Book written by Miguel de Cervantes
Is it just the character, so artfully drawn? Hamlet… Faust, maybe… How many characters outside of religious texts have stayed in the common mind for the past four hundred years?
In the foreword to Vladimir Nabokov’s Lectures on Don Quixote, Guy Davenport mentions that Don Quixote is one of those classics that everyone knows, but no one reads, even the occasional professor who teaches the book. I never read it in college, but I do have the excuse that it was never assigned. Much later in life, I decided to give it a spin, granting myself an out after the first section, assuming that it would be a slog.
Nabokov, in his lectures, struggles with much of the content that has been called humorous over the years. He found it beyond slapstick, edging well into cruelty. I can’t fault him his sensibilities (though some of his writings make the sentiment feel a bit disingenuous), but I must confess that I found parts of the book hilarious. This reaction hopefully removes me from the worst of Nabokov’s disdain, which was reserved for those who have sentimentalized Don Quixote over the centuries. That condemnation is something I can wholly endorse, even if the musical has its moments (but we all know that movies and musicals based on books are not the same thing as the book itself).
Make no mistake, the tale told by Cervantes is a march through the horrors man inflicts on his fellow man, 17th century-style, told with a heavy dose of satire about all things powerful at the time- all things being the church and the King. The first part of what we now consider one book was published as a single standalone release by Cervantes and it tells the tale most familiar of the Knight of the Woeful Countenance, accompanied by Sancho Panza, on his doomed quest for nobility and true chivalrous love. The story ends with Quixote back home in bed, quite alive.
The book was successful beyond wildest dreams, leading to a variety of knock-off continuations of the story, as Cervantes was slow to recognize market demand and his publishers were slow to get the first book printed in other countries. Finally, Cervantes got a clue and wrote a sequel, even incorporating as a character one of the “Don Quixote”‘s from the most popular rip-off of his work. Accomplishing the task of skewering those who had stolen his copyright, all writers should be singing his praises as a morning ritual.
The sequel is now always packaged with the first part, but few are as familiar with it. I found it magnificent. Sancho Panza fulfills his life desire and becomes the governor of an island. The wisdom that Cervantes brings to bear makes the tale applicable to our own season of political discontent.
Multiple small brilliances fill the book, but the miracle is how strong the commentary on life rings throughout. Much like his contemporary in England, that Shakespeare fellow, Cervantes found a way to talk about life in a way that touched hearts so thoroughly in his time that the book became a necessary part of any library.
You’ve Got to Check This Out is a blog series about music, words, and all sorts of artistic matters. It started with an explanation. 292 more to go.
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