Saturday, August 25, 2012
Christopher was right. At the end of Part 1, I had a moment where I wondered if I should read Part 2 right away or put it on the back burner while I went back to the Harvard Classics list proper. Christopher said, "No! Read Part 2 immediately! It is even better than Part 1!"
And I'll be hanged if he wasn't right. This, and I am not just saying this out of being caught up in the emotion of the moment, is one of the best reading experiences of my life. I know I'm starting to sound like a broken record, but my gratitude towards Dr. Eliot for leading me to finally read this book is matched only by my utter astonishment that he only included Part 1 in his curriculum. Part 2 reveals a more evolved author who has adapted intrepidly from the lessons that the publication of Part 1 and the subsequent public reaction occasioned. He has scuttled the stories within the story to focus, instead, purely on the adventures of the ingenious gentleman. The meta-fiction aspect balloons in this section, starting with a scholar telling Sancho and Quixote about Part 1, its publication, contents, and reception. Their reaction is as hilarious as one might imagine. In his further adventures, Part 1 is something often considered and he encounters a number of people who read it. Part 2 also, it is promised and I will soon get to it, unquestionably ends the story. On reading the introduction, I mused why some wag hadn't thought of penning a Don Quixote's Adventures in the Afterlife. Something that might make both Cervantes and Dante plunk out their respective mustaches in rage.
Depending on how one looks at it I suppose, it is either a series of fantastic and absurd events that the premise (madman wandering around thinking he's a knight errant) suggest punctuated by some of the best dialogue in all of literature between Sancho and Quixote or vice versa. I am inclined towards the latter. I could read conversations between Quixote and Sancho for the rest of my life and never fall out of sheer delight. I suspect the same was true for Cervantes. It is not difficult to imagine it was rip-roaring fun for him to write this. It seems like the sort of thing that, when one gets one's teeth into writing something like this, the rest of life sort of becomes a hindrance to writing. It's my experience, as a writer and having read many other writers on the subject, that such blessings are exceedingly rare in writing. It is almost always a slog to get anything written at all. In this, I envy Cervantes.
This is not to say that the action isn't equally thrilling. The scene in the etching above is when Don Quixote is watching a puppet show. He becomes so enthralled by the action that he enters into it. I was reminded of a true story that the head of Shakespeare Orange County (my former boss) told me once about a production of Henry VIII in which he was playing the title role. There was a scene between Henry and Cranmer which was so intense, acted with such tension, that one night a member of the audience climbed on stage and told them to cut it out.
It was also one of my favorite scenes in the book. I searched for hours, but apparently Doré never drew the prophesying monkey.
At present I am with Quixote and Sancho in the court of a Duke and Duchess who have the main characters from one of their favorite books drop by quite unexpectedly one day to pay them a visit. Childhood daydreams: resurrected!
Belief systems seem to be one of the themes addressed in the story. I have chuckled more than once at Quixote's capacity to explain away inconvenient truths by attributing them to invisible enchanters who cloud the eyes of their enemies with illusion. Even better, at one point Sancho tries to exploit this tendency, having observed Quixote, in the garden of his mind as it were, turn inns into castles, windmills into giants, lions into things that should be attacked, Sancho tries to convince Quixote that a poor, crass peasant girl is his beloved Dulcinea. Quixote doesn't see it, which he, again, attributes to enchanters. Maybe he is enchanted, maybe Sancho is enchanted, finally settling on Dulcinea being enchanted and he needing to save her from said enchantment. This plan backfires on Sancho in a nearly literal way a few hundred pages later. While Quixote's reality is not our consensus reality, it is nonetheless as hermetically sealed as our reality, as any functioning reality must be.
I should also like to say a few words about the footnotes. Again, this entire reading experience has been infinitely enriched by the excellent and tastefully appropriate footnotes by Ms. Grossman. While I say, again, that everyone should read this book, I will also say that every native of the Queen's English should read this specific translation of this book. I am already bracing myself for the inevitable whiplash of my next book, the footnoteless and likely inferior translation of The Aeneid which sits at my right elbow while an angels sits on my left shoulder whispering "Go out and buy the Fagles translation tomorrow. You'll be much happier if you do." A suspiciously Mephistophelean voice from my other shoulder is whispering about thrift and our recent electric and medical bills.
