Thursday, December 23, 2010

Don Quixote is Dead: Preface to Final Thoughts

Reading the last words of the book, I was reminded of the Eric B. and Rakim classic, I Ain't No Joke:
I ain't no joke.
I used to let the mic smoke
Now I slam it when I'm done and make sure it's broke
When I'm gone no one gets up 'cause I won't let
Nobody press up and mess up the scene I set
This is a decent description of what Cervantes does, killing off DQ and legally establishing his death with the scribe. Biters like Avellaneda won't be able to press up and mess up the scene he set. Indeed, Cervantes tells us of Cide Hamete hanging up his pen after completing the story of DQ, and instructing his pen on how to warn off pretenders. (939)



I doubt there's anyone still checking the site. Perhaps aliens, in the distant future, who have come to visit our devastated and barren planet and have recovered data from the internet circa 2010. Welcome!

In any event, I guess it's time for us to try to talk about the end of the book, and perhaps the book as a whole. I'm still mulling over my feelings and thoughts about the book, but I think I can say this for now: it was a real struggle to get through this book. I'm glad I did, but I doubt I'll ever do it again. It's not a book that's easy to enjoy, especially given our modern sensibilities, our expectations that there will be some kind of compelling narrative arc or structure, some kind of character development, etc. There are bits and pieces of those things in the book, but there also bits and pieces of all sorts of other things in there as well: random Latin sayings, Spanish proverbs, rambling, digressive stories, exhaustive allusions, etc. It all feels a bit like a magpie's nest: all sorts of glittery baubles and trinkets and foil wrapped up together, in no discernible order, with no apparent greater purpose or design.

Slight feelings of wistfulness wafted over me as I read the final pages of the book. But that feeling was probably more about being done with this project I've been involved in for months now than it was about the characters or DQ's death. Perhaps part of it was relief: after weeks of wondering whether I had the will power or fortitude to trudge on, the end was finally at hand. It was a Christmas miracle.

There's much to say about DQ and Sancho's encounter with the character from the illegitimate DQ sequel, DQ's reactions to his own fame, etc. I promise that I will get to that. For now, if anyone is still here, let me know how you felt about the book as a whole, and how you felt about finishing the book.

And Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The never-ending story

So here I am, sheepishly coming forward to admit that, despite all my tough talk, I still have not finished the book. (Shocker.) I'm guessing some of you have finished the book by now. I'm moving the goalposts again: I'll try to finish by Sunday.

In other news, there's been only one vote for our next book. (See sidebar.) If you're interested in continuing to read super-long books that are difficult to finish, please take a moment to vote for our next book.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Six Days to Glory



I'm guessing there are a few of you out there still reading this book and checking this blog. Greetings. We are in a lonely land now. But there's less than one week left. Wherever you are in the book, it's time to make the big push: finish the book by this Sunday. I think it can be done. I know it'll be difficult -- I'm still more than a hundred pages off pace myself -- but the end is in sight.

I'll also be setting up the voting for our next book this week. Spread the word about the book group. Perhaps our next book will be shorter and more manageable.

Anyway, we are here to PUMP YOU UP!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

And now for something completely different

As I mentioned in my last post, it's my intention to push ahead with this online-book-club project -- participation and size of our membership be damned! I'm hoping to avoid the pattern I've observed with both our current book and the WAR AND PEACE reading over the summer: initial enthusiasm quickly turning into boredom, despair, resignation, etc. I guess one way to avoid that pattern would be to pick something, say, shorter, or less tedious. But what would be the fun in that? No one needs a reading group to get them to power through a book one would have no problem finishing over a lazy long weekend.

Also, I think part of the fun of this group (for me, at least -- and maybe exclusively) is that we are pushing ourselves to read these long, old, sometimes boring and tedious books at a time when everything is moving in a very opposite direction. That stark (and interesting?) contrast is lost if we start reading, say, those GIRL WITH A DRAGON TATTOO books or even the latest David Eggers or Jonathan Franzen book or whatever. Or maybe it's just pure pretentiousness and snobbery that I'm giving in to by wanting to read a lot of Incredibly Long Important Classic Works of Literature. I'm not sure. Who cares?

