After slogging my way through the first half of this infamous book I decided to break my response into two parts. (Click here for Part 2.) This wasn’t planned, obviously, but coming in at 982 pages it may as well be two books, so I figured why not. (I’m still only going to count it as one book though.) I’ve split this for two reasons: I doubt I’ll remember the first half by time I finish the second and I have so much to talk about related to Miguel Cervantes and Spain, Madrid in particular, it just makes sense.
I first read portions of Don Quixote in my high school Spanish class. It was one of the only works that we read in English and in Spanish. I don’t remember the overwhelming majority of it. The only part I do remember is what has become so much a part of the modern psyche, “tilting at windmills” (Wikipedia link) that I can’t even say for sure it’s from reading the book or just from hearing it so often. It’s sad, but that’s all I remember. What’s interesting is how much more of an analytical reader I’ve become and how I took so much more appreciation from the novel’s absurdity and Cervantes’ critiques on novels and literature in general.
What did surprise me, because I apparently blocked it out when school forced me to read this in high school, is that Don Quixote is one of the earliest “canonical novels,” (Wikipedia link). As in the Western Canon, as in capital letter “C” Classic! I’ve already forgotten what I shifted off my list to put this back on it, but I’m so glad I did.
Apart from the tilting at windmills phrase that has become ubiquitous in pop culture, Cervantes also gave us the word quixotic (another Wikipedia link) and in the introduction of this translated version I found out how his works changed literature through their uniqueness and combination of everything before:
“Don Quixote, which drew from all the prose genres that preceded it (and some poetic ones, too), had no beaten paths to follow.” (Loc. 209)
“Cervantes realized that he was his own most alluring mystery, and that his story as writer was the most interesting of all. Don Quixote is the tale of the reader because it is also that of the writer.” (Loc. 240)
“Yet Cervantes’s text imposes limits on modernization. It’s impossible to present some of its non-modern features from seeping through into any faithful translation.” (Loc. 603)
I couldn’t get over how “meta” (“(of a creative work) referring to itself or to the conventions of its genre; self-referential,” thanks Google) the entire novel and introduction were. They both talk about how all-pervading literature has the potential to be and we really see that with where Don Quixote is in today’s pop-culture. Cervantes takes time out to criticize genres, will simultaneously idealizing them and writing them with sarcasm and contempt.
What I really struggled with at first with Part I, was the episodic nature of the novel, but looking back this has really helped me to remember distinctly bits and pieces of the work. Honestly, and I’m sure it’s been compared before, but this novel read like a telenovella or an early serialization. As in, what will our hero get up to next, and “Next time on Don Quixote, our wayward knight finds a princess and meets a giant.” Where I ran into trouble was the sheer number of stories and characters that Cervantes introduced.
“‘I’ve never seen a book of chivalry that could be regarded as a whole body complete with all its members, and in which the middle corresponds with the beginning and the end with the beginning and the middle; on the contrary, their authors give them so many members that their intention seems more to produce a chimera or a monster than a well-proportioned figure. Apart from this, their style is harsh, their adventures are incredible, their loves are licentious, their civilities are uncouth, their battles are endless, their speeches are absurd, their journeys are preposterous, and, in short, there’s no ingenious artifice about them, so they deserve to be thrown out of a Christian society as useless wastrels.’” (440)
I mean come on right? How intelligent is Cervantes? He wrote a novel in the style of all novels preceding it while simultaneously critiquing and caricaturing them and he even criticizes the authors while writing the same thing! Add in that the characters dialogue is so far beyond witty I couldn’t even contain myself most of the time from laughing. At one point Sancho Panza is basically saying don’t forget me, I’m a main character, but he instead uses the word caricature, which is perfect!
I’m sure there is so much more I could talk about, but I think I’ll leave it here before I go into my “Reading Madrid, AKA an homage to Miguel Cervantes” post. There’s not much else to add, other than it’s no wonder this novel was listed as the top book of all time at least according to a lot of modern authors in 2002. I feel accomplished for recognizing a large chunk of the hundreds of cultural references (both religious and secular) Cervantes makes. And I didn’t even touch on the comedy! Go read the sixth quote below about the ABCs and you’ll be like wait what?!
