Friday, September 1, 2017

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes



I read the Edith Grossman translation of this work.



The Ingenious Nobleman Mister Quixote of La Mancha, better known as Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes was published in two parts between 1605 and 1615. This enormously famous work has been called the first modern novel. Many consider it one of the greatest works of literature. This is a big book, the edition that I read was 941 pages long.

This is a work of comedy and parody. It is also many other things. It tells the story of its namesake, Don Quixote. The protagonist is a Spanish nobleman. At 50 years of age, he decides to take to the road to live the life of a knight-errant. He sets out accompanied by his “squire,” a local farmer named Sancho Panza. Don Quixote’s mission is to fight injustice and right wrongs while following a strict code of chivalry. As the narrative proceeds, it becomes clear that he is living in a world of delusion (although some critics have suggested that the delusion is a put-on and that Don Quixote actually has a firm grasp on reality). Windmills become giants to be attacked, caravans of travelers become enemy armies to fight, dark and damp caves become entrances to mystical lands, inns become castles and peasant girls become princesses. The story is very episodic. Often, Don Quixote attacks random people that he perceives to be villainous warriors. The targets of his attacks typically fight back, and Don Quixote and Sancho sometimes take beatings.  The pair partakes in other amusing and interesting adventures. Other times, Don Quixote befriends various people whose own stories and adventures occupy multiple pages of narrative.

Throughout the book Don Quixote and Sancho bicker, and their exchanges range from hilarious to enlightening. However, it is apparent the two harbor great affection for one another.

So much has been written about this work. Some consider it a critique of the concepts of chivalry and honor. Others consider it a tribute to those ideas. Like some, I think that the theme of this work lies somewhere in between parody and respect for these ideas. At one point, Don Quixote describes his mission,

“a knight I am, and a knight I shall die, if it pleases the Almighty. Some men walk the broad fields of haughty ambition, or base and servile adulation, or deceptive hypocrisy, and some take the road of true religion; but I, influenced by my star, follow the narrow path of knight errantry, and because I profess it I despise wealth but not honor. I have redressed grievances, righted wrongs, punished insolence, vanquished giants, and trampled monsters; I am in love, simply because it is obligatory for knights errant to be so; and being so, I am not a dissolute lover, but one who is chaste and platonic. I always direct my intentions to virtuous ends, which are to do good to all and evil to none”

The above quotation seems to encapsulate the mix of mockery and esteem for such ideas as chivalry and honor. The above is amusing. It also espouses virtues that are commendable.

What I found striking about Cervantes’s book is how modern this 400 year old work seems. Though some of this impression might be attributable to Grossman’s translation, there are universal aspects to this book that are relevant the 21st century.

In particular, I found this story to be hilarious. Don Quixote is constantly interpreting the identity of common people and everyday events as being a part of his fantasy world. These interpretations are amusing, entertaining and creative. The predicaments that he gets Sancho and himself into elicit outright laughter. I find it to be striking that so much of the humor works so well after all of these centuries.

The chemistry between Don Quixote and Sancho is both amusing and endearing. Though there is an ever-present class distinction between the two, the relationship reminds me of a modern one between unequals that is outwardly antagonistic but inwardly warm. The dialogs between the two would fit well into a modern day comedy-drama.

The description of Don Quixote’s “madness” also seems very modern. Anyone who has ever encountered a delusional person would in time recognize a lot in this book’s hero. The people that Don Quixote encounters react in ways that also reminds me of the way modern people react to mental illness. Some respond with anger, others with amusement and more than a few with understanding.

All of this makes this book very accessible to the modern reader. It also makes this work a testament to the fact that many of the things that characterize people are universal.

The above is just a nibble of what this massive book has to offer. I can easily write a series of blogs on this tome. The work is full of philosophy and both overt and underlying themes. One could also write volumes about the characters and their relationships. Thus, I will likely post at least one more entry on this work.

This is a magnificent piece of fiction.  At least when it comes to Grossman’s translation, this is also very readable. Despite its status as a canonical classic, it is both entertaining and funny. Though I think that its length keeps people away from it, I would recommend this work to almost anyone who is not put off by its size. This is ultimately, a magnificent work of literature.






46 comments:

Kathy's Corner said...

Hi Brian,

Superb review of this great classic. You have me very interested because I too was intimidated by the 921 pages and I worried that the translation would be hard to follow. You explained the book so well, the themes, the characters, the history and why we should read it. Interesting about knighthood. I guess when Cervantes wrote Don Quixote knighthood was a thing of the past but not so distantand so men could still fancy living in those times.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Kathy - Though long, it was an easy read.

My understanding is that by Cervantes's time, old fashioned knighthood was more or less a thing of the past.

