Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes


There are two Don Quixote’s.

There is the wise man, dispensing philosophy and wisdom to anyone who will listen; astounding people with his insight when they witness the second Don Quixote, a madman absolutely certain he is a knight errant, pursued by evil enchanters and engaging in combat with giants and beasts.

There’s literally two different Don Quixote’s. The books, I mean. Not just in the two parts, written 10 years apart after Cervantes finally succumbed to fan demand and wrote a sequel, but an actual second one written by a different man — Avellaneda — and ridiculed by Cervantes in part 2 of the official text. Before the modern novel was even truly established, Cervantes was writing postmodern: self-referential work, breaking the fourth wall, a string of narrators deeper than House of Leaves.

And of course, we have the character as he exists in the text, jousting windmills and pining for non-existent maidens and traipsing all over Spain. But also the archetype, the towering figure that spans four hundred years of literary culture. Without reading the novel, you know him, a gaunt figure atop a skinny nag, his plump squire not far behind. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are singular figures, even reading this book in the 21st century when they’ve been parodied and copied and rehashed so many times it’s difficult to even envision a time before them.

I thought the first part of Don Quixote was merely pretty good. The pacing was bizarre and it frequently split off entirely from the titular hero for random characters to tell side-stories about other random characters. Iconic scenes like the windmill-mishap just weren’t quite as striking as I hoped. It was humorous though. After I finished it, I put it on my shelf and forgot about it for several years. Disappointed with what I had been reading recently, and not really knowing what to take on next, I found it on my bookshelf and started part 2 on a whim.

Unlike part 1, the story focused entirely on Don Quixote and Sancho; Cervantes had grown as a writer and had a finer touch on what he wanted those characters to be, likely in part due to the imposter text written by Avellaneda that had turned up in the interim. The latter writer insisted Sancho was a glutton and Cervantes couldn’t stand it! There’s multiple scenes where Sancho explains he’s a hungry man, but not a gluttonous one. The story continues to have a very strange pacing — the characters just sort of bound from one adventure to another without much continuity or focus, they have muddled goals and then their quest just sort of ends, abruptly. But the charm is unmistakable and I found myself deeply sad when Don Quixote comes to his senses, proclaims his madness, and finally croaks.

Dubliners by James Joyce

dublinersThe Dublin I visited was a cacophonous jungle of tourism, seemingly as many visitors as locals. The Guinness factory was beer-disney world. A heat wave passed through, so it was humid and sticky. Trinity College, Grafton Street, St. Stevens Green were such a crush of people, it was hard to discern the landscape. Don’t get me wrong, I had fun (though not nearly as much fun as in the western portions of the country), but it was nearly a total flip of James Joyce’s Ireland.

Indeed, Dubliners is a sparse, wet, cold Dublin. Full of sad people in sad vocations in unfulfilling marriages. Alcoholism is like a plague, the pledge a desperate but typically hopeless cure. All of the characters share some great disappointment in their lives — family, passion, work, travel. Everyone is trying to get away and no one appears to be visiting. As a reader, you become suspicious when anyone appears happy because experience has taught you it must be a facade or hope will inevitably be dashed.

I liked it. Mostly. There’s a few duds but standouts like:

The Dead: The longest story and Joyce’s most well known. A joyous celebration followed by dismal ennui.

Araby: A teen boy tries to get his father to drive him to the bazaar to buy a gift for a girl; a perfect picture of adolescent disappointment.

A Mother: A dedicated & shrewd mother maneuvers her daughter into a stage performance; one of those stories that takes a potentially boring and low-stress situation and makes it tense and meaningful.

Yet, my vision of Joyce, not having read any before is influenced by Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake, notoriously difficult and esoteric reads. I was actually somewhat disappointed that Dubliners is so straightforward. Joyce uses short, clear sentences that describe the characters and action in precise fashion. The subtext is generally very clear — low hanging metaphorical fruit ala The Great Gatsby.

There’s an ‘Irish’ question that persists today. English influence versus Irish tradition, maintaining the old ways and the old language and discarding anglo-imitation slash adoration. Characters have conflicts like how swell and sophisticated they feel traveling to Paris or London vs. the disdain they receive for never visiting parts of their own country or being able to speak the language. It’s a continuing topic in Irish discourse and there’s been success on the traditional front — more people can speak Irish Gaelic than they could 10-15 years ago.

Dubliners influence on modern writers is clear. Thomas Pynchon is obvious, and the protagonists of A Painful Case or Counterparts could easily be some of the men in David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. Yet unlike either of those writers, Joyce feels almost entirely free from irony or humorous cynicism; Dubliners is more like an earnest depiction of a very Irish problem. One that I didn’t see on the streets of Dublin but absolutely absorbed through the media (radio especially), temperament, black humor, and people from other parts of the country.