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  • The Polyphonic World of Cervantes and Dostoevsky by Slav N. Gratchev
  • Thomas Pavel (bio)
The Polyphonic World of Cervantes and Dostoevsky. By Slav N. Gratchev. New York: Lexington Books, 2018. xxiii + 138 pp. Hardcover.

Based on Mikhail Bakhtin’s important distinction between monophonic and polyphonic literary works, Slav Gratchev’s book successfully expands its field of application and offers persuasive suggestions concerning its historical development. Bakhtin’s approach to the novel proposed original answers to two major [End Page 651] concerns of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century literary–historical debates: the first, quite important in Germany and Russia, was the relation between literature and human individuality; the second was the contribution of each nation to the history of culture. In Bakhtin’s view, inspired by the Christian tradition and the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, each human being is unique and irreplaceable, but also quite impossible to define once and for all. As, by the way, Aristotle had argued a long time before, Bakhtin added that individuals do not fully know themselves, they often change and they undergo the influence of other people. Moreover, they have each their own unique angle of view on the world (as Leibniz had strongly contended at the turn of the eighteenth century) and, in addition, they each think and speak in their own, equally unique, voice. Given that narrative literary works, novels in particular, are about human aspirations, desires, actions, and conflicts, in order for such works to be faithful to the reality they aim at representing, they should capture the unicity of each character’s voice. But, in Bakhtin’s view, for a long time novels failed to represent the multiplicity of human voices, their heteroglossia, as he called it, and preferred monoglossia, the ability to listen only to one voice, usually that of the author. He called the artistic use of the two options, as in music, monophony and polyphony. The first writer who, in Bakhtin’s view, understood that in order to be truly faithful to human reality novels should adopt the polyphonic approach was Dostoevsky. In other words, according to Bakhtin the first novels that fully deserve admiration have been written in Russia. Thus, he took an original stand in the well-known debate among European scholars concerning the nation that gave birth to the first modern novel. Was it Spain with Don Quixote by Cervantes, France with La Princesse de Clèves by Marie de La Fayette, England with Moll Flanders by Defoe? Bakhtin’s answer is Russia with Dostoevsky’s polyphonic novels, The Idiot in particular.

Gratchev’s book takes Bakhtin’s definitions of heteroglossia and polyphony for granted, agrees that these features offer the main criterion for separating imperfect novels from the true summits of the novelistic art, but contends that rather than being fully invented by Dostoevsky, they had been at least partly discovered and used by Cervantes in his Don Quixote. In Gratchev’s view, Cervantes is the inventor of the polyphonic novel of idea, term used as singular, since in this novel one idea “becomes a fully-fledged and relatively independent subject” with whom “Cervantes and his main hero engage themselves in a never-ending dialogue” (5). This idea, labeled by Gratchev the hypothetical third, is Don Quixote’s unforgettable view of the world as an errant-knight utopia. By acting in accordance with this view, Quixote steps out of the monophonic understanding of human existence and, as the hero of this novel, becomes more than he is. As for Cervantes, he [End Page 652] still keeps some control on the literary work he creates, but does not fully dominate it. It is this imperfect domination, Gratchev adds, that allows the author to bring other characters into the narration and give them voices. Gratchev also reminds us that in his letters and diaries concerning his novel The Idiot—a novel of idea in Gratchev’s acceptation—Dostoevsky mentioned Don Quixote more than thirty times.

The link between the two works being established, Gratchev examines Cervantes’ Quixote in some detail, emphasizing the novel’s unpredictability, the wide range of spatial and temporal changes, and the various embedded stories, by attributing them what he calls...


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