April 14, 2008


Walter Starkie and the Greatest Novel of All (David Gordon, 04/10/08, First Principles)

[Walter Starkie (1894–1976)] offered a perspective on the 1930s that has much to teach us today. To some extent, his view of that decade resembled Eric Voegelin’s, though the two were not acquainted. Popular accounts of the Spanish Civil War often portray it as a struggle between democracy and fascism, but for Starkie this ideological view radically distorted the facts. The Nationalist leaders, he maintained, were not pawns of Hitler and Mussolini but defenders of Spanish Spain who wished to avert a Communist takeover of their country. The Communist leader Dolores Ibárruri said in response to a fiery talk in the Spanish Parliament by the conservative Calvo Sotelo, “You have given your last speech.” A group of Republican Assault Guards assassinated Sotelo a few days later, and Starkie believed that had the conservatives not risen against the weak Republican regime, they would have been destroyed in a Communist revolution.

For intellectuals who supported the Republic, Starkie had no mercy. He had harsh words for Jacques Maritain, the great Catholic philosopher and onetime ally of the rightist Action Française, who, perhaps under the influence of his wife, opposed the Nationalist rising. Even Georges Bernanos did not escape censure, for what Starkie thought his biased account of Nationalist atrocities in Mallorca. “A nasty bit of stuff,” Starkie remarked. [...]

For him, Don Quixote was the greatest of all novels, and he stressed its influence on later writers. Laurence Sterne is an obvious case in point, and writers as different as Dickens and Dostoyevsky drew heavily from Cervantes. In part 2 of the novel, Cervantes has Don Quixote comment on false continuations of part 1; the device in which a novel refers to itself is a key theme in subsequent literature.

Fundamentally, Starkie maintained, Cervantes was a comic novelist. He was not an enemy of chivalry and the Middle Ages: rather, he poked gentle fun at them. Neither was it correct, as Américo Castro claimed, to view Cervantes as an apostle of the Enlightenment and an enemy of the Church. Castro appealed in support of his view to the famous episode in which Cervantes satirizes book burning; but Starkie noted that the Arabs also engaged in this practice, and the satire might be with equal justice directed against them.

More generally, Starkie preferred to Castro as a historian the more conservative Ramón Menendéz Pidal. He and Menendéz Pidal were friends, and Starkie prepared an English translation of his book debunking Bishop Las Casas. In this book, Menendéz argued that Las Casas’s claims of vast Indian massacres by the Spaniards were the product of mental pathology. Such a politically incorrect view could not be published in English, and Starkie blamed in particular the influential historian Lewis Hanke for blocking the book’s publication. Menendéz Pidal, who had written the book in his nineties, was quite upset by this.

The dominant theme of Don Quixote, in Starkie’s opinion, is that the initially idealistic Quixote becomes more realistic as the novel unfolds, while the realistic Sancho Panza moves in the direction of idealism. Eventually, the two figures converge and indeed can be considered as aspects of a single character. In this interpretation, he was influenced by his friend Miguel de Unamuno, whose book on the novel appeared in English translation as Our Lord Don Quixote. Starkie wrote an introduction to this edition. He also recommended to us the work of Joaquín Casalduero on symbolism in Cervantes, though this, he said, was suitable only for danced work. It is available only in Spanish.

Whether Starkie was right that Don Quixote was the greatest of all novels is a question that each reader must determine for himself. There is no better way for English speakers to do so that to read Starkie’s excellent translation.

Indeed, the greatness of Don Quijote lies in its rejection of the Enlightenment, the tragedy of the Don being not his "madness" but his descent into "sanity." It's also just enormously amusing that the first modern novel was post-modern.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 14, 2008 8:00 PM

You may find it amusing that some portion of the people who think Bacon wrote under the name Shakespeare also think he wrote under the name Cervantes.

Posted by: PapayaSF at April 14, 2008 9:05 PM