[WARNING: SPOILERS ABOUND IN THE FOLLOWING MOST EXCELLENT AND HONORABLE EXEGESIS!]
My New Year’s resolution for 2008 was to start reading one great classic novel a year. Reading and writing genre fiction is no excuse not to seek insight and inspiration from writers in different worlds than mine. Done wrong, of course, this can lead to creative paralysis (“Oh God, I’m never gonna write Moby Dick!”) or a warped and pompous ambition (“I’ll show the bastards! I’ll be the next Herman Melville!”). But done right, it may make me a better writer, maybe a more interesting person at certain cocktail parties.
And so I’ve read my Great Book for 2008: Don Quixote by Miguel Cervantes. Like so many old canon classics, this novel is more remembered than read. Our image of it these days seems mostly to derive from the 1965 Broadway musical Man of La Mancha by Dale Wasserman, Joe Darion, and Mitch Leigh, a celebration of the romantic liberal idealistic knight errant tilting at the windmill, which represents the unjust, corrupt, cynical and ignorant world. The song "The Impossible Dream" is now an annoying standard. The musical is stapled on the marquees of community theaters across the United States. I saw the 1972 movie starring Peter O’Toole, James Coco and Sophia Loren. Even as a love-struck college student, my heart remained unmelted, except for the scenes where Ms. Loren bends over.
Nevertheless my lazy memory of the musical and lazier assumptions about the book were more or less one: the novel would be a long-winded exercise in gauzy gooey bathos. Then a couple of years ago, a New Yorker review of the most recent translation (by Edith Grossman, Ecco, 2003) strongly indicated that this opinion might be like the old Don’s vision of the windmills that are the book’s central metaphor—a delusion.
The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote of La Mancha was first published in Spain in 1605. A contemporary of Shakespeare’s, Miguel Cervantes (1547—1616) was a frustrated playwright and poet, a soldier who lost an arm fighting real battles for the Spanish Armada and then later became a POW. Late in the 1500s, he became a tax collector for the Spanish crown and was jailed for apparent discrepancies in his accounts. It was while in jail that he first conjured the idea for what would be both his masterpiece and a founding work of modern western literature.
Judging from his life and this novel, Cervantes appears to have a been a man who knew how the world worked. Don Quixote is called the first “modern” novel: Among other innovations, it overthrew the traditional novels of its day, which were chivalric novels: romantic, heroic and non-realistic tales of dashing medieval knights and their loyal assistants (or squires) battling dragons and rescuing damsels. L’Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory is a most illustrious example. Chivalric novels are still very much with us in such volumes as The Mists of Avalon. (You could write a decent essay about the link between novels of chivalry and the modern hard-boiled detective novel, too). By the time Cervantes, soldier and prisoner, came along, the genre had crumbles into piles of cliché.
So Don Quixote, on its surface, is a spoof and is considered to be the first “comic novel.” Its humor and satire rips the armor off the chivalric novel and shows people as they actually are, not as we wish them to be. The errant knight is not a selfless hero, but a vain, egotistical, hypocritical fool. In one episode, he saves a young peasant from a savage beating by his master, only to blithely gallop away leaving the young man to suffer an even worse beating from his boss. It’s like watching The Lone Ranger and Tonto break up a bank robbery, only to neglect to jail the robbers, leaving them free to burn down the rest of the town. Not strong on follow through.
Here's another signal that this is a “modern novel”: More than one author is employed in the telling of this “history” and they’re a mysterious and slippery gang, grossly impressed with their own sagacity rather than the Don’s fruitless sacrifices, another sure sign that we are in modern literature's world of often unreliable narrators. Cervantes also inserts novels within the novel: One is a fairly straightforward and exciting fictionalized account of his own adventure as a POW.
Still, the experience of actually reading Don Quixote doesn't always feel modern. This is sixteenth-century Spain, after all. The literate class of that time was also a leisure class with more time on their hands and fewer distractions (they must also have been shocked to find themselves drawn into a world so earthy, gritty and boisterous). Like other works of its time, this is a long book. Twenty-first century readers with two-second attention spans may still find it long-winded and extremely dense. If there’s a way for a character to say something more than once—especially if it’s Sancho Panza—then it shall be said. The Don delivers many lectures on points of chivalry—some of which actually do contain wisdom. Meanwhile, Sancho Panza (who might be a distant ancestor of Gabby Hayes') speaks a delightful stew of old folk wisdom, much of it irrelevant, much of which has found its way into our modern vernacular.
On the other hand, the book's many chapters are all short. And Don Quixote is packed with as much violent slapstick as a Road Runner cartoon. No matter how often the old Don and his squire are splattered over the plains of Spain, they always peel themselves off the ground (or the floor, or the rock, or a wall) like Wile E. Coyote to fight on. In the gallery of great comic archetypes, Don Quixote (like Stephen Colbert) is the Man Who’s Completely Confident . . . and (Almost) Completely Wrong.
At the same time, though, this big, baggy novel, is as arch, witty and pointed as anything written by Noel Coward. It’s observations of the broken society through which the Don and Sancho ride ring true and are extremely pointed. Don Quixote not only satirizes romantic novels, but skewers the whole idea of romantic love. Like the bones of the dead, broken hearts litter this landscape, many done in by violence and death. A stark episode, near the beginning, tells the tale of a lovesick shepherd who dies of longing for a beautiful, but allegedly heartless, shepherd girl. At his funeral, she appears and rises to her own eloquent defense:
. . .but I cannot grasp why, because it is loved, the thing loved for its beauty is obliged to love the one that loves it. . . . . Why do you want to force me to surrender my will, obliged to do so simply because you say you love me?
Episode after episode, brings to mind that J. Geils song: “Love Stinks.” And with it comes the whiff of tragicomedy.
Vladimir Nabokov, who published a whole series of lectures on the novel, believed Don Quixote to be a “crude old book full of peculiarly Spanish cruelty.” I know relatively little of Spain, but I agree on this: Cervantes’ novel really is full of peculiar cruelty. Four hundred years cannot hide the sense that there’s hardly a sentimental bone in its dense body. Reality, not only in the sense of the physical world, but of the people—peasants and lords, priests and criminals alike—beats hell out of Don Quixote and his squire. Even Sancho’s minor victory, when he’s fraudulently given the governorship he spends most of the novel yearning for, ends in farcical heartbreak.
The odd thing though, that while treating his characters with such mind-boggling cruelty, Cervantes' comic wizardry creates an alchemy that ends up making the poor foolish Don sympathetic. In a bitter ironic sense, he does become heroic even when he finally surrenders to reality. In the end, we understand that he was one with his dreams. Without them, he’s forced to renounce Chivalry. And without that faith—and I think faith is an important idea here—he dies. I was left with the feeling that a life without faith, in a fallen world, just might be impossible to live for many, if not all of us.
In its bland reassurances, the Broadway musical drains all this away, leaving marshmallow. No wonder I don't like the damned thing.