Anyway, here are some of the ideas I've been thinking of for our next book. Some of these books are very long; some are pretty short. Feel free to make your own suggestions in the comments below. I'm thinking that, after Tolstoy and Cervantes, it's time we read a book that was originally written in English. We'll have a vote of some sort in the coming weeks.


  • Under the Volcano - Lowry

  • Sons and Lovers - Lawrence

  • Our Mutual Friend - Dickens

  • Sense and Sensibility - Austen

  • The House of the Seven Gables - Hawthorne

  • Finnegans Wake - Joyce

  • Mrs. Dalloway - Woolf

  • Ada or Ardor - Nabokov

  • For Whom the Bell Tolls - Hemingway

  • The Wings of the Dove - James

  • Bleak House - Dickens

  • Wuthering Heights - Brontë

  • Europe Central - Vollman

  • Herzog - Bellow

  • Bleak House - Dickens

  • Nostromo - Conrad



Again, happy to hear suggestions from the group . (And I recognize that "group" may be an optimistic term at this point.)

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The end is sort of close



Just about two weeks of reading left. I hope some of you are still reading the book (and maybe reading these words). I imagine that we've lost a lot of people who started out with us a few months ago, newly purchased copies of the books in their hands, visions of heady literary discussion in their eyes.

It's tough to try to get a lot of people to get through a long, sometimes boring and rambling book together. The project is a bit quixotic in its own way (in the dictionary sense of the word), especially today, when there are so many other (less time-intensive, more immediately entertaining) things one can do to pass the time.

I recognize that my initial hopes that there would be extended daily discussions about the books we're reading, with multiple participants, etc., were a bit unrealistic. Few people have that kind of time (or inclination). Still, it is gratifying that anyone is willing to participate -- even silently.

Even though my initial hopes have not been realized, I don't really feel all that let down. I feel like this online reading group, and the wholly imaginary responsibility I have taken on to keep posting on the blog, etc., are a useful way to force me to get through these books that I probably should read at some point. (That last bit about what books one "should read" leads to a different discussion.)

So I'll plug along in the face of certain failure with this project, imagining that it will ultimately lead to glory and immortal fame.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Wherein your blogger fails you

I've fallen behind. Work got nuts and my daily reading got knocked off course. I'm catching back up.

But I did manage to watch Lost in La Mancha over the weekend. It's a documentary about Terry Gilliam's aborted attempt to make a movie called The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. The movie records the terrible bad luck that plagues Gilliam's Don Quixote film (which was to star French actor Jean Rochefort as Quixote and Johnny Depp as a modern-day marketing executive who somehow ends up in seventeenth-century Spain with Don Quixote). Don Quixote mistakes Depp's character for Sancho Panza.



The movie is a little heavy handed in drawing parallels between Gilliam and Don Quixote, as it documents Gilliam's doomed attempt to create his vision of Don Quixote. Gilliam is frequently shot with diagrams of model windmills behind him; he's shown moving miniature model windmills on a tiny set. A member of the set observes that "there's a bit of Don Quixote in him" and in his impractical, romantic quest to bring Don Quixote to the screen. The unfolding disaster is sort of fascinating to watch: the film is doomed by a sudden storm and flash flood at a set in the Spanish desert, a nearby NATO air force training site, an inflammation of Rochefort's prostate that leaves him unable to ride a horse, and bad soundstages.

I learned for the first time in watching this movie that Orson Welles had also tried to adapt Don Quixote to the screen. Welles's version was never completed because his Don Quixote died while Welles was still shooting the film. In looking around, I came across this interesting segment from the unfinished Welles picture. In this scene, Don Quixote and Sancho are somehow in a 20th-century movie theater, watching some kind of adventure movie. Don Quixote reaction to the movie appears to be identical to his reaction to his books of chivalry: complete belief. He is moved and enraged by what he sees, so he attacks the screen.



The scene raises some interesting issues that we've discussed for some time here. In this scene, Welles shows Don Quixote as a viewer who believes too fully. When we watch a movie (or read a novel), we are expected to believe what we are watching or reading to a certain degree. Don Quixote's problem is that he goes beyond the appropriate level of belief and accepts the illusion as reality, and in fact engages the illusion as if it were reality. Don Quixote is the absurd end point of taking literature at its word, believing in it completely, and choosing to act on it as if it were reality, as if it were binding law.

