The Book of the Rueful Knight

July 10, 2012 § 1 Comment

The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha (de Cervantes Saavedra, Miguel, translated by Ormsby, John)

 All my life up until the point I actually read it, I believed Don Quixote to be an unsubtle situational comedy, a children’s book, involving the misadventures of a madman who “tilted at windmills”. I also knew that he had a servant who followed him around on a donkey. That was it – I didn’t know anything else about the book, and neither, I suspect, does anyone else who reads this post.

And yet, throughout the Spanish-speaking world, and in literary circles everywhere, Miguel de Cervantes is a literary giant, a pioneer of a genre of literature and key contributor to the development of his language, hailed for his brilliant psychological portraiture and unique writing style. El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha, published in two parts in 1605 and 1615, is acknowledged as a founding work of modern European literature, one of the earliest canonical novels, and even, by a distinguished group of international writers in 2002, as the ‘best literary work ever written’.

So which one is it – obscure slapstick comedy or literary classic for all ages? Surely it cannot be both! And how on earth is it possible for a single book to attract such a bewildering spectrum of opinion? Worry not, gentle reader. Your intrepid correspondent decided to find out for himself, so that you don’t have to – though I hope to convince you in this post to read it yourself.

Illusion and reality, a portrait built from numerous images: Don Quixote. (Copied from, and I hope I do not infringe copyright: but it describes the book beautifully and so I took the chance).

The first thing you need to know about Don Quixote is that the whole novel is vastly more than the sum of the parts. The whole is brilliant, the parts…not so much.

Every chapter deals with a single escapade of Quixote and Sancho Panza, and, taken individually, is likely to be found unsatisfactory, repetitive and boring by modern readers; too many tertiary characters are introduced, who sigh and swoon and tell us their tiresome tales of tortured love, until their stars get uncrossed, and they fall gratefully into each others’ arms, to more swooning and sighing. The narrative meanders aimlessly from tale to tale and makes you suspect that Cervantes wrote at least the first part without much of a structure in mind. You can almost see the book evolving in his brain as he reads what he written so far, listens to his own characters, and plots the course forward, almost like a modern day soap opera. As the translator Ormsby mentions in his introduction, Cervantes probably thought he’d have Aldonza Lorenza (a.k.a, Dulcinea del Toboso, the love interest) as a main character, but decided around fifty pages or so into the book  to have her referred to in absentia, and to instead develop the theme of a squire sidekick (after a chance remark by an inn-keeper in Chapter II). Similarly, we get an oh-by-the-way from the narrator after the first few chapters, to tell us that he is merely the translator of the adventures, and that they were actually set down in Arabic by a mysterious Moor called Cide Hamete Benengeli.  These touches, and a few others, seem a little awkward, even to the casual reader.

I am not the first reader to be slightly underwhelmed by Cervantes’ writing style. Borges quotes the eminent Paul-Francois Groussac as pointing out “verbal improprieties, intolerable repetitions and wordplays,” in the book, and berating Cervantes for “those overbearing moments of heavy-handed grandiloquence, and generally bland texture of his post-prandial prose.” Borges himself admits that Cervantes was no stylist, maintaining that “Don Quixote’s greatest (and perhaps only irrefutable) worth may be its psychological acumen”.

This acumen lies squarely in the manner Cervantes depicts the personality of the fifty-year old Don Quixote. The full complexity of this personality is not evident from a single act or speech, but through a hundred minor quips and observations scattered all over the text, which when added up, amount to something more substantial than you would give credit for at first glance. On any given single page, you only see the bumbling old fool Quixote. To see more takes effort.

For instance, take the absent Dulcinea del Toboso, in reality a peasant girl, but in Quixote’s deluded mind, a noble princess with whom he is passionately in love – a riff that is mildly amusing at best, and in the hands of a lesser writer, one that has the potential to get really annoying when sustained over 750 pages. However, the real genius of Cervantes shines through in that blinding moment of clarity when Quixote mutters:

“God knows whether there be any Dulcinea or not in the world, or whether she is imaginary or not imaginary; these are things the proof of which must not be pushed to extreme lengths.”

And again, elsewhere, he says this to Sancho:

“…and so it suffices me to think and believe that the good Aldonza Lorenzo is fair and virtuous…in a nutshell, I persuade myself that all I say is as I say, neither more nor less, and I picture her in my imagination as I would have her to be, as well in beauty as in condition…”

It is then that you realize that Don Quixote’s fragile mind inhabits a nebulous area between reality and illusion, and that at some level, he is perfectly aware of this, with a perspicacity that eludes the supposedly saner characters – and most of the readers, too. He sees himself as a creator of alternate realities – which he undoubtedly is. In vivid flashes of self-awareness, he recognizes the incongruity of his beliefs and the absurdity of his situation…

“Nor do I try to make anyone take me for an astute man, for I am not one. My only endeavour is to convince the world of the mistake it makes in not reviving in itself the happy time when the order of knight-errantry was in the field.”

