How—without feeling as addled as its hero—to try to say something new about Don Quixote? About the work once singled out by the Nobel Institute as the greatest novel of all time? After imperishable tributes by Fielding, Sterne, Samuel Johnson, Austen, Dickens, Thackeray, Flaubert, Dostoyevsky, Twain, Faulkner, Ortega y Gasset, Unamuno, Mann, Kafka, Joyce, Lukács, Borges, Paz, Nabokov, Calvino, and Kundera? The lowly academic hack—in this case female, a plumpish Sanchita Panza, without donkey or wineskin or really much more than turista Spanish—feels especially unqualified. And besides, who really cares? An eminent critic wrote that everybody reads Don Quixote once but few people read it twice. (After one first absorbed it in childhood, Coleridge suggested, it became, like a refreshing wellspring, a work simply to dip into.)
I first read Cervantes's comic masterpiece in my early teens, in the classic Samuel Putnam translation from 1949. I've just now read it through again—in Edith Grossman's superb new English version—at the age of almost fifty. By any standard I'm way ahead of the game. For surely very few people nowadays read Don Quixote even once. So incessant are the demands of modern life—wading through the e-mail, fretting about shoulder-fired missiles, shopping till one drops—that one almost craves a masterpiece-free zone, a place in which one doesn't have to worry about the timeless (and guilt-inducing) monuments of human genius. Who's got time for timelessness?
So the best thing to say up front, perhaps, is get hold of Don Quixote and make time for it. It will be worth the television sitcoms you skip, the thirty or so quiet evenings you spend on it. Edith Grossman actually makes it easy for you, O frazzled reader, because she has produced the most agreeable Don Quixote ever. Don't be put off by Harold Bloom's introduction (major windbag alert in effect); go right to the thing itself. Don Quixote, famously, is the first major work of Western literature to take ordinary human life for its subject—specifically, a life that is replete with accidents, fiascoes, and indignities—and make it over into something luminous with meaning. It does so without pomp or sententiousness—it's the friendliest and least formal of all the Great Books—yet will overwhelm you, in the end, with its moral and imaginative splendor.
Yeah, yeah, I hear you saying, but I already know the story and I'm sick of it. True, in some ways Don Quixote is almost too familiar. Even without having read it, most people (if they know anything) can recite some or all of the plot: Don Quixote, a tall, eccentric, elderly bachelor living in a tiny village in La Mancha, reads a pile of old-fashioned chivalric romances and is deluded by them into thinking that he is a knight-errant, ordained by the Almighty to perform epic deeds and restore justice, virtue, and beauty to the world. Taking up a rusty breastplate and sword, he mounts the household nag—a withered beast named Rocinante—and sets off in search of heroic adventures, along the way acquiring an equally befuddled squire, Sancho Panza. Knightly fancies lead to various pratfalls and humiliations, the most celebrated of which involves Quixote mistaking a windmill for an evil giant and getting knocked off Rocinante while trying to charge it.
After two volumes' worth of cock-up and confusion (Cervantes published Part 1 in 1605 and a sequel, Part 2, in 1615) Don Quixote, finally cured of his delusions, denounces the "detestable books of chivalry" that led him astray and apologizes to Sancho for having dragged him around the countryside so idiotically. But to everyone's dismay he also becomes melancholy and dies soon after, much mourned by his small circle of friends and "loved ... by everyone who knew him."
I confess that I wasn't especially looking forward to my second reading of the work—so shopworn, at this point, was much of my existing mental Quixote imagery (think cheap Picasso posters, Man of La Mancha, a groggy Frank Sinatra singing "The Impossible Dream"). But the book quite staggered me with its charm, beauty, and profundity. Once you enter (or re-enter) its expansive, ruminative, deeply nourishing world, the literary equivalent of eating "slow food," it's hard not to become a bit of a bore about how stupendous it is.
Some of my immediate pleasure, it is true, was of a pedantic nature. I have long taught the history of the novel, and it was wonderful to go back to the source, so to speak, with Cervantes. A basic convention in novels dictates that the characters encountered will be "real" people, more or less like ourselves. Supernatural beings, we assume, will not involve themselves in the action; nor will anything other than the standard laws of nature apply. When a writer self-consciously introduces strange or supernatural elements, we immediately recognize, with greater or lesser equanimity, that the novelist has decided to violate the conventions of the genre.
Don Quixote is considered (in Edith Grossman's words) the "first—and probably the greatest—novel" in the European tradition in part because it makes this claim to represent "ordinary life" a central and profound aspect of the plot. Cervantes's fiction is a sort of birth announcement—droll and yet decisive—for realism itself. It betokens a new human attitude. By showing Quixote driven mad by the involuted, highly stylized, comically implausible heroic romances of the later Middle Ages, fantastic tomes such as the fourteenth-century Amadís of Gaul and the fifteenth-century Palmerín of England, Cervantes was not just spoofing an out-of-date literary mode; he was also marking the obsolescence of the philosophical world view it embodied. Don Quixote is far more, one soon realizes, than just a comic assault on some fanciful old stories: in its deepest aspect it is a metaphysical statement—a revolutionary affirmation of that secular and humanistic point of view we associate with modernity itself.
Consider: in Palmerín of England a crucial episode involves the enchantment of the hero's father and his imprisonment in the castle of a horrible ogre. Cervantes no doubt had this episode and others like it in mind when the pixilated Don Quixote decides that the somewhat dirty inn in which he and Sancho lodge one night is really an enchanted castle. They are made to sleep in the same room with a mule driver who is carrying on an affair with the inn's uncouth servant girl, Maritornes. When Maritornes comes to visit her lover that night and tumbles into Don Quixote's bed by mistake, the baffled knight at once assumes that she is the beautiful daughter of the lord of the castle and has fallen madly in love with him. As he begins, ludicrously enough, to explain why he cannot satisfy her ardor (he must be faithful to Dulcinea, the local peasant wench to whom he has pledged his knightly troth), the mule driver wakes up and, enraged at finding Maritornes plumped down in his neighbor's bed, delivers "such a terrible blow to the narrow jaws of the enamored knight that he bathed his whole mouth in blood," knocking him out cold. Yet even when Don Quixote comes out of his swoon the next morning, he's no less delusional: he tells Sancho that he has been attacked in the night by "a hand attached to the arm of some monstrous giant."