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.)