But this again raises the question of choice in Don Quixote's actions. We all choose, in one way or another, what codes or laws we will follow or honor. Don Quixote's belief in the laws of chivalry, the importance of chivalric precedent, etc., is perhaps a matter of choice.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Too Busy to Really Post

This is a fake post. I'm in trial this week and don't have time to write a real post. Readers, please, take it away. I'll post something substantive once I'm able to resurface.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Don Quixote Balderdash

People like to use the adjective "quixotic." It sounds learned, cultured, etc. But has everyone been using it incorrectly? Has the word taken on a definition that is untrue to the character from which it is derived? I'm not sure.

Here is the definition from Merriam-Webster:
1: foolishly impractical especially in the pursuit of ideals; especially : marked by rash lofty romantic ideas or extravagantly chivalrous action
2: capricious, unpredictable

Examples of QUIXOTIC

- They had quixotic dreams about the future.

- in this age of giant chain stores, any attempt at operating an independent bookstore must be regarded as quixotic
M-W.

I feel like the standard, accepted usage of "quixotic" is slightly off, as it has come to mean something along the lines of fighting a hopeless or pointless fight in the face of certain failure, impossible odds, etc. But that seems to miss the element of choice that seems to be present in DQ's delusions -- he, to some degree, chooses to see the world as other than it is. And in doing so, by conforming his actions to his idealized world, DQ in fact ends up changing his "reality," by becoming a "famous" knight, [SPOILER] making Sancho the governor DQ imagined he would become, etc.

Anyhow, now that you've read (more than half of) the book, how would you define "quixotic"?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

All Downhill From Here



We've made it to the second book of Don Quixote. The second book was published a decade after the first book.

I've found the beginning of the second book to be quite entertaining, as Cervantes seems to be having some fun addressing the various issues his critics had raised about the first book. What ever did happen to Sancho's donkey? Why would Sancho be gullible enough to believe that Don Quixote would ever award him an ínsula?

And in case you were wondering (as I was), after Warren's comment to the last post:
Paragone (Italian: paragone, meaning comparison), is a debate from the Italian Renaissance in which one form of art (architecture, sculpture or painting) is championed as superior to all others. Leonardo da Vinci's treatise on painting, noting the difficulty of painting and supremacy of sight, is a noted example.
Wikipedia.

I was driving on a highway in Pasadena (note: Pasadena is a made-up word) and drove under a highway sign for "Ventura." My thoughts went back to the footnote I had read a few days ago:
The housekeeper's statement is based on her confusing aventura ("adventure") with ventura ("happiness," "luck," and "fortune" are the relevant meanings). I've translated ventura as "venture" in order to establish the connection with "adventure," though a better word would probably be "fortune."
p. 496, fn. 1

I didn't take the highway to Ventura. I went home instead.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Open Forum

Let's chat. Current feelings about the book? Frustrated? Satisfied? Pet theories or interpretations? Have at it.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Among the Resemblances of Things

I found, in Michel Foucault's brief commentary on Don Quixote, some fascinating echoes of ideas we've been discussing here:
His whole being is nothing but language, text, printed pages, stories that have already been written down. He is made up of interwoven words; he is writing itself, wandering through the world among the resemblances of things. Yet not entirely so: for in his reality as an impoverished hidalgo he can become a knight only by listening from afar to the age-old epic that gives its form to Law. The book is not so much his existence as his duty. He is constantly obliged to consult it in order to know what to do or say, and what signs he should give himself and other in order to show that he really is of the same nature as the text from which he springs. The chivalric romances have provided once and for all a written prescription for his adventures. And every episode, every decision, every exploit will be yet another sign that Don Quixote is a true likeness of all the signs that he has traced from his book. . . . If he is to resemble the texts of which he is the witness, the representation, the real analogue, Don Quixote must also furnish proof and provide the indubitable sign that they are telling the truth, that they are really are the language of the world.
THE ORDER OF THINGS, at 46-47.

