Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Book Look

A few weeks ago, during the 400th anniversary of Miguel de Cervantes' death, I read Quixote--not Don Quixote, but Quixote, by Amherst professor of Latino Culture Ilan Stavans.  He looks at the origins of the novel and its influence around the world.

Don Quixote is one of the first and still one of the best novels, Spain's greatest contribution to world literature.  Cervantes is, in his way, the Shakespeare of Spanish (and the two were contemporaries who died around the same time).  Stavans shows the oversized influence of the novel--first on Spain, then on the Latin world in general, and on the rest of the world.

I haven't read the novel in many years, but I remember it well. It's a profound comic masterpiece, with the courtly Don Quixote and the earthy Sancho Panza making their way through the world as best they can.  There are actually two volumes--the first was so popular that Cervantes came out with a sequel ten years later, one of those rare sequels that may be superior to the original (which is seriously marred by Cervantes interpolating lengthy stories which have nothing to do with the central plot or characters).  And though it may seem to be about the Don losing touch with reality, while squire Sancho sees life as it is, by the end we discover that they have changed positions--not unlike the reader, who's entered into a topsy-turvy world and fallen in love with it.

The book has been read in numerous ways--as a parody of chivalry, as about the soul of Spain, as a parable of the class system, as a book about books (books features prominently in the novel--Quixote is originally driven mad by his books, and in the sequel he's aware he's a character who's been written about in a book), as a descent into madness, as a story about the meaning of reality, and so on.  And the book is deep enough to support these readings.

No wonder, then, that it's explicitly influenced so many great writers--Flaubert, Dostoyevsky, Melville, Twain and Kafka, to name a few.  Indeed, it's not hard to see a touch of the Don in characters such as Emma Bovary, Prince Myshkin, Captain Ahab and Huck Finn. Stavans also goes into some detail about Jorge Luis Borges famous story "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote," which tells the tale of a modern French author who decides to write the same novel as Cervantes--not copy it, but write it on his own, word for word.  And when he's done, and the two works are laid side by side, though the text is exactly the same, the meaning is quite different, coming from different people, places and times.

The novel's influence is far wider than just the world of literature, inspiring painters, sculptors, composers* and other artists.  Then there are statesman, such as our Founding Fathers, who wrote about the book in their letters.  When it comes down to it, the United States can be seen as a Quixotic undertaking--imagine attempting to create a country where all its people can try to carve out the best lives for themselves as they see fit?

Stavans' book isn't without flaws. Even though it's a relatively short work, there's a fair amount of repetition.  And he sometimes makes questionable assertions.  For instance, he says Don Quixote is the only character in literature whose name has become an adjective--what about Panglossian, Pecksniffian, Pickwickian and Procrustean, and that's just the letter P.  He also states the most famous recording of "The Impossible Dream," from the musical from Man Of La Mancha (I would guess more people in the past 50 years have come to the character through this show than the novel), is by Frank Sinatra.  Really?  I don't think it's considered one of Sinatra's classics, while the original cast album starring Richard Kiley went gold, and the only version of the song to chart in the top 40 was from Jack Jones.

But these are minor quibbles.  Don Quixote has a power few others have, and deserves a celebration such as Quixote.

*When I was a teen I wrote some guitar music called "The Don Quixote Suite"--it had nothing to do with Don Quixote and, for that matter, wasn't a suite.  I just liked the sound of the title.  But then, I've always been tilting at windmills.


Blogger New England Guy said...

Don Quixote, like Ulysses, is one of those books I was proud to have slogged all the way through on my own which I did in 2010 and 2000, respectively- each one taking more than a month or so I recall.

Now I need to go back in for a second dive and see what I retained in the cranial subprocessor. Forced marches like that tend to result in periods of zoning out. I'll get back to it any day now. I remember how much more enjoyable Shakespeare was when I cam back to them years after school.

6:03 AM, May 04, 2016  
Anonymous Denver Guy said...

I really need to read this again as well. I slogged through it in 12th grade, largely because I was in honors Spanish and wanted to do a special project/book report. I started in Spanish, by I got dispensation to finish it in English translation, because 5 years of Spanish was not nearly enough to understand the novel's complexities.

Interesting you mention that he was a contemporary of Shakespeare. I'm currently working through the Shakespeare plays that are not often performed. I'm not sure if it's the stylistic English, but for the most part I see why they are the less popular works. Three "Henry the VI's" have been somewhat rough, and reflect that they were written early in his career, imo.

Nevertheless, I'm regularly impressed to find allusions and turns of phrases that are still in use today, even though most people don't know where they come from. When I reread DQ, I imagine I will see that again, and the "worm will turn." (I know that doesn't make sense, but I love that phrase).

8:30 AM, May 04, 2016  
Blogger LAGuy said...

Don Quixote introduced a lot into the world of literature, but, unlike the effects of Shakespeare, I'm not sure how much Cervantes changed the English (as opposed to Spanish) language. Sancho is always coming up with sayings, but I'm not sure if they're original--Cervantes seems to be making fun of Sancho as much as pointing up his wisdom.

9:24 AM, May 04, 2016  

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