Don Quixote

By Miguel De Cervantes
Translated by Edith Grossman

Ecco, 2003, ISBN 0-06-018870-7; 940 Pages, Hardcover $29.95. [Browse/Purchase]

Review by Bob Williams

While clearly an impregnable masterpiece, Don Quixote suffers from one fairly serious flaw – that of outright unreadability.
–Martin Amis (quoted by Frank Kermode)

When I, Don Quixote (which later formed the basis for the very popular musical) appeared in 1959 on the Du Pont Show of the Month, the creators, searching for guidance, found that they could do what they wanted since none of the literati that they consulted had read the book. Therefore Amis’ stricture may be true. Neither Edith Grossman – translator of among others Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa – in her translator’s note to the reader, nor Harold Bloom – the rag-and-bone man of today’s writers – in his overblown introduction, touch upon this matter.
The popularity of Don Quixote was greater in the past than it is today. One objection is its length. To us a big book is a big evil, and the reading class of the past had greater leisure than we do. In the eighteenth century authors imitated it, referred to it often, and it was then that one of the more common translations was made. The man who supervised the translation was Pierre Motteux, a Huguenot settled in England. (He died in a curious manner – the victim of an experiment with erotic asphyxiation gone a bit too far.) Although contemporary critics have taken a dislike to his translation – it is too highly colored and verbally approximate, a poor
match with the original – at least one older authority described it as “one of the most masterly and spirited translations in English.”
Grossman’s note to the reader has little of what one usually expects from a translator. She does not explain why she felt a new translation was needed, or how hers differed from any predecessors. Instead, her note is a meditation on the proper approach to translating a classic, remote from us in time and sensibility. Observing that Cervantes’ seventeenth-century prose was “crackling up-to-date Spanish” in its time, Grossman approached Don Quixote as she would any modern novel, translating it into a living, contemporary English.
If immediacy and smoothness of style are criteria, her translation is a success. Comparison of the opening passage in a selection of translations gives some interesting insights. Motteux has this:

“At a certain village of La Mancha, which I shall not name, there lived not long ago one of those old-fashioned gentlemen who are never without a lance upon a rack, an old target, a lean horse, and a greyhound. His diet consisted more of beef than mutton; and with minced meat on most nights, lentils on Fridays, eggs and bacon on Saturdays, and a pigeon extraordinary on Sundays, he consumed three quarters of his revenue; the rest was laid out on a plush coat, velvet breeches, with slippers of the same, for holidays; and a suit of very best homespun cloth, which he bestowed on himself for working days.”

Walter Starkie, whose version represents a severe editing in that it omits all of the many digressions, translates the opening in this way:

“At a village of La Mancha, whose name I do not wish to remember, there lived a little while ago one of those gentlemen who are wont to keep a lance in the rack, an old buckler, a lean horse and a swift greyhound. His stew had more beef than mutton in it and most nights he ate the remains salted and cold. Lentil soup on Fridays, ‘tripe and trouble’ [a note explains that this could also mean rashers and eggs but he interprets it as meaning semi-abstinent fare] on Saturdays and an occasional pigeon as an extra delicacy on Sundays, consumed three-quarters of his income. The remainder was spent on a jerkin of fine puce, velvet breeches, and slippers of the same stuff for holidays, and a suit of good, honest homespun for week-days.”

Grossman translates the same passage thus:

“Somewhere in La Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, a gentleman lived not long ago, one of those who has a lance and ancient shield on a shelf and keeps a skinny nag and a greyhound for racing. An occasional stew, beef more than lamb, hash most nights, eggs and abstinence on Saturdays, lentils on Fridays, sometimes squab as a treat on Sundays – these consumed three-fourths of his income. The rest went for a light woolen tunic and velvet breeches and hose of the same material for feast days, while weekdays were honored with dun-colored coarse cloth.”

Beneath the surface similarities swarm a host of differences. Vest, jerkin, and tunic give different images to the reader. Although vest and jerkin tend to merge, neither is especially like a tunic. Starkie’s puce is original to him and Grossman turns slippers into hose. But Grossman shows herself more in command of marshalling words. Her use of the dash (“– these consumed three-fourths of his income”) brings the reader back home to the intent of this fairly complicated sentence better than either of the other two. Both Starkie and Motteux waffle over the pigeon, but Grossman settles forthrightly for squab, carrying the meaning forward effortlessly with definite advantage. Her version has the further merit of extensive footnotes; although some assume more ignorance on the reader’s part than is altogether likely, most are useful and informative.
This opening passage of Don Quixote is straightforward – allowing for the tendency of many earlier writers to be ornate, this is relatively sober stuff. Not very much of “Cervantes” is in this mode. In keeping with Don Quixote’s fancy, the style can flower abundantly in a way that can be a trial for the reader. Grossman’s “modern” approach goes far in making these episodes accessible, and as the book proceeds, she remains sensitive to Cervantes’ changing moods.

