Andante Capriccioso

Karl Miller

The fame of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza became known to the work in which they appear. In discussing itself as it goes along, the work examines the question of their fame, and in the second of its two parts it even takes avoiding action in respect of its own apocryha. Their fame has lasted from that day – the first years of the 17th century – to this. Quixote, his squire, his adventures and enchanters, still matter; they are one of the legends of the romantic modern world.

The literature of Romanticism seized on the work in order to discuss itself. Smollett’s translation of 1755, now reissued, pre-dated this capture, and perhaps it may be said that the translation assisted a romantic reading of Cervantes which it was also equipped to avert. His opinion of the work, expressed a little earlier in the Preface to Roderick Random, was ‘classical’ enough: Cervantes’ ‘inimitable piece of ridicule’ was said to have ‘reformed the taste of mankind, representing chivalry in the right point of view’. A conversion of romance had been effected by Cervantes, which had allowed it to make itself useful by pointing out ‘the follies of ordinary life’. Sancho’s common sense and creature comforts are shown to advantage in this translation: the scene where he fouls himself in his master’s presence, adding a ‘new affair’, a new terror, to the mysterious reverberations of the fulling mill, is very well told. But then few translators could do much to prevent such a showing, and Smollett is no less alive to the behaviour of the master, the lean, lank, long-faced first of the fogeys, panoplied in kitchenware, as he goes about righting his wrongs and wronging his passers-by. Quixote’s lucid intervals contain the wisdom of Cervantes, and he ends in an odour of pious good sense, having shed his illusions: this last lucidity, and all sense of the follies of chivalric romance, are keenly rendered by Smollett, whose efforts were to be succeeded by a special sympathy for this hero in his hour of illusion. Not that Smollett can often have been rated an enemy in the new age. ‘I want Smollet’s works,’ wrote Robert Burns, ‘for the sake of his incomparable humor.’[1] And he may also have wanted them for their romantic intervals.

Smollett was, in fact, to imitate the inimitable Cervantes for the rest of his life. He translated him, then re-translated him in a novel, Sir Launcelot Greaves, which sets a mad knight amid the asylums and coaching inns of his own time; and Quixote’s ghost can be found to flit through other fictions of his. Humphrey Clinker and, in the same novel, the Scotch curmudgeon Lismahago can be caught in the acts of a Quixote. Good men are seen to be mistaken and to take tumbles, to be pursued by farce. Such were the Cervanticks which British writers had taken to copying. Rowlandson was to illustrate the scene in which Lismahago, fleeing a fire reported by a joker, descends a ladder from a first-floor window, with bystanders looking up his nightie, in their 18th-century way, at his ‘long lank limbs and posteriors’ – the plight of the heiress who flees, in another Rowlandson, the confinements of family life. There is something Cervantean, incidentally, about the adventures of Rowlandson’s Dr Syntax.

A scholar has said, as scholars will, that Smollett is now ‘discredited’ as a translator from the Spanish, and his version does not always read as pointedly or as intelligibly as Walter Starkie’s of 1957. But it has great gusto, and it is funnier; it is none the worse for being the early work of an accomplished comic novelist with a fellow-feeling for the right-thinking and for the satirical and knockabout sides of Cervantes. ‘Some new affair’, when Sancho fouls himself, is very funny, and so is the reference to the ‘under-hermit’ left behind by the anchorite to mind a solitude visited by the wanderers, who also address each other, at one point, as follows:

‘The cause of that pain,’ said Don Quixote, ‘must doubtless be this; as the pole or staff by which you have suffered was long and large, it extended over thy whole back, comprehending all those parts which now give you pain; and if it had reached still farther, the pain would have been more extensive.’ ‘Fore God,’ cried Sancho, ‘your worship has taken me out of a huge uncertainty, and resolved the doubt in delicate terms. Body o’ me! was the cause of my pain so mysterious, that there was a necessity for telling me, I feel pain in those parts that were cudgelled?’

This is not a passage which proves the point in the book about translations – that they are poor things, like the turning inside out of a tapestry, with the figure in the carpet more or less preserved, but with all the knots and threads on display. The joke about being beaten up is replayed, and ruined, in Sir Launcelot Greaves, when the squire says of an assault upon himself by his master that ‘it was as common as duck-weed in his country for a man to complain when his bones were broke.’ Whereupon the knight thrashes him with a horse-whip. There is too much in the way of grievous bodily harm in Don Quixote. There is a lot more in Launcelot Greaves.

