Cervantics

Robin Chapman

  • Don Quixote by E.C. Riley
    Allen and Unwin, 224 pp, £18.00, February 1986, ISBN 0 04 800009 4
  • Don Quixote – which was a dream by Kathy Acker
    Paladin, 207 pp, £2.95, April 1986, ISBN 0 586 08554 8

According to John Constable, the trouble with self-taught painters was that they had such bad teachers. Creative writing workshops notwithstanding, every novelist is self-taught. An enduring reminder of this is Cervantes’s relationship with his equivocal double masterpiece Don Quixote, and the most persuasive analyst of both book and author remains E.C. Riley, who as long ago as 1962 first alerted us in Cervantes’s Theory of the Novel to what has since become received opinion: that Cervantes was a highly self-conscious literary artist who had to teach himself to write the first modern European novel.

Professor Riley’s latest commentary on Don Quixote is an elegant summary of the work and a masterly introduction to its complexities, ancient and modern, which will instruct while delighting the student, and perhaps encourage any author who regrets his self-taught status and lack of fashionable talent. For, as Riley makes clear, Cervantes’s estimation of himself as a writer remained painfully ambivalent until the very end of his working life – he shows every sign (despite his celebrated Erasmic cool) of an acute literary inferiority complex. If we are to believe his own account, no seat was reserved for him upon Parnassus, and when Apollo suggested he should fold up his cloak for a cushion and sit at the feet of that parliament of poets, Cervantes, understandably, remained standing – though he did allow himself the waspish luxury of pointing out to his immortal host that as a matter of prosaic fact he hadn’t got a cloak. Cervantes’s capacity for irony invariably shoots the lights at the intersection of patronage and poverty. There is another cloak joke in Don Quixote, about St Martin who divided his with a poor man: ‘from which we may conclude that it was a cold day for such was the saint’s charity that had it been a warm one he would doubtless have given the poor man his whole cloak.’

Cervantes was poor for a purely literary reason: he could not write verse. This precluded him from any success in the theatre even if he did lay claim to having invented the three-act play. The parallel careers of Lope de Vega and Shakespeare eloquently demonstrate this bottom line of Golden Age aesthetics: ineffective playwrights turned experimental novelists did not get state funerals or build New Places for early retirement on prime sites in their old home towns. Cervantes’s funeral in 1616 was quiet and his grave left unmarked.

There is no doubt, however, that Don Quixote was well received – the second part could hardly have discussed and elaborated on the first so creatively if the book had not made a huge impression ten years before. The witty knight – as Thomas Shelton, Cervantes’s contemporary and most sinewy English translator, termed Don Quixote – had ridden instantly into the world’s imagination along with his squire. Even so, Cervantes may have had one reason at least to be grateful to the apocryphal Don Quixote which appeared in 1614: it rekindled public interest in his subject ready for the long-delayed sequel. The pirate work appears to have stung Cervantes into finishing his poetic history.

Apart from Cervantes’s own prefatory discussion of Part One, three ‘public’ reactions are incorporated by him in Part Two. They all refer to Quixote himself.

‘As regards your worship’s valour, courtliness, deeds and enterprise,’ Sancho went on, ‘there are different opinions. Some say, “Mad but amusing”; others, “Brave but unfortunate”; others, “Courteous but presumptuous.” ’

Further contemporary criticism is hard to come by, but there are plenty of anecdotal references to the knight and his squire. They were perceived as a durable, even archetypal double act who quickly took their places in the carnival processions from which they may well have been derived in the first place. Such immediate assimilation into popular culture probably pleased their author only up to a point. The eternal ‘caviar to the general’ debate (the vulgo versus discretos) was just as acute in Spain as in England. Unfortunately the new genre essentially defined and established by Cervantes’s success with Don Quixote Part One militated against his acceptance as a serious author by the literary powers. Novels might be popular, but they were not yet officially art. In his sixties, Cervantes became a household name, but critical acclaim eluded him just as surely as financial reward. Ten years later, Don Quixote Part Two’s popular success as a peripatetic sit-com confirmed him in the same mould as those authors he had originally set out to ridicule. It was still the wrong sort of fame: his contemporaries liked what he had written but they couldn’t assess its value. Nor, it seems, could he in any convincingly consistent way.

