Saturday, August 25, 2012

Don Quixote Part 2: Part 1

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.

1 comment:

  1. I'm so glad you are enjoying Quixote. I also quite like the first sentence. ;-)