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 ....

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 .