James Whorton Jr.

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.