Sunday, August 13, 2017

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

Don Quixote's crazy, we're sane, and he walks away healthy and sane, while your grace is bruised and sad. So tell me who's crazier: the man who's crazy because he can't help it or the man who chooses to be crazy?

Somewhere in Nevada, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, a lady and gentleman lived not long ago, one of those couples who keeps a smooshy face dog and a terrier mutt for entertainment. The gentleman of this pair, decided that, for their honeymoon he would embark on an adventure, that being to read Don Quixote in its entirety, so one and only one book would need to be transported.

Generally when I read a piece of "classic" literature, I have a degree of apprehension because...sometimes classic literature is, like, boring, and stuff. Which is to say, a novel can enter the canon of literature because of its importance to the history of literature. This historical importance is, well, important, but for me, a more casual reader, it is sometimes uninteresting, particularly if the historical relevance is as to a literary movement I just don't care that much about.

I picked up Don Quixote to solve a practical problem: I needed something to read during our 3-week honeymoon to China, but did not want to deal with an e-reader or carrying multiple books. Don Quixote allowed me to carry one, large book that would be impossible for me to finish during the trip. I'd also started wondering about it because of its beloved status among writers I happen to love (e.g., Kafka, Nabokov).

At first, I was worried it'd be a slog. The first one hundred or so pages gave me the impression this would be 900 pages of anecdotes that follow this formula: Quixote's madness causes him to misinterpret a situation, he acts as he believes a knight-errant would in the situation, and he suffers physical or emotional punishment as a result. The initial anecdotes are amusing, but hardly something that can sustain engagement for so long.

But then something interesting happened. The anecdotes started getting funnier and funnier. For example, the famous windmill incident (130 pages in) is laugh-out-loud funny. And as the episodes got funnier, the relationship between Quixote and the other characters became more complicated. I started wondering if Quixote's madness was meant to reflect idealism of any sort, if the implication was that any kind of idealism is madness. And, I also started wondering if Quixote's madness was any worse than the madness of the characters around him, reflected in this quote:
Cide Hamete goes on to say that in his opinion the deceivers are as mad as the deceived, and that the duke and duchess came very close to seeming like fools since they went to such lengths to deceive two fools . . . .
And then (umm...spoilers ahead) the ending, which I cannot decide is meant to be tragic or ironic (or both?). Quixote's loved ones--in attempt to bring Quixote back to home life--engineer a duel that loses him his right to be a knight-errant. Quixote abandons knight-errantry and returns home with the plan of becoming a shepherd. At home, promptly falls ill, and sees the error of his ways; he realizes his entire journey of chivalry has been a waste. That everything was wrongheaded. After 900 pages in which the reader sees Quixote stubbornly refuse to acknowledge that knight-errantry is a false ideal, this is quite a shock. He disavows knight-errantry, repents, and then dies.  Yet, he death is heroic, one of the characters writes this for his epitaph:
Here lies the mighty Gentleman
who rose to such heights of valor
that death itself did not triumph
over his life with his death.
He did not esteem the world;
he was the frightening threat
to the world, in this respect,
for it was his great fortune
to live a madman, and die sane.
What are we to make of this? Is this the tragic death of a man who realized his ideals were wrong? Or the ironic death of a man whose idealism was not appreciated until he died? I don't know, but I'll close with Mr. Nabokov's opinion: "He stands for everything that is gentle, forlorn, pure, unselfish and gallant. The parody has become paragon."


Randy said...

Footnote: I read the Edith Grossman translation, which is apparently the best one right now, and I think it was quite good (though admittedly, I didn't really compare to anything else).

Second footnote: Nabokov published his lectures on Don Quixote, which I just ordered and am very excited to read.

Christopher said...

I think DQ's denial of his chivalry is, and is meant to be, incredibly sad. But you're right, it is genuinely funny. I remember most the scenes at the inn where people keep coming in until there's like, twenty people in there, all with their own dumb little story. It seemed very madcap.

Brent Waggoner said...

That Grossman translation is something else. I've read the first 100 pages in 2 or 3 translations and no one else gets the humor. This is one of my favorite books. I think it's hilarious and I enjoyed the discursive, episodic structure, and the way it gets both funnier and sadder/more philosophical as it goes on.

I also enjoyed a lot of the little snipes at chivalric literature and the fake DQs that were circulating. The footnotes in that edition really help.

Randy said...

Yeah, so I forgot to end with my conclusion that this deserves to be part of the literary canon because of how good it is. It was funny, but also something I've been thinking about on and off in the 2-3 weeks since I finished reading it.