Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0009071, Wed, 24 Dec 2003 10:05:20 -0800

Fw: It's the sort of thing Nabokov,
with all his nutty professors ...

----- Original Message -----
From: Sandy P. Klein
Sent: Wednesday, December 24, 2003 8:12 AM
Subject: It's the sort of thing Nabokov, with all his nutty professors ...

Tilting at windmills, and beyond: a joyous ride
David Kipen, Chronicle Book Critic

Tuesday, December 23, 2003
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URL: sfgate.com/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2003/12/23/DDGG53RCCU1.DTL

Don Quixote

By Miguel de Cervantes

Translated by Edith Grossman

ECCO; 940 PAGES; $29.95

Between 1605 and 1615, Miguel de Cervantes wrote what a new translator's introduction calls the first modern novel, "Don Quixote" -- and some say it's been downhill ever since. Count among that number America's unelected literary critic in chief, Harold Bloom, who says in his introduction that "no writer since has matched (Cervantes and Shakespeare), not Tolstoi or Goethe, Dickens, Proust, Joyce."
As the formidable Don himself, a man forever spoiling for a good fight, might say: Prove it. All this hyperbole surrounding what is inarguably one of literature's greatest and most influential novels does it no favors, and may even help obscure some of its signal virtues. A fresh reading of "Don Quixote" discloses not some unimpeachable masterwork on a plinth, but a joyous, shaggy, shambling mammoth.

Before proceeding to what, be warned, will be one of the more cockeyed readings of Cervantes to come down the pike in a while, let's recap the story. As most everyone must know by now, "Don Quixote" tells of a Spanish gentleman who reads too many chivalric tales about knights errant and decides, without any basis beyond his own lunacy, that he's one himself. Quixote promises his portly, earthbound neighbor Sancho Panza a governorship if he'll serve as his squire, swears eternal fealty to a peasant girl who doesn't even know he exists and, before his fearful friends can stop him, sets out across rural Spain to have whatever adventures come his way.

If folks today know anything of "Quixote" beyond this rude outline, it probably has something to do with the idea of "tilting at" -- that is, jousting with -- windmills, a cluster of which Quixote early on mistakes for marauding giants. What may come as a revelation to the first-time reader is that the episode of the windmills takes up but a few pages in a 900-page book, and that, of all "Quixote's" adventures, it's by no means the best.

It is, however, one of the earliest. This gives rise to the speculation, unkind but unavoidable, that more than a few students over the years have probably accompanied Don Quixote as far as the windmills, but no farther.

Nobody should wear a hair shirt about such derelictions of duty, of course. Cervantes is still learning in the book's early chapters, and it shows. I challenge any first-time reader to recall exactly how the windmill scene turns out. The answer is that it doesn't, not really. Don Quixote does his best to impale the windmill, it knocks him for a loop, and then he promptly dusts himself off to duel against somebody else. The episode doesn't, in any sense we'd recognize, "pay off."

Contrast this with the chapters near the book's end, when Sancho finally gets his long-promised governorship. These scenes fairly crackle with comic invention, in large part because Cervantes masterfully overturns our expectations about how lousy a governor Sancho will make.

In the event, the humble squire is a born governor. He only washes out as a politician, not because he's uneducated and inexperienced, but because he hates all the pomp and protocol.

Sancho's subjects acclaim him as the best governor they've ever had, but he'd much rather take to the road again with his beloved master, or at least go back to La Mancha, where he'd feel at home. In the hundreds of pages that separate the windmill episode from Sancho's governorship, Cervantes has unmistakably picked up a thing or two about what Gabriel Garcia Marquez, in his just-published autobiography, calls his profession's "secret carpentry."

So why have centuries of readers put up with Cervantes' learning on the job? With his early digressions, his longeurs, his interchangeably beautiful maidens and their no more distinguishable suitors?

Chiefly for two reasons. First, of course, because he's genuinely, enchantingly, enduringly funny. By itself, even that might have been enough. But second, too, because Cervantes isn't only funny. For in "Don Quixote," neck and neck with Shakespeare, Cervantes was busy inventing tragicomedy.

Until the dawn of the 17th century, you had glimmerings. A tragedy might contain a scene of comic relief. A comedy might have some always hastily resolved heartbreak, or at least a little offhand cruelty.

Then came "Don Quixote." With his character, as with tragicomedy, Cervantes conjoined two previously discrete qualities -- specifically, intelligence and madness. Alongside rode Sancho, in whom foolishness and wisdom were equally inseparable. Neither quality is imaginable without the other, just as neither man is. For Cervantes, life was an endlessly reconciling series of opposites. Storybooks and reality, valor and vainglory, and at least one other:

Christianity and Islam.

