By J. Peder Zane
Don Quixote has been challenging my honor for decades.
“You want the world to think you are well-read, a true Señor of letters,” he admonished each time I looked up at him on the shelf. “You may even believe it yourself. Yet here I sit, my spine miraculously strong and stiff; a joke you would appreciate if you knew me.”
Once I reminded him that I had read the first 75 of his 940 pages – which is actually two books for goodness sake. Big mistake: “Then you, sir, are both a fraud and a quitter.”
As he spat those words, I heard his fellow guilt trippers, Andrew Bolkonski and Dorthea Brooke, snickering.
Funny how the mind enables us to think so well of ourselves – and expect others to do the same – despite our secrets. Our ability to make ourselves the hero of our own story is almost limitless.
And yet, for all our creative energies, reality (that which exists no matter what we think about it) persists. And insists.
When the inconvenient truth of the coronavirus began to bite back in March I had just finished Mark Helprin’s superb novel, “Memoir from Antproof Case.” I was feeling fine but, like a hanging, a global pandemic concentrates the mind. So as I asked the reader’s favorite question – what’s next? – a small part of me thought, what if this is it?
So I pulled down “Don Quixote” and sat up in my chair. I knew I had to be disciplined this time, so I set a minimum of 100 pages a day. I promised myself I wouldn’t tell anybody until I was at least half-way through. Believe me, that wasn’t easy. Oh the pleasure of saying/hearing, Me? I’m reading “Quixote.”
Naturally, I had high expectations. Cervantes’ masterpiece is widely considered the first modern novel and Harold Bloom’s introduction to Edith Grossman’s translation argued it had no rival save “Hamlet.”
Still, it was tough sledding at first because “Quixote” is not quite like other modern novels, which is probably why I had abandoned it before. The set-up is clear enough: “Don Quixote” is the story of a middle-aged man who has made the silly mistake of believing what he reads – in his case fantastic tales of chivalrous knights who slay countless wrongdoers in the name of the women they love. And so our eponymous hero sets out, with his trusty steed Rocinante and his hilarious manservant Sancho Panza, to revive that grand tradition of knight errantry by righting wrongs across Spain.
The novel describes their long string of misadventures with dozens of fleeting figures – innkeepers and maidens, barbers, aristocrats, priests, scoundrels, innocents and yes, a few windmills – who vanish as quickly as they appear. Don’t bother trying to remember anyone’s name.
Most of the scenes do have one thing in common – they begin with Quixote’s intent to demonstrate his courage and end in his physical abuse and emotional humiliation. He and Sancho set a record for enduring and then bouncing back from savage beatings.
It is hard to see the narrative glue holding together these encounters – much less the many interludes detailing the back stories of various characters as well as the plot of a novel that has nothing to do with our protagonists. One thing just seems to happen after another; the chapters, which run about 10 pages, could be arranged in almost any order. (I’m guessing scholars will tell me I’m all wet; I can only offer the testimony of one common reader.).
Indeed, while “Quixote” has become synonymous with the idea of a quest, its characters do not have a specific aim – except for our hero’s to enact his grand illusions. It is a picaresque novel but unlike, say, “Huckleberry Finn,” the main characters do not have an identifiable obstacle (slavery) or a goal (Jim’s freedom).
I never felt I was losing the narrative thread because there didn’t seem to be one – to follow, or hold on to.
Such uncertainty presents difficulties – not the least of which is the temptation to impose a predictable order, a familiar logic, that isn’t there.
My dis-ease never disappeared but, somewhere around page 200, I stopped caring – stopped looking for what I expected to find – and just surrendered to the novel. I imagined myself sitting by a campfire as Cervantes regaled me through the night with tales that belonged in the book simply because they were spellbindingly entertaining. Evidently, Cervantes was a failed playwright who hadn’t published much of anything in the decades before the first book (1605); it feels like he was plenty busy during that time and that he crammed this book with his unpublished tales.
As the pages moved, then flowed, then flew by, a unifying theme emerged – the tension between reality and beliefs/ideals. It is clear from the start that Quixote is delusional but not necessarily insane. When he is not talking about knight errantry, he is down-right brilliant. Especially given that Spain was not far out of the Inquisition’s grip, Quixote’s arguments for tolerance, compassion and relative equality are downright visionary.
