One of my goals for this year was to read Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, yet another book I have had on my shelf for many years and had yet to read. But also a much beloved and recommended classic. I generally have a habit with novels that once I set myself to one, I do not want to be distracted by another until it is done. This means I’m often reluctant to start longer works as I will (with rare exceptions), commit myself to seeing them until the end regardless of whether I am enjoying them or not. In the case of Don Quixote though, I began reading it at the beginning of the year and got only a few chapters in.
Unlike many longer works, there isn’t much early commitment needed before it becomes enjoyable. It was both engaging and entertaining from the outset. I did quickly become distracted though and opted instead to read it on my daily commutes rather than in the manner I described above. After completing the novel early last week, I think I made the right choice as the somewhat episodic structure lends itself to that. So I very slowly worked my way through the book at one or two chapters a day; only occasionally taking breaks with shorter works in-between.
I call Don Quixote a novel but this classification is questionable and I’m sure many the literary pedant has done so. It is not structured like a modern novel and has a lot more in common with epic poetry though without rhyme or meter. There is a an overarching narrative about Don Quixote de la Mancha and his squire Sancho Panza but there are also a number of stories within stories from the various characters these two meet on their erratic journeys.
As mentioned, this structure had great advantage to the way I read it as there were often good moments to put a bookmark in and leave it for a while. These breaks were needed as it was quite frankly often boring though never as often as it was entertaining. The opening as mentioned is immediately engaging and often laugh-out-loud funny. Most of what people know about Don Quixote happens within Book I, Part I and I expect that is all most who say they’ve read it have read if they’ve read any at all. Apart from feeling the need to lie about how well-read you are, I don’t blame anyone for not going further. If my suspicions are correct, I’m certainly not the only one who found it slow going at times.
As it happens, I noticed during my reading that another book I have unread on my shelf, an essay collection by the late Simon Leys titled The Hall of Uselessness has an essay on Don Quixote. I read this almost as soon as I finished the novel (after re-reading the Introduction for my edition of Don Quixote). As a quick aside, I’ve heard it recently said that the introductions to many classic works are better placed at the end as an Afterword and I don’t disagree.
Leys’ essay which is one of three under the heading ‘Quixotism’ is also the first in the book and the only one actually about the work that spawned the word ‘quixotic’. He opens the essay:
In debates, the word ‘quixotic’ is nearly always meant as an insult — which puzzles me, since I can hardly think of a greater compliment. The way most people refer to Don Quixote makes you wonder if they have actually read the book. In fact, it would be interesting to find out whether Don Quixote is still as widely read as the universal popularity of the character would normally suggest. But it could be awkward to conduct such an enquiry — especially among educated people, one often encounters a strange misconception that there are a certain number of books one should have read, and it would be shameful to acknowledge that one has failed in this sort of cultural obligation.
I will come back to the essay later but I do like that a man far more accomplished than I will ever be shares some similar thoughts on the book. Somewhere in this essay (or perhaps the introduction), a critic is quoted as saying that every reader has a different experience with Don Quixote. How much that is the case with me, I do not know but it does make sense based on the length alone.
It is surprising how often connections between works I’m reading come together. In this case, not only did I happen to notice the above essay while browsing unread books, I also began reading a history book about Christopher Columbus a few months into beginning Don Quixote. Columbus was from Genoa but has been largely (and not unreasonably) adopted by the Spanish. He lived before Cervantes and his fictional knight-errant’s time but knowing something of Spain a short century before did help to understand the world I had entered into. I also remembered I had a copy of Monsignor Quixote by Graham Greene that I picked up at a school fair some years ago which I’ve now begun reading.
I can’t say I have anything particularly original to say about the novel but one thing I did find fascinating was just how Catholic it was. Living in the times we do, seeing popular Catholic piety and sentiment woven so effortlessly (or at least it seems), into the work was a delight. The cynic will point out that even the most lackadaisical Catholic would have done well to show religious fervor with the Inquisition around but I found Cervantes genuine. And from the biographical sketches I’ve read, he was a devout Catholic and lived a life which makes for fantastic reading on its own.
Pointing out how Catholic it is might drive modern readers away but this is not to say it is a pious didactic tome but a very earthy and real look at people with faults and virtues, great and small. Many of the embedded stories concern problems such as women abandoned after promises from suitors as well as repentant rogues and many other relatable characters. The two main heroes have plenty of flaws themselves. Interestingly, for all Don Quixote’s madness, he speaks good sense when not attacking flocks of sheep or attempting to provoke a lion into mauling him.
Here is an extract of a lengthy section where Don Quixote offers Sancho advice before he undertakes his abbreviated tenure as Governor of a small island:
“First of all, my son, thou must fear God, for in the fear of him is wisdom, and being wise thou canst not err in aught.
