Can there be anything more daunting than writing about Don Quixote? In the same way as Shakespeare, Cervantes is such a towering figure in world literature that any task related to writing about him seems equally monumental. And is there anything left to say about this great novel?
I do have one advantage: I am a first-time reader, and so my observations might be a little fresher – more naiive, certainly – but not weighed down by the critical mass of opinion. And there are plenty of opinions on Don Quixote: from Franz Kafka to Vladimir Nabokov to Jorge Luis Borges to Harold Bloom.
I first started reading Don Quixote (full title: El ingenioso hidalgo don Quixote de la Mancha or The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha) – on Christmas Day, 2021. My initial experience taught me that translations do matter, since the one I picked up, by a French Huguenot called Pierre Antoine Motteux (1700), proved a slog and I quickly gave up on it.
I should add that I read the book alongside Professor Roberto González Echevarría’s excellent Open Yale course (available free of charge either as videos or podcasts). This helped me to get a grasp on the Spanish Golden Age, along with many of the details which, in the reading of Cervantes, are so important.
We began by learning that the novel was published in two parts (1605 and 1615, respectively) and that the first English translation (by Thomas Shelton) appeared in 1611. We considered the significance of the title, including words like “hidalgo” (a kind of petty nobleman), for which Professor González provided a definition from Sebastián de Covarrubias’s Spanish dictionary (published, handily, in 1611).
As I don’t speak the language, it was good to learn about the amusing puns and elements of wordplay in Cervantes’s character names. The “ote” of “Quixote” relates to something grotesque; as in the Spanish word “gordote” (“fatso”). The character Maritornes – a prostitute – combines “Mary” and “tornes”, to turn around (making her a kind of “reversed virgin”). These are just a few of the gems available on the Yale course, which helped me to engage in a deeper reading than I would have been capable of alone.
I then heard about a translation by the Irish scholar Walter Starkie – a fascinating character in his own right – and picked up his translation in August 2022 (I went for the unabridged version of 1964, which required buying a second-hand copy from the United States). Starkie’s Quixote has a slightly Irish flavour, which I enjoyed, and the humour of the piece came across brilliantly. It took me five months to read the whole thing, albeit with a break of almost a month between Books One and Two.
The book’s humour struck me as incredibly fresh for something written more than 400 years ago. The chapters are short, so you do feel as if you’re making progress.
I was surprised to discover how much I enjoyed Cervantes’ “stories within stories” in Part One (inspired by Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron). Yet 17th-century readers were apparently less pleased with this aspect, and – always alert criticism – Cervantes amended his strategy in Part Two, making this section more self-referential and satirical in tone.
One question I have taken to asking fellow Cervantistas is: which Part of Don Quixote do you think is the best? Talking to a Spanish friend at Christmas, she thought Part One was superior, but I am drawn to the madcap Part Two, which feels at times more like a Postmodernist text than something written in the 17th century.
One of my favourite aspects of Part Two are the jokes about Alonso Fernandez de Avellaneda: the man who published a sequel to Don Quixote before Cervantes had finished the second volume of his work. Avellaneda is a pseudonym, and the real identity of the writer has never been discovered. Nevertheless, in publishing Segundo tomo del ingenioso hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha (or Second Book of the Ingenious Knight Don Quixote of La Mancha), in 1614, Avellaneda so annoyed the great author that Cervantes felt it necessary to lampoon his rival in Part Two.
At one point, Don Quixote and his faithful squire, Sancho Panza, meet one of Avellaneda’s characters, and the pair call a notary and get the man to swear under oath that Cervantes’ Don Quixote is the real one. The literary trolling is hilarious.
When opening Starkie’s translation for the first time, I felt a bit like Stout Cortez, when “with eagle eyes/He stared at the Pacific…” Cervantes’ work is simultaneously a vast mountain to climb and exciting new territory. But the effort is well worth it. Reading slowly feels at odds with 21st-century life, but Don Quixote deserves to be consumed gradually alongside day-to-day activities. Then you will get to know the characters, and, hopefully, come to regard them as friends.
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