A saddening illustration of this is his dedication of Part Two to the Count of Lemos. It would seem that his earlier patron, the Duke of Bejar, had not responded to the rather routine flattery which had fronted Part One. But as an exercise in wry self-abasement this second dedication is exemplary. Apart from reminding Lemos that he should have already received his recently published but unperformed one-act plays, and recommending the definitive Part Two, he assures the count that his next major work The Labours of Persiles and Segismunda will be finished within four months. It was, but so was Cervantes. The dedication is dated 31 October 1615. Cervantes died on 22 or 23 April 1616 at the age of 69. But what, the general reader may well ask, was Persiles?? An extensive baroque romance of the kind we now consider thoroughly superseded by the magical realism of Don Quixote. It seems incredible that the author of Part Two could have been at work simultaneously on this inert Late Renaissance adventure series, but he was. Persiles was Cervantes’s last bid for literary respectability – he describes the work as one ‘which makes bold to compete with Heliodorus’: posthumously, it had a fair critical success, although the publisher cheated Cervantes’s widow of the royalties.

Earlier cervantistas, notably Miguel de Unamuno, have concluded from such evidence that their author was yet another untutored genius unable to judge a prolific but variable output. Riley disagrees, establishing Cervantes as a fallible but well-read author – ‘I am extremely fond of reading, even the scraps of paper in the streets’ – whose literary criteria cannot have been the same as ours. Sentenced to prose in an age of verse, Don Quixote becomes for Cervantes an extended metaphor of his own literary dilemma, hence its inconsistencies. Riley also quotes Trilling: ‘In any genre it may happen that the first great example contains the whole potentiality of the genre. It has been said that all philosophy is a footnote to Plato. It can be said that all prose fiction is a variation on the theme of Don Quixote.’ Certainly Cervantes’s influence on the novel, and on novelists, has been incalculable. He has always been a writer’s writer. Only Kingsley Amis, I believe, has been able to resist his charm. But ironically the finest modern work to encompass and inhabit a comparable world is a short play – Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. In it the Quixotification of Sancho and the Sanchification of Quixote has become complete: the two clowns have absorbed each other and they go nowhere. The road, as it were, comes to them.

The writing of the history of Don Quixote was an epic exploit for an author whose best abilities were appropriate, as it might seem, to the short story or one-act prose play. For Cervantes, it was the literary equivalent of subduing ancient giants, and it appears to have taken him twenty years, with a ten-year gap between the two parts. There is a supportive joke to this effect in Part Two. During a quarrel between the knight and squire, Sancho with typical Cervantine accuracy demands payment for ‘more than twenty years of service to within three days more or less’. As Quixote points out, they have been on the road together for at most two months. Sancho observes it has felt like twenty years.

The reconstruction of reality in short-lived dramatic encounters, or as cross-pollinating conversations through which the protagonists literally talk themselves alive, seems always to have released Cervantes’s best inventions. Much of Don Quixote’s primary quality lies in doubly-generated immortal drivel interrupted by sudden spurts of action, bruised recuperation, and the related biographies of others met by chance upon the road. Quixote explains himself to Sancho, Sancho soon takes to explaining Quixote to the world, and eventually the world to Quixote. Meanwhile other people constantly explain themselves to both. In this dimension of Don Quixote Cervantes has dramatised the talk of Spain – that continuous stream of conversational consciousness in which the Spanish represent to each other the world as they imagine it again and again with a repetitious fertility which can surprise the Anglo-Saxon. This oral tradition – the tertulia – continues today. In any café, during every ritual evening walk, it is possible to hear discourses of some rhetorical shape and resonance on almost any subject – from tauromachia to Nato to home computers. The speaker will be listened to and then answered in turn by the assembled company, which may be a circle of teenagers or three old men sitting below the town walls. So universal has Don Quixote become that the book’s essential Spanishness can be overlooked.