Leaving the translation aside, we return to the question of the work itself. For a book that is so little read, the basic story of Don Quixote is part of the consciousness of many. Of course, the musical counts for much of this, or more particularly, the 1965 film of the musical. For a literary work to be made into a successful movie – however inaccurate – gives it a vitality and memorability that it might otherwise have lacked. It therefore becomes of some interest to ignore this level of Don Quixote’s existence and to examine it solely as a book, a classic, something that’s perhaps less in our hands than on our shelves. We may also ask if greater readership of Don Quixote is likely.
As the book has a curious structure, before we begin, a few notes are in order. Don Quixote is divided into two main parts – “The First Part” and “The Second Part,” generally called Part I and Part II. Part I is subdivided into four sections, Part One to Part Four. Cervantes wrote Part I as a self-contained work – he even killed Don Quixote off at the end. But another and very inferior writer published a continuation. Despite the awkwardness of the situation, Cervantes felt obliged to respond with Part II.
The plot is familiar – up to a point. Don Quixote, addled by books about chivalry, is filled with a desire to emulate the adventures therein. Armed with the lance and shield described in the first paragraph and donning improvised headgear, he slips quietly from home to begin his journey. Although he can see quite plainly, his uncertain mind perceives everything as greater than it is – his nag becomes “Rocinante,” his noble steed; and a local peasant girl is promoted to “Princess Dulcinea,” the mistress of his adventures.
At an inn, Don Quixote receives the order of knighthood from a facetious innkeeper. However, his delusions make him an uneasy person to have around, and the innkeeper induces him to return home, where he may equip himself with clean shirts, money, and a squire.
Following this advice, he rashly challenges a passerby and receives a terrible beating. A farmer finds him and returns him to his home, where his priest, his barber, his niece and his housekeeper determine that to cure him of his delusions, his books must be put to the flames. Although presented in a comic light, this book burning session gives Cervantes an opportunity to comment on the state of Spanish literature. Because the priest is too lazy to separate the innocent from the guilty, certain books are saved for frivolous reasons while good books are swept into the fire.
When Don Quixote is recovered, he again steals away from home. He has enlisted Sancho Panza as his squire by promising him that he shall be given rule over some future conquest. The knight famously attacks windmills, and then rescues a woman who is not in any peril except in his imagination. As a result, he engages in battle with a furious Basque muleteer.
The account breaks off. There is an unexplained gap in the story that Cervantes pretends to be unable to supply. This concludes Part One.
Part Two relates the discovery of an Arabic manuscript that continues the battle between the Basque and the Don. Cervantes’ elaborate pretense about an alleged manuscript plays an elaborate game in which the text is conscious of itself as text. While this might be considered wonderfully postmodern, in truth it was a convention of many writers previous to the twentieth century. (One must wonder if this postmodern insistence can be regarded as truly original; if it is not at best a kind of rediscovery.) Cervantes adds to this the further elaboration that a translator was needed to turn the Arabic into Spanish, and at various points in the narrative the translator adds his own comments. Cervantes thus creates several levels of authorship – Cervantes himself (always known by the reader to be the author of the whole work), the Arabic writer of the manuscript, and the translator of the manuscript. There is something Borgesian in these refinements.
The Basque wounds Don Quixote, who loses part of an ear, but in the end the Don defeats him. The effect of this incident is negligible – the suspense regarding the gap in the story hardly justifies its sequel. (In the remote future of the book Cervantes will describe, rather cursorily, the consequences this attack has on two Benedictines.) Don Quixote and Sancho take dinner with some hospitable shepherds, and as one of the shepherds tells a story about a blighted romance, the novel’s first real “digression” takes place. Although most of the book’s digressions are relatively benign, one common accusation leveled at Don Quixote is that their overall sum forms a malignant mass. Insofar as Cervantes’ digressions are unintegrated into the plot proper, this is a just accusation.
From pastoral idyll to another beating at the hands of muleteers is the accomplishment of a few words. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza seek refuge at an inn which Don Quixote has mistaken for a castle. He ventures again in the leaky vessel of his mind and is twice more beaten or struck. Some men at the inn toss Sancho in a blanket before the two can leave.
This constant mismatch between the world and Don Quixote’s apprehension leads to many such burlesque mistreatments. There is also a good degree of repetition – the events that Cervantes has just described are like those that occurred in the first of the Don’s ventures. The difference now is the presence of Sancho Panza, and this is the great and enduring charm of the book. These two innocents are an engaging pair, and the naturalness and ease of their relationship is a contrast to the world of cruelty that torments them.
From the disaster at the inn they come to two flocks of sheep, and Don Quixote mistakes them for opposing armies. After siding with one of these imaginary battalions, he kills seven sheep and is beaten by the shepherds. Sancho puts him back on his horse and, moving on, they encounter a funeral procession. Attacking the procession, Don Quixote strikes a cleric and is excommunicated. During this incident, Sancho has an inspiration. He gives Don Quixote the name of The Knight of the Sorrowful Face, a flat rendering of “The Knight of the Woeful Countenance,” familiar to many from Man of La Mancha. (Like Grossman, Motteux and Starkie also use less vivid names.) After their unfortunate encounter, they spend an uneasy vigil in a wilderness where a loud noise alarms them. On the coming of dawn they perceive that this is nothing more than a mill. It is significant that the Don, who so far has mistaken everything for something else, perceives this just as clearly as Sancho. We will henceforth often see the Don able to escape from his delusions. But he soon confuses a barber with a shaving basin on his head for a knight, and he takes the basin away to wear as a helmet.
