Sunday, October 13, 2013

Don Quixote de la Mancha

In my ongoing quest to add all of epic literature to my reading life, I have become a knight errant riding beside Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, listening to a fine reading by Roy McMillan on my car CD player.

As the rest of you no doubt know, Don Quixote is the episodic mock epic of a medieval romance of knight errantry, in which a "modern" - that is, seventeenth century - Spaniard, enamoured of the old books of knight errantry, enlists his laborer neighbor Sancho Panza as his squire, and goes off in search of knightly adventure.

To my surprise, the adventure of the windmills, the best known and most referred to episode in the entire, very long book, happens right away - leading me to wonder how many of the people who quote it so knowledgeably have, one, ever read beyond it, or two, ever read it at all.

Don Quixote may be a madman, but, as many of the characters he meets acknowledge, he talks a great deal of sense.  Indeed, this charming book must be read as a kind of rebuke and lecture to the current - that is, seventeenth century - age.  Don Quixote is the most courteous, generous, and virtuous madman alive.  The 21st century has deteriorated so far beyond the worst behavior of the characters in this book that it is not even possible to apply Don Quixote's standards to our present set of morals and manners.

My amazement was unbounded when, in the midst of the First Part (Chapters XXXIII - XXXV), when a number of characters are gathered together at a travelers' inn, the Curate engages his listeners in reading to them a complete novel within the novel the present reader signed on for!  I have never run across this particular literary device before. Have you?

Fortunately, the embedded novel is a lively tale of love and betrayal featuring the friendship of Anselmo and Lothario and what happens to it when Anselmo insists on testing the constancy of his wife, Calista.  (Flockhart alert!)  I immediately thought of the bridge in the song by Rodgers and Hart, and most famously sung by Barbra Streisand, "Where's That Rainbow?" (See My Name is Barbra, Two.)

In each scenario
you can depend on the end
where the lovers agree.
Where's that Lothario?
Where does he roam, with his dome
vaselined as can be?

Did the character of the libertine Lothario originate in Cervantes' tale, embedded in Don Quixote?  Did enough people read this far into the adventures of our knight that they got to this riveting story?  The question remains open.  When I googled Lothario, most sources referenced the 17th century tragedy, The Fatal Dowry by Philip Massinger and Nathan Field, adapted for the stage, under the title The Fair Penitent, by Nicholas Rowe in 1703, as the origin of the character.  However, the Wikipedia entry, while citing the play as the origin of the use of the name Lothario to mean a man who seduces women, accurately (in my view) acknowledges Cervantes' Lothario as the original of the type, even though Cervantes' Lothario takes reluctantly to the role. 

The novel of Anselm and Lothario signals the layering that Cervantes makes the most of in his own telling of the history of Don Quixote.  He, Cervantes, the narrator, is relying on - and in some cases, reading from and commenting upon - an incomplete translation and commentary of an original manuscript that commented on the history it was telling, some of which has been lost.  In reading a summary of Part Three of the novel, which I have not yet listened to, I understand that yet further complications - post-modernist, anyone? - call into question the whole trustworthiness of narration. 

For instance, after all the adventures of the First Part, it is revealed in the Second Part that the First Part of the history of Don Quixote has already been published!  This means that Don Quixote's fame has spread far and wide and that many of the people he subsequently meets have encountered the stories about him and are curious and impressed by his chivalry.  

So it seems that, in regard to strategies of narration, Don Quixote has serious relevance to the 21st century and - if we would listen - to questions of morality, sanity, spirituality and sense as well.  All in a most entertaining and provocative package.  Roy McMillan expertly supplies a different voice for each of many characters, and if he doesn't always and in every particular get his voices right, in such a crazy world, it is only to be expected.