Stephen said...

Well done in reading this and writing such a review...when I drew up my classics club list I didn't quite dare to put Don Quixote on it. Even war and Peace seemed more approachable. This translation makes it sound possible, though!

Fred said...

Excellent review. You have more courage than I do. I would be afraid to tackle this work.

Again, well done!

Fred said...

One of these days, I just might dust off my copy and read it again. Thanks for reminding me of a classic.

Mudpuddle said...

great review! it's been a long while since i read it and your post reminds me of how much i liked it... given the nature of Cervante's life, wounds, prison, hunger, his overall understanding and representation of the human condition is courageous, daring, surprising, and comprehensive... tx for your efforts...

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Stephen - I really need to look at other translations, if only for curiosity. I have to think it is not just this translation that is so accessible.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Fred - Except for the Length It really was not bad at all. You may want to try the Grossman translation.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Muddpuddle. Cervantes's life story is remarkable. How it connects to this epic worth exploring.

Kate Scott said...

I've been putting off reading Don Quixote for years because it's so damn long...and because I've read so many reviews by people who said it was tough for them to persevere through. I think yours is the first totally positive review I've read by a blogger.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Kate - I wonder if it was the Grossman translation that made difference for me. Serious critics such as Harold Bloom recommend it so i do not think that it is a dumbed version.

Carol said...

I've sometimes thought of reading an abridged version but I feel like that's cheating :) Maybe I should just get the version you read. It's not so much the length that bothers me, it's more when a book rambles and gets off track that I find it difficult to read.

Suko said...

Brian Joseph,
I have not read this classic novel! That it seems modern (therefore relevant) is a testament to its value. I suppose I've (long) felt a bit intimidated by this book, by even the mere title of the book, truth be told. But, your commentary makes it sound comprehensible and worth reading Excellent review! I hope you will continue the conversation about Don Quixote in an additional post.

Priya said...

The ideas do sound modern for a book that old. This is one of those tomes I would never have dared pick up, but your post has me interested. Especially since the lines you've put don't seem very dense or daunting. Thanks.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Carol - Abridged versions of books bother me too.

This work does meander and it is not all that plot focused. Sometimes the side stories of characters go off for dozens of pages. That might get in the way of your enjoyment of the book.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - So many folks are saying that they have been intimidated by this book. Other then length I think that it is so accessible.

I will be putting up at least one more entry on this book.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Priya - If you tried this I would love to know what you thought. What I quoted above is typical of the entire work.

James said...

Excellent introduction to this great work. Your comment on its modernity is one aspect that impresses me also. That and the fecundity of the story-telling that has inspired not only readers but writers ever since.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi Brian! You have completely sold me on this book. I wonder if the translation does make a difference. I will make sure I get the one you read.

I am also impressed by books that can seem so modern. I guess dress may change but human nature doesn't.

Fred said...

Brian Joseph--I have the Modern Library edition which is "Ozell's revision of the translation by Peter Motteux." I don't remember any problems when I read it the first time, so I probably won't have a problem this time. However, if I do, I will remember the Grossman translation as a substitute.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - I think that you would like this. So much had indeed stayed the same over time.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks James. It really is a wonderful book.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Fred - I suspect that there are multiple good translations. Grossman's version seems to respected by critics to be that much of an outlier.

Fred said...

Brian Joseph--I would agree with you that there probably are a number of decent translations. The Modern Library version is an older one, so the language may strike some as old-fashioned. The Grossman,I suspect, is much closer to contemporary English usage and therefore a more comfortable read today.

thecuecard said...

941 pages, wow! I guess I didn't realize it was that long. I saw the musical version of it once -- long ago. Very good. I like the themes in this; it is quite brilliant. I liked the humor too. Nice review.

Caroline said...

This is one of those books I always think I've read because the character's names, even the horse's and many of the episodes are so famous and often quoted or mentioned. Yet, I've never read it. It's just so long. My next very long novel, I think, might be Moby Dick.
But you made it sound very entertaining.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - I can imagine that this story could and would make for a fantastic musical.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Caroline. I also love Moby Dick. Of course there are translation considerations, but I found this story to be much more accessible and easy to read then Moby Dick. In many ways that is a challenging book.

The Bookworm said...

Glad you enjoyed this one so much Brian. It's nice when classics stand the test of time. Don Quixote himself sounds like a unique character. You mention the way people react to mental illness, I've just finished reading The Silver Linings Playbook this week and it deals with the topic of mental illness.
Enjoy your Sunday!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Naida - Mental illness is another thing that people and literature have been grappling with for a long time.

Kate Scott said...

I'll keep that translation in mind when (if) I do finally read it.

Deepika Ramesh said...

