Nabokov’s Lectures on Don Quixote: Two Portraits: Don Quixote and Sancho Panza Thursday, Aug 16 2007 

Yes, I still plan on reading and posting on the entirety of Nabokov’s Lectures on Don Quixote. I stopped in May because so much of what Nabokov spoke of would have “spoiled” the book for those still reading it, and I would have to take great care not to mention any specific events that occur later in the text. Now it’s September, and quite a few have finished with the novel, and even those yet to finish have read enough so that I don’t have to worry about ruining (quite so much). Onward!

Nabokov does not think very highly of Sancho Panza. His first true lecture, “Two Portraits: Don Quixote and Sancho Panza,” begins:

Even if allowance is made for the falling away of the Spanish in the twilight of translation, even so Sancho’s cracks and proverbs are not very mirth provoking either in themselves or in their repetitious accumulation. The corniest modern gag is funnier.

I disagree with this and, judging from what I’ve read, most of the members of this group probably do as well. But this stance fits with Nabokov’s general approach to Don Quixote, namely to highlight the cruelty of the book and not its whimsy. His reading of the book’s two main characters is the first aspect of this approach:

The Knight of the Mournful Countenance is as unique individual; with some reservations, Sancho of the matted beard and tomato nose is the generalized clown.

Let’s consider them each in turn.

The Man Don Quixote

Nabokov first considers the “gruesome details” of the Don’s appearance: he is gaunt and grizzled, with a suit of armor that is “old, black, and moldy,” and a horse that is the image of its master. Despite this less-than-inspiration exterior, Nabokov considers Don Quixote to be “a gallant gentleman, a man of infinite courage, a hero in the truest sense of the word,” even insisting in parenthesis “(This important point should be kept in mind.)” Nabokov’s Don Quixote is “without malice” and “trustful as a child.”

In explaining Don Quixote’s madness, Nabokov reveals a highly amusing anecdote about his choice of food:

At fifty he plunged into the reading of books of chivalry and took to eating heavy suppers, including what one translator (Duffield) renders as “resurrection pie” (duelos y quebrantos — literally, pains and breakage), a “pot made of the flesh of animals who have died accidental deaths by falling down precipices and getting their neck bones broken.”

More important is Nabokov’s insistence that Don Quixote views the world in dual form: “Reality and illusion are invterwoven in the pattern of life.” He also remarks upon the fact that the Don, unlike many epic heroes (Odysseys and Aeneas are cited), does not have any divine support for his mission – he is completely on his own.

The Man Sancho Panza (The Pig Belly on Crane Legs)

Nabokov’s study of Sancho Panza is less than illuminating. After I finished it, my only thought was that Nabokov clearly did not find Sancho funny, at all, and that this is a flaw in his reading of the book. He insists that Sancho is a “product of generalization” who is “never as detailed as Don Quixote.” This is true only in the fact that Don Quixote is the namesake of the text, and Sancho the secondary character. He is remarkably round for a supporting actor, and far from the “perfect bore” that Nabokov portrays.

Near of the end of his lecture Nabokov slips in a nasty attack on readers with different taste than his, claiming that “all readers can be separated into Don Quixotes and Sancho Panzas.” You have one guess to determine which one Nabokov thinks that he is.

Nabokov’s determination not to see any humor in the book is a serious shortcoming, and one that will concern me as a read the rest of his lecture series. Read this, and you’ll see why:

Scholars who speak of sidesplitting episodes in the book do not reveal any permanent injury to their ribs. That in this book the humor contains, as one critic puts it, “a depth of philosophical insight and genuine humanity, in which qualities it has been excelled by no other writer” seems to me to be a staggering exaggeration. The Don is certainly not funny. His squire, with all his prodigious memory for old saws, is even less funny than his master.


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.)

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.

Nabokov’s Lectures on Don Quixote: Introduction Saturday, May 5 2007 

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.

Nabokov’s Lectures on Don Quixote: Foreward Sunday, Apr 29 2007 

Since I will not be fully participating in the reading of Don Quixote, having just finished it a few months back, I thought it would be fun to read and report on Vladimir Nabokov’s lectures on the novel — a book I’d been wanting to read anyway, and will serve to keep me in the text and on this blog. Today, before officially launching into the lectures or the commentary, I thought I’d give a background on them and paste in a few excellent observations made by Guy Davenport in the Foreward.

