Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Time to talk about Don Quixote

Don Quixote (reread)
Published Part I 1605, Part II 1615
Back to the Classics (comic novel)

Three weeks ago, my family and I flew to Missouri for a funeral. On our way home we were held up at airport security, in Springfield, because of something in my backpack. Two officers took it aside and one proceeded to question if I had anything in my backpack that would poke him; I said no. After inspecting the contents of my backpack via his X-ray monitor, he discovered the location of the suspicious item. 

Cautiously, he reached in and removed my copy of Don Quixote. Slowly, he flipped through its pages - all 1050 of them. Then satisfied, he pronounced it "good" and returned it to my backpack. And I replied, as he handed my bag to me, "It is's Don Quixote."

He did not think I was funny.

Maybe he is like a lot of other people who attempt to read Don Quixote and find nothing funny about it. Well, I cannot say that I blame airport security or anyone else who finds this comedic tome a real downer. 

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza
Entertained by Basil and Quiteria
Gustave Doré, 1863

For one reason: IT'S REALLY LONG...maybe even unnecessarily long; two: it's repetitive; and three: it's mean!

Let me explain more. Cervantes released Don Quixote in two parts: part one, in 1605, and part two, ten years later. You could read only one part of your choice and still experience all you need from the book. Some say part two is a lot better, but you should read both parts anyway to form your own opinion. I think there is something important about both.

Part one was such a success that readers wanted Cervantes to release a second; but he took too long, and someone using a pseudonym wrote a part two. In doing so, Cervantes was forced to speed up -- if ten years is considered speeding up the process -- and release the real part two of his work. So you could say the popularity of the story encouraged its length.

About its length: Cervantes had too much fun writing Don Quixote. He went on and on, adventure after adventure, heroic achievement after heroic achievement, drubbing after drubbing, monologue after monologue. Some monologues went on for pages! 

About its repetition: most of the adventures are similar. After a few, you successfully predict what is going to happen next. Only the very last adventure of part two ends differently, and it happens to be the decisive moment for Quixote to voluntarily return home for good. But most of all, it is so repetitive, you could put it down for weeks and then pick up to read at a new chapter, having never missed a beat. 

About its meanness: it is! Your good sense tells you that Don Quixote especially is verbally cruel and insensitive toward his friend and partner, Sancho. You also recognize that other characters that interact with Quixote and Sancho are unkind and heartless toward them. You question if their pranks are worth laughing about. You feel guilty for having witnessed it. You know it is not right, and you wish to do something about it; but you cannot. Maybe that is where you start wondering if you should altogether stop reading it.

The Return of Don Quixote
Hippolyte Lecomte

Well, let me share why you should read Don Quixote...why it is good, worthy literature. 

It is excellent literature. The very best writing! Maybe my translator, Walter Starkie, should receive that credit, but I do believe it is not far from the truth. However, I read that John Ormsby's translation from the original Spanish is one of the best, and most other modern English translations, including Starkie's, originate from Ormsby. So if you get a good translation, you shall enjoy a really great example of excellent literature. 

Another reason to enjoy Don Quixote is because it is hysterical. It is full of sarcasm through and through. Cervantes is mocking knight-errantry, chivalry, and all of their formalities. He is mocking it to the core. Also, the interactions and conversations between Quixote and Sancho are comedic, though it certainly helped that I visualized the two characters and stuck with it. Quixote is tall and lean, brass and arrogant and smug, while Sancho is short and plump, nonchalant and undisturbed.

Scenes from the Life of Don Quixote
John Vanderbank 1730

The humor extends into the true part two about the false part two. Cervantes, through Quixote, makes references to the fake author who messed up his own true version of the story. And to further the humor, the characters in part two declare to know the famed knight and his squire because they proclaim to have read part one. So made-up characters in a story know about the made-up knight and his squire because they read the real first part of Don Quixote. Go figure!

But wait! Not only is this flooded with humor; it is flowing with wisdom. There is so much wisdom coming from both Quixote and Sancho, you should always read with a pen; you will want to underline all of the proverbs and wisdom of Sancho, as well as Quixote. They are brilliant! Cervantes was brilliant!

One final fun reason to enjoy Don Quixote is this: you will be just as confused with reality as our knight. The first time I read this, I did not catch the mockery of knight-errantry. The author is perfectly duplicitous in his elevation of chivalry. In addition, Cervantes writes so much history and reality into his novel, with just enough untruths, causing you to question if what you are reading is true. Finally, you will wonder if you should take Quixote seriously or not. He is always on the verge of reality, and so is the entire saga of Don Quixote. 

In fact, even Sancho is a dual character. He is not as pathetic and dumb as you are supposed to believe. There is always wisdom and statesmanship pouring from his character, especially when he is finally awarded a governorship. You think he is written as a completely different character. But you know what is said: if you let a man lead, he will rise to the occasion.

Don Quixote Consults the Enchanted Head
Charles-Antoine Coypel

So there you go. This is my case for Don Quixote. I absolutely love it and find joy in reading it. It is so lighthearted and full of humor and wisdom, all the same. Let me share a little Quixotic the most enjoyable quotes I have ever read about matrimony:
When anyone wishes to make a long journey, if he be prudent, he looks for a safe and agreeable travel companion before he takes to the road. Then why should he not do the same when he has to travel all the days of his life to the resting place of death, and especially if the companion has to consort with him in bed and at the table and everywhere, as the wife has to do with the husband? The companionship of one's own wife is not mere merchandise that, once bought, can be returned, bartered, or exchanged, for marriage is an inseparable union that lasts as long as life. It is a noose that becomes a Gordian knot once we put it around our neck. And if Death's scythe does not cut it, there is no untying it.
By the way, you could also read into this sarcastically, considering Cervantes is describing marriage as a noose around one's neck; speaking from experience, it sometimes feels this way. So, once again, it is ironically true.

