April 28, 2016


Shakespeare, Cervantes, and the Romance of the Real (R. V. Young, Spring 2016, Modern Age)

Although Cervantes reportedly regarded Persiles y Sigismunda as his crowning work (Delphi Cervantes, loc. 30753), I am aware of no ten-year-old boy in a later century who carried a copy with him at all times, as Howells carried Don Quixote, "so as not to lose any chance moment of reading it." The paradox of this great work of literary realism is, then, that it is more enchanting, more romantic, than not only the books of chivalry that Cervantes set out to mock but also his own effort at beguiling the reader with fantastic adventures, characters, and settings. Something analogous may be said of Shakespeare, who rarely devised his own plots, but rather lifted stories from hither and yon, turning material that ranged from ordinary historical chronicles to banal Italian novellas into fascinating dramas in which the characters--their doings and their speech--take luminous shape in our imagination and yet seem compellingly real.

Cervantes and Shakespeare are thus the literary embodiments of the genius of Western civilization, which is both shrewdly critical and aspirational. To grasp, however faintly, their means of achieving this is to apprehend in some measure the transformation of lead into gold in a way never attained by alchemy.

Ormsby points out the incongruity that emerges immediately from the title of the novel, Don Quixote de la Mancha:

It would be going too far to say that no one can thoroughly comprehend "Don Quixote" without having seen La Mancha, but undoubtedly even a glimpse of La Mancha will give an insight into the meaning of Cervantes such as no commentator can give. Of all the regions of Spain it is the last that would suggest the idea of romance. Of all the dull central plateau of the Peninsula it is the dullest tract.

"To anyone who knew the country well," he continues, "the mere style and title of 'Don Quixote of la Mancha' gave the key to the author's meaning at once" (Delphi Cervantes, loc. 115520-115527).

But the actual effect of reading the book is to endow this dullest district of Spain--and its dullness is part of the story's design--with endless fascination for generations of readers. Just as the drab, utilitarian windmills of La Mancha become giants in the mind of Alonso Quijano, the somewhat down-at-the-heels country gentleman who has assumed the guise of Don Quixote, doughty knight errant; even so La Mancha becomes in the mind of the young William Dean Howells and countless others a magical landscape where the reader eagerly anticipates the next misadventure of our benighted knight. Don Quixote's "quest" is thus to discover in ordinary places among ordinary men and women a vein of meaning and purpose. Insofar as both readers and the other characters are compelled to go along with him, to enter into his chivalric fantasies, he succeeds in opening up a realm of imagination among the poor, dusty villages of La Mancha.

Poor Cervantes; he lost control of his own text and it became the thing he disdained.

Posted by at April 28, 2016 7:09 PM