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.