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.

this sagacious knight at the inn Friday, Jun 8 2007 

Once again we meet with other characters who have illusions. Though DQ is regarded as having lost his wits for his, so many other characters accept their own illusions for reality.

In explaining to the landlady of the inn what has befallen them, Sancho says

“…I was so infected, by seeing my master tumble, that my whole body akes as much as if I had been cudgelled without mercy.”

That a squire might suffer with his knight such sympathetic wounds is not questioned by anyone. Indeed, the landlady’s daughter confirms the illusion:

“That may very easily happen, cried the daughter! I myself have often dreamed that I was falling from a high tower, without ever coming to the ground; and upon waking, have felt myself bruised and battered, as if I had actually got a great fall.”

There is nothing in the text to suggest the daughter might be suffer from sleepwalking. She and the others at the inn believe that dreams are reality, in that one may receive actual physical wounds from them.

DQ has encountered several other characters, all of whom have their own illusions, but see them as reality, and are accepted by others as reality. DQ is the only one who is laughed at and thought to have lost his wits. Why? The point may be that everyone has their own version of reality which is as valid as anyone else’s. Still, why is DQ signled out as mad? Is this meant to suggest that a mad character in a mad world is the only sane one? All the other characters seem to suffer for their illusions, and though DQ suffers as well, he has not yet characterised his sufferings as such, or felt himself a victim. Is there a message that one should always have a positive outlook on life?

We are eager to read the “sequel of those incredible grievances”.

I tried that once in college, but I only lasted a couple hours Thursday, Jun 7 2007 

From Chapter 8 of the Edith Grossman translation:

Don Quixote did not wish to eat breakfast because, as has been stated, he meant to live on sweet memories.

Yup: I laughed out loud.

certain unmerciful Yanguesians Wednesday, Jun 6 2007 

We find in this chapter several interesting passages which in no way together form a central thesis of this post.

One: DQ and SP ride into the woods and find respite in a verdant oasis. In this same valley, a drove of Gallician fillies are feeding not far from our hero’s convenient spot. Rozinante

seized with an inclination to solace himself with some of those skittish females, no sooner had them in the wind, than deviating from his natural disposition and accustomed deliberation, without asking leave of his lord and master, he went off at a small trot, to communicate his occasions to the objects of his desire.

So it seems that the emotions of love and desire which grip the shepherds are the same as those suffered by DQ’s horse. And the same misperception of reality which characterizes DQ also characterizes his horse.

Two: When DQ suggests that SP fight against anyone who is not a knight, Sancho replies,

“Sir, I am a quiet, meek, peaceable man, and can digest any injury, be it never so hard; for, I have a wife and small children to maintain and bring up: wherefore, let me also apprize, (tho’ I cannot lay my commands upon your worship) that I will in no shape whatever, use my sword against either knight or knave; and that henceforward, in the fight of God, I forgive all injuries, past, present, or to come, which I have already received, at this present time suffer, or may hereafter undergo, from any person whatsoever, high or low, rich or poor, gentle or simple, without exception to rank or circumstance.”

Liberally sprinkling his speech with qualifying clauses, Sancho sounds just like a lawyer.

Three: After they have been thrashed by the unmerciful Yanguesian carriers, DQ decides they must seek out a castle where they can rest and recuperate. Rozinante, however, has been equally thrashed, and so DQ finds in the tale of Silenus entering Thebes upon an ass the legitamacy for his riding Sancho’s ass. This gives Sancho his first opportunity to display his sparkling and biting wit:

“It may be very true, that he rode upon an ass, replied Sancho, but, there is some difference, I apprehend, between riding and lying across the beast like a bag of dirt.”

fierce basilisk of these mountains Wednesday, Jun 6 2007 

When we finished reading Marcella’s defense, a magnificent speech on beauty and love, we had to return to the beginning of Vol.I, 2:4 and reread in full the story of Marcella. It is told quite thoroughly by the goatherd, with all necessary background, and then later the specifics are addressed individually and in detail by Marcella herself with almost no difference from the goatherd’s account. She makes plain Chrysostom’s folly.

We enjoyed the description of the dead shepherd’s malady:

“Chrysostom was woundily in love.”

What is Marcella’s crime?

“for, her affability and beauty allures all the hearts of those that converse with her to serve and love her; but, her coyness and plain-dealing drives them even to the borders of despair; therefore, they know not what to say, but, upbraid her with cruelty and ingratitude….”

Chrysostom goes into voluntary exile to forget about Marcella, but instead he writes a song of despair, and finds himself

harassed by groundless jealousy and imaginary fears, which tormented him as much as if they had been real….

He is lionized by his fellow shepherds for all this; yet when DQ describes his vision of chivalry and mission of knight-errantry, these same shepherds think he has lost his wits. Clearly Chrysostom’s and all the shepherds’ confusion of reality and imagination are no different than DQ’s.

Finally, to address an earlier comment in which Sylvia wrote that in DQ’s pursuit of Marcella,

I have no doubt that his intentions were no more honourable than those of the “shepherds.”

We do not find any evidence that DQ’s devotion to Dulcinea has lapsed, either when told about Marcella, or when she appears. After he hears about her, and before the funeral of Chrysostom, DQ

spent the greatest part of the night in thinking of his lady Dulcinea, in imitation of Marcella’s lovers.

He then spends some time expounding on every knight’s requirement of a mistress. In the midst of this episode, when asked to identify his mistress, DQ states that her name is Dulcinea. At the end of the chapter, DQ goes in pursuit of Marcella, not because he has been beguiled by her beauty and fallen woundily in love, forgotful of Dulcinea, but because he

thought this a proper occasion for exercizing his chivalry, in defence of distressed damsels….

This is entirely consistent with his normal mindset, and does not seem at all to suggest that he has been allured to serve and love her like the shepherds.

The democracy of Don Quixote Tuesday, Jun 5 2007 

Here is an interesting article about Don Quixote and the state of the novel. Spoiler Alert: Don’t read the article until you’ve finished DQ. (But you can read my excerpts…)

The article by Jonathan Ree begins:

In or around 1605, European literature changed. No one realised it at the time, but when Don Quixote set off to save the world, a new kind of writing was born. The old forms of storytelling—the epic, the romance, the oral tale—would from now on be pitted against a boisterous young rival. Before long it would be universally acknowledged that a reader hoping to enjoy a good story must be in search of a novel.

Ree provides a pithy overview of the cultural relevance of the novel — and essay — (vis a vis politics), quoting several recent books, among them, Milan Kundera’s The Curtain, which refers to Cervantes and Don Quixote:

By inventing a narrator through whose consciousness such dumb events could be worked up into an affecting “scene,” Cervantes created a form of literature that could do justice to “modest sentiments”; and so a new kind of beauty—Kundera calls it “prosaic beauty”—was born. Henry Fielding took the technique further when he created a narrator who could charm his readers with benign loquacity, and Laurence Sterne completed the development by blithely allowing the story of Tristram Shandy to be ruined by the character trying to recount it.

The article concludes:

The novel, (Mario Vargas Llosa) thinks, articulates a basic human desire—the desire to be “many people, as many as it would take to assuage the burning desires that possess us.” Alternatively, it stands for a basic human right—the right not to be the same as oneself, let alone the same as other people. And the defiant history of democracy began not in politics but in literature, when Cervantes first tackled “the problem of the narrator,” or the question of who gets to tell the story. No doubt about it: Don Quixote is “a 21st-century novel.”End of the article