Saturday, August 4, 2012

Don Quixote Part 1: Part 1

Having already thrown the strictest version of Dr. Eliot's prescription to the wind, I am reading all of Don Quixote.  Dr. Eliot actually only demands Don Quixote Part 1.  Of course, this being my first time through the work, I have no idea why.  I do know that Part 2 was written and published many years later after someone else wrote a Further Adventures of Don Quixote.  This bastard version was to Cervantes what 50 Shades of Grey is to Twilight, what Mormonism is to Christianity, and what American Democracy is to the ancient Greek ideal of Democracy.  You can imagine Cervantes chagrin, to the extreme of writing a whole additional book.

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.

More soon.

1 comment:

  1. Awesome! I am so glad you are enjoying it. Part 2 is even more meta than 1. The pair are aware of their reputation from the earlier books. I seem to recall a reference to the mule, too, but could be inventing it.