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)   


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?