Arts & Culture

A true giant

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Four centuries dead, Cervantes remains an epic presence through ‘Don Quixote’

Miguel de Cervantes, by most lights the greatest writer in the Spanish language and the creator of the modern novel, bequeathed to the world the enduring story of Don Quixote, a romantic idealist, tilting at windmills.

With “Don Quixote de la Mancha,” Cervantes cast a colossal influence on Western literature. Published in the early 17th century, “Don Quixote” is the second-most-translated book after the Bible, and, according to a recent survey of 100 novelists, the best book of all time.

Cervantes died 400 years ago, on April 22, 1616. The Gazette spoke with Mary Gaylord, director of undergraduate studies and Sosland Family Professor at the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, about the writer’s remarkable genius and humor, and why the quest of Don Quixote continues to enthrall readers around the world.

GAZETTE: Cervantes died in 1616, but his work still speaks to us. Why?

GAYLORD: Cervantes was an extraordinarily astute observer of human life, character, and experience. He captures details, gestures and facial expressions, nuance, and complexity. His characters are never all bad or all good; they’re always a mixture. They tend to be a bit blind to their foibles, but are also worth listening to. As a writer, Cervantes is an absolutely brilliant imitator of the way people talk. In earlier literature, different kinds of characters speak the same way. In “Don Quixote” and others of his works, you find multiple characters giving us their individual versions of reality. Also, Cervantes really understood the multiple possibilities of linguistic expression. He was a keen student of literary language as well as of everyday language, and he managed to blend the two in a brilliant way, showing how ordinary people draw inspiration for the ways they express themselves, not only from life but also from books.

GAZETTE: What is Cervantes’ place in the canon of Western literature?

GAYLORD: Many people call Cervantes the father of the modern novel. Before Cervantes, there weren’t any novels as we know them, but instead novellas in the Italian tradition (that is, short stories) or long episodic romances about knights or rogues. Cervantes pioneered large-scale structure, putting together various kinds of narrative in a long work of fiction with a complex plot, in “Don Quixote,” which was published in two books, in 1605 and 1615.

After Cervantes, many writers seized on his structural formula, and on the way he created characters who have not only life experience, but also fantasies about who they are and what they want to do. Don Quixote’s fantasy is a formula he has derived from reading. When he tries to make his grand scheme work in the world, embarrassing things happen.

GAZETTE: Cervantes and Shakespeare were contemporaries. They died in the same year, just days apart. Were they aware of each other’s work?

GAYLORD: We know that Shakespeare was aware of Cervantes’ work. He had to be. “Don Quixote” was translated into English within a few years of its first appearance and created a sensation in England and other countries.

One thing to consider is that Shakespeare was considerably younger than Cervantes. He was born in 1564 and lived a much shorter life than Cervantes, who was approaching 70 when he died. It’s also important to note that in the early Renaissance and the early 17th century, the direction of literary influence in Europe went from the south to the north. Great works of Italian literature from the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries were moving north and west in Europe. Works of Spanish literature were carried north into France and the British Isles. It was easy for educated English speakers to known about Cervantes, but much less likely that Cervantes knew about Shakespeare. We don’t have any proof of that.

GAZETTE: Cervantes and Shakespeare are the greatest literary figures in their respective languages, and yet it seems Cervantes gets less recognition than Shakespeare around the world. What do you think about that?

GAYLORD: Cervantes has an extraordinary influence on the Spanish language, just as Shakespeare does in English. Both were foundational to the development of their own languages. In the Hispanic world, April 23rd is celebrated as the Day of the Spanish Language. Cervantes gave us two extraordinary characters, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, who are an absolutely archetypal and immortal comic pair. It could be argued that Shakespeare produced a greater number of memorable characters: Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, King Lear, and so on, characters who also happen to be tragic.

An individual work of drama can be translated and represented in many places and languages and to many audiences. In some sense, that experience is more immediately available than getting your mind around “Don Quixote”; that is, getting beyond the archetype. Everybody knows the opening line; everybody knows about tilting at windmills and about the skinny, haggard knight and his roly-poly squire riding on a burro. To get past the cliché is harder. In my classes, students come from all over the world. They all know who Don Quixote is, but they don’t really know what he’s like.

GAZETTE: What is he like? What is it about Don Quixote that has continued to capture readers’ imagination throughout the centuries?

GAYLORD: He’s emblematic of the human being who is out of touch with reality. He is high-minded; he utters wonderful lapidary phrases like, “Every man is the child of his own deeds.” But when he makes pronouncements like this, he’s usually in the middle of some crazy line of reasoning, and he uses his wise sayings to support projects that can be a bit demented. I think we’re all hypnotized by this. Other characters in the book are baffled by him. He’s a walking anachronism; he doesn’t belong in his time or his place, and when you listen to him, he is speaking the language of the books of chivalry mixed with ordinary language. So we’re happily perplexed. All throughout the novel, we’re wondering: Is he crazy? Is he a madman? Or is he a man who just occasionally loses his grip on reality and reverts to the script of books of chivalry?

