Classics Club Spin: Don Quixote, Part I

Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote, Part I (1605)

For the last Classics Club spin book, I drew Don Quixote, which I’ve been meaning to read for quite some time. I did read an abridged version in high school, but I remember absolutely nothing about it except the Quentin Blake drawing on the cover. (Does anyone else have an amazing memory for book covers, as opposed to their contents?) I felt I had to make an effort to appreciate what is often called the first and perhaps the greatest modern novel, and the acclaimed new translation by Edith Grossman seemed a good place to start.

Given the kind of December that I had, there was no way I was going to make it through the whole 900-page tome, so I decided to be kind to myself and do it in two parts. These were in fact published 10 years apart, in 1605 and 1615, so I feel quite justified in treating them as two separate books.

Part I, as probably every semi-literate person knows, starts off with the titular Don of La Mancha being driven mad by reading too many books of chivalry, and deciding he’s going to go off and be a knight errant himself. Capers ensue in which he attacks the innocent and frees the guilty, insisting that wineskins are giants and a barber’s bowl is a magic helmet, while his hapless squire, the peasant Sancho Panza, trails along in hopes of being made rich by his noble master. There’s a lot of bawdiness and slapstick, as well as much rhapsodizing on the charms of his lady love, Dulcinea (a wench from a nearby village who never appears in person).

This was all more or less what I expected, and contained some interesting revelations of how long the “post-truth” phenomenon has actually been around; near the end of the book Don Quixote makes a fierce argument that whatever he thinks must be true, because he likes it that way, and he’ll pound anybody to a pulp who says otherwise. Yup, sounds familiar.

What surprised me somewhat was that about two thirds of the way through the Quixotic quest narrative comes to a screeching halt while Cervantes interlayers in a whole lot of boring romance plots with utterly flat, unmemorable stock characters (the wronged wife, the rake who is forced to go straight, the Moorish maiden who wants to convert, the loyal, lowborn lover of a noble lady…) These include a forty-page “interpolated novel,” derived from some random manuscript found in a chest at the inn where the main characters are staying — in a meta-fictional touch, this may have been left by Cervantes himself.

There are also a bunch of characters encountered while Quixote the madman has decided to pretend to go mad in a deserted place, in emulation of one of his chivalric heroes (one of the funnier bits). These end up tagging along for quite a while, and then there are some others met along the way who have to tell their backstory for another thirty pages,  plus another group that turns out to be related to the second bunch… At the very end, when I thought we’d gotten back to the main story, there’s a goatherd-who-is-really-a-wronged-lover-in-disguise, who has to tell HIS tale of woe for a whole chapter. I admit to cheering when Don Quixote gave him a good thumping.

What the heck was Cervantes up to with all this? In terms of composition and structure, I can’t say that I would call this mess a great novel compared with Pride and Prejudice or The Scarlet Letter or even Ozma of Oz. I suppose he was still trying to figure out what a “modern novel” was or could be, and was just mixing in all kinds of narrative styles current at the time, without much rhyme or reason. (It’s not unlike a lot of Shakespeare plays mashed up together, actually.)

The result, for me, was that the narrative momentum was somewhat diffused and lost, leaving me dissatisfied that things were not tied together in a more conscious way. While the character of Don Quixote was brilliant in its comedic irony, and highly relevant, again, as a comment on our modern muddled thinking, these other threads failed to compel in the same way. I’m assuming this is largely what got abridged out of the edition I read earlier.

At any rate, I made it through, and Don Quixote has now returned to his village without having changed or learned anything whatsoever (another element one would find a failing in most novels today). I do wonder what will happen in book II, and whether during the intervening decade Cervantes will have figured out how to write a novel more like the ones I would call “great.” After a short break, I’ll look forward to returning to La Mancha and finding out.