The Don and Sancho next encounter a chained group of prisoners. On inquiry the Don decides that they should go free, and he successfully engages their guards. But the prisoners – bent on escape and callous towards their rescuer – are ungrateful, and as they depart, they pelt their liberators with stones. This is the second time (the first was at the last inn that they visited) that Don Quixote has transgressed against the interests of the Holy Brotherhood, a vigilante group attempting to establish some kind of security on the highways.
Prudent for once, Don Quixote does not wait for the Holy Brotherhood, and retreats into the nearby mountains where another digression, more closely integrated into the text, takes place. It is the sad story of Cardenio, betrayed in love and now living in the wilderness, alternating between madness and sanity. (This has an adventitious interest in that it provided Shakespeare with the material for a play, now lost.) Don Quixote decides to perform penance. He calmly and cold-bloodedly discusses with Sancho all the mad things that he will do. The deliberateness of his plans show him teetering between insanity and a kind of compromised sanity, the logic of a diseased mind. There is something piquant in a madman being so lucid about madness. He directs Sancho to carry a message to Dulcinea, and on his way Sancho encounters the priest and the barber. They devise a plot to lure Don Quixote back home but, in the mountains, they meet Cardenio who brings his story up to date. Another appears who has a direct bearing on Cardenio’s situation – a beautiful young woman betrayed by his enemy. She participates in the ruse to return Don Quixote to his home. Their route will take them back to the inn where Sancho was tossed in the blanket.
The journey is less than exciting, and represents one of the longueurs that can appear in any work of great length, although Cervantes confounds it by the interpolation of a novella, “The Man Who Was Recklessly Curious.” Grossman observes in a footnote that, in the second part of Don Quixote, Cervantes replied to contemporary criticism of this habit. The language of this novella is dry and rhetorical and no reply can justify it – it may be of small wonder that Cervantes failed as a playwright if this language is typical of what he put into the mouths of his characters. I fully confess that after enduring agonies of boredom I skipped this section. I was also tempted to skip the later digression of the “Captive’s Story,” but while it adds nothing to the plot, it is a piece of history, written as history should be written but seldom is. In ways that are too complex to describe, it depends on Cervantes’ own experience as a captive slave, and has the authority of true experience fully absorbed and ably expressed.
The events at the inn occupy what might be described as taking place in real time. We tend to lose sight of Don Quixote. The battle of the wine skins is almost negligible in comparison with the concerns of the other characters. As if to compensate, Cervantes has the Don discourse very wisely – if somewhat dryly – at dinner, but Cervantes gives most of his attention to the resolution of Cardenio’s story and to that of the captive. And from new arrivals other complications arise, none of them especially related to the central figures of the Don and Sancho. At last members of the Holy Brotherhood appear, threatening to arrest Don Quixote for liberating the convicts. This takes place in a series of uproars, disorders, and fights that are richly comic, but out of which emerge certain inconsistencies – not the first time that this has happened – indicating that while Cervantes was a gifted writer, he was not at all a careful one.
The departure from the inn corresponds to a sudden change in plot. Many of the characters heretofore essential suddenly go their separate ways, and the priest and the barber disguise themselves and transport the Don in a cage improvised from a cart. On the way home they encounter another cleric, and he and the priest have a conversation about the literature of chivalry and contemporary plays. The conversation extends to include Don Quixote, and the discussion – as in an earlier conversation between a priest and a canon – covers ground that has already been covered many times already.
We are almost at the midpoint of the book, and we must begin to suspect that Cervantes exceeds his concept, that there is in Don Quixote more material than matter. Curiously, Cervantes criticizes contemporary playwrights as undisciplined, but Cervantes himself is guilty of the same fault. It becomes clear that, if exoneration is possible from the charge against Don Quixote as an “unreadable” book, it must be sought on other grounds than the obvious one of economy of expression and thought.
The end of Part I is a hurried business where Cervantes takes us from the Don’s homecoming to his death – from which Cervantes rescues him for Part II. Part I closes with epitaphs from various “academics.”
“The Second Part of the Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha” opens with conversation and continues with conversations. In one of these, ignoring the deaths and epitaphs just mentioned, a student named Sansón Carrasco tells Don Quixote of the book (Part I) published about his adventures. The Don and Sancho resolve to set out for a third time.
The Don and Sancho encounter a troupe of players. After being insulted by one of the players, the Don wants to attack them, but Sancho persuades him against it. That night they encounter another knight. Naturally, he and Don Quixote quarrel, and by a fluke the Don defeats him. But the knight is actually Sansón Carrasco, bent on fulfilling the plot of the priest and the barber to bring Don Quixote back to his home. He takes his defeat personally and resolves to be revenged on the Don.
The tone of Part II differs from Part I. It is more reflective, and much of the text belongs very much to Don Quixote, who discourses wisely (and at length) on the wider implications of events. These reflections are much in the vein of Montaigne, Cervantes’ contemporary. These mini-essays show shrewd good sense and intelligence. They provide a source of wonder to those who perceive the Don as mad, as such rational discourse contrasts strongly with his frequent outbreaks of folly.
In Part I Don Quixote had freed some convicts on the way to the galleys. Their chief reappears – rather irrelevantly – as a puppet master. But the greater part of this section concerns an entertainment given the Don by a duke and his wife. It is an entertainment edged with cruelty, as they indulge Don Quixote in his delusions and oblige Sancho Panza to submit to an absurd punishment. The book in fact deals heavily in cruelty. Against such a background the same vein of violence and cruelty in Cervantes’ admirers – like Tobias Smollett – do not seem especially extreme.
The denouement is inevitable. The Don has exhausted the possibilities of his delusions. When he returns home, he is a man defeated by reality and he dies disclaiming his identity as a knight.

