#1 Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes

1617-Barcelona-Matevat-01-003-t.jpg

Here it is, y’all. Numero uno. The alleged Greatest Book of All Time (at least, as of five years ago). Let’s get this party started (!) …so we can wrap things up and go home.

OK? OK.

Here are Don Quixote’s vital stats, lest we lose ourselves in a Land Without Context:

  • The book’s full title is The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha.
  • The author’s full name is Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. (He added “Saavedra” himself as an adult.)
  • Don Quixote was published in two volumes appearing in 1605 and 1615.
  • Set in Spain around the same time, the book is narrated by Cervantes himself, mostly in the third person.

In a move that, today, we’d deem “totally meta,” Cervantes built his work around a nobleman driven mad by the chivalric romance novels of the era—who promptly embarks on his own chivalric adventure. In the first volume, Don Quixote dons a suit of armor and sets out on a quest for adventure with his “faithful squire,” Sancho Panza, and his aging “steed,” Rocinante.

In spite of his knightly ideals, Don Quixote does more harm than good: He abandons the weak and poor he swore to protect, liberates a dangerous galley slave, and dedicates his “heroic” deeds to an unwitting peasant woman he imagines to be a princess. Don Quixote himself is often injured and humiliated—and the positive outcomes of his actions are, more often than not, accidental.

The second volume is more of the same, but this time his exploits are engineered by a Duke and Duchess for their own entertainment. He is led to believe, for example, that his lady love, Dulcinea, has been transformed by an evil enchantment into an ugly farmhand. The Duke and Duchess convince Sancho Panza that, in order to lift the enchantment, he must give himself 3,300 lashes—on his bare ass. When he resists, Don Quixote threatens to give him twice as many.

Don Quixote’s friends scheme throughout the novel to bring him back home, for his own sake and that of his victims, with occasional success. The end of the novel sees Don Quixote “vanquished” by the faux “Knight of the White Moon” and forced into retirement. He dies of a fever shortly thereafter, cursing the chivalric principles to which he devoted the final years of his life. 

From what we have since gathered, Cervantes followed the age-old wisdom “write what you know.” What he knew, as it happened, was:

  • service in the Spanish army,
  • capture by Algerian pirates,
  • enslavement by the Moors,
  • a resulting mistrust of foreigners, and
  • an era of Spanish dominance and defeat.

Many of the tales found within Don Quixote are anchored in both Cervantes’ personal experiences and the nation’s collective history, from battles at sea to the exile of the Moors. Naturally, he couldn’t resist including some of his own reflections on the cultural shifts of the 16th and 17th centuries, which saw Spain’s rise as an imperial power as well as the destruction of its “invincible” Armada. Cervantes was critical (obviously) of the continued popularity of chivalric values, of the Catholic church, and of the rigid class structure of contemporary Spain. Don Quixote was, seemingly, an attempt to bridge the gaps between old and new, especially when it came to morality.

Interpretations of the text have shifted over the years: Read as a comic novel at first publication, it was later viewed as a work of social commentary and then as a tragedy. It is, possibly, all of these things, or something else entirely, to Cervantes and to the 21st-century reader. What’s safe to say is that, like the other Great Books of the post-Renaissance period, it helped to lay the foundations of the modern novel.

And, for all its protagonist’s blunders, it didn’t do Spanish language or culture any damage, either.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

I always have an appetite for well-crafted parody, and nearly every bite of Don Quixote is delicious.

Favorite Quotes:

For her sake I left my father’s house, and for her sake I put on these clothes, in order to follow her wherever she might go, as the arrow follows its mark or the sailor his star.

Oh, how we mortals wait and hope in vain!
At first how sweet the promise, then bitterly
it vanishes in shadow, smoke, and dream.

“Eat, Sancho my friend,” said Don Quixote, “sustain life, which matters to you more than to me, and let me die at the hands of my thoughts and by means of my misfortunes. I, Sancho, was born to live by dying, and you to die by eating.”

Read: 2014

Advertisements

My Wish List for Future Classics (and All Other Books)

checklist-1583529_640

98 books and nearly 400 blog posts later, I think it’s safe to say I’ve cultivated some measure of expertise when it comes to the classics. The 100 Greatest Books Challenge has, at least, given me that.

There are, of course, many ways to define the classics. Karen of BookerTalk put together a great post on this topic, detailing Italian author Italio Calvino’s 14-point interpretation in “Why Read the Classics.” His points range from the indisputably relevant to the bewilderingly ambiguous. Here’s a random sample:

  • The classics are books that exert a peculiar influence, both when they refuse to be eradicated from the mind and when they conceal themselves in the folds of memory.
  • A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.
  • The classics are the books that come down to us bearing upon them the traces of readings previous to ours, and bringing in their wake the traces they themselves have left on the culture or cultures they have passed through.
  • A classic is something that tends to relegate the concerns of the moment to the status of background noise, but at the same time this background noise is something we cannot do without.

(Yeah, I don’t know about that last one either.)

But my Challenge has less to do with “classic” status than its even-more-subjective cousin, Greatness. Most of us would agree that The List is full of classics. But I’m certain we’ll disagree on which ones are Great.

