I first read this in grad school when I had the flu and had a high fever. It really is as great and weird as I thought then.
If you haven’t read Don Quixote, you’re not too late. It’s a bit of slog, but never difficult, especially in this particular edition with the 2003 translation. I haven’t looked at the Tobias Smollett translation from 1755, but I imagine that one’s a little rough these days. The introduction tells us that when the novel was first published, there’s evidence Shakespeare read it, but that Cervantes had almost certainly not heard of Shakespeare. I’d be curious about the where’s and why’s of that one. It’s also interesting because there’s a handful of references in Don Quixote to the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, the subject of Bottom’s play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
So what is this book? Well that’s a question I always make my literature students address whenever we read a novel. For many, if not most, novels the answer is simply a book that contains a story. But what I really mean by it, what does the book know about itself? Does the book know about itself at all? If so, in what way. In the beginning of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck tells us we can read about his earlier adventures in the book The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain. In the novella The Patagonia by Henry James, there’s a character reading Daisy Miller. So a lot of times, with a first person narrative, you have to figure out are you just reading a story or are you reading a book that is conscious of being a book.
We begin this book with an introduction by Cervantes that tells us that he’s going to write a very important book (he’s right by the way) and that in doing so, he will need to follow some protocol. He begins with a series of poems and sonnets that outlay various parts of the book coming up. Then he tells us all about Don Quixote, who begins the story reading famous chivalric romances, most especially Amadis of Gaul, and as we know will go off into the world to have some adventures based on those books. What happens next, again, is not just the straighforward telling of those tales, but the constantly knowing, self-referential act of a writer writing a story about those stories, and always kind of telling us more about them as we go. There’s references to apocrypha we never read and stories we don’t get. But it’s in the second half especially where things begin to double-down even further. We also get Sancho. Sancho Panza is a constant foil and sounding board, and audience stand-in for the Don, always giving us some version of reality.
At the beginning of volume two, Sancho Panza tells Quixote that he’s heard about a book called Don Quixote. Quixote is furious, in no small part because it’s obvious that the book is a farce. So he goes in search of Miguel Cervantes to confront. It’s in the second half too that the rest of the world is more knowledgeable about Quixote. There’s a scene where Quixote is confronting another knight who tells him to watch out because he’s the one who has beaten Don Quixote in battle, and he doesn’t seem to be lying.
Anyway, the introduction by the translator also tells us that part of the importance of Don Quixote is that it basically does all the things you can think of that a novel can do, all while being arguably the first novel (as opposed to a romance or epic).