Since I will not be fully participating in the reading of Don Quixote, having just finished it a few months back, I thought it would be fun to read and report on Vladimir Nabokov’s lectures on the novel — a book I’d been wanting to read anyway, and will serve to keep me in the text and on this blog. Today, before officially launching into the lectures or the commentary, I thought I’d give a background on them and paste in a few excellent observations made by Guy Davenport in the Foreward.

Nabokov’s six lectures were given to “600 young strangers” taking Humanities 2 at Harvard University in the spring semester of 1952. Nabokov was a member of the Cornell faculty, and had been given a leave of absence so that he could take the temporary position at Harvard. To prepare for his lectures, Nabokov typed up a full summary of the book, at least one paragraph for every chapter; this commentary is included in the back of my volume.

Nabokov’s guiding purpose, as explained in the Foreward, was to “tear apart” Don Quixote, exposing it as a “cruel and crude old book” which had been softened by hundreds of years of appreciative scholarship.  Davenport explains:

For Don Quixote, as Nabokov knew with some pain and annoyance, is not the book people think it is. Far too many interpolated novelle […] impede the plotless plot. We all rewrite the book in our heads so that it is a picturesque succession of events: the appropriation of the barber’s basin as Mambrino’s helmet, the tilt at the windmills (which became the archetypal quintessence of the book), charging the sheep, and so on. Many people wholly innocent of the text can supply you with a plausible plot summary.

Nabokov’s contrarian perception of the book is that it is in fact cruel, as the follies of Don Quixote and his squire “elicits cruel laughter,” as they are submitted to countless humiliations. This was to become the foundation of his lectures.

The Foreward to the Lectures also provides this helpful historical commentary: “The historical moment in which Don Quixote was written, the reign of Felipe II, that paranoid fanatic who style himself the Most Catholic King, is one we have silvered over with a moonlight of Romance.” It was a period in which the King’s spies were constantly on the lookout for anyone who did not appear to be a “Good Catholic.”

Also, in the history of Europe, Don Quixote was written at a crucial moment:

Europe was going through a time in which reality began to flip-flop. Hamlet teased Polonius with the ambiguous shapes of the clouds. Don Quixote’s abilities to fool himself are a focus of the age’s anxieties. Identity, for the first time in European history, became a matter of opinion or conviction.

In his lectures, Nabokov’s hoped to rescue Don Quixote from centuries of Enlightened residue, and expose the true nature of the text: “He wanted the book to be itself alone, to be a fairy tale, to be an imaginative construct independent of the myth ‘real life.'” In fact, it is Davenport’s opinion that Nabokov set out to expose Don Quixote as a fraud, but in his final opinion realized that it was not the text itself that was a fraud, but the “the book’s reputation and epidemic among its critics.”

I’ll close with this final quotation from the Foreward:

Don Quixote remains a crude old book full of peculiarly Spanish cruelty, pitiless cruelty that baits an old man who plays like a child into his dotage. It was written in an age when dwarfs and the afflicted were laughed at, when pride and haughtiness were more arrogant than ever before or since, when dissenters from official thought were burnt alive in city squares to general applause, when mercy and kindness seem to have been banished. Indeed, the first readers of the book laughed heartily at its cruelty. Yet the world soon found other ways of reading it. It gave birth to the modern novel all over Europe. Fielding, Smollett, Gogol, Dostoevski, Daudet, Flaubert shaped this fable out of Spain to their own ends. A character who started out in his creator’s hands as a buffoon has turned out in the course of history to be a saint.

Enjoy the first few chapters!