It’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?