Along with Stu of Winston’s Dad’s Blog, I am reading Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes at the rate of 92 pages a week (it will take us ten weeks to complete the book). We are using the acclaimed 2003 translation by Edith Grossman whose Wikipedia entry suggests that she deserves a review of her own – I’d recommend anyone who reads Don Quixote to read the interview with her here.
I’m not going to provide background information on the book or any sense of literary criticism – there are vast amounts of material already on the net including a comprehensive and highly informative Wikipedia entry. I shall instead concentrate as usual on my reading experience, what I thought of the book, passages I particularly enjoyed, overall impressions.
Firstly, I was impressed with the sheer modernity of this book. De Cervantes’ humour and satire is bang up to date, and the whole book has a freshness about it which made me feel it could be a modern novel. It wasn’t a difficult read, but raced along from one episode to another with terrific pace. If the next eight hundred pages are going to be anything like the first hundred that I’m really not going to be bored in the company of Don Quixote. Let me just pick up a few points that struck me –
Reading can make you go mad
Well, we all know that – Timothy Ryback’s book Hitler’s Private Library shows the power of literature to shape character with disastrous results. Don Quixote developed an obsession with “books of chivalry” and read them with such devotion and enthusiasm that the he let his affairs go to pot and “with these words and phrases the poor gentleman lost his mind”. In fact he read from dusk to dawn and sunrise to sunset and was caught up in so much reading “that his brains dried up”. A warning there for book bloggers I think. This takes me back to being eighteen and reading the whold of Lord of the Rings in one weekend and expecting to see hobbits in the woods when I next took a walk in the country (a belief that soon faded I’m pleased to say).
When things go wrong carry on regardless
I love the way Don Quixote made a helmet out of cardboard and tested it by striking it twice with his sword, only to find it hacked to pieces. He promptly made another, placed a few strips of iron inside it and “not wanting to put it to the test” accepted it as an extremely fine sallet”. Now, that’s really great – somethings going to fail the test – solution: don’t test it.
Don’t let facts get in the way of a great idea
Poor Don Quixote. To him the cod at the inn was trout, the prostitutes were ladies, the inkeeper the castellan of the castle and the gelder of hogs (now there’s a job title) was a minstrel. This was self-delusion on a grand scale. As an aside, I like the Monty Pythonish “spam” equivalent of the inn-keeper’s cod, when Don Quixote was offered cod, cod-fish, salt cod or smoked cod.
Burning books doesn’t actually cure the fever
When the housekeeper failed to exorcise the enchanter that lived in Don Quixote’s books by sprinking them with hyssop and holy water, then a great book burning took place. Not only were Don Quixote’s books burned by the priest and the barber, they actually bricked up the door to the library and told Don Quixote that an enchanter had come on a cloud and damaged his house. And Don Quixote actually believed them!
Modernism is actually quite old
I love the way that when telling of Don Quixote’s fight with the Basque, de Cervantes interrupts the story to tell his readers that the account of the fight he was reading ended part way through. He digresses for a few pages to tell his readers how he tracked down another book which contained the rest of the story and arranged for its translation. This concept of the author suddenly breaking into his own story to talk to the reader directly is a feature of many books of the last century, even as recently as Jonathan Coe’s new book The Terrible History of Maxwell Sim which uses exactly the same device.
A great humourist can also excel in serious passages
The story of the ill-fated Grisóstomo who fell in love with the beautiful but chaste Marcela is a masterpiece of lyrical writing. Marcels’a lengthy speech to the mourners at Grisóstomo’s funeral is exceptionally beautiful –
Just as the viper does not deserve to be blamed for its venom, although it kills, since it was given the venom by nature, I do not deserve to be reproved for being beautiful, for beauty in the chaste woman is like a distant fire or sharp-edged sword: they do not burn or cut the person who does not approach them. Honour and virtue are adornments of the soul, without which the body is not truly beautiful.
So, to conclude for now, I am pleased that Stu challenged me to read Don Quixote with him. I can see its going to be a fascinating journey and I’m glad that I embarked on it.
Title: Don Quixote
Author: Miguel de Cervantes (trans. Edith Grossman)
Publication: Vintage (2005), paperback, 992 pages
Lisa Hill wrote a comprehensive and insightful article on Don Quixote on ANZ LitLovers here.
The image of Windmills at Campo de Criptana in La Mancha was taken by Lourdes Cardenal and is licensed for public use under a GNU free documentation license. See here for details.