Don Quixote is a comedy of errors not all of which are made by Don Quixote. The knight-errant makes errors, and there is a novelist-errant who makes, and corrects, some further errors. His commentators err in placing their permissible and forced constructions, and in correcting some of his errors. Smollett makes errors too. And now André Deutsch has done so, in reissuing this erroneous work – a reissue which includes two essays by Carlos Fuentes. No notes, save Smollett’s perfunctory few. No errata. ‘I am resolved to seize occasion by the forelock, which she now so complaisantly prevents’: this is to turn the meaning inside out. The 18th century’s f’s for s’s is a trap which opens in the opening paragraph, where a prison is called (rather wonderfully) a ‘feat of inconvenience’. A strange cart later becomes ‘a fort of waggon’.

Mistakes are magic in a work which can readily be mistaken for a fathoming of human subjectivity – though the present publisher’s are such, on occasion, as to break the spell. Subjectivity entails a point of view. Smollett had felt that on the subject of chivalry there was only the one ‘right’ point of view in the Cervantes, and here we touch again on what happened to the reading of this novel after Smollett – when it became natural to think of rival points of view within this work among others, and within and without the one person. Is Don Quixote unprecedented, modern, by virtue of its capacity to interest people in points of view? Those who have read Chaucer might not think so. But those of the modern world who notice that – in the words of a novel of Ivy Compton-Burnett’s – the truth is different in different minds, that one man’s windmills are another man’s giants, that one man’s joke, trick, punishment, penance or revenge is another man’s grievous bodily harm, are indebted to the story of Quixote’s errors and impostures and enchantments. The epistolary novel of the English 18th century drew heavily on Cervantes. Humphrey Clinker places a construction on its characters’ misconstructions; one man’s letter is different from another’s. ‘People of experience and infirmity’ see the Vauxhall Gardens ‘with very different eyes’ from the healthy young, according to a nubile correspondent in that novel, where, two pages on, in a further letter, party politicians are said to see the affairs of Westminster, Westminster’s Westlands, through an ‘exaggerating medium’ which others may find ‘incomprehensible’.

There is no need to suppose that it took a historical turning-point, located in Cervantes, to make possible such constructions: but they seem to have mattered more and more in the course of the 18th century, and to have led on to the romantic sense of a sovereign subjectivity. Quixote could then be seen to resemble the English cavaliers of two hundred years earlier in being, as the old joke has it, ‘wrong but romantic’. He could then be seen – to a degree that was foreign to Smollett – as in some sense right. Error is error: but there came a time when it could also be seen as enabling, as what people do, in living on, in going on with what there was before, in inventing something different.

The ‘magnanimous’ knight goes about righting wrongs – preferably those endured by persons of rank – and inflicting harm on those whom our own world has grown accustomed, with failing spirits, to call innocent bystanders. Sancho has resolved to ‘avoid being hurt myself’, but ‘also to refrain from hurting any person whatsoever’. His master hurts any person whatsoever whom he perceives as an oppressor. I may be wrong, but it seems to me that Cervantes exhibits little feeling for these hurts: they are classed as amusements, and as symptoms of Quixote’s deluded condition. During one of his lucid intervals, however, Quixote does cast a doubt on the righting of wrongs. Recourse to arms, he explains, ‘for childish trifles, and things that are rather subjects of laughter and diversion than of serious revenge, seems to denote a total defect of reason and discretion; especially as unjust vengeance (and surely no vengeance can be just) is diametrically opposite to that holy law we profess, by which we are enjoined to do good to our enemies, and love those by whom we are abhorred.’ His conduct when deluded does not accord with this in any case somewhat self-contradictory precept, and the discrepancy can be read as a sign of his insanity: but it scarcely has the force of an apology for the hurts he inflicts. This passage could be thought to link the novel with a work of the same time, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, another comedy of errors, in which the meaning ‘surely no vengeance can be just’ can sometimes be perceived. Hamlet is a madman of sorts, a disastrous revenger of sorts, and is in some degree Quixotic. A connection between the two heroes is made in Humphrey Clinker, where the knight’s emergence from his initiatory vigil is compared to the port of the stalking ghost in Hamlet, which a bystander ‘had seen acted in Drury Lane’.