“Secondly, thou must keep in view what thou art, striving to know thyself, the most difficult thing to know that the mind can imagine. If thou knowest thyself, it will follow thou wilt not puff thyself up like the frog that strove to make himself as large as the ox; if thou dost, the recollection of having kept pigs in thine own country will serve as the ugly feet for the wheel of thy folly.”
“That’s the truth,” said Sancho; “but that was when I was a boy; afterwards when I was something more of a man it was geese I kept, not pigs. But to my thinking that has nothing to do with it; for all who are governors don’t come of a kingly stock.”
“True,” said Don Quixote, “and for that reason those who are not of noble origin should take care that the dignity of the office they hold be accompanied by a gentle suavity, which wisely managed will save them from the sneers of malice that no station escapes.
“Glory in thy humble birth, Sancho, and be not ashamed of saying thou art peasant-born; for when it is seen thou art not ashamed no one will set himself to put thee to the blush; and pride thyself rather upon being one of lowly virtue than a lofty sinner. Countless are they who, born of mean parentage, have risen to the highest dignities, pontifical and imperial, and of the truth of this I could give thee instances enough to weary thee.
“Remember, Sancho, if thou make virtue thy aim, and take a pride in doing virtuous actions, thou wilt have no cause to envy those who have princely and lordly ones, for blood is an inheritance, but virtue an acquisition, and virtue has in itself alone a worth that blood does not possess.
“This being so, if perchance anyone of thy kinsfolk should come to see thee when thou art in thine island, thou art not to repel or slight him, but on the contrary to welcome him, entertain him, and make much of him; for in so doing thou wilt be approved of heaven (which is not pleased that any should despise what it hath made), and wilt comply with the laws of well-ordered nature.
Chapter XLII, Part Two
There are many such passages throughout and though Quixote’s appearance is clearly amusing to almost all he meets, he conducts himself with dignity and speaks well to all he encounters whether they think him mad or not. Many times I had to remind myself that all this good sense was coming from a man who had mistaken a barber’s wash bowl for an enchanted helmet.
Sancho is the more practical of the two though his loyalty to his mad master becomes stronger as the story progresses and is himself caught up in his master’s madness — though always retaining his own sanity. Sancho is also very amusing and the Duchess met later in the book becomes particularly fond of him. His habit of speaking in streams of proverbs most stood out as did his constant search for ways to avoid hardship, eat well and profit from the different circumstances he finds himself in.
Here is an example of some of his proverb laden dialogue and one of the many rebukes from his master given throughout their adventure:
“I neither say nor think so,” said Sancho; “let them look to it; with their bread let them eat it; they have rendered account to God whether they misbehaved or not; I come from my vineyard, I know nothing; I am not fond of prying into other men’s lives; he who buys and lies feels it in his purse; moreover, naked was I born, naked I find myself, I neither lose nor gain; but if they did, what is that to me? many think there are flitches where there are no hooks; but who can put gates to the open plain? moreover they said of God—”
“God bless me,” said Don Quixote, “what a set of absurdities thou art stringing together! What has what we are talking about got to do with the proverbs thou art threading one after the other? for God’s sake hold thy tongue, Sancho, and henceforward keep to prodding thy ass and don’t meddle in what does not concern thee; and understand with all thy five senses that everything I have done, am doing, or shall do, is well founded on reason and in conformity with the rules of chivalry, for I understand them better than all the world that profess them.”
Chapter XI, Book III, Part One
Although one gets the impression, Quixote is genuinely fond of his squire, he often tell him off throughout most for his frequent complaints and lack of filter in sharing opinions. One can see how this partnership has influenced so much literature and media since whether consciously or not.
Whether or not I recommend Don Quixote, depends very much on the sort of reader you are. Reading the first book would make you as familiar as you need to be to understand references to it for the most part but there is a lot more depth beyond the novelty of the premise and the Knight of the Woeful Figure’s amusing initial misadventures. I can’t see myself reading it cover to cover again but I certainly can see myself re-reading parts in the future. Indeed, I already have to help recall characters which reappear later in the narrative.
Leys ends his essay by anchoring it to the very Christian time it was produced in and arguing that only a society whose beliefs are larger than life can progress. As Don Quixote himself wasn’t limited by reality, neither should be the life of a Christian who should always be looking beyond this world to another and being careful in this one to tread carefully on the way. Unlike Leys, I wasn’t sad to see Don Quixote’s’ end as by the Grace of God he was given time enough to prepare for a good death with his affairs in order with his soul committed to God. His sanity was returned late but long enough to do all he needed. Though the last chapters of the book were rather anticlimactic, they were more accurate to the kind of end most of us will meet. Who could ask for more?