Friday, November 10, 2017

Lectures on Don Quixote by Vladimir Nabokov

. . . Don Quixote cannot be considered a distortion of those romance but rather a logical continuation, with the elements of madness and shame and mystification increased.

One might be forgiven for reading Mr. Nabokov's Lectures on Don Quixote and being unclear about what he thought of the novel. On the one hand, he testily chastises Cervantes for horribly bad descriptions of scenery, plot-holes, and poorly thought-out resolutions.

On the other, however, we have this, the closing lines to the lectures:

He had ridden for three hundred and fifty years through the jungles and tundras of human thought--and he has gained in vitality and stature. We do not laugh at him any longer. His blazon is pity, his banner is beauty. He stands for everything that is gentle, forlorn, pure, unselfish, and gallant. The parody has become a paragon.

Which is it then? Was Cervantes a genius or a fraud? Both, it seems. While critical of much of Cervantes's novel, Nabokov is quick to recognize the genius and beauty of Don Quixote. Nabokov feels that Quixote is a work of genius that holds up what would otherwise be a mediocre novel. In fact Quixote's character makes this novel not just good, but great.

There are two reasons to read this book. First, much like the characters bemoaning Quixote's death, when I finished the novel, I did not feel ready to say goodbye to the character of Quixote. Inspiring me to go through a not-subtle obsession with Quixote. See Exhibit A (photograph of carved pumpkin). Reading the Lectures gave me a chance to revisit and continue thinking about Quixote and what the novel means, or why it feels so meaningful.

Second, Nabokov's genius is, itself, on display here. So, the Lectures also present an opportunity to see how he tackles literary analysis. We get to see his jokes, his asides (the book is liberally footnoted to call to attention any speaking notes that Nabokov wrote for himself), and what themes or patterns Nabokov saw in the novel. Or, take, this, my favorite passage from the work:
It seems to me that the chance Cervantes missed was to have followed up the hint he had dropped himself and to have Don Quixote meet in battle, in a final scene, not Carrasco but the fake Don Quixote of Avellaneda. All along we have been meeting people who were personally acquainted with the false Don Quixote . We are as ready for the appearance of the fake Don Quixote as we are of Dulcinea. We are eager for Avellanda to produce his man. How splendid it would have been if instead of that hasty and vague last encounter with the disguised Carrasco, who tumbles our knight in a jiffy, the real Don Quixote had fought his crucial battle with the false Don Quixote! In that imagined battle who would have been the victor--the fantastic lovable madman of genius, or the fraud, the symbol of robust mediocrity? My money is on Avellaneda's man, because the beauty of it is that, in life, mediocrity is more fortunate than genius. In life it is the fraud that unhorses true valor.
Exhibit A
Here, Nabokov cannot help being himself--a writer--and improving on Cervantes's text. I have to admit, I prefer Nabokov's version, and there will always be a part of me that pretends his version is canon. (Incidentally: this passage is a good example of Nabokov's criticism of the novel. Nabokov's ending is poignant, parallels themes that run throughout Don Quixote and is itself ripe with meaning. Cervantes's version is...abrupt and almost feels like it was written because it just felt like it was time to wrap things up).

But then, who is Nabokov to criticize? It was Cervantes's genius, and not Nabokov's, who birthed Quixote.
As Cervantes would undoubtedly point out, it is not so easy to blow up a dog.


Christopher said...

Have you read Monsignor Quixote?

Randy said...


But, my Quixote phase still hasn't run its course, so this looks amazing. Also, I've never read a full novel by Greene, so two birds, which would be nice too.