Here's where that cockeyed reading of "Don Quixote" comes in, a reading at once topical and timeless. The book inevitably carries added relevance these days if only because, whatever else it might be, "Don Quixote" is also a story about a faltering empire as it makes war against opponents variously described as Moors, Turks or Muslims.

Cervantes' feelings were typically ambiguous, both about his country's prosecution of that war against the Turks abroad, and also about its persecution of the Moorish population at home. The author had served Spain as a sailor in the naval battle at Lepanto, which cost him the use of his left hand, and later spent five years of his life as a captive slave -- two ordeals that appear in "Quixote" in much-embroidered form. Cervantes' original enlistment suggests some youthful patriotism on his part, although the perennial lure of "three hots and a cot" may also have played a role.

True believer, army careerist or something of both, Cervantes in "Don Quixote" writes feelingly of Sancho Panza's neighbor Ricote, a patriotic Spaniard of Moorish descent who's described as "more Christian than Moor." The Moorish expulsion has already robbed Ricote of his home, his daughter and her fiancee by the time Quixote, with a lot of help, finally saves the day. Although the author's characterization of Ricote has something of the "good Negro" about it -- he's a sympathetic Moor only insofar as he disavows Moorishness altogether -- for a novelist working in the shadow of the Spanish Inquisition, Cervantes here shows not just humanity but real guts.

To do more than partial justice to Cervantes' attitude toward jihads, whether Christian or Muslim, it would take more of an expert on Spanish history and literature than I'll ever be. It bears mentioning, though, that Cervantes presents "Don Quixote" throughout, not as his own handiwork, but as a translation from the work of a fictional Moorish historian, Cide Hamete Benengeli.

On one level, this is a classic postmodern dodge: creating a framing device around your story, so as to comment on it and undermine its claims to objective truth. It's the sort of thing Nabokov, with all his nutty professors and spurious prologues in books like "Lolita" and "Pale Fire," gets way too much credit for pioneering.

But Cervantes isn't hiding behind just any mouthpiece. He's ventriloquizing the voice of an Arab scrivener at precisely the historical moment when Arabs are personae non grata to the monarchy and the church that jointly control his country.

Seen this way, Cervantes' impish decision to wear a Moorish beard is more than just 20th century metafiction showing up 350 years too early for the party. It's also a brave, even heretical move, a defiantly humane gesture in an age of intolerance that rivals our own. Would an Iraqi mullah dare to take an American pen name today, or an American writer pass himself off as an Islamic scribe? Or, as Taylor says to Dr. Zaius at the end of "Planet of the Apes," "Would an ape make a human doll ... that talks?"

There is, I'm afraid, more. Consider the passage in chapter LXVII of Book 2. Don Quixote is delivering to Sancho an "oddly placed lesson in etymology" apropos of the Spanish word albogues, a kind of musical instrument:

"This word albogues is Moorish, as are all those in our Castilian tongue that begin with al, for example: almohaza (currycomb), almorzar (to eat lunch), alhombra (carpet), alguacil (bailiff), alhucema (lavender), almacen (storehouse), alcancia (moneybox), and other similar words."

All very harmless, and, as Grossman admits, maybe even a little goofy. What's interesting here is Don Quixote's confidence that all Castilian words beginning with al- come from Arabic -- in which language, the prefix apparently means, benignly enough, "the."

Except for one thing: Don Quixote's real name isn't Don Quixote. He only took that nom de guerre because it sounded more romantic than his given name: Alonso Quixano.

The same goes for his beloved Dulcinea. Before Don Quixote tied her scarf to his lance and rechristened her, Dulcinea too had another name: Aldonza Lorenzo.

Alonso and Aldonza. Put it together. Might it be that the novel's hero and his lady -- as with the book's putative author, Cide Hamete Benengeli, as with all other names in their Castilian tongue that begin with al -- are Moorish?

Coincidence, surely. A mere distraction, not only from Cervantes' immortal achievement, but from Grossman's new translation.

And yet ... what if Cervantes meant, not to make Quixote and Dulcinea explicitly Moorish -- no, nothing as heretical as that -- but just to insert another of his characteristic ambiguities? To plant a doubt. As Jorge Luis Borges writes in "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote" (his brain- bending short story about a French poet who recomposes "Don Quixote" verbatim, without notes, from scratch), "ambiguity is richness."

From Cervantes' world to ours, "Don Quixote" can send us no greater gift than a little of that signature Cervantine ambiguity. Dulcinea is a peasant girl, but also a great lady. The windmills aren't giants, but they might be. The Moor is the enemy, unless he's the hero. The only constant is that puffed- up hypocrites -- whether in the 17th century or the 21st -- will always want lancing.

David Kipen's reviews appear Tuesdays in Datebook. E-mail him at dkipen@sfchronicle.com.

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