Don Quixote at 400

Joe Woodward

I am in the middle of Don Quixote—where many writers are and, according to Cervantes scholars, where every writer should be. I’m reading it because this year marks the 400th anniversary of its publication. I would like to say that I’ve finished it, but I cannot. The Quixote, as it is affectionately referred to by die-hard fans, is not something you finish. It’s something you rattle around in.

While <i>Don Quixote</i>’s preeminent place in the Western canon is rarely challenged, the book’s usefulness to contemporary writers is less often heralded.

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, a contemporary of Shakespeare, published Part 1 of The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote of La Mancha—the novel’s full title—in Spain in 1605, when he was 57. (Part 2 wasn’t published until 1615, when he was 68.) At the time of the first part’s publication, however, Cervantes was a relatively unknown and underaccomplished writer. Don Quixote was only his second novel—it appeared 20 years after his first, Galatea—but it brought Cervantes immediate, worldwide acclaim through its early translations into English, French, and Italian. Since then, the book has been lauded as not only the first modern novel, but perhaps the very best. It is “a pillar of the entire Western literary tradition,” according to Edith Grossman, whose translation of the tome was published by Ecco in 2003. Carlos Fuentes, Milan Kundera, Vladimir Nabokov, and Gabriel García Márquez have praised it as a work of creative genius. In 2002, the Norwegian Nobel Institute dubbed Don Quixote the best book of all time.

This year’s anniversary celebrations will ultimately span five continents and will include literary events, music and dance performances, theater, and opera. Spain alone is spending more than $40 million on events ranging from pop and classical music in local town squares to a pilgrimage retracing Don Quixote’s 600-mile journey across the country. Celebrations in the United States will soon begin in earnest with a series of academic conferences: at Villanova University in March, Southern Connecticut State University and UCLA in April, and Yale University in September. Turner Network Television (TNT) will air John Lithgow’s performance as Quixote in April, and the Kennedy Center will host the first full production in 25 years of George Balanchine’s ballet Don Quixote in June. Finally, regional and community theater groups across the country have the Quixote-based musical Man of La Mancha on their schedules.

While Don Quixote’s preeminent place in the Western canon is rarely challenged, the book’s usefulness to contemporary writers is less often heralded. Grossman’s 2003 translation weighs in at over 940 pages and 3.2 pounds, and many readers are not up to the task. Still, the novel’s champions have included Mann, Flaubert, Melville, and Twain. “The Quixote is a writer’s book,” explains Roberto González-Echevarria, professor of Spanish and comparative literature at Yale University. “It’s a book about being a writer, written by someone from the first generation of writers…those who first attempted to make a living writing.”

Before Cervantes made a living as a writer, he supported himself as a soldier and then as a tax collector. He was arrested, imprisoned, enslaved, injured in battle—yet triumphed over it all. In addition to Don Quixote, Cervantes completed some 30 plays, 12 novels, and a sheaf of poems. According to Cervantes scholar Anthony J. Cascardi in The Cambridge Companion to Cervantes, “Cervantes did not flourish as a dramatist and suffered financially as a result.” Poor nearly all his life, he found only moderate financial comfort late in life. Cervantes’s failure in the theater, however, may have been what spurred him to invent the novel. Failure is often the mother of invention.

Don Quixote was the first modern novel and so gave birth to the genre that has dominated Western literature since the eighteenth century,” says Michael McGaha, a professor of modern languages at Pomona College in Claremont, California. “It is the first novel whose characters grow, develop, and influence each other. It was a highly self-conscious, experimental work; one of its major themes is how literature affects its readers, and, consequently, the writer’s ethical responsibility.”

The plot of Don Quixote goes something like this: An aging man of La Mancha, Alonso Quixano, is ruined by books, by reading too many chivalric romances, and under the weight of bad literature, goes mad. In an effort to heal him, the town’s barber and curate have his library walled off. On finding his books gone, Quixano takes up his true calling: the life of the errant knight. Don Quixote scrapes together a rusting suit of armor, imagines his old horse a magnificent steed, chooses a country woman he does not know to be his great “lady-love,” his Dulcinea. And, of course, turns Sancho, his “man-of-all-work,” into a faithful squire.

While the overarching plot structure of the novel is easy to recount, there are things that make it an intimidating read. It’s a translation from the Spanish, its narrative stretches over some 20 years and covers 600 real miles, and it’s full of archaic cultural allusions and a myriad of literary styles (among them tragedy, comedy, prose romance, poetry, political writing, and drama). In the end, readers share certain troubles with the errant knight: They suffer great confusion on the road to enlightenment.

It is a book full of miscalculations—the inn that is not a castle, the windmills that are not armed giants, the flocks of sheep that are not armies on the attack, the puppets that are not people. Still, through all these troubles (or perhaps as a result of them), the errant knight slowly emerges from his fog of delusion. He and his squire remark on the world in truly extraordinary ways, and at book’s end have changed.

Don Quixote is, finally, a book worth the trouble—worth reading and celebrating—and I’m sure I will be in the middle of it for the better part of this anniversary year. However, there are at least a couple of new novels representing “meditations” on the classic Quixote that contemporary readers might find interesting. Oberon Press recently published The Enamoured Knight by award-winning Canadian writer Douglas Glover, and Julian Branston’s Tilting at Windmills: A Novel of Cervantes and the Errant Knight is being released this month by Shaye Areheart Books.

Joe Woodward is the author of Small Matters: A Year in Writing.