Nabokov’s six lectures were given to “600 young strangers” taking Humanities 2 at Harvard University in the spring semester of 1952. Nabokov was a member of the Cornell faculty, and had been given a leave of absence so that he could take the temporary position at Harvard. To prepare for his lectures, Nabokov typed up a full summary of the book, at least one paragraph for every chapter; this commentary is included in the back of my volume.

Nabokov’s guiding purpose, as explained in the Foreward, was to “tear apart” Don Quixote, exposing it as a “cruel and crude old book” which had been softened by hundreds of years of appreciative scholarship.  Davenport explains:

For Don Quixote, as Nabokov knew with some pain and annoyance, is not the book people think it is. Far too many interpolated novelle […] impede the plotless plot. We all rewrite the book in our heads so that it is a picturesque succession of events: the appropriation of the barber’s basin as Mambrino’s helmet, the tilt at the windmills (which became the archetypal quintessence of the book), charging the sheep, and so on. Many people wholly innocent of the text can supply you with a plausible plot summary.

Nabokov’s contrarian perception of the book is that it is in fact cruel, as the follies of Don Quixote and his squire “elicits cruel laughter,” as they are submitted to countless humiliations. This was to become the foundation of his lectures.

The Foreward to the Lectures also provides this helpful historical commentary: “The historical moment in which Don Quixote was written, the reign of Felipe II, that paranoid fanatic who style himself the Most Catholic King, is one we have silvered over with a moonlight of Romance.” It was a period in which the King’s spies were constantly on the lookout for anyone who did not appear to be a “Good Catholic.”

Also, in the history of Europe, Don Quixote was written at a crucial moment:

Europe was going through a time in which reality began to flip-flop. Hamlet teased Polonius with the ambiguous shapes of the clouds. Don Quixote’s abilities to fool himself are a focus of the age’s anxieties. Identity, for the first time in European history, became a matter of opinion or conviction.

In his lectures, Nabokov’s hoped to rescue Don Quixote from centuries of Enlightened residue, and expose the true nature of the text: “He wanted the book to be itself alone, to be a fairy tale, to be an imaginative construct independent of the myth ‘real life.'” In fact, it is Davenport’s opinion that Nabokov set out to expose Don Quixote as a fraud, but in his final opinion realized that it was not the text itself that was a fraud, but the “the book’s reputation and epidemic among its critics.”

I’ll close with this final quotation from the Foreward:

Don Quixote remains a crude old book full of peculiarly Spanish cruelty, pitiless cruelty that baits an old man who plays like a child into his dotage. It was written in an age when dwarfs and the afflicted were laughed at, when pride and haughtiness were more arrogant than ever before or since, when dissenters from official thought were burnt alive in city squares to general applause, when mercy and kindness seem to have been banished. Indeed, the first readers of the book laughed heartily at its cruelty. Yet the world soon found other ways of reading it. It gave birth to the modern novel all over Europe. Fielding, Smollett, Gogol, Dostoevski, Daudet, Flaubert shaped this fable out of Spain to their own ends. A character who started out in his creator’s hands as a buffoon has turned out in the course of history to be a saint.

Enjoy the first few chapters!

A Trip to the Library Tuesday, Apr 24 2007 

windmills.jpgI decided to start my DQ prep today with a quick trip to the University of York library on the hunt for introductory criticism. (I’m lucky that, as a staff member, I can have up to 60 books at a time!)  And I came away with four delicious looking tomes:

The Cambridge Companion to Cervantes (ed. Anthony J. Cascardi) – I very much enjoy the Cambridge Companions and I think they’re a good place to start with criticism. This one has a handy timeline of Cervantes life and an Appendix with a list of electronic resources for Quixote.

A Critical Introduction to Don Quixote by L.A. Murillo – This provides a short thematic essay for every chapter or couple of chapters, and so I thought it would be interesting as a companion. It should fit well with the 50 pages a week plan too.

Fighting Windmills: Encounters with Don Quixote – This one looks at DQ as a text through time with chapters like ‘Cervantes Sallies into Eighteenth Century France and England’ and ‘DQ and the New World: Two American Perspectives’.  I thought this might be an interesting counterpoint to textual criticism: thinking about how other cultures and eras have read the book and responded to it.

Finally, Cervantes by Jean Canavaggio (trans. J.R. Jones) – a biography of the man himself.

I can’t wait to dig into these!

Don Quixote links Sunday, Apr 15 2007 

Imani has kindly dug up a bunch of links on Don Quixote to help us along as we tackle the novel; check ’em out over there in the sidebar — there’s lots of cool stuff available.

Sometime before May 1st, I’ll email invitations to those who have let me know they’d like to join the group.  I’m looking forward to this group reading!