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Ilan Stavans on Don Quixote at 400

Flickr. The strange adventures of Don Quixote reveal the depths of human nature.

It has been described as the most influential novel in the history of the form. It is also among the bulkiest, longer even than David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. It is the steadiest of bestsellers, only outshined by the Bible (speaking of which, the 19th-century French critic Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve once called it “the secular Bible of humanity”). It has been translated into English a total of twenty times, more than any other novel. The first appeared in 1613, while its author Miguel de Cervantes was still alive.

Don Quixote of La Mancha, in other words, is a book one should love without restraint. It is moody and unpredictable. It is formally idiosyncratic. It moves easily between the highest and lowest of tonal registers. It possesses an uncanny ability to weed out unwelcome readers. Its 381,104 words, 8,207 periods, 40,617 commas, 690 exclamation points, 960 question marks, and 2,046 semi-colons draw those readers it does welcome into a labyrinth not only of signs but of images and emotions. To find one’s way through this requires intellectual stamina, psychological alertness, and — paradoxically — a willing credulity. After all, the book is a collection of bizarre episodes, some comic, some pathetic, some utterly disengaged from the rest, all connected by the thread of its two wandering protagonists, a slim, laid-back hidalgo who does nothing but spend his idle hours reading tales of adventure, and his squire, Sancho Panza, an almost illiterate field laborer and family man who believes he’s a practical fellow when he isn’t. It’s hard to know which of the two is more cuckoo: the foolish señor who is convinced he can change the world by becoming a superhero, or the silly employee who wastes his time following him.

This already complex structure exists, as well, in four dimensions — it changes with time. Come to the book when you are young and you will discover in it the endless ebullience of youth; read it again in your fifties (about the age of its protagonist, Don Quixote de la Mancha, also known as the Knight of the Mournful Countenance) and you will see a subtle and empathetic portrayal of a man in the grip of a midlife crisis. Return again in your old age, and find the Quixote transformed into a book on how to deal with the end that awaits us all, a well-tempered look into the face of death.

This year marks the 400th anniversary of Cervantes completing the novel’s manuscript. If the definition of a classic is a book that passes the test of time, this one has succeeded with flying colors. But I want to propose a different definition: a classic is a book capable of building a nation around itself. This one has. The world may be divided by flags, currencies, borders, and governments, but the realest nations congregate around mythologies. Unquestionably there is a Quixote nation, made up of the millions of readers who have fallen under its spell. It includes an assortment of admirable names: Lord Byron, Gustave Flaubert, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Franz Kafka, William Faulkner, Jorge Luis Borges, Orson Welles, Salvador Dalí, Miguel de Unamuno, and Pablo Picasso (whose 1955 ink study, also undertaken as an anniversary commemoration, of the knight and his squire still amazes the eye today). George Washington, who helped build his own republic of the imagination, read the book and loved it. But more admirable than these are the countless readers of the book whose names are lost to history — the true creators of a homeland for the knight and his servant.

The Quixote’s birth was far from certain. Prior to starting work on what would become his magnum opus, Cervantes was a soldier (he fought in the Battle of Lepanto against the Turks, a heroic yet humbling experience: he was injured and lost much of the use of his left arm), a captive at war, and a lousy tax collector who ended up in jail for mishandling funds. He was also a rather limited author, a poet and playwright (he also wrote novellas), whom, I suspect, posterity would ignore if, about a decade before his death in 1616 at 69, he hadn’t stumbled on the idea of exploring the limits of parody. Still, he was penniless in the end, never suspecting for a minute the global impact his work would have. Indeed, I often imagine the surprise on his face (none of the portraits available were done while he was alive) had he realized the whole period he belonged to would be called “the age of Cervantes.” Not the age of Lope de Vega, the most successful and prolific of all playwrights who were his contemporaries? Not Quevedo or Góngora, two astonishing sonnetists?

The majority of readers, at least American readers, first learn of Don Quixote through Man of La Mancha, a syrupy and formulaic Broadway musical that in most ways could not be more distant from the antinomian spirit of the book. The one consolation to be drawn from this fact is that, for all its flaws, Man of La Mancha does manage to communicate an essential truth about the novel — the essential truth, in fact: both are driven by the restless and infinite imagination of Don Quixote, who dreams, in the words of the song, the impossible dream. (One is tempted to quote Picasso here: “Everything you can imagine is real”.) Indeed, no book addresses with a more penetrating eye the freedom dreams grant us. (Sorry, Freud!) Consider the arch-famous episode of the windmills, which should be seen as a clash between a decrepit feudalist and the most innovative energy technology of the time. Don Quixote is convinced these magisterial structures are giants whose intent is to conquer the earth, whereas Sancho knows (and so does the narrator) that they are far more mundane than that. Or the puppet theater performing a tale of adventure and submission which the knight confuses with real events, jumping on the stage and destroying the marionettes. Or the group of prisoners in transit whom Don Quixote liberates because he believes them to be innocent. Or the Cave of Montesinos, a dark and frightening place where Don Quixote has a mystical experience. The list of such incidents is long.

