First published in 1605. 940 pages. Available for free on Project Gutenberg.
Don Quixote is the classic story. Called the first modern novel, this marvelous book has stood the test of time to become irrevocably intertwined with the fabric of society. Sixteenth-century Spanish gentleman Don Quixote, fed by his own delusional fantasies, takes to the road in search of chivalrous adventures. But his quest leads to more trouble than triumph. At once humorous, romantic, and sad, Don Quixote is a literary landmark.
Hear me now
Oh thou bleak and unbearable world,
Thou art base and debauched as can be;
And a knight with his banners all bravely unfurled
Now hurls down his gauntlet to thee!
I am I, Don Quixote,
The Lord of La Mancha,
My destiny calls and I go,
And the wild winds of fortune
Will carry me onward,
Oh whithersoever they blow.
Whithersoever they blow,
Onward to glory I go!
I wasn't sure how much I would like this huge doorstopper of a novel, written in two parts separated by a decade, at a time when "novels" were not really a thing. Does it really stand up to time, or is it revered as a classic only because of its historical imprint?
Most of my knowledge of Don Quixote before this came from the musical, Man of La Mancha.
Don Quixote, Man of La Mancha, tilter at windmills, reviver of the profession of knight errantry, is a Spanish gentleman who has read too many books about the age of chivalry, and comes to believe they are true. Saddling up with a pot for a helmet and cobbled together armor, he sets out as Don Quixote, the Knight of the Sorrowful Face, doing deeds of chivalry to glorify the name of his lady, Dulcinea (who never actually appears in the book).
A neighboring peasant, Sancho Panza, agrees to follow the mad knight as his squire, being fully aware that Don Quixote is mad and yet somehow convinced at the same time that the
"knight" will fulfill his promise of achieving glory and riches and giving Sancho a governorship.
The adventures of Don Quixote are both amusing and tragic. Most of the book is picaresque, full of amusing, farcical characters not much less silly than the bemusing knight who is prone to attacking travelers, clergy, and windmills, under the misapprehension that they are giants or wizards under an enchantment. Most of Don Quixote's adventures end badly, with him riding off into the sunset leaving things worse than before. He and Sancho are a comical couple, always sticking together despite their frequent fights, Don Quixote mad and deluded (but, as the people he encounters frequently note, quite intelligent and lucid on all subjects except knight errantry), Sancho Panza a greedy, gluttonous fool who spouts made-up proverbs and amuses everyone with his simple logic.
Part One is mostly a series of misadventures, but in Part Two (written much later than the first part), Don Quixote and Sancho Panza develop more as characters, and there are also more recurring characters, such as the Duke and Duchess who, having heard of the "famous" knight Don Quixote, decide to humor him and be entertained by his adventures.
There is also a lot of meta-textual humor in the second part. Apparently after the publication of the first part of Don Quixote, one of Cervantes' rivals published an unauthorized sequel. Don Quixote makes reference to this "false" narrative about himself and encounters people who have read the fake Don Quixote stories - there are clearly a lot of in-jokes and little digs at the other author.
Don Quixote is a bloated, rambling novel that doesn't make a lot of sense at times, and like most early works of literature, is more of a stitched together series of stories than a single coherent work, but its recurring characters and a premise that carries through the (large) two-part book introduced ideas that would then be copied by other novelists henceforth. It's entertaining and should certainly be added to any well-read person's bookshelf, though I fear any translation loses much of the wit and linguistic wordplay, as well as the historical and social context, of Cervantes's original text.
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