GAZETTE: It’s been said “Don Quixote” is a book about books. Don Quixote loses his mind after reading books of chivalry. What’s your take on that?

GAYLORD: It’s a book not just about books, but also about the way books are being written, and a fiction about the writing of fiction. It’s also very much a book about the power and the dangers of reading.

In some ways, this is a book driven by the impulses of its main character. Don Quixote makes three journeys into the world. The first one is very short. He comes back and then his family and friends try to get rid of the books he’s been obsessed with. No such luck. He’s out on the second sally for the rest of the first volume. In the second volume, he sets out again, on a third trip. The arc of the plot is made up of the concentric circles of these three round-trip journeys. But the story begins before Don Quixote is Don Quixote. Before he overdoses on reading chivalric romances, he is an anonymous hidalgo from La Mancha, and we don’t even know what his name is. The action begins when he gives himself a new identity, a new name, and creates himself in the image of a knight. He wants to become a knight-errant and wander the world to do good, to rescue widows and orphans and damsels in distress, but also to gain for himself “eternal renown and fame.”

Don Quixote’s ultimate aim is to become a book in which he’s the main character. That’s his entire purpose in Volume 1. In Volume 2, he discovers there is a book about his life, in which he’s the main character, but now he worries whether the book gets his story right. And at this point, Cervantes shows us that he’s increasingly interested not only in how novels are written, but in how history is written, history with a capital H.

GAZETTE: You have said that Cervantes is a very self-conscious writer. He mentions himself as author of one of the books in Don Quixote’s library. And in his second volume, he talks about the apocryphal book about Don Quixote that a rival has published in real life. Why does he include snippets of reality in a fiction?

GAYLORD: Cervantes is making fun of himself in the story, because he too wants a piece of the fame that Don Quixote is pursuing. In 1571, Cervantes fought as a soldier in the Battle of Lepanto, one of the most ambitious military campaigns led by Spain in the attempt to limit the influence of the Ottoman Empire in the Eastern Mediterranean. The Christians won, but Cervantes, who was 24 at the time, was injured and lost the use of his left hand. From that moment, he knows he can no long be a soldier, but he really wants to write. In part, “Don Quixote” is a fiction that plays on the interdependence of deeds and words. In order to become famous, a knight needs to perform heroic acts; but someone has to write about them. Both Cervantes and Don Quixote are conscious of the symbiosis of fighting and writing, the interplay of the sword and the pen.

GAZETTE: “Don Quixote” is really funny. How can 17th-century humor still make people laugh?

GAYLORD: It wouldn’t be that funny to us if Cervantes weren’t using a burlesque language. He puts a flowery frosting on very simple things and takes very lofty ideas and brings them down to earth. He’s constantly switching registers. He’ll have Don Quixote use extravagant language, high-sounding phrases, and then all of a sudden become irritated with Sancho Panza and say, “Shut up,” or something like that. He makes Don Quixote switch codes and slip out of character. Sancho Panza, correspondingly, talks like a peasant. He’s learning the language of chivalry, yet he almost always gets it a little bit wrong, and that’s hilarious. The story is full of ups and downs. Don Quixote gets knocked down, he gets up, and so on. That kind of slapstick humor is easy to respond to.

GAZETTE: Despite all the wonderful things about it, “Don Quixote” is a very hard book to read. Most people find it intimidating and never read the whole book.

GAYLORD: The book is very long: 52 chapters in the first book, 74 in the second book. It’s dense. It meanders. The road of “Don Quixote” is not an interstate highway; it’s made up of byways, rolling fields, riverbeds, and villages. It’s not always clear where you’re going; even Don Quixote doesn’t know where he’s going. He’s easily distracted at what sounds like a damsel in distress, and he forgets everything so as to become her savior. The other thing that is distracting is that Don Quixote talks a lot. We’re expecting action from Don Quixote because he has his lance, armor, and horse ready, but what he really does for most of those 126 chapters is talk. In one episode where Don Quixote delivers a long oration after a battle, Sancho sums it up well when he says, “It seems to me that Your Grace was born to be a preacher rather than a knight.”

GAZETTE: Don Quixote was obsessed with books. Why did you become obsessed with both “Don Quixote” and Cervantes?

GAYLORD: I’m definitely fascinated by the language of this novel. Cervantes is such a remarkable creator of language and a remarkable reader of literature. We’d say he deconstructs different kinds of fiction — pastoral, picaresque, the Moorish novel, and the romance of chivalry. He gets inside literary genres, critiques them and explores their possibilities. I’m captivated now by Cervantes’ relationship with history. I think that, in our fascination with Cervantes as creator of fiction and father of the modern novel, we sometimes forget that he was very much focused on the history of his time. I first read “Don Quixote” in college, in Spanish, and since then I’ve read it every year. Whether I’m reading it to prepare for class or listening to an audiobook of the novel, I always find something in it that I hadn’t noticed before. It’s a truly inexhaustible text.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.