There is one particular footnote that burrowed its way deep into my brain like a thorn these past two days. In it, Grossman points out a phrase, spoken by Sancho, which was suppressed by the Inquisition. I shivered. There is something about the grimmest of realities popping in to remind us that they exist while we are in the middle of a didactic tale on the virtues of creating one's own reality that almost demands a renewed commitment on the part of the reader, similar to a conversion in the face of persecution. Quixote is a saint or even messianic figure for crazy wisdom and holy madness. I see one of the lessons of the story to be along the lines of:
"Don't like this reality? Make up a better one and live in that one instead!"And I think there is some hope in that some of the characters are permitting the co-existence of Quixote's reality if not actively joining in on occasion. For those examining from the heartbreaking perspective of without, the demands of our reality does not allow us to see the invisible enchanters as the true antagonists, but rather the true antagonists in this story are disbelief and the unwillingness to permit the reality of Quixote's devising.
For my part, it is my intention to withdraw as much of this weekend as I can to spend on the remainder of this book. One of the strange compulsions of reading a great book is the desire to spend so much time in it which only serves to make the end come that much more quickly. Such is life.
Sunday, August 19, 2012
Saturday, August 18, 2012
Or "Let's All Write Cantos." This is one of the problem forms in this project. It presents a difficulty in my intention to write one of each of the forms.
The problem is that a canto is similar to a chapter. You will find it in longer, possibly epic works of poetry, as a way of breaking up the ideas into bite sized pieces. The most obvious example would be Dante, which works rather neatly if you are describing rings of a realm. Simply make a canto for each ring. Ezra Pound also wrote cantos in his magnum opus The Cantos, one of those books in life that I think I will be on stab #3 of trying to read it next time I attempt to do so. That is about all that our text has to tell us about Cantos and how to write them.
Here is an example of a canto. It is the final canto from Dante's Inferno in which they observe the lowest level of Hell where resides Lucifer, Judas Iscariot, Brutus, Cassius, and my English teacher from my Freshman year in High School. As I said, in Dante's case, the canto structure worked neatly in describing realms with levels. But, as you can also see, they are chapters of a story and are not meant to be taken from the context.
And so I was faced with the problem of what to do here. I can't just skip a form, but I also don't have the time or artistic resources to crank out an entire epic poem split into cantos simply for the sake of this form (I have no idea what I'm going to do when I actually do reach the "epic" section of this book. Stay tuned for that. We can be surprised together).
So I decided to write a canto of a missing piece. I floated a few ideas past Laurie. One was to write a canto about how Sancho Panza's donkey was stolen. Another was to write a canto from the life of Mozart, specifically why he never completed his Great Mass in C minor which he promised to God to write in return for Constanze's fever breaking. He had ample time left in his life to complete it, but he never did (and he wasn't exactly a slouch when it came to his work). I nearly wrote that one, but finally, when I came to write the thing, I decided to write a Canto from the life of Paul Mathers, an epic autobiographical poem which will, most likely, never be written outside of what you shall see here. The story is a true one. The verse is the net-less tennis of free verse.
Et Incarnatus Est
by Paul Mathers
On each week's last labor's day
I arose hours before Phoebus
to wind produce from all four corners
deep into the craggy heart of yon neighboring mount
like a goblin.
Places like The Wooden Trout, The Grubstake Saloon, Toki's Soda Fountain,
a little red schoolhouse down a one lane road,
keenly aware that my bobtail truck would have to back down if I ever met a car coming down as I went up.
I never did.
Although once I backed down in the middle of winter to avoid a snowdrift.
My soul bloated over a billion signs of wild.
Bears in the road, deer in the road,
golden day's first dip into a valley of pine,
driving drunk on love of creation.
Converted, I proselytized,
encouraging wife and parents to drive up on my day off with me,
capture the sights on film,
quaff deep the delights of the mountain towns,
bestride the terra like Titans,
each breath of thin air deposited towards a future of health.
Result: they carsick from the winding ride,
seeing it through the eyes of the city, small in town, inconvenient in nature,
the small diner gave miserable service,
our coats were not warm enough,
the whole covered by a glass darkly.
But rather than raw disappointment, a rare moment of clarity in the converse,
Awakening to the divinity infusing the places down the mountain,
in the darkest hour, in the shabbiest corner, in the cheapest excuse,
I resolved to keep the mountain in my heart.
Perhaps not best to share every thought God whispers in your ear.
