Monday, September 20, 2010

Illiterary Analysis of Don Quixote

[This is a slightly touched up version of my review of Don Quixote for Goodreads. I'm posting it because I've never written another like it and, frankly, I think it's funny. Allow me to save you the time of reading a 1000-page classic with one blog post - or guilt you into reading a 1000-page classic, which is just as good.]

Day 1: Here goes nothing. Here come 1,000 pages of translated text.

The opening was insufferably cheeky and the origins of Quixote are slower to unravel than a heroic anime. Still, I see promise here, and the reputation earns it a couple hundred pages before I pass a strong judgment.

Day 2: Couldn't help but notice the dope wearing ill-fitting armor, his sidekick riding an ass, and the party attacking wind mills all occurred within the first two chapters. Those are also all the famous parts of the novel. I wonder how many people in human history made it to page 50.

Day 3: Passing through chapter three, Quixote is really growing on me despite Cervantes's narrative. Cervantes comes across as very bitter and far less clever than he thinks he is in the frequent literary and cultural criticisms, making Quixote's naive and insane positivity downright refreshing. I'll be interested to see if Cervantes does anything with this, but he's got me sympathizing with, and heck, downright rooting for the irresponsible, senile knight.

Day 6: I'm told Cervantes took up the hyper-critical narrator to make a second point - beyond satirizing chivalry and parodying chivalric literature, he wants me to sympathize with Quixote. That is a deep and admirable goal, though I'm too thick-headed to have realized it on my own. It would have been particularly hard to realize recently since the caustic narrative has been dormant for fifty pages – not that I’m complaining.

Though it's at least part because of my modern bias, the bigoted references to Africans and Islam are bothering me.

The feelings of anime are stronger. Many of the chapters are completely unrelated to the plot and feel like filler episodes, the main chapters are highly episodic, most everything centers around an interesting titular character, and the cast is even growing in little spurts and contained revelations the way they do in Japanese TV. If it wasn't for Cervantes's sense of humor being so similar to (if more polite than) Geoffrey Chaucer's, and the stuffiness of the writing, I'd sooner put this one the anime DVD shelf than the classic book shelf.

Day 7: Climbed through all of "The Impertinent Curiosity" today, a three-chapter digression that told another "novel" all on its own. Perhaps it's in part due to the translation, but this is insufferably overwritten, with so much needless language and euphemism that I couldn't tell if Cervantes intended homosexual innuendo in the first chapter, and from then on, had no idea when characters were supposed to have actual erotic or romantic attraction to anyone. Despite that, the three-chapter section is a great argument against picking apart the things you love ('lest you aren't able to put them back together).

Day 11: I'm deep into Book 2. The dialogue is sharper (though still very dated), a lot of the cleverness is executed more subtly, and Sancho (that's the sidekick) and Quixote seem to actually expand as characters. No, they don't grow or change, but dimensions are finally coming out of them. A nice development some 600 pages in. Quixote is finally exiting that insufferable phase of senility where everything he does is stupid and the characters or narrator stand around to remind us how stupid it is. He's actually getting things right now and then, suggesting he must be more complex than the fool Cervantes's narrator often drew him to be. He recognizes good poetry (even though the narrator disagrees with his judgment), is able to discuss philosophy with sound judgment, and actually stands up to defend a case of real but forbidden love, rather than, say, a delusion of two cucumbers that he thinks are lovers. This makes him much more interpretable and interesting, just as the stories in the picaresque are becoming more interesting, as deception is used for more amiable ends than selfishness, pride or greed. Deception is quickly replacing mistakes as the main theme. The cast loves taking advantage of the Don.

Oh, and the introduction to Book 2 is interesting as it stands as a 400-year-old example of metafiction, with the characters discussing the real-life forged "sequel" to the original book and Cervantes's true work. It also stands out as a 400-year-old example of metafiction being insufferably cheeky. How much the old ones predicted.