…but in his mind, the world is to blame as much as he is:

“I am almost tempted to say that in my heart I repent of having adopted this profession of knight-errant in so detestable an age as we live in now…if I succeed in my attempt I shall be all the more honoured as I have faced greater dangers than the knights-errant of yore exposed themselves to.”

Cervantes’ greatest psychological sleights of hand are paradoxical: the acute self-awareness of the madman and the utter lack of a sense of humour in the funniest character of Spanish literature. “Take my advice and leave him alone, for neither he nor I understand joking”, says Quixote gravely at one point, referring to himself and Sancho Panza. How can he understand the joke, when he is the joke? Nevertheless, he is mad, and has a deep, if intermittent, understanding of his own madness. Indeed, as Cervantes points out, the concocters of the elaborate practical jokes on Quixote – the Duke, the Duchess, the curate, the barber – aren’t too far from being insane, themselves, for going into such extensive trouble and expense to play those pranks. (And you, senor Idle Reader, I imagine Quixote saying, are you sure you are sane, and that the joke is not on you?)

You can read the book as a mindless sit-com, or as a thoughtful and thought-provoking story of a dignified, deeply moral man stuck in a mad, cruel, deceitful world; but in order to do the latter, you need to step back, and put it all together in your head, as if you were in front of a van Gogh portrait. Stand too close and all you see is paint crudely slapped on a canvas.

To be admired from afar…van Gogh self portrait, courtesy Wikimedia

But Don Quixote reminds me of another work of art as well, one that was created by a near-contemporary of Cervantes: Diego VelasquezLas Meninas, the painting that vertiginously and impertinently refers to itself and to the art of painting.

Where is the painter? Who is being painted? And who are we? Las Meninas, by Diego Velasquez, courtesy Wikimedia

Like Las Meninas, Don Quixote is vociferously aware of its own existence, and that of its creator. It is a book about itself; a book about the act of reading and writing. Throughout the first part, his characters chatter away with each other about the worth of numerous books and authors, including Cervantes himself.

“But what book is that next it?”
“The ‘Galatea’ of Miguel de Cervantes,” said the barber.
“That Cervantes has been for many years a great friend of mine, and to my knowledge he has had more experience in reverses than in verses. His book has some good invention in it, it presents us with something but brings nothing to a conclusion…”

Or again, in the middle of a random side-story:

“The only one that fared at all well with him was a Spanish soldier, something de Saavedra by name, …I could tell you now something of what that soldier did, that would interest and astonish you much more than the narration of my own tale. To go on with my story…”

If Cervantes makes cameo appearances in the first part, his book does a star turn in the second part. All the characters in the second part of the book, including Don Quixote himself, are aware of the best-selling adventures of Don Quixote Part I. In fact, the existence of the book is what inspires Quixote to sally out again in search of fresh adventures: an impressive bit of self-reference that prefigures modern meta-literature – Luigi Pirandello‘s Six Characters in Search of an Author, or Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night a Traveller, for instance. Is Don Quixote a reader, a creator, or a character? Is Cervantes a character, the author, or a reader of his own book? And by extension, what are you? Are you sure?

Am I reading too much into this? Perhaps Cervantes wasn’t lying when he claimed that he only intended to write a flippant parody of the books of fantasy that were all the rage in his time, and perhaps, as Borges says, posterity has been kind to him, and has invested his farce with respectability and genius.

Upon Cervantes’ lofty verse: “Vive Dios, que me espanta esta grandeza!” (By God, this greatness terrifies me!) … when the inventor and storyteller of Don Quixote wrote it, vive Dios was as ordinary an exclamation as ‘my goodness’. And ‘terrify’ meant ‘astonish’. I suspect that his contemporaries would have felt it to mean, ‘How this device astonishes me!’ or something similar. It is firm and tidy in our eyes. Time – Cervantes’ friend – has sagely revised his drafts

No, Cervantes’ portraiture of personality – both Quixote’s and the immortal Sancho Panza’s – is too intricate and utterly masterful, to be accidental. But did he intend Don Quixote to be a literary masterpiece or light bedside reading? I don’t know that it matters, but this brings us back to the original question.

It is this clumsiness of style, this sophistication of psychology, this lack of structure, this obsessive self-reference, that have caused the wide spectrum of opinion between those who venerate Quixote and those who are dismissive of it. To add to these are startling differences of quality and tone in translations, which can make or break a book for a foreign audience.

The book begins:

En un lugar de la Mancha de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme, no ha mucho tiempo que vivía un hidalgo …

Peter Motteux translates it thus: “At a certain village in La Mancha, which I shall not name, lived not long ago one of those old-fashioned gentlemen …” John Ormsby begins: “In a village of La Mancha, the name of which I have no desire to call to mind, there lived not long since one of those gentlemen …” Which one would you rather read? By the way, Peter Motteux’s early and influential translation also projected Quixote purely as a buffoon, leading to at least some of the perception in the English-speaking world.

Tour de force or puerility? I’d go with the former, based on the Ormsby version; but what would Cervantes say? If forced to pronounce judgment on himself, I think Cervantes would quote his own hero and say: “Let each say what he will, for if … I am taken to task by the ignorant, I shall not be censured by the critical.


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