True, Cervantes wasn’t a good stylist. There are bumpy parts in Don Quixote, in which the author seems asleep at the wheel. He is sometimes repetitive. He forgets crucial details, such as the name of Sancho’s wife, calling her variously Juana and Teresa. But novels, especially lasting ones, don’t need to be perfect. What they need to be, of course, is real. And the Quixote, for all its fragmented and picaresque nature — or indeed because of this — is unquestionably real. It’s about friendship, about stubbornness, and about how intelligence wears out and needs to be refurbished. It’s about the courage to take action, even if that action is founded on hopelessly incorrect premises and risks utter futility.

It’s also about language, its elasticity, its capacity to describe our inner and outer circumstance. As careless as Cervantes might be with his pen, he has an extraordinary ear for the nuances of speech. Don Quixote and Sancho’s conversation occupies an enormous amount of narrative time and space in the novel — and this endless loquacity is, needless to say, a condition they have in common with us. Their dialogue deals the basic human questions: Who are we? Why are we here? In what sense are we creatures of time and space? What is our duty to our neighbor? And what lends the book part of its immense power is the fact that the knight and his servant address these questions in utterly different tonalities. Don Quixote is lofty, Sancho pedestrian; one is eloquent to the point of being bombastic, the other foul-mouthed. And most enchantingly, as the book progresses, these two begin to resemble each other while never losing their own inner core of being. Cervantes infuses the novel with a degree of self-referentiality when Don Quixote and Sancho, in the book’s Second Part, find out that they are actually literary characters and that people they come across have read — and enjoyed — the First Part. This makes them realize, among other things, that they are and aren’t free. At any rate, therein we find the fluidity of life: all of us are in constant movement, physical as well as spiritual. To call ourselves stable entities is a figure of speech. We are porous, amorphous, even ethereal — and Cervantes knows this, and knew how to capture that elusive attribute better than anyone before or since.

For a long time it was thought that Cervantes and Shakespeare, in my mind the two inventors of modernity (I would add Montaigne, to make it a triumvirate), died the same day. But Spain and England followed different calendars, so that grim coincidence is apocryphal. Still, I have long wondered about their connection: it doesn’t seem to me that Cervantes knew of Shakespeare; the bard, on the other hand, did know of Don Quixote. He was familiar with the Thomas Shelton translation of the First Part, done in 1607 but published in 1612, and he collaborated with the younger playwright John Fletcher on an adaptation of a segment known as the History of Cardenio.

What these two sensibilities have in common is a passionate commitment to subjectivity. They lived at a time of religious persecution yet their work is triumphantly secular. They understood that the role of literature is not to be pedagogic but exploratory; that is, they didn’t want to offer answers but simply to pose large and largely unyielding existential questions. And, more than anything, they were capable of creating in-depth, complex characters, female and male, who are defined by an inner life that is as rich and complicated as the world that surrounds them.

Which brings me to my essential point: more than a novel (although booksellers can’t think otherwise) Don Quixote is a manual for living. The book dispenses advice subtly yet decisively about what matters and what doesn’t in life. It doesn’t do it in a prescriptive fashion; in fact, you won’t notice it until later. Its formula is simple: it isn’t designed to entertain but to make us see things differently. Just open it and read the first sentence: “In a place of La Mancha, the name of which I don’t care to remember…” Already we see the basic conventions of the form subverted, already we are halfway to being fruitfully, marvelously lost.

I have been teaching literature for decades and during most of those years I did not have a clue how to teach this strange and wonderful book. As a result, I learned to be at once ambitious and discreet in discussing it. So let me close by saying that the book may reject you at first. And if you stumble, try to regain your footing. Maybe you’ll fall again and then — accept your fate! — you’ve been weeded out. But if not, you might well be part of the Quixotic nation. Readers, after all, don’t chose books. Books choose their readers, and to be chosen by the Quixote is an honor worth striving for.