Saturday, July 14, 2012

Introducing Quixote

"You're reading them out of order now?!!? Outrageous! 10 points from Ravenclaw!"

I decided to leapfrog over Virgil's Aeneid to read Don Quixote.  I fully understand that this overlap in material covered in Plutarch's Lives and I am sure that the Harvard Classics were put in that order for good reasons.  My reasoning is simple.  I really want to read Don Quixote.  I will simply read the Aeneid next. 

As a little glimpse inside my brain, I can tell you that I struggled for some time over feeling guilty about this.

I decided to go with the recent Edith Grossman translation.  Quixote is one of those books that, as I have often heard from trusted sources, has suffered much in translation.  One of the key concerns seems to be preservation of tone and, specifically, humor.  I had heard good things about the Raffel translation as well, but my tipping point was in the footnotes and in the recommendation of the Grossman by my friend Christopher.  I am well into the text and feel that this was the best possible choice.  It really is, as the endorsement by Library Journal claims on the cover, "the translation to beat."

The translators preface further serves to back up what I assume was Ms. Grossman's intentions/philosophy in her translation.  Simply put, she intends to preserve the experience that readers of the work in Spanish would have for readers of the work in English.  She writes, "...all human efforts to communicate- even in the same language- are equally utopian, equally luminous with value, and equally worth the doing."

I skipped most of Harold Bloom's introduction.  Look, I have enjoyed Professor Bloom's work in the past and I am sure I will again in the future.  I did not enjoy his introduction at this particular time.  He spends a great deal of the introduction comparing Cervantes to Shakespeare (who, granted, were contemporaries to the point where they actually died on the same day.)  I commented to Laurie that it struck me as being a bit like what Quentin Crisp said about television interviews:
A television interview, you see, is like a geography examination. You can’t study the whole world. Therefore, on the night before your exam, you take your atlas down from its shelf and open it at random. The map that you happen to expose is of China. You regard this as a sign from You-Know-Who and study China. The next day the main question in your paper is about France. You-Know-Who has sold you a pup. Don’t panic. Your answer begins, "France is not like China, which is . . . "
I haven't graphed it, but I suspect he spent more of his introduction talking about Shakespeare than Cervantes.

But that is not why I skipped it.  I skipped it because twice in the few pages I read, Professor Bloom committed the unforgivable sin of revealing major plot points of the work that I was about to read.  I am cursed with the sort of brain that remembers everything.  I don't care how famous you believe the work to be, if you are called upon to speak before a piece, it is part of your duty to preserve the wonderful experience before all of the audience, especially those who have never had the pleasure before.  If you are unable to do this, you should not be speaking in that context.  In fact, I would suggest to the publisher that what they have from Professor Bloom is not an Introduction that should ever be used for this piece.  What they have from Professor Bloom is probably an excellent Afterword.  I shall treat it as such and I shall return to comment on it once I've finished the book.

And then there is Cervantes' own Prologue.  I was instantly enchanted.  I literally smiled while I was reading it.  I am finding Cervantes to be delightful clever, but that is an terrible understatement.  I am finding Cervantes to be one of the cleverest authors I have ever had the pleasure to read.  In his prologue he establishes that we are to read a work of satire and that the target of the satire will largely be chivalry (although there seems to be a winking understanding that the scope of the work shall be far far larger.)  He also establishes the startling modernity of the work.  Having read Milton and Shakespeare in recent memory, I found it astoundingly modern to be reading not only a novel, but one in which the author periodically appears in the narrative. 

In short, I have no regrets over my decision.


  1. Here are my rules on front-matter. If it's by the author, I read it. If it's by the translator, I read it. If it's by a literary critic, I come back to it after I'm done. Occasionally Richard Pevear's intros get too far into criticism, but the contextualization of the history and society is usually so well done, that I persist.

    I don't care much about the revealing details. Familiarity actually increases my anticipation in better works. And Quixote isn't reliant upon plot for its charm. You could have a complete outline of the plot and Quixote would be no less charming.

    I do seem to recall being somewhat bemused by Bloom's Shakespearean obsession with relation to Quixote. I don't think Bloom can burp without thinking of Shakespeare.

  2. Follow your heart with reading but remember to change course from time to time has always been my rule in reading. No point reading what another says one ought to read.Never understood schedules. lists etc. Over 30-40 years if one loves reading all the great books will be covered. Just spread your net wide. Cervantes a good detour from too much classical world. 'Charming' a most apt expression for the Ur-Novel of European literature. Just the job for summer, enjoy Paul.

    Chris, Peavear claims in his intro that no-one's ever found a reason for why three minor characters are named after composers in Bulgakov's 'The Master and Maragarita'. Untrue ! Berlioz, Stravinsky and Rimsky-Korsakov all wrote music in which the Devil is featured.

    1. The one benefit of reading lists is subjecting yourself to something you wouldn't have read otherwise. It also can provide a rudder in a huge ocean of literature. I don't do well following them, however.

      I have yet to read Margarita. It's on my list. Good to know about the composers. I think it was one of Pevear/Volokhonsky's earlier translations from Russian, wasn't it?

  3. If reading lists are rudders for sailing in an ocean of literature, I like visualising the idea of Captain Mathers bobbing about at sea, doing a little tacking in his sailing !

  4. HA! I love it.

    I tend to read by association. Robertson Davies and Montaigne have lead to Rabelais, which I think I must soon start. But I am also wanting to spend more time with Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Dickens.