Thursday, May 05, 2005

Windmills of my mind

So. About three weeks ago, Miguel jumped down from the shelf and said "Andrew, you made a New Years resolution to read me. And it may only be May, but you made the resolution in 2004. So get on with it." A list of grown-up books which I am going to get around to is the only annual resolution I ever keep. I read right through the "Fairy Queen" in 2003. (C.S Lewis said he wished it had been twice as long. I didn't go quite that far.)

The trouble with coming to the end of something as big and important as "Don Quixote" is that it leaves you thinking. "Well. Now I think I have got some idea of what that monster is about. I guess I should read it again." (To quote the sainted Lewis twice in consecutive paragraphs: "There is some hope for the man who hasn't read Malory or Boswell or Shakespeare's sonnets, but what can you do with the fellow who says he has read them, and think that settles the matter?" I haven't read Boswell: maybe I should pencil him in for 2006?) I think I was probably somewhere around page 400 when I said "I get it. Don Quixote is clever but mad; Sancho Panzo is stupid but sane." So neither of them can understand the world, but they both misunderstand it in different ways. I guess the thing starts out as a joke, almost a shaggy dog story – suppose there was a lunatic who thought he was living in an heroic legend: mistaking windmills for giants and herds of cows for armies - what would he do? How many silly mistakes could he make? Somehow, the joke grows and turns into a novel. The First Novel, apart from all the ones which came before it.

What's it about? About a man who runs around imagining himself to be having adventures; and (in the second half) having fake adventures set up for him by "sane" noblemen, who, as the narrator points out, are probably madder than he is. About dreaming the impossible dream and being true to yourself even if everyone else thinks you're crazy? About whether anyone has any right to call someone else "mad" if he is obviously happy and noble?

I wonder if it's actually about anything at all. Cervantes just picks up the character of the mad knight and runs with it for as long as it carries on seeming funny. Which turns out to be "almost indefinitely." Don Quixote suddenly gets ill and dies for no good reason in the last five pages: if he hadn't done so, there would have been no reason for the book ever to finish.

It's the official Greatest Book Written On Earth By Anyone Ever. I sort of see why so many clever people think this. Somewhere around page 842, the Don and Sancho recover from another misadventure. Nothing very much happens.

The dust and weariness that Don Quixote and Sancho took away with them form their encounter with the discourteous bulls was alleviated by a clear, fresh spring that they found in a cool grove of trees, and the two of them, the fatigued master and servant, sat at its edge, leaving the gray and Rocinante free, without bridle or bit...."Eat, Sancho my friend" said Don Quixote "sustain life, which matters to you more than to me, and let me die at the hands of my thoughts and by means of my misfortunes...."

During this passage, I noticed that I wasn't so much reading the book as observing two people: that without realising that I had done so, I had come to believe in them and understand how they related and what they were feeling; and even to feel at home in the society they inhabited. Books which create a portrait of a society, or of a character's psychology seem to be the ones which are regarded as uber-classics. We are supposed to admire "Middlemarch" but regard "Tess" as something of a guilty pleasure. "Don Quixote" certainly evokes character and place as well as any book I've read. I understand that it also contains Spanish puns.

"Don Quixote" is about how insane it would be if someone started to believe that the chivalric romances really happened. But "Don Quixote" is a sort of a chivalric romance, and it fools us into thinking that it really happened, so that when we read it, we are as mad as the Don. (Bit of deconstruction, there.)

I suppose it's really about fandom, isn't it? Everyone despises Quixote for reading comic-books, but he loves them so much that he starts to dress up as his favourite characters and act out his favourite stories. So everyone thinks he's even madder. But in the end, he seems happier and saner than the rest of the world.

Anyway, it's very long. Very long indeed.

If you feel I need an excuse of having let this blog fall silent, then that will have to do.


Anonymous said...

"Don Quixote suddenly gets ill and dies for no good reason in the last five pages"
Given that the Don is sitting on my floor waiting to be read I rather wish you has said "spoilers" before writing that.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Did the fact that the last chapter of the book is called "The death of Don Quixote" not slightly give the game away?

Anonymous said...

I haven't got as far as the 'contents' page.
Anyway, I might have imagined he died heroically or in some other suitably glamorous manner, rather than 'gets ill'.

Actually, while everyone has a strong impression of the characters Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, the actual story (apart from the windmills) is not well known (at least not by me) which makes me wonder if this might be the most famous book to have had no film/tv versions (at least not in English).
(and yes I know Orson Welles and Terry Gilliam tried to do it) and thus remain narratively unfamiliar.

PS: Thought the subtle knife was rather good but Amber Spyglass was totally OTT and way too long. Hated the triangular elephants.

Nick Mazonowicz said...

Andrew, thank God your back. I was beginning to worry.

Is 'Tess' really a guilty pleasure? I'm reading it without guilt, thinking it an excellent piece of satire at upper-class moral and sexual hypocrisy, but perhaps that's just me.

And I've never managed to finish Don Quixote.

Anonymous said...

if you want to read some Boswell without tackling either his diaries and/or letters or the Life of Johnson, then I recommend reading both A Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland and The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides. First, you get two really splendid but very different writers documenting the same events interesting results. Second, you start to get acquainted with Boswell... but you won't know him well until you read some of his diaries or letters, and even then you won't know him. The Life of Johnson is worthy for its subject and for the way Boswell positions himself in the narrative, but the diaries are the true portrait of a suffering mind.

Yes, I am an admirer of both men. I should like to see Samuel Johnson confronting Dr. Who...

Andrew Rilstone said...

To my mind, the best commentary on Don Quixote is in act II of Cyrano de Bergerac.

I like the way it came out in the sub-titles of the movie.

-- Have you read Don Quixote?
-- Read it? I've practically lived it.