Recommendation: I would definitely recommend it and probably in English. I feel like I would miss 2/3 of the novel’s intelligence if I had read it in Spanish. I’m glad I finally took the time to read it and I can’t wait to see where Part II takes Don Quixote and Sancho Panza!
Opening Line: “In a village in La Mancha, the name of which I cannot quite recall, there lived not long ago one of those country gentlemen or hidalgos who keep a lance in a rack, an ancient leather shield, a scrawny hack and a greyhound for coursing.”
Closing Line: “It is reported that he has done so, after long vigils and much toil, and that he intends to publish them, as we await Don Quixote’s third sally.” (Whited out to avoid spoilers.)
Additional Quotes from Don Quixote Part 1
“Everything he read in his books took possession of his imagination: enchantments, fights, battles, challenges, wounds, sweet nothings, love affairs, storms and impossible absurdities. The idea that this whole fabric of famous fabrications was real so established itself in his mind that no history in the world was truer for him.” (27)
“‘Forgive me, my friend,’ said Don Quixote. ‘I only mentioned it because there is such a difference between noses and Moses; but your reply was an excellent one, for noses are indeed older than Moses; and do continue your history, and I will not interrupt you ever again.’” (91)
“So the difference is that some were but no longer are, and others are who never were; and I might be one of the former, and it might be discovered that I had great and famous beginnings, which ought to be sufficient for the king my father-in-law-to-be; and, if not, the princess will be so enamoured of me that, in spite of her father – even if he has clear evidence that I am the son of some water-carrier – she will accept me as her lord and husband; and if this does not happen, it will be the moment to carry her off wherever I see fit, and either time or death will put an end to her parents’ anger.’” (174)
“Let me add that when a painter wants to become famous for his art, he tries to copy originals by the finest artists he knows. And this same rule holds good for nearly all the trades and professions of importance that serve to adorn a society; and so what a man must do and what a man does if he wishes to achieve a reputation for prudence and long-suffering, is to imitate Ulysses, in whose person and labours Homer painted for us a living portrait of these two qualities, just as Virgil showed us in the person of Aeneas the courage of a dutiful son and the sagacity of a brave and able captain, not describing or revealing them as they were but as they should have been, to leave models of their virtues for future generations.” (207)
“I am your tenant but I am not your slave, and the nobility of your blood should not and does not give you the authority to despise and dishonour the humility of mine; and I hold myself, a lowly farmer’s daughter, in quite as much esteem as you, a lord and gentleman, hold yourself. All your violence will have no effect on me, all your wealth will be powerless, all your words will not deceive me, all your sighs and tears will not move me.” (253)
“He’s sensible, solitary, solicitous and secretive, so he’s got the four S’s they say all good lovers must have – not only that, though, he’s got a whole alphabet of qualities, and if you don’t believe me you just listen and you’ll soon hear how I reel it off! If I judge right he’s appreciative, benevolent, chivalrous, dutiful, enamoured, firm, gallant, honourable, illustrious, judicious, kind, loyal, manly, noble, onest, princely, quantious, rich, the four S’s of the saying, and then tacit, unattached, veracious, well-born, the X doesn’t suit him because it’s a rough old letter, the Y I’ve already done and as for the Z he’s really zealous for your honour.” (318)
“And although my idleness and poor taste have led me to start reading most of those that have been printed, I’ve never managed to reach the end of a single one, because it seems to me that they’re all more or less the same as each other, without any important differences between them.” (439)
“‘And if someone replies that the authors of such books write them as fictions and are therefore under no obligation to bother with subtleties or truths, I’d answer by saying that the more a lie looks like the truth the better a lie it is, and the more feasible it is the more it pleases us. Fictional stories should suit their readers’ understanding and be written in such a way that, by making impossibilities seem easy and marvels seem straightforward and by enthralling the mind, they amaze and astonish, gladden and entertain, so that wonder and pleasure go hand in hand; and none of this can be achieved by the writer who forsakes verisimilitude and imitation, because the perfection of all writing consists in these two qualities.” (440)