Foucault notes how this process becomes yet more complicated in the second part of the novel [SPOILER ALERT], where "Don Quixote meets characters who have read the first part of his story and recognize him, the real man, as the hero of the book." In the second part, where DQ has achieved the notoriety he sought,
Cervantes's text turns back on itself, thrusts itself back into its own density, and becomes the object of its own narrative. The first part of the hero's adventures plays in the second part the role originally assumed by the chivalric romances. Don Quixote must remain faithful to the book that he has now become in reality; he must protect it from errors, from counterfeits, from apocryphal sequels; he must fill in the details that have been left out he must preserve its truth. But Don Quixote himself has not read this book, and he does not have to read it, since he is the book in flesh and blood.
Id. at 48.

Philosophers, literary theorists, et al. seem to love this book because it is very much a book about reading and writing (as I've observed probably too many times already in these blog discussions). DQ is the embodiment of the act of writing: his actions and duties are dictated by what has already been written, and he seeks to inscribe himself within this existing order. In a certain sense, like writing, which depends on the already-established for its very ability to function, there is nothing truly "new" that DQ can produce or do. His goal is to produce a new book that will be precisely in accord with previous books that he is treating as binding precedent. (We'll have to have a discussion along the way about the relation of Don Quixote to the legal method of the common law, the reliance on precedent, the professed avoidance of creating new law out of "whole cloth," etc.)

My own repetition of Foucault's points (which I chose to quote partially because they reflected some of the points in my earlier comments) and tedious repetition of my own earlier points are themselves points of resemblance to DQ: specifically, to his compulsion to find (or create) similarities between what he knows and what he sees and what he does and says. The points I've been making about writing extend logically to our ability to think new thoughts, say new things, given that our thoughts are embedded within (and perhaps largely produced by) language.

And perhaps it's also worth pondering what produces this need to seek out similarity in the world: this is, arguably, the way in which we interpret the world, fitting it into inherited, previously established schema, trying to find (or impose) repetition or similarity between what we know and what we see (or reality). Anthropologists would provide us with an abundance of examples: see, for example, the reactions of the Hawaiians to the arrival of Captain James Cook, the reception of Cortes in Aztec Mexico, etc.

Hope you've all had time to catch up to the pace. We're on page 400 today. Page 500 by next Sunday.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Reading Schedule Revision

Our 100-page-per-week pace has been a little intense, especially for people who have to, say, earn a living, care for pets or children, talk to their spouses or partners, etc. So we'll use this week as a catch-up period: this Sunday's goal of page 500 is pushed back to next Sunday, and the entire reading schedule is pushed back a week. (We're now on track to finish the book just after Thanksgiving.) Hopefully, the extra week will help people get back on track.

We're nearly past halfway now. I hope those of you tempted to chuck the book will stick with us, if only because you've already spent so much time on this project. (That's sound reasoning for you!)

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Looking Ahead

First off, anyone still here? If so, check in below to let us know how your reading is going -- and to reassure your blog moderators that we're not alone here. (We're insecure by nature.)

I was wondering about where the book was headed, so I decided to scan the chapter headings in the table of contents. If you haven't briefly looked over the chapter headings for the remainder of the book, they're worth a look. Here are a few:
- Part II, Chapter IX: Which recounts what will soon be seen.

- Part II, Chapter XXXI: Which deals with many great things.

- Part II, Chapter LXVI: Which recounts what will be seen by whoever reads it, or heard by whoever listens to it being read.

- Part II, Chapter LXX: Which follows Chapter LXIX, and deals with matters necessary to the clarity of this history.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Profitable Partnerships: the Princess Micomicona story

