- Quixote: The Novel and the World by Ilan Stavans
In an article in the New York Times on the folly of policing language, Ilan Stavans notes that, with publication of the second volume of Don Quixote four hundred years ago, Cervantes gave the Spanish language its “gravitas.”1 But what does Stavans, a major cultural commentator, mean by “gravitas”? To an Anglo-American reading public the term may suggest such solemn qualities as gravity and sobriety. The Romans, however, regarded gravitas as a virtue that embraced both profundity and humanity. These two qualities, along with the wit and plasticity of Cervantes’s language, are elegantly assessed in Stavans’s new cultural history: Quixote: The Novel and the World.
Apart from showing readers how and why Don Quixote is the most imitated and translated novel in the world, Stavans explains it as a book that invented both modernity and subjectivity.2 But is Don Quixote merely a book? The Nigerian author Ben Okri claims that it is less like a book than “a continent.”3 Stavans locates this “continent” in the known world across an impressive spectrum of languages and cultures. Yet he slyly opens the book by informing us of an asteroid discovered in 1982 that was eventually named “Don Quixote.” As part of an expanding universe, Cervantes’s hero captivated Stavans during his adolescence in Mexico, when he regarded the novel as “untidy, [End Page 190] unfocused, and monotonous” (xv). It has since captivated his adulthood, and his book is a moving meditation on this literary captivity.
We all know readers who consider Don Quixote an “untidy” novel. Stavans aims to declutter it through a historical, linguistic, and personal approach. Cervantes’s straightforward storyline—from the “birth” of the hero at age fifty to his regrettable return to sanity and death—is punctured by an exhaustive multiplication of subplots and anecdotes. In one of his metafictional moments in part two of Don Quixote, Cervantes himself criticizes his interpolated tales in part one. To remove them, however, would be to violate the novel. Many of us would miss Marcela, who anticipates Rousseau with her revolutionary cry: “I was born free.” And all of us would miss the three-chapter “Captive’s Tale,” based on Cervantes’s own five-year captivity in Ottoman Algiers.
Although Stavans’s book has been described as a cultural history, it is that and much more: memoir, travel book, chronicle, Comp Lit treatise, linguistics manual, middle-age quest romance. The New World historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto calls Stavans’s book a “comprehensive companion.” Booklist calls it an “excellent primer.” It would surely serve as both primer and companion for anyone who has postponed reading Don Quixote. As his epigraph to The Novel and the World, Stavans uses Mark Twain’s 1897 definition of a classic: “A book people praise but don’t read.” Yet on the very flyleaf of Stavans’s book, the illustrator Barry Moser (who made a famous engraving in 2004 of Don Quixote riding Rocinante) confesses to living “with the guilt of not having read Don Quixote.” And when Alan Furst, a celebrated author of spy fiction, was asked “What books are you embarrassed you haven’t read yet?” he answered, “Don Quixote.” Although Furst had once toyed with the idea of writing a historical novel about Cervantes’s adventurous life, he had put off reading Don Quixote.4 Stavans may provide Furst and Moser and countless other procrastinators with a “companion” to guide them into and through the equally adventurous life of Cervantes’s mad knight.
Stavans’s book is divided into two sections: five chapters on “The Novel” precede five chapters on “The World.” After examining Cervantes’s biography, the first section explores Don Quixote as a labyrinthine narrative with self-reflective qualities. Stavans portrays Don Quixote, like Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, as a literary figure with little or no history (75-76). Yet unlike any other novelistic character, he has been adjectivized: he has given rise to the [End Page...