Thank you for this post, Brian. I am amazed at the length and age of the book. Beautiful!

Brian Joseph said...

Thank you Deepika - It is amazing how such an old book can feel so contemporary.

Maria Behar said...

OUTSTANDING commentary as usual, brian!!

This is indeed a towering masterpiece of Spanish literature. And I must sheepishly confess that, having attempted to "scale" its 900+ pages, I had to admit defeat.... I never even got to the middle section of the book. The problem was the language itself. This novel was written in the Spanish of the 17th century. There were many words I was unfamiliar with at the time. I had to stop SO many times to look up new words, I finally gave up. I HATE having to interrupt my reading to look up a new word. The thing is, though, that I am also unable to continue reading unless I KNOW what the author is referring to. Lol.

Another thing is that, even though I am fluent in Spanish, there are some words in the language that I simply never learned. I learned them only in English. I'm referring specifically to words that are used in adult literature, as well as in business letters and resumes, for example. Recently, one of my students asked me to translate her resume from Spanish to English, and I thought it would be a snap until I actually began doing the translation. OMG!! I had to use the Google translator for MANY of the words in the original resume!! And sometimes, I could see that the Google translation was not quite right, so I had to somehow come up with a more suitable equivalent in English. I tell you, it was a nightmare!!

So yeah, I had quite a bit of trouble with Cervantes's masterpiece. What I should do is precisely what I referred to in one of my Book Blogger Hop posts -- read "Don Quixote" in English first, and then read it in Spanish. Lol. What an absolutely DAUNTING task!

I LOVE the character of Don Quixote (whose name is "Don Quijote" in Spanish), because he's a symbol of idealism and persistence in the face of nearly insurmountable obstacles. I think that Cervantes was gently poking fun at such an unabashed sense of idealism, and yet, somehow, he yearned for it himself. So I do think there's a thread of nostalgia running through the plot. The author himself yearns for those lost days of knightly chivalry. I'm sure he must have either read "Le Morte d'Arthur", or some Arthurian tales, somewhere along the way.

I need to attempt to scale "Mount Don Quijote" before I check out of this world! This is a VERY important work, with a high relevance to the 21st century, as you have so rightly pointed out. It is at the same time a work that lays bare the workings of the society of the time, as well as one of universal scope.

Thanks for your insightful thoughts!! Happy Labor Day!! <3 :)

Maria Behar said...

P.S. Carol mentioned that books that ramble tend to put her off. Same here! And I remember I had that problem when reading "Don Quixote" as well. As you stated in your reply to her, there are lots of side stories that take the reader off into tangents. That jogged my memory; I had that problem with the novel myself.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Maria.

I can see how something this old and this long would be nearly impossible to get though in its original language. It is also interesting how this relates to your post on translated works. I think that reading the Grossman translation might be a good idea for you. It is very accessible and respected critics have given it their seal of approval.

Indeed this work honors some of the chivalric concepts while at the same time aiming amusement at them. I think the duality is one of the reasons that this is such a brilliant work.

I think that one needs to look at the side stories as something g of independent stories and not try to rush through them. The opposite approach would be to skip them entirely. Clifton Fadiman actually suggested doing so.

Have great week!

baili said...

Excellent review as always Brain!

Though it is from 16th century yet your commentary is very powerful and provoking.
I specially liked your description and differentiation between two characters Quixote and Sancho .
Humour makes it more appealing.
I think living two lives one real and other fantasy is important for keeping balance between heart and brain .

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Baili - You mention what is an important aspect of this story, the contrast between Don Quixote and Sancho in terms of one showing common sense and one not living in the real world. There is so much to this work!

So many books, so little time said...

So much about this book is a no for me Brian but reading your review makes me curious to check it out xxx


Lainy http://www.alwaysreading.net

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lainy - It is very long. There are a lot of free translations available for download if you want to take a look at it.

Tracy Terry said...

I always get so excited, not to mention feeling intelligent, when I come across a book that we have both read.

As always so thought provoking. I'm sure I shall have much more to think about on my next reading of this books.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Tracy!

There is so much going on in this book that it prompts a lot of thinking!

JaneGS said...

I have a copy of this translation, which I got a few years ago, and chose it because of its reputation as using modern language, making it more readable. I still haven't read it, but really enjoyed your post.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Jane.

I would be curious to know what you thought if you read this.

HKatz said...

Great review. I read a section of this book years ago and would at one point like to read all of it. I love when authors explore the mix of fantasy and reality in a character's world - and how what one imagines can have its own realness. (Also, the line between madness and imagination.)

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Hila - Reality verses fantasy and madness verses sanity are such old dichotomies in literature. Cervantes was a pioneer on the issue.