From a piece in the Bulletin of Cervantes Society of America, 20.1 (Spring, 2010): 163:86, entitled Chivalry and Empire: The Colonial Argument of the Princess Micomicona Episode in Don Quijote Part I:
It may seem jarring to modern readers that the idea of slavery rears its head in a romance plot, but Sancho’s immodest proposal underscores the concept of profit, which is in fact the foremost concern of the Micomicona episode. For David Quint, Micomicona and the financially advantageous marriage she offers represent a story cluster that focuses on money, the acquisition of goods, and other practical concerns. Quint does not enter into a detailed analysis of the Micomicona fiction itself, but he does oppose the story of the chivalric princess and her kingdom to the fiction of Dulcinea. Where Dulcinea represents the ideal, Micomicona represents the practical. Quint reads the Micomicona tale as a modernizing impulse within Don Quijote: “With the ‘Princess Micomicona’ plot and the marriage-and-money stories clustered around it, Don Quijote seems to have entered fully upon the terrain and preoccupations of the modern novel, the measure of a historical shift from a stratified feudal society to the more open social world of a nascent capitalism” (76). I agree in principle with Quint’s argument, but I would like to point out the irony of using the romance of chivalry, an archaic and archaizing genre, to code for this shift towards the modern. However, Cervantes certainly does capitalize on certain pre-existing features of the chivalric genre in order to articulate this currency-driven plot. In its oblique way, the Iberian romance of chivalry has always been concerned with the very practical matters of the acquisition of wealth and territory. Many knights do in fact seek out financially advantageous liaisons, and this episode from Don Quijote seems to allude to several chivalric marriages in the Iberian tradition. In the marriage plots of the Amadís series, Christian knights find pagan brides, convert them to Christianity, and assume leadership over their new wives’ inherited territories. In these romances, marriage substitutes for warfare, and colonial relationships become predicated on marital ties.
(Piece available here.)

Monday, October 4, 2010

Week Three Questions

What is Don Quixote's relationship to reality? Is he aware that he chooses to believe in illusion?

What is the significance of Sancho Panza's illiteracy? How does it inform his character in relation to Don Quixote's overly literate character?

Does the book (so far) celebrate or denigrate fiction?

What is the point of the lengthy Cardenio episode?

How does the innkeeper's mania for chivalry relate to Don Quixote's own mania? "'God willing you won't follow in the footsteps of your guest Don Quixote.' 'I won't,' responded the innkeeper, 'because I wouldn't be crazy enough to become a knight errant; I see very well that these days are different from the old days, when they say those famous knights wandered through the world.'" (271)

Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote

From the previously mentioned short story by Borges:
Those who have insinuated that Menard dedicated his life to writing a contemporary Quixote calumniate his illustrious memory.

He did not want to compose another Quixote —which is easy— but the Quixote itself. Needless to say, he never contemplated a mechanical transcription of the original; he did not propose to copy it. His admirable intention was to produce a few pages which would coincide—word for word and line for line—with those of Miguel de Cervantes.

“My intent is no more than astonishing,” he wrote me the 30th of September, 1934, from Bayonne. “The final term in a theological or metaphysical demonstration—the objective world, God, causality, the forms of the universe—is no less previous and common than my famed novel. The only difference is that the philosophers publish the intermediary stages of their labor in pleasant volumes and I have resolved to do away with those stages.” In truth, not one worksheet remains to bear witness to his years of effort.

The first method he conceived was relatively simple. Know Spanish well, recover the Catholic faith, fight against the Moors or the Turk, forget the history of Europe between the years 1602 and 1918, be Miguel de Cervantes. Pierre Menard studied this procedure (I know he attained a fairly accurate command of seventeenth-century Spanish) but discarded it as too easy. Rather as impossible! my reader will say. Granted, but the undertaking was impossible from the very beginning and of all the impossible ways of carrying it out, this was the least interesting. To be, in the twentieth century, a popular novelist of the seventeenth seemed to him a diminution. To be, in some way, Cervantes and reach the Quixote seemed less arduous to him—and, consequently, less interesting—than to go on being Pierre Menard and reach the Quixote through the experiences of Pierre Menard. (This conviction, we might say in passing, made him omit the autobiographical prologue to the second part of Don Quixote . To include that prologue would have been to create another character—Cervantes—but it would also have meant presenting the Quixote in terms of that character and not of Menard. The latter, naturally, declined that facility.) “My undertaking is not difficult, essentially,” I read in another part of his letter. “I should only have to be immortal to carry it out.” Shall I confess that I often imagine he did finish it and that I read the Quixote —all of it—as if Menard had conceived it?
Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote, Jorge Luis Borges (Thanks to reading group member Josh B. for the link)

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Open Forum

Are you enjoying the book so far? Are you unimpressed? Are you bored? Will you push through to the end? Has the book made you laugh out loud yet?

