Sunday, June 30, 2013

Lit Corner: John Vs. Don Quixote

One practice I'm going to change up on The Bathroom Monologues is a weekly Lit corner. This may primarily be a venue for book reviews, because I'm lucky to have read many great books and want to discuss them a little. But Sundays can also be a hub for interviews, big topics in publishing, breakthroughs in my own work and, hopefully, something more interactive. If you have a good name for our reading corner, please, drop it in the Comments.

Picasso showing his penchant for detail.
Let's start with something simple: the weirdest book review I've ever written, for Don Quixote. It was such a journey that I turned my review into a journal of climbing through the text. My mother kept a painting of Quixote in our play room as kids, and today's post is dedicated to her. The novel is a classic that I'm uncertain anyone else has ever actually finished. You'll see why shortly, as well as why I think it's closer to Naruto than anything else.

So, Book Review: Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. The full review originally appeared on Goodreads.

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: Just finished chapter two. 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. That about sums up the culturally famous parts of the novel, making me 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 in his very 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 without help because the caustic narrative goes dormant so often, and has been almost completely absent for fifty pages now.

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

This book is quickly feeling like an anime turned into classic prose. Many of the chapters are completely unrelated and feel like filler episodes, the main chapters are highly episodic, most everything centers around a cast dealing with an interesting titular character, and the cast is even growing in little spurts and contained revelations the way they do in anime. 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.

Oh, and the introduction to Book 2 is interesting as it stands as a 400-year-old example of meta-fiction, 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 meta-fiction being insufferably cheeky. How much the ancients 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 is so preoccupied with slamming Quixote that it's easy to dismiss the possibility that Quixote really experienced some of this, but I think that's the easy way out. Hell, even if Cervantes did mean to make this the thousandth skeptical joke at Quixote's expense, I think I'd interpret it the other way just to give the text some depth.

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 some shorter books with me instead. 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 almost 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 some part of them are. In all the years I've had professors and writers praise this book to me I've never heard them mention any of this material, leaving me to guess that even they never really finished the book. Sancho as a governor has a nice inverted-Solomon quality about it when he's actually doing something in office, but even most of his deliberations are considerably subpar satire for Cervantes. The highlight of today's reading was Quixote's letter of advice, and that only for the rare extremely quotable and thought-provoking lines, such as "Be thou a father to the virtuous, and a stepfather to the wicked."

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, shockingly, is a fake.

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 preceding 980, but especially having read so much history and taking so much pains to learn how to earn an ending in fiction, this came off entirely as a half-hearted cop-out that Cervantes didn't mean 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."


  1. I have read it - a lifetime or so ago, but have no memory of it. I started your review thinking I should reread it, and finished by deciding there are other books I would much rather reread. Thank you.

  2. I remember enjoying it more. Translation, perhaps? That or I was just younger, and more enthused by meta-fiction.


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