We might ask whether it would be a mistake to see Cervantes’ hero – lucid intervals and final recantation apart – as ever simply wrong or mad. His behaviour may or may not approximate to that to be found in another contemporary work – to the Erasmian folly which is capable of wisdom. But the behaviour is that of a divided man who is off his head for much of the book, and who is also, for much of the book, capable of the grave, conservative good sense which is content to live off the produce of its gentleman’s estates, which is seen in Don Diego de Miranda, and which Smollett was given to admiring. Quixote is presented as a compound: like Humphrey Clinker, he is a ‘surprising compound of genius and simplicity’, and his being so is a feature which endeared him to, and must have helped to recruit, romantics. His discourse is deemed a ‘medley of sense and madness’ – and Sancho has learned from it in a way which contributes to his own reputation as a ‘mixture’ of ‘acuteness and simplicity’. Don Diego regards Don Quixote as a man whose Don Diego-like good sense is blended with a ‘strange sort of madness’: Don Diego ‘was at times divided in his opinion, sometimes believing him in his senses, and at other times thinking him frantic; because, what he spoke was sensible, consistent, and genteelly expressed, but, his actions discovered all the symptoms of wildness, folly, and temerity.’ Don Diego here commends the consistency of Quixote’s speech, madly though he has just behaved in confronting his (sleepy) lion: but when Quixote speaks again it is to observe that such challenges are ‘consistent’ with the duties of a knight-errant. Sense and simplicity are blended in the aftermath of this particular exploit: on such occasions Quixote can be classed with the strange, unstable compounds of the Early Modern world which were to cast a spell on its successor. In writing about them, Smollett uses a notation of the past – the psychology of humours and elements – which had been associated with the alchemy which is derided in Launcelot Greaves. Despite this derision, a character in the novel is called ‘a strange composition of rapacity and profusion’, the difficulties suffered by this character being ‘the natural consequences of an error in the first concoction’. This was a psychology in which erroneous concoctions caused difficulties but were capable of imagination and invention.

Later times have seen a succession of Quixotes, in one form or another, and recent times have been anything but deficient in this respect. The caballero andante has kept going. Perhaps the greatest, and the most faithful, of all such translations is Daumier’s painting of the two adventurers. Recent responses include Erich Auerbach’s chapter in Mimesis, where a historically scrupulous reading of the text is attempted, and that free translation of Cervantes which accompanies a search for symbolic meanings is reproved. No sancta simplicitas or praise of folly is detected in the book; when Quixote is mad he is mad, and the projects of his insanity do not indicate that Cervantes felt there was anything rotten in the state of Spain. To conceive of his insanity ‘in symbolic and tragic terms seems to me forced. That can be read into the text; it is not there of itself.’ So Cervantes is an entertainer, and we may suppose that his hero is not, let us say, like the significant madman in Pirandello’s Henry IV. Auerbach’s truth is far from incomprehensible: all the same, entertainers have their own way of making judgments and suggestions, and Cervantes makes some that are acknowledged by Auerbach himself. Symbolic, quixotic conceptions based on this text have continued to roll since 1946, when Auerbach’s book on ‘the representation of reality in Western literature’ appeared, and Cervantes’ ‘gaiety’ had come to seem irrecapturable. It has since become difficult to recapture Auerbach’s confident belief that there was once and is still a reality to be represented.

The gaiety and games which suspend or challenge stock conceptions of reality, and of rationality, form part of the alternative fictional tradition for which Milan Kundera speaks from the cover of the graceful new Penguin translation of Jacques the Fatalist, by Smollett’s contemporary, Diderot.[2] Here again are a disputatious master and servant, in an exercise of the self-examining picaresque; here again is a work which affirms its own fictionality. Diderot’s novel is Cervantean (and Rabelaisian, and Shandyan), and Kundera puts it with the work which it imitates, which it translates – with Don Quixote, as well as with Joyce’s Ulysses. It is, as it were, a fort of feast of fantasy and humour. Distinctions between the fiction of fantasy and the fiction of reality have seemed to become more urgent than before with the success, in recent times, of the Hispanic fabulation which has crawled from Cervantes’ overcoat to flourish, especially, in Latin America. But the distinctions aren’t always easy to operate. Does Kundera write fantasy? Or does he digress into it? Launcelot Greaves is not so much a fantasy as a comedy in which a young gentleman who is thwarted in love despairs and goes mad, and in which reality hits him, and hits the reader, in the face.