The floor is open for your thoughts and commentary.

Week Two Thoughts: Subject, Object, Project

Two weeks into the book now, and the story appears to be walking a largely random path -- Cervantes appears to acknowledge this when DQ explains to Sancho that they should not take roads to places where they will be sure to find adventure, but should instead allow Rocinante's wanderings to chart their course. DQ suggests this, of course, because that is the method of finding adventure he has read about in his chivalric histories.

This highlights an interesting aspect of DQ's actions. All of his adventures are based on the template of the standard chivalric novel. To be successful, he believes he must adhere to the standard course he has read about in his books, and must do his best to conform his character to the stories he has read. He does this largely in the hopes that some wise historian or chronicler will one day record the history of his adventures (as Cervantes tells us Benengeli has -- in the book we are now reading). Thus, everything DQ does is with an eye to both the archive of his library of chivalric histories, and to closely following the script of those stories in his actions so that he, too, can become a character from his library -- the subject of one of his books.

This relationship of DQ to his books brought to mind Derrida's discussion of the future-producing and future-controlling effect of the archive:
In an enigmatic sense which will clarify itself perhaps . . . , the question of the archive is not, I repeat, a question of the past, the question of a concept dealing with the past which already might either be at our disposal or not at out disposal, an archivable concept of the archive, but rather a question of the future, the very question of the future, question of a response, of a promise and of a responsibility for tomorrow. The archive: if we want to know what this will have meant, we will only know tomorrow. Perhaps. A spectral messianicity is at work in the concept of the archive and like religion, like history, like science itself, this ties it to a very singular experience of the promise.
Jacques Derrida, An E-mail to Freud (in Archive Fever).

In setting up these themes, Cervantes seems to be developing some interesting ideas re DQ as both a reader and an author of his own chivalric project. And in fact, at one point in this week's reading, DQ inscribes himself even further within the future book of chivalry he is "writing" with his actions, by seeing himself and Sancho as characters who are being drawn out by a future historian, who is able, with a flick of his pen, to put thoughts in their minds and words on their tongues:
... Don Quixote asked Sancho what had moved him to call him The Knight of the Sorrowful Face at that moment and at no other.

"I'll tell you, responded Sancho." I was looking at you for a while in the light of the torch that unlucky man was carrying, and the truth is that your grace has the sorriest-looking face I've seen recently, and it must be on account of your weariness after this battle, or the molars and teeth you've lost."

"It's not that," responded Don Quixote, "but rather that the wise man whose task it will be to write the history of my deeds must have thought it would be a good idea if I took some appellative title as did the knights of the past .... And so I say that the wise man I have already mentioned must have put on your tongue and in your thoughts the idea of calling me The Knight of the Sorrowful Face, which is what I plan to call myself from now on ....
(139)

This passage marks DQ's deepest inscription of himself into his own archive: he seeks to fully become a character out of his books; he recognizes that those characters are drawn and brought to life by the authors of their histories; so to more fully emulate his heroes, the knights in his books, he recognizes that his own (and Sanchos's own) actions and words must be in the hands of the all-powerful (future) author who is writing their history. In this move, the future book being written about DQ (which DQ is doing his best to insure will be based on the template of the books in his library), is controlling DQ's and Sancho's actions, thoughts, and words in the present of the narrative -- much like the books DQ has read in the past control his actions, thoughts, and words. In this way, the future (which is produced by the past of the archive) becomes and controls the present.

It's a fascinating moment, illustrating how, in DQ's mind, all of his adventures are products of his archive -- his past archive, and the future archive -- which is simply a continuation of the past archive -- that he imagines.

Any other thoughts about the book so far? (I didn't have a chance to discuss the slapstick and bathroom humor in this week's reading.)

