I absolutely loved Vladimir Nabokov’s “Introduction,” the first in his six part series on Don Quixote. It begins thusly:

We shall do our best to avoid the fatal error of looking for so-called “real life” in novels. Let us not try and reconcile the fiction of facts with the facts of fiction. Don Quixote is a fairy tale, so is Bleak House, so is Dead Souls. Madame Bovary and Anna Karenin are supreme fairy tales. But without these fairy tales the world would not be real. A masterpiece of fiction is an original world and as such is not likely to fit the world of the reader.

Well, that sure is lovely! Nabokov then advances his point, explaining that “real life,” if it is anything at all, “is but a piece of fiction, a tissue of statistics.” Therefore, since the notion of “real life” is in itself built on boring generalities, we should be glad that fiction does not often depict life as we understand it.

… the more vivid a new details in a work of fiction, then the more it departs from so-called “real life,” since “real life” is the generalized epithet, the average emotion, the advertised multitude, the commonsensical world.

Having this dispatched with a serious bugaboo, Nabokov proceeds to consider, in brief, some introductory concerns. Here are a few of them:

The “Where?” of Don Quixote

Nabokov here explains that the Spain depicted in Cervantes’ book has little resemblance to the country’s actual geography:

If […] we examine Don Quixote’s excursions topographically, we are confronted with a ghastly muddle. I shall spare you its details and only mention the fact that throughout those adventures there is a mass of monstrous inaccuracies at every step.

Then that’s one thing you don’t have to worry about!

The “When?” of the Book

Sylvia has already posted a wonderful timeline, so I won’t bother reminding you that Cervantes was a contemporary of Shakespeare, or that the Spanish Empire was at its height during his lifetime. I will, however, quote Nabokov at length on the book’s place in the history of narrative:

What we shall witness now is the evolution of the epic form, the shedding of its metrical skin, the hoofing of its feet, a sudden fertile cross between the winged monster of the epic and the specialized prose form of entertaining narration, more or less a domesticated mammal, if I may pursue the metaphor to its lame end. The result is a fertile hybrid, a new species, the European novel.

As you can see, reading the lectures of a great novelist has its perks.

The General Comments of Critics

In the Foreward, Guy Davenport explained that one of Nabokov’s chief goals was to dispel the hyperventilating style of criticism that surrounds this novel. So he begins this section with:

Some critics, a very vague minority long dead, have tried to prove that Don Quixote is but a stale farce. Others have maintained that Don Quixote is the greatest novel ever written. A hundred years ago one enthusiastic French critic, Sainte-Beuve, called it “the Bible of Humanity.” Let us not fall under the spell of these enchanters.

Nabokov has little patience for this sort of talk, nor does he care to argue about whether Cervantes was as good as Shakespeare (he’s not, according the Nabokov), or whether he was a Protestant Reformer or a militant Catholic.

In conclusion, here is a lovely snippet from the lecture’s final paragraph:

We should, therefore, imagine Don Quixote and his squire as two little silhouettes ambling in the distance against an ample flaming sunset, and their two huge black shadows, one of them especially elongated, stretching across the open country of centuries and reaching us here.

One thinks of Picasso.