Classics Club List #71


14 thoughts on “Classics Club Spin: Don Quixote, Part I

  1. I have heard folks take a long break between parts one and two. I think that part one worked for me worked because I viewed it as a series of episodes rather then a novel. I saw it as a kind of weekly television show. Some episodes were better then others. I recall that Harold Bloom attributed much of the concept of the changing/learning character to Shakespeare. I do not know enough to say if this is a valid point or not. If it is, that concept was more or less being invented when Don Quixote was written.


    1. Haha, I like the idea of some episodes being better than others. And that is interesting idea about Shakespeare, I would like to explore that further.


  2. I believe it’s only after part II that everything will make sense as a whole. Part I is more like Moby Dick than the other novels you mention, Cervantes is making us dizzy, like Calvino in If in a Winter Night a Traveler, he inserts a tale in a tale, in a tale. He is trying to make us forget this is a book about Don Quixote, but to create the illusion that Don Quixote is real, we are at an inn, and we are having “story night”, or poetry time, and that’s going to last forever. And the characters in the book seem to be all tangled up in real life, like in a sitcom.

    Think about Don Quijote as real, and the book the tale he is listening to, that ends up being another tale, etc. Interrupting the novel is putting a bomb inside. Nobody before him had done meta-narrative at this level, remember that this book was published, as you said, in 1605 and 1615, while Pride and Prejudice and The Scarlett Letter came to us 200 years later. Nobody had talked about things absolutely boring and inconsequential, but for the first time, it’s the narration, the written form, what brings all that foolishness to a universe worth for us to inhabit while reading. If you notice, he swallowed up plays, poems, and legends in the sense that they are all inside his book of life. Nobody had questioned the authenticity of the book inside the book. He is surely playing with us, -and our nerves. He is laughing at the chivalry genre. I find myself annoyed if I go to it wanting to ‘finish’ it. He doesn’t want me to. And many stop in part I. Don’t do so. (I know you said you intend to read part II.) Part II has a different tone. Not many more stories inside the story. It goes back to both of them, and it explores life in a more philosophical way. Once you close the last page of part II, the purpose of such a long book surfaces, and I hope you join us who thank Cervantes for having been generous with the page count of life.

    About the “post-truth” phenomena, this you write, Don Quixote makes a fierce argument that whatever he thinks must be true, because he likes it that way, and he’ll pound anybody to a pulp who says otherwise. Yup, sounds familiar. There’s much more than that to Don Quixote. I hope you get to see him more in full once you read the other half.


  3. I read this a few years ago and enjoyed it, but I read it very slowly over a period of almost a year and I think that helped as it suited the episodic nature of the story. If I’d tried to read it in a shorter space of time I think it would have been too much for me and I would have given up. The structure is certainly a bit of a mess, but I suppose readers at the time would have had no expectations of what a novel should or should not be like as this was one of the first ever written. I’ll be interested to hear what you think of the second part!


  4. Love your comment about “post-truth” ! So often when I read classics I am brought up short at just how relevant they are and how what was an issue then is often still an issue now.

    This is a book I too have been wanting to tackle since I heard good things about the Grossman translation.


    1. The outer trappings of life change, the eternal questions remain.

      I have no point of comparison, but I like the Grossman translation. It flows very well.


  5. Don Quixote is one of those books I’ve always felt I “should” read, but have been put off by the length and, if I’m honest, by the very fact that I “should” read it. I enjoyed your insightful review/analysis, and it’s the closest I’ve come to actually wanting to read the book… though like you, I think I would get a little tired of all the stories-within-a-story. Syvia’s comments vis-a-vis the latter were interesting, and I’ll bear them in mind if and when I read the book.

    Oh, and I loved your comment about post-truth, too.


    1. I found it quite readable especially if I just thought of the first half as “book one” and didn’t pressure myself to read the whole thing right away.


    1. I couldn’t say I loved it, but I could see how it was important to the development of the novel and of our modern consciousness. The Don Quixote parts were funny, ironic and absurd, but the other stuff just didn’t grab me. I’m looking to Part II if it indeed “explores life in a more philosophical way,” as Silvia says.


    1. My editorial side is dying to get him to tighten things up and introduce some narrative structure. I think those things were just not important at the time.


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