Friday, September 24, 2010

La lectura del Quijote



They take Cervantes pretty seriously in Spain. This is from a 48-hour continuous reading of DQ by various literary and entertainment figures. 2010 is apparently the 14th year that this event, La Lectura Continuada del Quijote, has been held. I wonder which Spanish luminary got to read the part from this week's reading when DQ and Sancho puke on each other. The featured individual, José Emilio Pacheco, is a Mexican poet and author.

Our Attention Spans



Will they hold out through the entirety of this book? Do people still read long books (besides books about vampires)? Are long books dead? Are long books overrated? Do people force themselves to complete long books largely just to be able to say that they have completed the long book? The length of a book doesn't have much to do with its greatness, right? (See our discussion of WAR & PEACE here.) Will the great long books always be read because there will be people who will want to read them precisely because they are so long and difficult -- because, like K2, they are there? Is there anything noble, praiseworthy, virtuous, etc. about forcing one's self through a long book? Is the accomplishment significant? What is the difference between reading one long book and, say, 200 excellent short stories or non-fiction essays in magazines?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Open Forum

The discussion of the Toledo market scene and Cervantes's self-reference, his drawing of attention to the process of writing (or translating) the book we are reading, etc., brought to mind the work of one of Cervantes's fellow luminaries of the Spanish Golden Age, Diego Velázquez. Specifically, the hall-of-mirrors aspects of our discussion brought to mind Velázquez's most famous work, Las Meninas (1656):



I'll post a bit more on this later, but for now, I wanted to put this up and see if anyone thought there were interesting connections to be drawn between the two works. Also, this is an open forum, so feel free to hijack the thread with your own thoughts about and reactions to the book so far.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Week One Thoughts



So we're now 10% through the book. It very much does feel as if the book is still doing some throat clearing. We've already had the iconic windmill scene -- which takes up just a handful of pages -- but everything else has felt pretty introductory. We don't really know much about Sancho or Don Quixote yet, though one wonders, given the nature of the writing, whether we actually will get to know them better, or if they will remain goofy caricatures.

In addition to the initial questions I mentioned in the previous post, below are some additional questions that occurred to me as I read through the first 100 pages of the book.

Why does Cervantes play with the question of authorship? What is his point? In the prologue, he makes clear that "though [he] seem[s] to be the father, [he is] the stepfather of Don Quixote ..." (p. 3) This comment is a bit cryptic until later on in the book, when Cervantes explains that the author of the History of Don Quixote of La Mancha was "Cide Hamete Benegeli, an Arab Historian." (p. 67)

The same scene, where Cervantes says he finds Part Two of DQ at the market in Toledo, raises the question of translation in a very provocative way:
[A]s I am very fond of reading, even torn papers in the streets, I was moved by my natural inclinations to pick up one of the volumes the boy was selling, and I saw that it was written in characters I knew to be Arabic. And since I recognized but could not read it, I looked around to see if some Morisco who knew Castilian, and could read it for me, was in the vicinity, and it was not very difficult to find this kind of interpreter, for even if I had sought a speaker of a better and older language, I would have found him. In short, fortune provided me with one, and when I told him what I wanted and placed the book in his hands, he opened it in the middle, read for a short while, and began to laugh.
(p. 67)

The scene is quite striking. Cervantes, the author of the book, writes of finding the book we are reading -- the original Arabic version of the translation we are reading -- and being unable to read the book, the book to which he claims to become the "stepfather." Cervantes goes on to describe pictures of Don Quixote, Rocinante and Sancho in the notebook he buys at the market. This move is also weirdly reflexive: Cervantes trying to describe in words these supposed found images of the characters he has created in his book.

He goes on to note that "[i]f any objection can be raised regarding the truth of this [version of DQ's history], it can only be that its author was Arabic, since the people of that nation are very prone to telling falsehoods, but because they are such great enemies of ours, it can be assumed that he has given us too little rather than too much." (p. 68) In the current book we are reading, Cervantes assures us that "there will be found everything that could be rightly desired in the most pleasant history, and if something of value is missing from it, in my opinion the fault lies with the dog who was its author rather than with any defect in its subject. In short, its second part, according to the translation, began in this manner." (p. 68-69.) All of these layers of translation, the disclaiming, in a way, of ownership or authorship of the book, or even the translation, are fascinating, but it's unclear what Cervantes is getting at with all of this. One thing is certain, though: these reflexive moves, in which Cervantes comments on the authorship of the book, about hearing his own book read to him, etc., feel distinctly modern (or post-modern) -- we wouldn't be surprised to see these types of tricks in a book from the 1980s or 1990s.

