Don Quixote Readalong – Part 1

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.

Windmills at Campo de Criptana in La Mancha

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
ISBN: 9780099469698

Other references

Lisa Hill wrote a comprehensive and insightful article on Don Quixote on ANZ LitLovers here.

Image credits

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.

15 comments to Don Quixote Readalong – Part 1

  • Oh, Tom! Lord of the Rings – you too?!
    I became completely lost in that book – and I wasn’t a teenager, I was (supposed to be) a responsible young mother of a small child. It’s a good thing I had the kind of husband who recognised that kind of book-madness and simply absorbed extra responaibilities for the weekend, I have a vague recollection of being brought dishes to eat and a child to hug at bedtime …

  • Erm, count me out on Tolkien … but ‘Don Quixote’? Wonderful! And the bogus (or is it?) chivalry’s contrast with the harsh realities of life for the common people is a running gag – or sore, depending on your outlook. Haven’t read the novel for years; am sure I’ve forgotten far too much of it, so your post makes me keen to revisit. Oddly, had just been reading about Dorothy Rowe’s latest (on lying), which seems synchronous. With DQ, I always felt that Rocinante probably had a better life as a result of upgraded status; but felt a mite frustrated throughout the novel by the fact that the dear old nag’s gender is never revealed.
    Hope you and your companion-reader thoroughly enjoy the journey.

  • OK, I’m one of the few in the world who hasn’t read The lord of the rings and really have no desire to. I do want to read Don Quixote one day however. It’s amazing how some books never date – I love your comment that its humour and satire is “bang up to date”.

  • I agree tolkien must have read this book at some point ,I m loving the freshness opf the writing can’t think of any english book bar sterne of the time that is so vibrant and modern ,all the best stu

  • Tom

    Lisa – well, we’re not alone in having a powerful response to the book are we. My only problem is finding something today which so totally absorbs me. Thanks for visiting

  • Tom

    Minnie – Thanks for visiting , yes, its certainly a wonderful read and full of richness – so many threads going through it – satire, pathos (bathos?), history, social comment. Dorothy Rowe’s book looks fascinating doesn’t it

  • Tom

    Sue – thank for visiting. I tried to read LOTR again some years ago and thought it was terrible! How one changes over the years – for me, its a book for “teens”. Adults should move on to something less fantastical perhaps?

  • Tom

    Stu. Thanks for visiting . I’m pleased you suggested this book – its really good but I needed the spur to read through it all

  • A great start to your overall impressions of Don Quixote. Count me another of the few that hasn’t read LOTR, but did very much enjoy Peter Jackson’s movies. I’m sure later you will get around to covering Sancho Panza who is my favorite character in Don Quixote.

  • Tom

    Tony – thanks for visiting. I think Sancho is already my favorite character. Naive but honest!

  • I’ve read LoTR many times and go a bit ‘bookmad’ each time. It gets more and more difficult to find a book that causes me to let my ‘affairs go to pot’ but when it happens it is the best feeling in the world!

    I appreciate your ‘bang up to date’ as well– Whenever reading pre 20th century lit or even early 20th lit, I am continually amazed by the timeliness. People are people no matter the era.

  • Tom

    Lesa – thanks for visiting. I seem to get quite a few Australian visitors! Books that make you feel like that are few and far between in my experience

  • Thanks for visiting us gals over at Mrs. BG— I know our blog is probably too fluffy for your tastes so I do appreciate your leaving comments.

    Two of my co-bloggers live in OZ and two of us in the US (but we all have ties to Texas)– so Mrs. BG has dual citizenship and dueling perspectives.

  • Tom

    Lesa – So, its a group effort is it? What fun! You’ve produced an interesting website which I’m sure will attract many visitors.

  • Hi, as a big fan of midgets fan, I can’t wait for the Hobbit movies. Especially loved the soundtrack of the trilogy, and then found this on iTunes. The Hobbit – A Cinematic Journey. It’s very like the music from the films, even has a bit of ‘The Omen’ about it. http://itunes.apple.com/ie/album/the-hobbit-a-cinematic-journey/id455831618

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