As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I’m reading Don Quixote this summer. It’s a long, riveting read, and it’s unfolding quite differently than I thought it would. I haven’t finished it yet, but I’m more than halfway through, which means I’ve finished Part I, and I thought I would start blogging about it and get some feedback from those of you who have read this astonishing work. I plan to do a series of posts about it, on the topics that have struck me most thus far.
I’m reading the quite recent (2003) translation of Don Quixote, by Edith Grossman. Now, as you surely know, Cervantes is just about exactly contemporaneous with Shakespeare. But this translation is not what you would call Shakespearean. There’s no contrived 16th-century English here, no thees and thous, except when Don Quixote has fallen into a daze of chivalry and is speaking as if he’s in one of his books. (More on that later.) Instead, this novel reads excitingly, cracklingly modern. The idiom is up-to-date, the pace is swift, and the ideas, for the most part, are as complex and fruitful — no, more so! — than 95% of what you find in any contemporary bookstore. (Not that I believe old ideas are simple!) I’m sorry to say that Grossman’s introduction is extremely brief and paltry. I wanted to read thirty or forty pages about Cervantes’s language, about the mountains of obstacles she encountered en route to this translation, about the rationale she had for choosing this or that proverb. But instead, she states, calmly enough, that Cervantes wrote in a clear, modern Spanish at the time, that influenced others and still influences Spanish today. Righty-ho.
One thing I would really have liked her to address in her introduction is the chivalric language I mentioned a minute ago. Here’s an example in Don Quixote’s speech (p. 399):
‘Tis a common proverb, O beauteous lady, that diligence is the mother of good fortune, and in many grave and serious matters experience hath shown that solicitude canst bring a doubtful matter to a successful conclusion…
That “canst” is the second person singular, not the third person. And again, Dorotea answers him, “I thanketh thee, Señor Knight…” Totally wrong; that’s the third person, not the first. These errors (or “errors”) are quite frequent. I just want to know whether the errors are the characters’ errors, Grossman’s errors, or Cervantes’s errors, or, on the contrary, whether they are intentional, mocking the flowery chivalric language Don Quixote loves to use, and if so, to whose purpose: Cervantes’, Grossman’s, or, in this case, Dorotea’s.
This brings me to the satire inherent in the novel. Of course, the premise of the story — Don Quixote, run mad by reading too many chivalric romances (yet another person ruined by reading! And I think this is the first man I’ve ever read about who had this effect) — means that the primary satire is of those romances. Many of them are mentioned by name: Amadis of Gaul, The Song of Roland, Felixmarte of Hyrcania (?), and dozens of others. If you are the sort of person who likes to get your next reading list from inside the book you are currently reading, you are set for life.
But Cervantes ventures into other territory, too. He embeds stories into his own novel by the time-tested method of running into new characters and having them recount their life stories, and each of these stories pokes fun at a new genre. There is the pastoral, the epic, the picaresque, the romantic, the dramatic, the comic or farcical. There is even, in a very modern turn, metacommentary. At the beginning of Part II, Don Quixote is told about the book that someone has written about him and his adventures, and with a kind of painful wondering eagerness, he listens to find out whether he will be known as a brave knight errant or a laughing-stock.
I suppose what has surprised me so far about Don Quixote is that there is nothing static about it. It draws on conventions — the chivalric and the epic, embedded stories like The Thousand and One Nights (Moorish tradition as they have in Spain), roaming stories like the Decameron — but it makes something shockingly new out of them. The language is new, the story is new, the commentary twists round and bites its own tail. There’s a bit near the beginning where a sentence runs on from the end of one chapter into the beginning of another. I feel the way I always do when I am reading something terrific: as if I want to read it quickly, and see what happens, but also as if I want to read it very slowly and savor every word.
Tell me about Don Quixote. Tell me what I ought not to miss.
More coming soon, about cruelty and madness and the women in the piece.