Sunday, August 12, 2012
Saturday, August 11, 2012
I still wonder why Dr. Eliot only included Part 1 in his series. I mentioned this to Laurie with a few of my own guesses: the meta-content of Part 2 might be more in line with contemporary thought than Dr. Eliot (making Cervantes ahead of not only his own, but also of Dr. Eliot's time), maybe something as simple as space constraints, or at the end of Part 1 just sort of shrugging his shoulders and saying "Eh, I think you get the point." Laurie suggested, and I think she may have it, that perhaps Part 1 was more historically influential as it was written quite some time before Part 2. So much, in fact, that someone else came along and wrote a "false" Part 2 before Cervantes finished his authentic conclusion. By the time the authentic Part 2 came to be, Cervantes was already a world renowned figure, with a reported offer to teach Castilian in China with Quixote 1 as the textbook, and even likely having a play penned by William Shakespeare based upon Cardenio's story (one of Shakespeare's "lost" plays, which hasn't stopped a few theater companies from mounting productions of what might be Shakespeare's Cardenio.) The world in which Cervantes lived when he wrote Part 2 was a world that knew Cervantes.
So much of the action of Don Quixote does not involve Don Quixote. So much of the delight in the parts of the action which do involve Don Quixote are not so much delightful for the action, but for the conversation and ideas. In spite of the fact that this book is a rip-roaring good narrative after chivalry, I felt that one of the key delights of this book is that it is a book of ideas. One of the other other key delights of this book is the scope of its humanity. Of course, the major delight of the book is simply the sheer quality of the writing and story-telling. It is amazing to have a book where you are involved in the story of two character that you love interrupted by another new character or circumstance bringing several chapters of a completely unrelated story, and you are in no way annoyed by this. Perhaps I should speak for myself, but I am. I was simply enchanted the whole way through.
Again, it is too huge to survey all that I loved: the story of the Moorish prisoner, Don Quixote's penitent madness in the wilderness, the canon's speech about a minister of culture, Don Quixote's response to the priest's disparaging remarks about books of chivalry (in which he expresses the Fruit of the Spirit he has exhibited since becoming a knight errant, which would be true if it weren't for the fact that he is barking mad and all of his assumptions are based upon premises which lay outside of consensus reality, leading him to, say, attack a group of penitents in order to free the effigy of the Virgin Mary that they are carrying), Anselmo and Lotario, Don Francisco, the battle against the wineskins, the return of the whipped child, and so on and so forth. What I have read thus far dances in my head and I was sorry to see it end (and end so abruptly.) I am grateful for the permission slip to make haste into Part 2.
In my previous post, I imagined I would break this reading into 3 responses, but I think 4 will be more likely at this point. More soon.
Sunday, August 5, 2012
Saturday, August 4, 2012
I have decided to read the entire thing because, simply put, this is without a doubt one of the top five most enjoyable reading experiences of my life so far. Other titles in the Harvard Classics series I have found enjoyable and profitable; I might have recommended them to certain parties. The Grossman translation of Don Quixote, on the other hand, is something I would recommend to everyone. It reads as easily as anything contemporary, and the footnotes are excellent. In fact, there are several moments which would suffer enormously to the contemporary English speaking reader without the footnotes (specifically, the chapter where the priest culls Don Quixote's library would have been terribly dull without the footnotes. With the footnotes, the reader grasps the brilliant satire). There are also a few narrative gaps explained by the footnotes, gaps which likely inspired the Los Angeles Times critic to write the quote on the back cover which calls it "Cervantes's imperfect masterpiece." Which seems to me like a nervy thing to say. Your novel had better be pretty stunning if you're going to go around calling Don Quixote imperfect, book review-boy.
He was probably referring to Sancho Panza's magically disappearing and reappearing mule.
I have decided to post about each third of this book.
I found Cervantes to be charming and sublimely clever. It is rare that I laugh out loud while reading, even rarer in 400 year old texts, but in this instance I have already several times and in public. I have even chuckled a few times away from the book when thinking about the scene when Sancho leans over Quixote to see which teeth he lost in battle.
We start with a long series of sonnets at a friend of the author's suggestion and Latin phrases become a running gag. Quixote is driven mad by reading novels, yes, very much like the one we are reading. Early on we are treated to a chapter where, as I mentioned, a priest culls a library for books that should be burned. The meta-commentary of that scene early on informs us that this is far more cunning and modern than one might expect from a work from the 1600s. I cannot adequately express what a delight it is to read this book.
The windmills happen right out of the gate. So much of the joy of the book is in the relationship between Quixote and Sancho Panza. There is a sort of unspoken idea behind the text, bringing to mind Tristram Shandy, that we are in no hurry and shall take our time enjoying what is before us. If Cervantes feels like taking three chapters to describe a novel that some of the characters found at an inn, well, he will do so without apology and we shall enjoy it (I am currently in one such section).
But it goes beyond all of that. It is also tender, brutal, and excruciatingly human. It is also an excellent piece of literature. Definitely on my short list for when I am inevitably exiled to a desert island. To be completely honest, I am far more intimidated to write about this book than I am to read it.