Saturday, March 31, 2012

El ingenioso hidalgo

I have to confess to my shame that until now I have never read Don Quixote in its entirety, or even close to its entirety, not in Spanish and not for that matter in English, in spite of the fact that I was more or less a Spanish major long ago (I say "more or less" because I went to a college that didn't use such conventional terminology as "a Spanish major"). I did read one or two of the Novelas ejemplares ("Rinconete y Cortadillo," I think) at some point, and I probably read at least a portion of the translation of Don Quixote included in the old Viking Portable Cervantes, a book I seem to have deaccessioned in one of my periodic cullings of my bookshelves, as I can no longer put my hand on it.

So, making up for lost time, and fulfilling the kind of solemn vow that the good knight might himself have made (without, however, subjecting myself to the privations he likely would have imposed upon himself), I am slowly making my way through the original text, at the rate of about a chapter a day, which so far seems to be a sustainable pace. I'm using the Vintage Español text edited by Florencio Sevilla Arroyo, and keeping at hand Charles Jarvis's serviceable 1742 translation as well as a well-worn paperback dictionary. The latter, however is not as useful as it might be, given that the words I most need to look up are usually obscure terms relating to horsemanship and the like which have fallen out of use in the modern language and thus aren't in this dictionary.

The Vintage Español edition has more than 1,800 glosses -- placed, fortunately, at the bottom of the page, not in the back -- which are very helpful, though they occasionally gloss terms whose meaning seems reasonably clear, even to a non-native. In addition to Jarvis's translation I also looked at Tobias Smollett's, which seems quite good as well, but the edition was bulkier and I decided that having two translations at hand was redundant. There are advantages and disadvantages, I suppose, to using 18th-century translations; by doing so one does get something of a rough equivalent of the effect of the deliberately archaic language Cervantes employed (all those initial "f"s instead of "h"s, and forms like sucedióle instead of the modern le sucedió), but on the other hand there are occasional passages in Jarvis that are now more inscrutable than the original text.

Cervantes was an older contemporary of Shakespeare, and conventionally both figures are regarded as the founders of the modern literary traditions in their respective languages, though that is probably not true in either case in the way that it is for Homer, or for that matter Dante. It's true enough that Cervantes is the oldest writer in the Spanish-language tradition who is widely read in translation, though Spain had a flourishing literature before him, which he both draws on and mocks. His novel famously makes a burlesque out of the whole tradition of chivalric romance, and the whole premise of the novel is that its hero has gone mad due to the evil effects of reading such books, but the storytelling conventions of romance nevertheless strengthen his own narrative. A case in point is the episode in Chapter 19, in which Sancho and Don Quixote, traveling at night, come upon an eerie procession. In Jarvis's version
They discovered about twenty persons in white robes, all on horseback, with lighted torches in their hands; behind whom came a litter, covered with black; which was followed by six persons in deep mourning; and the mules they rode on were covered likewise with black down to their heels; and it was easily seen they were not horses by the slowness of their pace. Those in white came muttering to themselves in a low and plaintive tone.
The episode ends, as Quixote's adventures invariably do, in misunderstanding and disaster and to great comic effect, but before it does the whole otherworldly scene could easily have come out of one of the earliest Grail romances by Chrétien de Troyes or Wolfram von Eschenbach. The reader has the benefit of both worlds, on the one hand the build-up of suspense and uncanniness that relies on old enchantments, and on the other the comic deflation that bespeaks a new, modern, jaded world-view.

And not just modern but postmodern. One of the most astonishing episodes in the early chapters comes just a few pages later, when Sancho suddenly refers to his master by the sobriquet of el Caballero de la Triste Figura, "the Knight of the Woeful Countenance," or as Jarvis has it, "the Knight of the Sorrowful Figure." (There is a double meaning, as Quixote is both sorrowful in appearance and a sorry sort of knight indeed.) Quixote, his curiosity piqued, asks his squire how he came up with this name, and Sancho characteristically gives a very down-to-earth explanation alluding to Quixote's weariness after combat or to his lack of several teeth. Quixote, however, immediately contradicts him:
["It's not that,"] replied Don Quixote, "but the sage, who has the charge of writing this history of my achievements, has thought fit I should assume a surname, as all the knights of old were wont to do... And therefore I say, that the aforesaid sage has now put it into your head and into my mouth, to call me 'the Knight of the Sorrowful Figure,' as I purpose to call myself from this day forward: and that this name may fit me the better, I determine, when there is an opportunity, to have a sorrowful figure painted on my shield."
So here, in the midst of the narrative, we have fictional characters, whose story we are conditioned by readerly custom to follow as if they were real people, explicitly referring to the fact that they are in truth nothing but the inventions of an authorial mind, one who can intervene at any moment to alter their fate -- and yet by referring to Cervantes (or to his putative source, the Arabian historiographer Cid Hamet Ben Engeli) as a participant in the action, they in effect make the author a character in his own fiction.

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