And finally, I leave you with a typical proverb from Sancho:
Clothe me as you will, I'll still be Sancho Panza.


  1. Yessssssssssss, I do want to read this. Eventually, I will. I have a copy. Just have to get to it.

    Your story about airport security is funny to me, at least :-)

    1. Yes, Hamlette, you will appreciate Don Quixote. Just read it slowly and do not feel rushed to get through it. You can always put it down and come back a little later, and you won't have forgotten a thing.

    2. Good point, Ruth. I tend to read multiple books at once anyway.

  2. It is a delight! Now on part two and enjoying it still!

    1. Sara, I am happy to know someone else who enjoys it, too! Yay!

  3. I've been considering beginning this as my next very long classic, and have even tracked down a copy. Now your wrap-up has entirely convinced me. I can hardly wait to begin, after reading this.

    1. Paula, I do hope you enjoy it. I tell everyone to take it slow. Remember, you can put it down for awhile and return to it whenever you like, and it won't disrupt your flow. It's truly lighthearted. No pressure.

  4. You have convinced me to give Don Quixote one more chance. Ugh!

    So briefly, why I didn’t like it (not the length): I once hung out with a group of idealists who LOVED Don Quixote – not the novel, the character. He was their hero, a TRUE idealist – perhaps THE IDEALIST. So, I was expecting this wonderful character I could admire and emulate – but I didn’t find him admirable. For me, he was just nuts. He wasted his own life and dragged Sancho along with him. I couldn’t get past that. (My review of: Don Quixote for full explanation)

    But you make an excellent case for the worthiness of this classic – the quality of the writing, the humor, and the wisdom. I admit, it’s all that. I was aware, but mostly missed it due to my disgust for the wasted life.

    I don’t mind a major tome, but I’ve read Don Quixote twice now, and never thought I’d pick it up again, but now I think must. Thanks a lot Ruth! Seriously, I suspect I will enjoy it much more next time if I focus more on the qualities you so excellently highlight.

    1. Interesting...I do not know what to say about your group of idealistic "friends," but those must have been intriguing conversations you guys had.

      I think it is easy to consider Quixote nuts b/c that is (I believe) how Cervantes cast him, so that the world would be misled. But deeper still, Quixote is full of wisdom; as I said, he is always on the verge of reality! The arguments and conversations that he had with Sancho and other characters makes it so. Cervantes must have had so much fun writing it. And the history, folklore, and culture mixed into the story, along with the humor, sarcasm, and wit makes it so lighthearted and enjoyable.

      If you get to read it again, forget how odd Quixote is. He is odd: true! Develop a visual of each character. For the longest time, I used Kelsey Grammer as Don Quixote (I thought he was DQ in Man of La Mancha, 1972, but Grammer is actually playing DQ in a new release of Man of La Mancha this year!!!!). Unfortunately, I do not know where I got Sancho's visual, but it works really well for me.

      So now I shall check go out your explanation.

  5. I meant to mention...did you know Gordon Lightfoot recorded a song about Don Quixote? I won't post a link here, but a search for video of Don Quixote by Gordon Lightfoot will easily give you a link. I think it is quite good (but I'm a big fan of Gordon Lightfoot).

  6. It makes me very happy to see fans of this book. It's difficult for us, modern readers, to be at the right moment and have some helpful built up that makes us appreciate the book. For me, being an Spaniard, we may have an advantage, that of lots in our consciousness. It'd be as for a British or London person to connect with Dickens.

    Cervantes does a lot of new things that rock my boat, but his carcass is also old. Don't get hang up with the translations, because they are all good as much as they help you read it, and they all have quality. This is also a type of book that takes several attempts for many of us to finish, -it was such a case for me-, so if initially one only gets to enjoy some or most of book 1, excellent. It's like an ex that we keep on calling back every decade to see if the love can be rekindled.

    Many go with the assumption or presumption that it's going to be funny, or fast paced... it's none. Like Candide, -for example-, it's funny in its heavy sarcasm, and not only it's mean, I'd even say cruel. Such was life for Cervantes and Don Quixote.

    The repetitiveness of the stories is made to drown us in the tediousness of life. Without the many pages, the characters depth can't be drawn. This universe like books are condemned to have some boring parts. Like life itself. And also remember many of our door stopper type of literature was published in installments. In this case, with years of difference.

    How impatient do we get when we are waiting for a new Netflix season?

    Having said all that, it's okay for this not to be your type of classic. Javier Marías admits to his lack of appreciation for Joyce's Ulysses, and he says why, and gives the book proper credit in its category as the culmination of realism (which implodes the genre from inside). He appreciates Dubliners more. And such is life, ha ha ha.

    1. Awesome perspective. Thank you for sharing that.

      I think today's audience does struggle with patience...or I could say, readers of the 1600s practiced more patience than today's readers. We are so very different, and for that, we experience DQ differently.

  7. I also read and reviewed Don Quixote by Cervantes for the Back to the Classics reading challenge. I counted it as my Very Long Classic. I enjoyed the book, but thought it was way too long. It should have been broken up into a series of short stories.

    1. Yes, so much could be cut out of it that doesn't pertain to the story, but then that would compromise Cervantes' epic Spanish adventure. : D