Nevertheless, his certainty that the impossible events recounted in the books he had read were true – one admired knight of lore, for instance, single-handedly vanquished an army one million strong – is ridiculous to all but him. His dismissal of every fact that contradicts his beliefs as evidence of evil enchantment – as proof that mystical forces are working to misguide him - is the sign a troubled mind. (It also reveals how imagination can be as persistent and insistent as reality.)
Quixote’s saving grace, however, is that the fantasy he embraces – of a world of nobility, honor and high purpose – seems so much more inspiring than the grubby reality inhabited by those who mock and scorn him.
Almost nobody around him has dreams or ideals. They may be more rooted, but they never soar.
This theme is especially apparent in Book II, published a decade after the first, in which Don Quixote and Sancho Panza sally forth for new adventures in a world where they have gained fame because of the popularity of Book I. The fact that Cervantes’s first volume explicitly portrayed Quixote as a delusional fool has absolutely no impact on his hero’s self-conception. But it does open him up to the mischief of others who want to have their own fun at the expense of the famed Knight of the Sorrowful Face. More beatings and humiliations ensue.
He’s happy to oblige because he refuses to be in on the joke.
Sancho Panza, meanwhile, inhabits an in-between space of pragmatic wishfulness: He knows his master is tetched – repeatedly tells him exactly that – but he also wants to believe him because it’s his best chance to attain power and glory.
As happens with so many great books, I experienced a double-consciousness while reading “Quixote”: as I paid close attention to the not laugh-out-loud but fairly funny and absolutely exuberant details of each scene, larger themes came to mind. What struck me most on my first reading – which means I probably missed 90 percent of the good stuff – is how contemporary the novel feels.
Although the characters of “Don Quixote” are four centuries old and they are clearly of their time and place, they feel timeless. This is not just because their humanity is instantly recognizable – their dreams, desires and foibles, their kindness and their cruelty. That’s true of so many characters in literature.
But Cervantes’s picaresque and digressive structure which can make the novel hard to track pays surprising dividends because it makes his writing feel almost like cinéma vérité; he is more interested in documenting people’s behavior (in an entertaining, amusing way) than in using his characters to make points or move his plot along. They are people, not devices. As a result, they feel natural, which makes them seem contemporary because people don’t change so much over time, just the things we talk about.
I don’t know the state of Cervantes’ soul, but the parallels with Christianity – the desire to believe something grand that cannot be seen with the naked eye, the imagination’s power to envision a better world and self, the scorn heaped on believers – are abundant.
Don Quixote is not Christ; his chivalrous beliefs are ridiculous. But he is as much hero as fool; what makes him great also makes him laughable. He’s not one or the other, but both, just as Sancho Panza is at once wise and a jester.
Cervantes does not seek to resolve this paradox but revels in it. Similarly, while Cervantes debunks the myths of knight errantry, the best he can offer in their place are other tales which are just as fanciful; the tune may change, but the song remains the same.
Stories, which compress and reimagine the raw material of experience into something the mind considers useful, are necessarily false and true.
Like Shakespeare, Cervantes is more interested in depicting humanity than commenting on it. He holds up a mirror rather than offering a message. This open-endedness is one of the novel’s enduring strengths.
I had mixed feelings when I reached the end of my journey with Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. I was thrilled to have finally vanquished the beast, but sorry I couldn’t spend more time with them in their world. I was so thankful to Cervantes for the gift of this marvelous book.
As I returned my copy to its place on the alphabetized shelf – nestled between Peter Carey’s “Jack Maggs” and Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” – I waited to see if the old knight had any final words. He was silent. I was pleased with myself. Señor!
Then I heard Dorthea Brooke demand, “what about me?"
J. Peder Zane conceived and edited "The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books" (2007). His other books include "Remarkable Reads: 34 Writers and Their Adventures in Reading" (2004) and “Off the Books: On Politics and Culture” (2015). He is a lifetime member of the National Book Critics Circle.