Saturday, January 21, 2006

Tilting At Windmills

I have assigned myself a project, to read Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. I bought it several years ago with the same intention, but I wasn’t successful. This time, dear reader, I hope to draw upon your assistance so that a better outcome might be achieved. I’m not asking that you read it with me—although if you decide to, it would be good to compare notes and such—but rather that I will utilise the fear of public humiliation your presence will invoke to encourage me to stay focused on the task at hand. If that makes you sound rather stern and judgemental, it isn’t my intention to do so, but clearly there is something in my psyche, where in the absence of a task master, I believe I must invent one in order to achieve my goals.

This doesn’t sound like much fun so far does it?

I am rather daunted by the size of Don Quixote, it runs to 940 pages and the font is quite small. Personally, I’ve always liked Jeanette Winterson on the subject of fat books, she says that to write a long book is arrogant—or something similar—because it assumes that people have a lot of time in which to read. It’s been a rather neat defence of my preference for books that don’t exceed 450 pages that someone as literary as Winterson has offered such wisdom. I read Winterson’s opinion a while ago, so I’m not sure if she still adheres to that view, but even accounting for her consideration of her readers’ limited time, I cannot, at the moment, claim to be lacking in that resource at all, so as grounds for not reading a hefty tome it is rendered completely invalid.

The desire to read Don Quixote arises purely from my obsession with interest in Paul Auster’s writing. References to Cervantes text occur throughout his oeuvre and I suppose I want to understand it further. I have a whole reading list from the references throughout Auster’s books, whether I will get to them all is another matter. I don’t consider myself a great reader, I go through stages, sometimes I don’t finish books, and I tend to read contemporary novelists over those whose work is considered part of the canon. I’ve only recently read The Great Gatsby in a way that I would consider ‘properly’—not because it’s a set text book—because Dr H reads it serially and has declared it ‘perfect’. I was curious as to what a perfect book might look like. Even after reading it, I don’t think I really have the sensibility, or that I’m widely read enough, to judge the perfection or not of Fitzgerald’s work. Of course it’s written well and I think I learned something about the formation of sentences. It’s made me want to give up my over-reliance on the semi-colon, which is proving exceedingly difficult; if only I could give up my sub-clausal thinking! I found The Great Gatsby a finely restrained portrait of not-sufficiently-requited love and thus in Jay Gatsby an unbearably sad figure. I won’t go into the whole commentary on the American Dream, because it would be the subject of another post entirely and it’s enough at the moment to attempt to write coherently about Don Quixote and Paul Auster.

I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I’d recently re-read Timbuktu. The blurb on the back cover explains the story is about an itinerant, Willy G. Christmas, and his dog, Mr. Bones, told from the latter’s perspective. Willy’s lifestyle has taken its toll on his health and so before he dies he wants to ensure the preservation of his life’s work, a locker full of his unpublished writing. Willy and Mr Bones set forth to find Willy’s high-school English teacher whom he has decided to entrust with his legacy. Part of the blurb reads: ‘Like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza before them, they sally forth on a last great adventure…’ Within the pages of Timbuktu, Don Quixote is not explicitly referred to, certainly not as he is in the closing pages of ‘City of Glass’ where Daniel Quinn wonders ‘why Don Quixote had not simply wanted to write books like the ones he loved—instead of living out their adventures. He wondered why he had the same initials as Don Quixote’ (129).

I can only speculate that Don Quixote was drawn to be so foolish because Cervantes was using him to demonstrate the folly of reading too many of the ballads about knight’s errant, the romances of chivalry, that were popular amongst those who had access to books on the cusp of the 17th Century. There’s a scene after Don Quixote returns from his first adventure, before he goes off on another, this time accompanied by Sancho Panza, that Don Quixote’s priest and housekeeper hold an inquisition into his library and throw most of it out the window in preparation for burning as so much dross. I’m intrigued that even on the cusp of the 17th Century there was criticism of the ill effects of popular culture. Is the damage to psyches that some researchers and commentators attribute to watching television, or playing computer and console games, simply a contemporary version of Cervantes criticism of the ballads, through which he has Don Quixote attack windmills with his sword, convinced they are marauding giants?

The translator of the version of Don Quixote that I have, J. M. Cohen, argues

If the book had gone no further than this variation on a theme … Don Quixote would have been little more striking than that other madman of Cervantes' invention, the student in one of the Exemplary Novels who imagined that he was made of glass, and took precautions accordingly. But … Don Quixote came alive in his author’s hands (12)

I’ll admit that part way through Chapter 19, I am yet to be convinced of either Don Quixote or Sancho Panza’s charms. I’ve read past the point that Cohen nominates as the moment where as a character Don Quixote exceeds the original intent of Cervantes work, where he declares, ‘I know who I am …and I know that I am capable of being not only the characters I have named, but all the Twelve Peers of France and all the Nine Worthies as well, for my exploits are far greater than all the deeds they have done, all together and each by himself’. While many who encounter the self-appointed knight humour his delusions, playing along with his sense of reality, I suppose at this stage of the novel, I’m finding it quite difficult to accept the conceit of Don Quixote and his adventures. Sancho Panza hasn’t convinced me he is a ‘common-sense’ peasant, capable of bringing his master down to earth. I don’t feel sympathy for Don Quixote when he is amidst a delusion, attacking all and sundry in the name of chivalry and mistaking inns for castles, windmills for giants and women of ill repute for noble women; I feel impatience, and then, since this is a canonical text, I begin to think I’m not reading properly. What am I missing? Do I lack the sense of imagination of which Pi accused agnostics? Of which Willy G. Christmas accuses his old college room-mate, a writer called Paul Omster (or something like that surname)?

Perhaps as I read on, I will enter more fully into the world of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. I can certainly see how the exploration of the effect on reality of a powerful imagination relates to Auster’s work, so I will persist and hopefully come to enjoy Don Quixote on its own merits. As I make my way through the rest of the book I’ll post some summaries and thoughts along the way. If anyone has read this novel and loved it, I’d appreciate your insight.


Lucy Tartan said...

This might interest you - a group blog about reading Don Quixote:

I'm not sure whether they ever did finish the book - I know a few contributors dropped out part-way through - but still, very nice idea.

Lucy said...

I've occasionally been tempted to read Don Quixote, but your experience sounds very similar to mine with many other canonical texts (most recently The Brothers Karamazov). I always just end up feeling like the reason I'm not enjoying it is that I'm terribly uncultured, but I think I've had enough of struggling through books just because they're supposed to be great. Sorry I don't have anything more buoyant to add :)
Another friend recommended Paul Auster recently, maybe I'll try his books instead.

Galaxy said...

Thanks Ms Tartan. The most recent post on 400 Windmills is dated Jan 7, so it looks like a few people made it. I've bookmarked the page where the posts begin, so it will be good to drop in on the blog along the way.

Of course, I think everyone should read Paul Auster. It was The Invention of Solitude that first got me hooked. It's one of his non-fiction works, a reflection on his father, and on being a father himself as well. I won't say anymore.