How important a consideration it may or may not be, clearly Cervantes never attempted to reconcile the contradictions that one finds in Don Quixote. The lack of consistent intentions – a characteristic found in much of Shakespeare – is troublesome in a long prose work. On the stage, effect succeeds effect, and the audience has no time to impose critical strictures; but a book is necessarily an invitation for reflection, and a lack of unified effect can be serious. Much of Don Quixote is lost in the shadow of Cervantes’ confused intentions. What stands out vibrantly are the gestures of magnificent foolishness, the warm regard that the Don has for Sancho, and the strong – if unstressed – conviction that nothing in the real world of so-called sanity has the grandeur of Don Quixote’s delusions. Although these estimable virtues are both abundant and laudable, it is doubtful if they can entirely offset the defects of the book, or provide as fully rewarding a reading experience as reading, for example, Homer or Shakespeare. But the reader must read Don Quixote once, and Edith Grossman’s translation provides an outstanding version.

–Bob Williams
1 February 2004

Additional Information

Ecco’s Don Quixote Page – The publisher’s page contains an excerpt from Chapter One, and notes on Cervantes and Grossman. Like many, they hold out Don Quixote as the first “modern novel.”

Don Quixote Homepage – A site devoted to the novel, it contains an illustrated essay on its translation history.

Tilt – A review of Grossman’s translation by author Carlos Fuentes, who considers Don Quixote the father of modern literature. From the Nov. 2, 2003 New York Times.

The Knight in the Mirror – Harold Bloom on the “first and finest modern novel.” From the Dec. 13, 2003 Guardian.

Knight’s Gambit – James Wood on “the sacred profanity of Don Quixote.” From the Dec. 15, 2003 New Yorker, Wood states that “Some of the hysterical realism of modern writers like Pynchon and Rushdie seems to take its cue from Cervantes, the violence having been replaced by perpetual motion.”

Windmills of the Mind – A.S. Byatt on the influence of Don Quixote on the modern novel. From the January 24, 2004 Guardian.

Don Quixote Reading – Yahoo’s Big Fat Book Reading Group is currently reading Don Quixote.


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