This literate exploitation of the oral tradition – Riley suggests that there may have been several public readings of Part One before its publication – stems, I believe, from Cervantes’s well-documented love of the theatre and desire to be a playwright. In his short stories, and in the episodes which add up to his major novel, he found a form in which dialogue could be favoured above description. It was his first step into what we think of as his realism.

For Cervantes to speak easily as a narrator, rather than through his characters in the manner of a playwright, may have been a problem. And this could be a further reason for the evolving narrative structure of Don Quixote. By casting himself as the book’s self-effacing editor or stepfather, he releases his own naturally annotative, discursive character and voice. Were ‘stepfathers’, by the way, on a par with ‘nieces’ and ‘nephews’? Illegitimate but not cast-off children? Like many a local priest, the confirmed bachelor Don Quixote has a niece alongside his housekeeper. It would be a typically Cervantine joke to give his aging neoplatonic lover a grown-up daughter. Adopting an editorial role enables him to speak as himself only when he chooses – everything else is channelled through the story’s dramatis personae and their official historian Cide Hamete Benengeli, who becomes as pertinent to the work as Dulcinea. Benengeli’s qualities are inevitably those of an admirable novelist: he gets his facts right (apart from the theft and restoration of Dapple, Sancho’s donkey), but he is an inveterate liar. And with the title Cide he can be considered an Arab sage or holy man, as Cervantes would have known from having been a hostage in Algiers. But to this is added a potentially ridiculous surname possibly implying an aubergine. To entrust Quixote’s history to Guru Eggplant suggests an initial robustness of approach of Jonsonian proportions. Fortunately it isn’t maintained, though traces of it recur – Cervantes admires consistency but never quite achieves it. Small wonder. The novelist who finishes his book is a different person from the one who began it, Graham Greene says: but he was thinking of a normal time-span of a year or so, not twenty.

If Benengeli’s initial raison d’être was to be a parody of every chivalric ghost-writer that had ever necromantically recorded a wandering knight’s career, his creation out of stock enabled Cervantes to ‘edit’ a river of prose of increasing poetic refraction. A hackneyed factive convention brings about the apotheosis of Spain’s eternal dialogue with herself and gives a doubting playwright a role for his narrative voice, freeing him to write as if he were simply talking. After all, it isn’t just the good Alonso Quixada or Quesada or Quixano who rides out circa 1600 into the new empirical world (which, being central Spain in July, looks just like the old) in order to test its rejection of the numinous and emblematic – his author does this too. To start with, both are tricked out in old-fashioned gear. The novelist gradually learns along with his knight to negotiate ever more diplomatically between the two superpowers: reality and romance. It would, however, be simplistic to elide Quixote with his creator, although, as Riley recalls, many have. Sancho is a more than equal partner in the book’s dual personification of the crucial literary debate of the age, with its particular application to its author. Even so, this perambulating marriage of air and earth could prove irksome to the residual playwright in Cervantes. He complains of being tied to ‘such a dry and limited history as this one of Don Quixote: for it seemed to him that he must be always talking of him and Sancho without daring to expatiate in other more serious and entertaining digressions and episodes. And he said that to have mind, hand and pen always restricted to a single subject and to speak through the mouths of so few characters was an intolerable hardship in no way rewarding to the author.’

The self-teaching novelist is concerned here, Riley points out, with neo-Aristotelian epic theory, with thematic cohesion and consistency of story-line. Episodes must grow gracefully from the action and not overstay their welcome: Don Quixote Part Two is noticeably more of a piece than Part One. Clearly, knowledge and practice prompted Cervantes to curb his instinctive enthusiasm for human diversity and the theatre of the street: like the old News of the World poster, he wanted all human life to be there, but he had learned that somehow less had to be more. The narrative mechanism constructed in Part One proved capable of fine-tuning in Part Two, thus providing his irksome single subject with multiple ambiguity in place of the thousand and one digressions attached to a comic couple in a road movie.