This magnanimous knight – his character ‘dashed with extravagance’ both before and after the recovery of his wits – actually rights some wrongs, while attacking his fair share of plebeians, and he is even an efficient fighter. This makes him different from Cervantes’ hidalgo: his adventures are otherwise patterned on the hidalgo’s, with the tendency to physical violence greatly overdone. Here is the laughter which howls at broken bones and bloody noses. The deluded sea-dog’s bruises leave him looking like a Negro, conveys Smollett, who also had a dislike for Jews, and for the widespread fraudulence of the medical profession to which he was apprenticed in his youth. Nature knows best. Medicinal compounds are abhorred in his Quixote novel, just as, in Humphrey Clinker, London’s artifically-whitened bread and other adulterations are a scandal. When Sir Launcelot is sprung from the private asylum where he has discovered that his beloved Aurelia is a fellow prisoner, he is so pleased that he forgets to let her out along with him, and has to go clumping back. Smollett does not seem to be suggesting that this is the kind of thing that Dulcineas must have learned to expect.

Auerbach sees windmills in Cervantes and doesn’t want people to see giants. In The Order of Things of 1966, Michel Foucault saw, registered in the story of Don Quixote, a giant change: an ‘end of the old interplay between resemblance and signs’. Foucault’s construction, or error, is suitably cryptic. Don Quixote is seen as graffiti, as a portentous squiggle. This reader of romances is

not a man given to extravagance, but rather a diligent pilgrim breaking his journey before all the marks of similitude. He is the hero of the Same. He never manages to escape from the familiar plain stretching out on all sides of the Analogue, any more than he does from his own small province. He travels endlessly over that plain, without ever crossing the clearly defined frontiers of difference, or reaching the heart of identity. Moreover, he is himself like a sign, a long, thin graphism, a letter that has just escaped from the open pages of a book. His whole being is nothing but language, text, printed pages, stories that have already been written down ... If he is to resemble the texts of which he is the witness, the representation, the real analogue, Don Quixote must also furnish proof and provide the indubitable sign that they are telling the truth, that they really are the language of the world. It is incumbent upon him to fulfil the promise of the books.

Don Quixote pursues resemblance, significance: and the difference he encounters is produced by enchantment. Since the Renaissance, Foucault suggests, poets and madmen have been drawn, in their different ways, to the possibility or project of a universal analogy.

The series of alternative, other-self Quixotes has shown some remarkable recent instances. In 1980, and again with revisions in 1985, there appeared a transposition and independent elaboration of one element of Cervantes’ work into the idiom of the modern novel, but with deliberate happy touches – or am I dreaming? – of Smollett’s footnoting, corrigenda and rambling syntax. This was The Duchess’s Diary by Robin Chapman,[3] whom I last saw, many years ago on the Cambridge undergraduate stage, in Jacobean doublet and hose. And now here he is with a Duke Jeronimo. It is as if he has yet to change back – such is his feeling for the ways of 17th-century Spain, for the plight, in particular, of a woman immured in a dynastic marriage of convenience. The novel takes an episode of Don Quixote which Chapman’s duchess reckons ‘inconsistent’ with the whole: the episode is that of the amused and often unamusing entertainment of knight and squire by their duke and duchess, who play tricks on the guests and treat them in the fashion bestowed on Bottom and company by the court in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Chapman’s duchess is enamoured of the real Cervantes, whom she and her husband entertain in the course of the composition of his great work: certain occasions in Part Two of that work are thereby prefigured. After his departure she ails, takes to her diary, then to her heels, goes to Madrid, only to find him dead. She is seen as half-mad, nervous, anorexic, doting on her author while also fretting over his eventual representation of her in fiction. All this – her ailing and exodus, her dealings with untrustworthy authorship, and with the ‘chimera’ of Cervantes – is beautifully represented in Robin Chapman’s satellite work.

