tries to lecture the innkeeper on the uses of chivalric literature (they are “intended to amuse our minds in moments of idleness”) and claims that “I would have something to say about the characteristics that books of chivalry ought to have in order to be good books,” I don’t think we’re meant to take him seriously.

What we have are the priest and the innkeeper with conflicting views of what’s valuable and what’s true, and neither of them is particularly persuasive. The innkeeper is enthusiastically gullible, and the priest is more sophisticated but patronizing and lecturing and lacking in self-awareness.

I see this a challenge to the readers of Don Quixote — can we be better readers than the innkeeper and the priest? We have plenty of models of bad reading in this novel (Don Quixote himself as chief among these) — can we do any better?

the sequel of those incredible grievances Saturday, Jun 9 2007 

“Know, therefore, that this very night, I have been engaged in a most rare and wonderful adventure….”

What is this adventure of which DQ speaks so enthusiastically? It occurred in the preceding chapter: the honest carrier, stood up by Maritornes, comes to find her trying to escape the embrace of DQ, and jealously

lifting his arm on high, discharged such a terrible blow upon the lanthorn jaws of the enamoured Don, as bathed his whole countenance in blood; and not satisfied with this application, jumped upon his ribs, and travelled over his whole carcase, at a pace, somewhat exceeding that of a brisk trot, until the bed, which was none of the strongest, either in materials, or foundation, unable to sustain the additional weight, sunk to the ground with both….

This DQ takes to have been an encounter with a giant Moor who guards the castle. Once again, in his misery, he finds only glory.

DQ seeks a cure for his wounds, and drinks a balsam of rosemary, salt, wine and oil. He immediately vomits and, after a few hours sleep, feels better. SP requests the remainder to cure himself, but it does not have the same effect upon him. He becomes sick with pangs, reachings, qualms, and cold sweats. DQ observes without apology that the remedy must work only on knights-errant.

At this instant, the potion began to operate, and the poor squire to unload at both ends, with such fury, that the mat upon which he had thrown himself, and the sheet that covered him, were soon in a woeful pickle…. This tempest of evacuation, lasted near two hours….

Poor Sancho! And he does not even feel better for it. Thankfully, I have never experienced a tempest of evacuation at both ends. What a mess that must have been.

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