Much more than two bushels of laughter: Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote

don-quixoteIt’s pretty wonderful when you read a book so fat with history, matter, and cultural capital that you can barely lift it AND end up really enjoying it. Cervantes’s classic Don Quixote was written between 1605 and 1615; it has undergone several important translations, including one by Smollet (who managed to make his version significantly longer than the original, which is pure madness); but I read Edith Grossman’s divine 2003 translation.

I hadn’t planned on reading this book this year. I imagined I would read it…sometime…but didn’t have a copy and had no immediate plans to get one. But in May, a friend told me she was struggling with it and asked if I’d read along as moral support, etc. I said sure. Sadly, I failed her–she still hasn’t broken the page-200 mark! I tried to be encouraging but our conversations were never more sophisticated than my squeeing and shrieking about how goddamned funny Don Quixote is. And it really is. But it’s not only that.

The premise–that Cervantes’s “Ingenious Gentleman” has read so many chivalric romances that he’s gone mad and believes himself to be a knight errant–leads to all kinds of delightful high-jinx, including his famous attack on a brace of windmills he believes are giants. He also maims and kills a bunch of wineskins, sets free some prisoners (who reward him by kicking the ever-living piss out of him), jealously guards his chastity, wears a barber’s bowl as a helmet, and is pursued by a gang of imagined enchanters.

Because he is mad–and his squire, the proverb-addicted Sancho Panza is not very smart (except when he is; then he’s very clever indeed)–Don Quixote is frequently subject to others’ tricks and jokes. Many are good-natured–some, in fact, are attempts to bring the poor man back to his senses–but as the novel progresses, the jokes become increasingly cruel and the laughs uneasy (or, at least mine did; I know the rest of you are evil and delight in others’ pain and confusion).

By the end, I felt sort of sick and vulnerable anytime he and Sancho were threatened with meeting anyone at all. I can’t tell you my relief when they made it home…! (They only go home because our bumbling knight is defeated in battle, and one of the conditions of that defeat is that he leave off bearing arms and seeking adventures for one full year.)

But there’s no relief back home, for Don Quixote immediately becomes gravely ill–an event which coincides with the cessation of his madness. He remembers who and what he really is, and the depressing fact of it all seems to be too much for him. Silly Sancho almost broke my heart as he pleaded with his master to don the mantel of hyper-literary illusion again:

Don’t die, Senor; your grace should take my advice and live for many years, because the greatest madness a man can commit in this life is to let himself die, just like that, without anybody killing him or any other hands ending his life except those of melancholy. Look, don’t be lazy, but get up from that bed and let’s go to the countryside dressed as shepherds, just like we arranged…

But his madness is over and so there’s naught to do but bid farewell to both the book and the ingenious gentleman.

Cervantes’s achievement here is stunning: He created two of literature’s most memorable characters, he successfully sustained over 900 pages of anti-romance satire (yet was a popular romance writer himself!), and wove multiple layers of story and adventure into Don Quixote’s and Sancho’s own adventures–embedded stories so compelling they could stand on their own.

Don Quixote is, simply, a rollicking good–if backbreaking–read.

But in the days since I finished the book, my sense of it as an elaborate joke have become not muddled, exactly; but I’ve been trying to account for the undercurrent of sadness I think runs through the whole thing, the sadness that is clinging to me more than the hilarity. His friends and family worry about Don Quixote because, apart from his delusions of chivalry, he is a good man; it’s always terrible when a stand-up person goes to pieces. But while that’s certainly part of the sadness, I don’t think it’s all of it or even the majority of it.

I think the sadness is resides in how people treat Don Quixote in his madness; they blame the books–there are, in fact, book burnings of what the local priest considers to be the most pernicious of romances. But even this, I think, isn’t the source of the heartache–it’s that Cervantes really only imagines two kinds of readers: 1) Those, like Don Quixote, who love literature so passionately that they can’t–or pathologically refuse to–see the difference between what they read and what is real. 2) Cynics, to greater and lesser degrees, who make fun of books or see them as dangerous enough to destroy.