On looking into Chapman’s Cervantes, I see that the romantic art of duality, much practised since Smollett, is invoked for Don Quixote, whose contradictions, mixtures and medleys may indeed be thought ancestral to this art. Madness in Chapman’s novel is autoscopic, self-hallucinatory. It sees and hears itself. So does art. Quixote and Sancho are Cervantes – one flesh: and they are also man and wife. An author ‘contains his own opposites’. This Book of the Duchess is a learned invention, and yet a fully animate one; and it has a preface which enables us to measure the distance we have wandered, in the matter of point of view, since Smollett. What is now ‘universally known’ about Cervantes’ masterpiece, according to the preface, is that ‘imagination is as unreasonable as reality.’

A further translation of Cervantes belongs to the last few days. The new Fred – a tiny, shiny, enterprising punk magazine published in London’s Ladbroke Grove, which looks like no other and goes in for the uncomfortable and shocking – has a piece by the American writer Kathy Acker which is entitled ‘Don Quixote’. This is part of a forthcoming novel. For Acker, Don Quixote is a woman, and the novel begins, in the Fred, with these words:

When she was finally crazy because she was about to have an abortion, she conceived of the most insane idea that any woman can think of. Which is to love. How can a woman love? By loving someone other than herself. She would love another person. By loving another person, she would right every manner of political, social, and individual wrong: she would put herself in those situations so perilous the glory of her name would resound.

The heroine has her abortion, having pledged herself to those adventures which give rise to abortions. This story, too, is cryptic, and at novel length may prove confusing. But the project is surely a rewarding one – not punk at all, some might think, in being distinctly literary, and no less attentive than the Foucault chapter to the circumstances of Cervantes’ text. Chivalry is exposed to the lives of women, and thus re-seen. The piece suggests that books drive you mad. But Kathy Acker writes them and reads them. She has written into her fiction the hostile French writer Jean Genet, godfather of punk, and it seems she was a reader of Smollett when she was at school. She writes of an anxious and dangerous sexual existence beside which the violence of the 18th-century comic novel pales.

Acker’s, as it happens, is not the first female Quixote: three years before Smollett’s translation came the extravaganza of that name by Charlotte Lennox – due for reissue by Pandora Books later this year. This looks forward to the romantic dupes, the turned heads, of the turn of the century, to E.S. Barrett’s The Heroine, to the terrors of Northanger. Arabella, Lennox’s fair visionary, is fine: but perhaps too much of an unsisterly joke to count as evidence that the legend can accommodate what has happened to women and what they have made of it.

Cervantes’ book takes much of its staying-power – to which the writings of Foucault, Chapman and Acker so vividly attest – from its appeal to a world in which we have been led to understand that everyone is acquainted with madness, in which madness has come out of the ‘dark cote’ where Chaucer found it imprisoned, and in which it can be seen as a form of subjectivity. One name for its ranging or errant state has been nerves, and Launcelot Greaves uses that name. Locked in his asylum, the knight, who has by then regained his sanity, quizzes the quack who has been hired to put him away.

‘I should be glad to know your opinion of my disorder.’ – ‘Oh! sir, as to that,’ replied the physician, ‘your disorder is a – kind of a – sir, ’tis very common in this country – a sort of a’ – ‘Do you think my distemper is madness, doctor?’ – ‘O Lord, sir, – not absolute madness – no – not madness – you have heard, no doubt, of what is called a weakness of the nerves, sir, – though that is a very inaccurate expression ... ’

Delivered among the malicious incarcerations for alleged insanity which were a worry at the time, for those with a mind to worry about such things, this medical opinion is mocked by the novelist. But perhaps it says something, accidentally or in error, which was and has remained true, and which was not very often said at the time. Who is not nervous? And the more nervous people there are, the more we may need spitting images, a comedy of hurt. It is a need which would appear to be very common in this country at present.

[1] The Letters of Robert Burns, edited by J. De Lancey Ferguson. Second edition, edited by G. Ross Roy, 2 vols, Oxford, 493 and 521 pp., £45 each, 19 December 1985, 0 19 812478 3 and 0 19 812321 3. For the reference to Smollett see Vol. I, p. 296.

[2] Jacques the Fatalist by Denis Diderot, translated by Michael Henry, with an Introduction and Notes by Martin Hall. Penguin, 261 pp., £3.95, 30 January, 014 044472 6.

[3] The Duchess’s Diary: Faber, 127 pp., £8.95 and £2.95, January 1985, 0 571 13441 6.