A reputation made tilting at windmills

The Cambridge Companion to Cervantes
October 31, 2003

Peter Russell's reminder of Don Quixote 's "reception" in the streets of 17th-century Madrid as a "funny book" is one of those rare moments when talking about literature approaches a sense of what in actuality it must have been like: the advent of a funny book that was a popular success. Potential buyers burst out laughing at the ridiculous title. Don Quixote ? Impossible! Don Eduardo, Don Juan, yes, but not Don Quixote. As the years passed, readers ceased to laugh and by the close of the 19th century many wept as the world piteously crushed Don Quixote's idealism. Or they joined the argument about the nature of reality (was the Don's view the same as Hamlet's "thinking makes it so"? Did the fact that Don Quixote and Sancho discuss their characters in a book written by an Arab undermine the notion of the fixed text 350 years before the French got around to it?). All this, much more, and still a "funny book". The Castilian laughter cascaded down the streets of Toledo and out into the wider world.

That Don Quixote is the first modern novel is a truism. But how or why this occurred has been little discussed. Two essays in this collection - Anthony Cascardi's " Don Quixote and the invention of the novel" and Alexander Welsh's "The influence of Cervantes" - provide both the specialist and the generalist with a suggestive explanation of how Don Quixote helped to change the literary landscape in 1605, which, in turn, helped prepare the means to appreciate the rich mantle of influence that Cervantes' novel has had on world literature.

Cervantes removes the dominant discourses of the pastoral, the chivalresque and the picaresque from their original stations in culture and herds them into the domain of self-conscious parody. In moving these pieces as in a game of linguistic chess, he remains, in the words of B. W. Ife, a non-committal ironist who can see all sides of the question. Don Quixote is a watershed work because it establishes a discourse of plurality that refuses to allow one form of speech to become dominant. Language is the essence of Don Quixote .

Fundamental questions about narrative form are constantly present. How can an autobiography ever be finished while the storyteller lives, snorts Ginés de Pasamonte. Or does the folk tale of transporting goats across the river one at a time mean that the quotidian is always boring? As early as 1499 in Fernando de Rojas' La Celestina , levels of discourse were beginning to be mixed but no real communication takes place on the dialogic level. Don Quixote , however, sustains the longest conversation in the history of literature, much of which has to do with language itself.

Finally, of course, part two of the novel sets up self-conscious narration, characters who have found an author but are not sure they care for him. The modern novel begins, says Cascardi tellingly, with a critical reception of itself. Welsh's article on the influence of Cervantes is a staggering reminder of the reach of this novel, from Henry Fielding (1742) to a quixotic re-enactment of the story of Abraham and Isaac in Samuel Beckett's Molloy (1951). Where are we going? Isaac wonders; don't ask questions, comes the familiar reply. It is notorious that humour does not travel easily between cultures and epochs. Accordingly, a reader today may find the cruelty to people and animals excessive and be put off by the novel's scatology. One wonders how Vladimir Nabokov's famous revulsion at the ludic lowness of the novel could register today given the content of late-night television.

What is commanding about Cervantes' handling of ludic material, as Adrienne Mart!n deftly shows, is his tolerance of madness. The paradox of the wise fool and the relativity of insanity are nowhere better handled than in the pages of Don Quixote .

As Mary Malcolm Gaylord points out in her lively disquisition, if Cervantes had written only the Exemplary Novels (1613), he would have earned a considerable position in European literature. The fact that he also wrote Don Quixote led at one time to their near-eclipse. Upon publication, they caught on as quickly as the history of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza and within a decade had gone through a dozen editions. They quickly collected readers abroad, and were just what one might have expected from one of the prime wits of "Spaine", noted the English translation of 1640.

Diana de Armas Wilson's essay "Cervantes and the New World" brings this Cambridge companion to a close. A final Cervantine irony encased in a brusque note replying to Cervantes' wish to be considered for a position in La Paz, Bolivia, - "Let him seek for something near by" - saves history from a man turned mad on the Bolivian plateau from reading too many books of chivalry, which were just as popular in the New World as they were in the Old.

Howard Young is professor of Romance languages, Pomona College, California, US.

The Cambridge Companion to Cervantes

Editor - Anthony J. Cascardi
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Pages - 242
Price - £45.00 and £15.95
ISBN - 0 521 66321 0 and 66387 3

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