Cervantes imagines a world of readers in which no one is able to take moderate and healthy pleasure from books. While the priest enjoys reading aloud the embedded novella called The Man Who Was Recklessly Curious, he is always commenting, criticizing, attempting to control others’ reception of it. The actual description of this reading isn’t as insidious as I’m making it sound–but taken in the larger context of Cervantes’s novel, which is obsessed with what it means to be a reader and is constantly referring to and quoting others’ writings, it’s hard to ignore the fact that no one appears to have an uncomplicated relationship with literature.

When Sancho begs Don Quixote to live long enough for them to go play at the pastoral, he’s inviting his master back into pure literary madness. The two meet a number of shepherds during their adventures–young men and women gone crazy from unrequited love who wander about in forests composing poetry and being very well-spoken but no less antisocial and sometimes dangerous for all that.

Don Quixote’s life is literally dependent upon him being able to suspend disbelief! For him, living requires that particular madness–but he lives in a world in which the sane are trying constantly to bring him back into their deadening fold. I wasn’t expecting this, but it’s this that’s sticking with me.

Long live literary madness! I’d rather rave and roam with my Dickens and Trollope and Mitchell and Gaskell, and now Cervantes, than otherwise–wouldn’t you?

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13 thoughts on “Much more than two bushels of laughter: Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote

  1. It was a great read (even in the old version I had), but the second book was much better than the first. The first book pokes fun at Quixote, but the second really makes us wonder who the fool is here…

    • Agreed, on both points.

      I’m curious about La Galatea–I wonder if it would be fatal to read his romance having already read the anti-romance (if that’s what DQ is! I’m becoming very confused.)

  2. I thought I had read _Don Quixote_ until now. My old copy is the J M Cohen translation which does not include Book 2. I will get the Grossman version for sure.

    • Oh, how frustrating!! Abridgements and selections being sold as the actual books make me a little crazy–I don’t understand who would intentionally buy such things! (And they’re never labelled clearly enough.)

  3. I love this book. 2009 is defined by it for me. A great reading year. One of my favorite moments in the novel occurs somewhere in the second book, when Quixote, in a convo with Panza, comes very near to confessing that his “madness” is not a madness at all but is more closely akin to a search for mythology that gives life meaning and purpose — let’s say grandeur. Shit, thinking about the glories of that novel make me rue finishing such garbage as My New American Life! Why waste time!

  4. Aw, this review made me kind of sad, because I think that attitude of non-readers making fun of readers who truly need dreams and escapism still exists. Just think of that recent quote by Neil Gaiman in defense of people who read to escape. Or, say, Twilight, which is very romantic in the literary sense and is the focus of a huge amount of vitriol. There are those who are truly afraid of literature’s power to inspire people to simply imagine another reality.

    • I haven’t noticed non-readers making fun of readers as much as readers of x making fun of readers of y, etc. I’ve been guilty of this myself but I do try to rein it in–reading is good for the brain regardless of what it is and tastes change and tastes aren’t directly related to intelligence necessarily, etc. And yes, of course, there are different reasons for reading.

      It’s sad that reading is so fraught — but maybe it’s also good: so much debate about what’s good and what isn’t means it’s still widely accepted as important on some level right?

  5. My advice, referring to your first comment, is to skip “La Galatea” but instead read the Exemplary Stories as collected in the Oxford (or shorter Penguin) paperbacks. “The Dialogue of the Dogs” and so on. The prefaces, in particular, are superb, just as they are in Don Quixote.

  6. Hooray! It is such a rollicking good book but you are right, in spite of the humor and laughs when I think about it even after having read it 6 or 7 years ago, it makes me sad. Long live literary madness!

  7. Pingback: This is the way 2013 ends: not with a bang, but with a purr of tired contentment | Jam and Idleness

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