Don Quixote and Melancholy Wednesday, Sep 5 2007 

On the heels of finishing the first part of Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, I came across this interesting passage, from Peter D. Kramer’s Against Depression:

The Renaissance sustained several simultaneous traditions of melancholy. Cervantes began his literary career with a long pastoral poem, full of pining and tearful shepherds suffering from unrequited love. Don Quixote makes use of a different version of melancholy, the comical inspiration of the madman. These traditions flourished for centuries, but they have not been sustained by it. Jean Canavaggio, the great biographer of Cervantes, writes that:

[M]adness–as Michel Foucault has brilliantly demonstrated–is now a source for uneasiness for us: it is incongruous, even indecent, to make fun of a madman, as our ancestors loved to do; and we preceive as tragic the loneliness of the hero that Cervantes shows us misunderstood by everyone. In a word, the distance that separates our view of Don Quixote from the one that classical Europe formed of him reflected, beyond any doubt, a profound evolution of customs and sensibilities.

In the case of insanity, what it is to us changed to meet the medical understanding. And then what emerged in our reading of the Quixote was the hero’s loneliness and alienation from his fellows.


On finishing Don Quixote Sunday, Aug 19 2007 

7075756.gif Most of this post will be about the second half of Don Quixote and the ending, so if you don’t want to hear about it, you might want to save this post for later. I loved the way the second part of the novel became a kind of commentary on the first (is this what people are talking about when they say that everything comes together in the second half?), how everyone Don Quixote and Sancho Panza meet have read the novel’s first half and so are in on the story of his peculiar form of madness. Most of them decide to have some fun playing jokes on the two, to see just how far the madness of Don Quixote will go. So, in addition to all the metanarrativity that was already going on in the first part — the multiple authors and the long conversations on storytelling and the frequent mentions of Cide Hamete Benengeli — Cervantes adds his critique of the false sequel to Don Quixote published in between his two volumes and mixes up real life and fiction even more by having Don Quixote confront the results of his literary fame again and again.

It is this playfulness about fiction and authorship that I will remember about the book, long after I’ve forgotten individual episodes — episodes it probably won’t take me all that long to forget, in truth, because some of them dragged on a bit and my attention wandered. But I love that self-interrogation is built into the structure of one of the first novels ever, depending on how one defines “novel,” or, at the very least, one of the earliest and most influential novels. Don Quixote is a novel about madness, friendship, adventure, and love, but it’s also very much a novel about novels, and it starts a very long tradition of novels that reflect on themselves, a traditional so influential that even ostensibly realistic novels usually have some kind of self-reflexive element to them.

About the novel’s ending: it is so sad! I didn’t expect to see Don Quixote regaining his sanity, and even less did I expect that moment of sanity to be rather depressing:

“Señores,” said Don Quixote, “let us go slowly, for there are no birds today in yesterday’s nests. I was mad, and now I am sane; I was Don Quixote of La Mancha, and now I am, as I have said, Alonso Quixano the Good. May my repentance and sincerity return me to the esteem your graces once had for me, and let the scribe continue.”

And he goes on reciting his will. It’s this melancholy at the end that convinces me (even further than I was already convinced) that Cervantes has great affection for his two main characters, in spite of their foolishness. It’s the energy of their madness that carries the story forward, so that as soon as Don Quixote regains his sanity, there is no story anymore, and the novel abruptly ends. Without Don Quixote’s madness, Cervantes has nothing. So, yes, Cervantes mocks Don Quixote’s foolish and naïve way of reading, but I think he glories in the energy and the fun of it too. To me, Don Quixote comes across as admirable in his imagination, his resourcefulness, his persistence, and his liveliness. I realize this is a very contemporary way of looking at the novel, and earlier readers may not have seen anything admirable in Don Quixote whatsoever, but I can’t help reading as a contemporary person, can I?

Don Quixote and the Invention of the Modern Novel Monday, Jul 30 2007 

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.)

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)   

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.

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

Introducing Myself Thursday, May 31 2007 

So I thought that I’d just introduce myself to this particular blog group. I’m in my fourth year of English Literature Studies. My gf who is also an English major recently chastised me for not having read this particular part of the English Literary Canon so I am rectifying that and I stumbled upon this particular blog via relation to Work in Progress.  I have as yet only read the introduction and I am currently on my way to finishing the first two chapters. I shall start posting my thoughts and any related questions soon enough. Hope to have some nice conversations with you all, cheers.

The World’s First Work of Popular Fiction Friday, May 25 2007 

I’ve always loved irony, whether it be in life or in literature, so I was delighted with the prologue of Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote. While seeking inspiration for the prologue, Cervantes confesses to a friend that, without scholarly quotes and literary allusions and sonnets, his book won’t be as learned as he would like it to be. No matter, his friend tells him before encouraging Cervantes to plagiarize his bibliography and footnotes. Aristotle, Plato, Aesop, Horace, and a few contemporaries are all name-checked. Along the way, Cervantes’ friend addresses the issue of the book’s readers–and namely scholars–by insinuating that they’ll be too stupid or lazy to bother double-checking a bibliography: “Besides, no one will take the trouble to ascertain whether you follow your authorities or not, as he has nothing to gain by it.”

The prologue probably has no basis on factual events and, given the tongue-in-cheek comedy of the entire dialogue, one is inclined to think that it’s apocryphal–writers are egotistical liars, always trying to outdo their peers, especially when it comes to the breadth of their knowledge, and in this respect, Cervantes seems to be admitting that he’s no different. The prologue also brilliantly sets the stage for the rest of the book–Don Quixote is a satire, so Cervantes makes an effort to dispel his readers’ notions of seriousness. The author is essentially announcing that his history, as it were, has no basis in fact. Readers don’t have to scholars to enjoy it, and indeed, Cervantes seems to prefer that unlearned individuals–commoners, really–read his book. And by keeping the common people mind, Cervantes is perhaps making fun of the literati and their pretentiousness by intentionally writing the world’s first work of popular fiction.

Yet, given the thought he put into the prologue, as well as his obsession with credibility, perhaps Cervantes wants us to take his book seriously after all.

a pleasure-journey Friday, May 25 2007 


“Don Quixote” is not a book to “sit down to”–as men phrase it, and so phrasing convert bright prospect into threat of doleful task–but a book to set out upon. Let reading of it be as a pleasure-journey–interrupted, indeterminate, delayed, full of loiterings and surprises. Delight in it, as in the journey, is a leisurely matter. It is not to be hurdled through; it is a wandering through the land–cities and inns, the wayside and the square; duels, fantasies, woeful obsessions, and antics to make men weep; then forlorn homecomings, a clearing of the vision, and a lying down for the long sleep.

…from Much Loved Books: Best Sellers of the Ages, by James O’Donnell Bennett

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