Fantastic reality in Don Quixote

The last novel I finished in 2014 was Don Quixote. Almost no great books are comedies. Don Quixote encompasses a number of comedic forms, satire to farce to pure slapstick, in many ways a comic mid-life crisis, yet is undeniably a great book. It contains all of the human condition, joy, despair, bleakness, blessings, hunger and hurt and humor and hatred, harm and healing, everything.

It also captures in a masterful way the interplay between fantasy and reality in human existence. “Quixote seemed to him a sane man gone mad and a madman edging toward sanity,” observes Don Diego de Miranda, but the border between reality and fantasy blurs for every character we see. De Miranda himself spends his time devising adventures for Quixote and Sancho, none of which are real. Cervantes even brings in the real-life publishing of a “false Quixote,” which he then intertwines with his own novel.

I wrote a bit about the first part here:  Tilting at a windmill of a book.

Some phrases from the second part: The bachelor Sanson, whose battles with Quixote bookend the second part of the book, says “It is one thing to write as a poet and another to write as a historian. the poet can recount or sing about things not as they were but as they should have been, and the historian must write about them not as they should have been but as they were, without adding or subtracting anything from the truth.”

Sancho’s “rainstorms of proverbs” is too vast to capture. My favorite superlative in the book describes Sancho’s lack of intelligence, which falls “from the peaks of his simplicity to the depths of his ignorance.” One of my favorites: “Everything has a remedy except death.”

I also liked lines like these:

  • “In the worst of circumstances, the hypocrite who pretends to be good does less harm than the public sinner.”
  • Thoughts are “fleas” that will not let us sleep or rest.
  • “When God sends the dawn, it’s dawn for everybody.”
  • “Fortune is fickle and drunken and most of all blind.”

The story we associate with Quixote is always his tilting at windmills, but his attack on Master Pedro’s puppet show mirrors it for sheer shock humor. The adventure with Clavileno the flying horse also stands out as a masterful set piece.

The book is long, and I spent a long time with it; my wife jokes that it’s the only book I read this year. Not true; I read several others while reading Quixote, including my other favorite read of the year, the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. It was nonetheless well worth the read. I’m astonished that I remembered so little of this book from my first reading. I remember in the ’80s learning that Faulkner read Don Quixote every year and wondering why. It’s obvious to me now.

[all quotes from the Edith Grossman translation of 2003.]

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