I don’t know what I expected from Don Quixote. You know those times when something is recommended everywhere, and tops every list of Best Novels in All the World, and yet you sort of think, well, it can’t be that great? I wasn’t prepared for this book to be so beautiful. I think I thought it would be a comedy, and part of it is: there are scenes that are very funny, especially the dialogue between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. But it’s a little like the line I quote above, in the title, when Tybalt has given Mercutio his death-wound, and Romeo says, no, no, it can’t be that bad, and Mercutio says, it’s not as deep as a well or as wide as a church-door, but ’tis enough, ’twill serve. Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man. It’s funny, of course it’s funny. But the narrative, the arc, is cradled in gravity, in grief, in compassion.
Part of the wonder of this work is the way Cervantes lets you decide. Will you laugh or cry? After Sancho leaves for his governorship, he says this:
Kind reader, let the good Sancho go in peace and good fortune, and expect two bushels of laughter when you learn how he behaved in office, and in the meantime wait and find out what happened to his master that night; and if you do not laugh at this, at least you will spread your lips wide in a monkey grin, because those things that befall Don Quixote have to be celebrated either with astonishment or laughter.
Astonishment or laughter. Or both. Or tears. Or one following the other.
Cervantes succeeds in creating a book of cruelty and laughter, at the still heart of which we find gentleness and compassion; or choose another path, and it is a book of madness, at the heart of which is a monkey grin. How much depends on the reader, and how much on what is read?
The book is spangled with tiny things I loved: the bearded duennas; the terrible expense of the all-black garments of the duke and duchess’s hoax, pulled on Don Quixote in Part II; the speech about the joys of writing in the vernacular; the phrase “have patience and shuffle the deck.” The language was wonderful, crackling and funny and swift-paced (I only wish I could have read it in the original — thank God for good translations.) But it was Cervantes’s masterful tapestry of madness, sorrow, rue (herb o’grace), cruelty, compassion, and laughter that will stay with me. That’s its gravitational force.