Good Reading : March 2007
MARCH 2007 ı goodreading 23 classics which was the centre of Muslim trade in Christian slaves. He was held captive for five years, until 1580, when his family paid the ransom for his release. Cervantes based several episodes of Don Quixote on his time soldiering in Europe’s war against the Turks and his captivity in Muslim hands. Back in Spain, Cervantes found work hard to find and life expensive (Europe experienced its first inflation in the sixteenth century). He had a daughter, Isabella, with a married woman, then in 1584 married a young woman from La Mancha.With his first published book,La Galatea (1585), he discovered he could not make a living from writing and was forced to take a series of administrative posts, including one with the Spanish Armada (which he lost, following its destruction in 1588) and one collecting taxes. He continued to write, mostly for the stage, but it was not until the publication of Don Quixote that he had his first major literary success. In the brilliant English translation by the eighteenth-century novelist Tobias Smollett, Don Quixote remains an exuberant, funny story.Written as a spoof of the tales of chivalry, it is filled with as many tall tales of romance, chance and coincidence as the comedies of Shakespeare (it was published the same year as Shakespeare’s King Lear and Macbeth). As Cervantes writes in his preface, his ‘sole aim’ in writing was ‘to invalidate the authority, and ridicule the absurdity of those books of chivalry, which have, as it were, fascinated the eyes and judgment of the world, and in particular of the vulgar’. The see-saw relationship between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza is wildly funny.Their preposterous friendship, characterised by great affection and intense frustration, is echoed in the twen- tieth century in couples from Samuel Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot to the friends played by Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels in the Farrelly brothers’ film Dumb and Dumber (1994).Their rambling conversations are the source of much of the book’s humour. Don Quixote’s hold on reality is famously slippery – Carlos Fuentes describes his failure in practical matters as ‘the most gloriously ludicrous in recorded history (perhaps it is only paralleled by the great clowns of the silent screen)’ – which appals the earthy Sancho, who never ceases to be astonished by the extent of his friend’s madness, yet loves him dearly in spite of it.Where Don Quixote clearly sees a ‘yonder knight who rides this way, upon a dappled steed, with a golden helmet on his head’, Sancho sees ‘no other than a man upon a grey ass, like my own, with something that glitters on his head’.The thing that glitters happens to be no golden helmet but an upturned barber’s bowl. Cervantes was a great literary experimenter and the fictional world he creates in Don Quixote is complex.The novel’s purported genesis is multi-layered. Don Quixote presents itself as the work of an Arab historian, Cide Hamete Benengeli, that has been translated into Spanish by a Moor and then edited by Cervantes.The lines of truth and fiction are further blurred by Cervantes when he appears in his own novel – one of his characters, the curate, says: ‘that same Cervantes has been an intimate friend of mine, these many years, and is, to my certain knowledge, more conversant with misfortunes than with poetry …’ And, as Woody Allen did with Zelig in his filmZelig (1983), in which he superimposed the eponymous character (played by Allen himself) onto footage of key moments of the twentieth century, Cervantes places Don Quixote in real historical moments with real people of his time, such as the notorious robber Roque Guinart. Cervantes even includes the counterfeit second volume of Don Quixote (written by the historical Avellaneda) in his own Volume II, allowing his Don Quixote to change his plans in order to distinguish himself from Avellaneda’s Don Quixote, ‘so eager was [Don Quixote] to fix the lye upon the new historian by whom they said he was so scurvily treated’. Don Quixote was originally seen as a comedy, but by the end of the seventeenth century it was taken more seriously and viewed as a mock epic in prose. Perhaps reflecting the intimate relationship between comedy and tragedy, the early German Romantics saw the comic figure of Don Quixote as a tragic hero, and Dostoyevsky called Don Quixote ‘the saddest book of them all’. In the Soviet Union, Don Quixote was seen as the ideal rebel anti-capitalist hero; in Revolutionary France, as a doomed visionary. This extraordinary novel has inspired countless artists, including Picasso, and writers, like William Faulkner, who read Don Quixote every year. Superstition says that all attempts to adapt the novel to film are doomed to failure – Orson Welles tried to make a film of it for twenty years and failed. Monty Python Terry Gilliam’s attempt to film it, starring Johnny Depp, was so plagued by misfortune that it ended up as a documentary, Lost in La Mancha (2002). It has been made into a musical, Man of la Mancha (1965), and adapted by the BBC for television in Donovan Quick (1999), starring Colin Firth. Don Quixote, in his determined efforts to live by archaic codes of chivalry in a world where they no longer apply, still retains his power to move audi- ences to laughter and to tears four hundred years after his first appearance in print. Classics: Books for Life by Jane Gleeson-White is published by Knopf Australia, rrp $34.95 Written as a spoof of the tales of chiv- alry, it is filled with as many tall tales of romance, chance and coincidence as the comedies of Shakespeare.