Also, it is early yet, but as some have wondered in the comments, does this book have a plot? It does seem that the story is basically going to be a long road trip with DQ and SP, with many varied episodes. Does it need a plot? Did books at the time generally have plots in the nature of those we are used to as modern readers?

And the writing. Again, we are reading Grossman's translation, but even through the translation it appears clear that people don't necessarily read Cervantes for the beauty of the writing. This is satire, and it is often funny. We're never quite sure when we should be taking anything seriously, with our protagonist being a madman. But the result is that the language doesn't seem to make any attempt toward beauty or profundity (or at least, not really that often). Perhaps some of you disagree with this assessment. I have been trying to read along in the Spanish, and, granted, I am uniquely unqualified to pass judgment on the beauty of the writing in Spanish, but even in the Spanish, the language seems unexceptional -- except for when it is hilarious.

Other thoughts about our first week of reading?

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Initial Questions

Some questions that occur to me as we set out on the book -- questions that will hopefully spark some discussion now or down the line.

What is this book about? Is it a book about reading? Is it about deception and delusion? Is it about reality and idealism? Is it not about anything in particular?

Is the book just a massive joke? Is the character Don Quixote a joke or a tragic figure? Both? Is he in fact heroic? Is this book a comedy or a tragedy? Neither?

Is this a book worth reading now? People say this is one of the world's greatest books. Are those people right? Or do they say that just because other people said that before them?

Does the translation do justice to the original? (Is anyone planning to read the book in Spanish? I'm trying to do that along with the Grossman translation. It's been pretty tough going so far.) Don't we feel a bit uneasy about reading a purportedly great book in translation? Or maybe we don't, if the translation is a good one?

Feel free to post your own questions below (or as we make our way through the book).

Page 100 by Sunday.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Reading Starts Tomorrow

I hope you've all managed to get your hands on a copy of the book by now. We'll start our 10-week session this Sunday. I'm still looking for some additional people to help moderate this blog as we make our way through the book, so please do let me know if you're interested.

In doing some research, I happened upon an bunch of videos of Don Quixote, the ballet. Here's Rudolf Nureyev in Don Quixote:



And this is from the initial episode of a cartoon series from 1979 based on Don Quixote:

Monday, September 6, 2010

El Siglo de Oro, Al-Andalus, y Don Quijote


El Greco, View of Toledo (btw. 1596-1600)

DON QUIXOTE was published in two parts. The first part was published in 1605; the second in 1615. The book is considered the high point of literature in el Siglo de Oro (the Golden Age) in Spain, which is generally placed between 1492 and the latter half of the seventeenth century. The Golden Age saw the arts flourish in Spain, with Cervantes, the great painters Diego Velázquez and El Greco, among others.

The Golden Age in Spain came after the fall of Al-Andalus, the period of Moorish (Muslim) control of the Iberian peninsula (between 711 and 1492). Cervantes makes many references to the legacy of Al-Andalus, as DQ was written in the wake of the massive influence of the Muslim conquest of Spain, and in the midst of the mass (forced) conversion (and expulsion) of Spain's Muslims and Jews.


View of the Alhambra (mid-14th cent.)

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Welcome to the Island! Reading begins in one week.

This will be the home to our discussion of DON QUIXOTE and, hopefully, books we choose to read together in the future. We're still not quite done with our discussion of WAR & PEACE, though we're now done with that book. (The discussion may go on for some time.)

We'll start DON QUIXOTE next Sunday (9/12) and read 100 pages a day week through November 21. The Edith Grossman translation is 940 pages, so there's a little slack in the schedule for people to catch up. 100 pages a day week may sound like a lot (or not that much). If you're reading every day, it's about 14.3 pages a day. So if you stay on that pace, you'll be all set.

Please let me know if you would like to help moderate this blog, put up blog posts here, or whatever else by writing me at readingwarandpeace@gmail.com .