Day 15: The apocryphal chapter was tremendous. Don Quixote visiting a holy site, descending into it beyond anyone's line of sight, and falling asleep. Not getting knocked out, not passing unconscious, but Cervantes specifically says he is asleep. Then he returns with a story of rich visions no one could improvise, leaving us to wonder if he is lying, if his delusion deepened in the cave, or if Quixote, who has been developing to show more real intelligence lately, really saw some of this. Cervantes’s narrator is so preoccupied with slamming Quixote that it's easy to dismiss the possibility that Quixote really any of it. The potential for this book, if it were to have him legitimately experience something unbelievable, would be an amazing development. Cervantes is much more likely to take the easy way out, have it be fake, and make this all the thousandth skeptical joke at Quixote's expense.

The prophetic ape was also amusing, but after that the novel has spiraled down into the worst streak of thinly-veiled criticism. Sancho's bitching is insufferable. The meeting with another knight's party was similarly cloying. All the cleverness is gone. At this point in the book, did we really need Sancho to give us yet another monologue on how dumb his master is? This better be a trick setting up some further development of Quixote as semi-reliable or some other twist.

Day 22: I went out of town for a week and decided to leave this at home. I took Haruki Murakami and Mitch Albom books with me instead, to test those authors. Couldn't put up with the awful redundancy and unhumorous comedy during what was supposed to be a vacation. After a week-long breather I find Cervantes's Book 2 is still nearly unbearable. It seems that every new situation is quirky or curious in some way that feels not novel in the least after several hundred pages of other quirky and curious conflicts, and the stories consist mostly of characters talking about how weird or difficult something is.

Making Sancho governor was a neat idea. His court sessions have a nice inverted-Solomon quality about them, though his deliberations are subpar satire for 700+ pages into a classic. The highlight of today's reading was Quixote's letter of advice, for its extremely quotable and thought-provoking lines, such as "Be thou a father to the virtuous, and a stepfather to the wicked." That’s good stuff.

In all the years I've had professors and writers praise this book to me I've never heard them mention any of these anecdotes. I’m left guessing that even they never really finished the book.

Day 24: Rounding the final bend here. Sancho and Quixote are somehow back out on the road together again, running into people who are alternately impressed or cynical towards Quixote's wackiness. They complain about the fake second book again. Quixote defends some woman's honor through zany romanticism again. Was Cervantes paid by the page? The highlight (by far) is Quixote's criticism of various saints, going from bold to absurd. The lowlight is the talking statue that is, shockingly, a fake.

Did Cervantes really go nowhere with this massive tome? I liked the idea of a narrator so cruel that you sympathized with a character who was out of his mind. But it’s still brazenly biased against him. The narrator hasn’t changed his mind, Quixote is still a dope and the stories are still constructed to mock him. I don’t see how the theory of meta-sympathy holds up. Anybody who really turned against the narrator in favor of Quixote would have quit this book long ago since it’s clear he’s never going to get a fair shake.

A book about what a fair shake would be for Quixote would be more interesting. What he believes in isn’t real, so that can’t happen. You can’t perpetuate his fantasies forever because they’re unwieldy. What is justice for this guy?

Day 26: Finally done. Cervantes really bore a grudge against the guy who wrote the fake Quixote sequel, but his last riffs against him (won't spoil them) were by far the funniest. I imagine the last twenty pages are cause for more college essays than the preceeding nine hundred and eighty, but it’s still a copout. It almost feels like Cervantes didn’t mean it to be the final word (figuratively, though obviously it is literally). Quixote's suddenly sane, renounces everything he did and becomes bitter? There's a good reason his company "had no doubt whatever that some new craze had taken possession of him."

I realize it was a custom of crazy older stories to use cheap tricks. Moll Flanders has the conversion on the very last page so Defoe could get away with his antics in the body of the novel. Frankenstein has the “a letter from this guy about a thing he heard” gimmick so you won’t think Shelley is crazy. But that disingenuous distance is more cloying as the end to a 1,000-page book. There is so much space for plot here that builds to no real climax. It is, once again, less like great literature and more like generic anime, in that it had its premise and drew it out for so damned long that it lost any of its savor.

Still, I’m glad I read this, because this makes me the only man alive who has. Prove me wrong.

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