Long ago, I identified my own criteria for what qualifies a book for Greatness: Originality + Masterful Craftsmanship = Great, in my less-than-humble opinion. I like this definition because it’s broad yet demanding, and because it gives me license to denounce Lawrence, Hemingway, and Updike as a bunch of sorry hacks.

I also like it because it’s open, at all times, to new members. But as long as I’m throwing open my doors to the latest, Greatest books, I’d like to make a few special requests.

This is my Wish List for Future Classics (and, of course, books in general):

1. More diversity.

Like, a lot more. Almost 90% of the books I read for The Challenge are classifiable as American or Western European, leaving more than three-quarters of the world dramatically underrepresented. I can recall only a few non-white protagonists, and even less who would identify as disabled or LGBTQ. And while many classic defenders invoke “era” to cover all manner of sins, this problem persists today.

Fortunately, the call for diversity is growing so loud that publishers can no longer ignore it. Unfortunately, their response has been slow.

2. Less misogyny.

Along those same lines, we need better—more complicated, more realistic, more equal—representation of women. This applies to both authors and characters. Only 14 female authors made it onto The List, and none of them broke the Top 10. (George Eliot is the first to appear with Middlemarch at #12, and she had to publish under a man’s name to be taken seriously.) Only two of the Top 10 protagonists are women, and they are both adulteresses who eventually kill themselves.

…Which brings me to my next point: Can we cool it with the Madonna/whore complex? Classic literature is full of exactly two women: the angelic flower petal/Disney princess, and the morally degenerate hag/hellion. I’m looking at you, Isabel Archer. And Laura Fairlie. And Becky Sharp. And the Marquise de Merteuil.

Oh, and speaking of whores, could we engage a little less often in the casual solicitation of prostitutes? I’m so over fictional brothels, and the human colostomy bags who frequent them.

Once we manage to write and publish and respect female authors/characters on par with their male counterparts, I’m convinced I’ll stop coming across so many literary passages like this one:

When I say woman I mean a sex so weak, so fickle, so variable, so changeable, so imperfect, that Nature — speaking with all due reverence and respect — seems to me, when she made woman, to have strayed from that good sense with which she had created and fashioned all things. I have pondered over it five hundred times yet I can reach no solution except that Nature had more regard for the social delight of man and the perpetuating of the human species than for the perfection of individual womanhood. Certainly Plato does not know into which category to put women: rational animal or irrational beast. (Gargantua & Pantagruel)

And this one:

“Get yourself a housekeeper closer to your own age. And a good lay, too. What’s wrong with that? Or we’ll find you a gorgeous brownskin housekeeper. No more Japs for you.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know what I mean. Or maybe what you need is a girl who survived the concentration camps, and would be grateful for a good home. And you and I will lead the life.”
(Herzog)

And this one:

When it was over, she wasn’t crying. She didn’t care. He was walking up and down the room sobbing. She got up and straightened her dress.

He came over to her and shook her by the shoulders. “If you ever tell anybody I’ll kill you, you damn little brat.” (U.S.A.)

It will be a great day for literature, and for my mental health.

3. Less bigotry, in general. 

Yep, I’m on a roll here. I promise I’ll quit whining when the classics quit offending. Just keep in mind that that may NEVER HAPPEN, because the classics are putrid, decaying outhouses infested with bigotry and other bullshit.

I’m excluding, of course, the classics that actively, deliberately deconstruct prejudice in its many forms—The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Native Son, and Faulkner’s novels, to name a few. I’m taking aim, rather, at the many perpetrators of nonchalant intolerance: Robinson Crusoe, Gone With the Wind, U.S.A., and everything Hemingway are all guilty of thoughtless, mindless attacks on Jews, homosexuals, and/or people of African or Asian descent. Stereotyping is rampant up and down The List. Rarely is discrimination called into question.

I’m not saying all of these novels should be stripped of their “classic” status. I’m not saying we should stop reading them, or discussing them, or learning from them. I’m not saying I’m some kind of progressive genius who can fix the world one book at a time, or that my opinion on this subject is even especially valid. I agree with Book Riot’s Amanda Nelson that

we wouldn’t have a canon to speak of if we only read books that lacked racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.

I’m just saying that on my Wish List for future classics, up-and-coming authors would be a little more thoughtful about race, and religion, and sexuality—and a little less inclined toward the careless dehumanization of marginalized people.

4. Improved readability.

If the classics really want to step up their game—and be read, occasionally, outside of class—this may be their best and only strategy. We all want to engage with Great minds and big ideas, but not when they leave us unconscious with boredom. I’d love to see classic authors tidy up their plots a little (yes, you, Thomas Mann), and give their dialogue a fresh coat of paint (please, Dreiser? Please?). And if they can make their point in 300 pages, it’d be polite of them not to use 800. Or 1500.

In other words, it’d be great if—someday—The Challenge were less of a challenge.

This is all my long-winded way of saying not all classics are necessarily Great books, and that Greatness itself is a matter of opinion. I am under no obligation to enjoy every classic, and enjoyment is (for me) separate from Greatness.

But if I had my way, or the canon gave me a vote, I’d tell the classics that they still have work to do. I’d tell them that, as is, they’re not enough—that they could do more to illuminate the limitless facets of the human experience, in all its breadth and detail. Because that, I think, is the role of a classic.

Or, at least, I wish it were.