Notes on Don Quixote, Volume One
This morning a small possum was rescued by my wife from a swimming pool. He was a sad, wet, cold-looking creature with large, glossy eyes that were solid black. Who knows how he had wound up in the pool, but my wife discovered him on the top rung of the ladder, waiting I guess for someone to come and offer him a way out, which my wife did, using a net on a long pole, and then she helped him onto a tree branch, which he stepped onto unsteadily, clinging with his long toes, and then he looked all around himself in a stunned way, and then he walked further into the tree where we couldn’t see him anymore.
The other exciting thing that has happened is that I finished the first volume of Don Quixote. It is long. I’m going to say it’s 180,000 words, which could have been three novels, and yet I am only half done with DQ, because there is a volume two, of course. Cervantes published them a few years apart, therefore I am giving myself a break from the thing as well.
When you are reading a famously hilarious book and you find yourself sometimes going for long stretches without laughing, you may wonder what is wrong with you. This is when it is important to notice that a novel is like a party in the following way: it is remembered not for everything that happened, but for the best things that happened. The best things in Don Quixote are very good. There is a long scene, for example, where two of the Don’s neighbors are sorting through his library, deciding which books to keep out of the burn pile. The housekeeper wants to burn all of them. This is a good scene. When Don Quixote’s sidekick or squire, Sancho Panza, becomes angry with him, Sancho is eloquent and funny and seems real. The Don’s horse, Rozinante, is also real: not a cartoon horse at all but a true-to-life lean old pet horse, slow and unspookable, a solid companion, the object of many jokes but deservedly loved.
There is a passage in which Quixote imagines diving into a lake of boiling tar, at the bottom of which he is served a splendid meal by beautiful women. This is why he wants to be a knight: because diving into these lakes, expecting to be boiled and instead being fed a nice meal by maidens, is what knights do. That was another high moment for me.
And then there are the long passages that have nothing to do with Don Quixote and are entirely different in tone–a soldier’s capture and escape, a love story with betrayals and death. It’s as though Cervantes stuck them into the novel just to get them out of his desk drawer.
His way of inserting these tales is to have a character drop in and say, “Let me tell you a story.” Sixty pages later, that story ends, with the storyteller apologizing for having gone on so long, and the other characters assuring him that his story was entertainingly told; and then Don Quixote will wake up from the nap he’s been taking, or someone will cut the rope he’s been tied to a barn with, and the Quixote story will pick up again.
So it’s a mess. No doubt some of its flaws are also virtues, though, and some of those must be lost to us, in the same way (sort of) that you can no longer bake a chicken under the hood of your car, because there is not room for that under the hood anymore. The art of car design has progressed beyond spacious engine compartments, and the art of the novel has also progressed, and we will never go back to the old way unless everything falls apart first.
What Don Quixote does that is still fresh and alive is its rendering of crazed sincerity. It’s a wayward comic fantasy with a heart, which is not old-fashioned yet, I think, though someone is probably tired of it somewhere.
James Whorton Jr. is the author of three novels, most recently Angela Sloan. He lives in Rochester, New York and teaches at the College at Brockport.