In Part One Cervantes casts himself as a shadowy researcher who, having exhausted the local archives of La Mancha, discovers the manuscript of his own book by chance in Toledo. But it happens to have been written by somebody else and in Arabic to boot. He pays a bilingual person whom he does not choose to name to translate it into Castilian, and presents this to us as a true history which he has edited and is now effectively rereading and annotating – over the reader’s shoulder. By the end of Part One we are aware that he has woven a net to catch the Borgesian wind.

The convention works even more seductively in Part Two for two reasons: first, because Part One exists not only for the reader but also for his heroes: the double act has achieved self-conscious public stardom by way of an indispensable but virtually unknown ghostwriter (Quixote and Sancho, we realise, have never heard of Cide Hamete Benengeli until Cervantes presents his work to them). Quixote was always aware, of course, that knights errant had magical biographers – how else could he have become mad? – but he has now to accept that what has been published is not quite the flattering public relations romance he had originally envisaged. Does it matter? Certainly the general public recognises Quixote and Sancho in Part Two as celebrities and honours them accordingly. Until they reach the ducal palace they are a success. Their progress is something of a triumph, and even in the palace it is only Don Quixote who really suffers. Sancho has a whale of a time – unlike Quixote he enjoys a social success with the duchess and as Governor of his island entirely surrounded by land (has there ever been a better description of a remote Spanish village?). He may be forced to slim and turn out to be no great shakes as a military man, but as a local magistrate he is Solomon.

Secondly, there is the recently published pirate history to contend with. This poses a delicious problem for Cervantes, which he solves creatively by incorporating its existence in his genuine sequel, so that he and his heroes may abuse it.

These ‘true’ and ‘false’ historians, together with the ideal romance of himself as a wandering knight which Don Quixote carries in his head (Riley’s third version of Don Quixote, the true history), create not so much levels of being and reportage as multiple points of view of Cervantes’s single subject. An apt painterly anology has been drawn by Riley in Cervantes’s Theory of the Novel, where he describes Velasquez’s Las Meninas (Maids of Honour) as a similar exercise in authorial duplicity:

It is full of tricks. There in the picture is the painter at work on his own painting, the largest figure in the scene but dark and unobtrusive. There too is the back of the very canvas we are looking at. Arrested half in and half out of the room and, as it were, of the picture is the figure in the doorway. The King and Queen are seen reflected in a mirror on the far wall, which is hung with dim paintings. And the viewer realises with a shock that he is looking at the picture from the spot close to the watchful monarch and his wife, from which the picture was painted in effect. Did a mirror stand there (there is some doubt), or did Velasquez, projecting himself mentally right outside his subject, paint from that spot as though he had been someone else altogether, painting himself at work? In either case, he has contrived to be simultaneously outside and inside his subject, and what is more draw the outside spectator into it too. ‘But where is the frame?’ exclaimed Gautier when he saw the picture.

The British have always liked Don Quixote and we were the first to translate it in 1608. Shakespeare may even have had a hand in a first English spin-off called Cardenio – a lost play of that name, perhaps based on the story from Part One, is attributed to his company playing at court in 1613. Since then, and the publication of Part Two in English in 1620, there have been satellite works ranging from Don Quixote Redivivus in 1673, by way of The Female Quixote by Charlotte Lennox, published in 1752 and just reissued[*] (not the first gender-bending of the subject, a Madam Quixot appeared in 1678), to my own The Duchess’s Diary of 1980, Graham Greene’s Monsignor Quixote of 1982, and now Kathy Acker’s Don Quixote – which was a dream. The 18th century seized on the work as a model for developing the English novel, with Smollett and Fielding particularly indebted to Cervantes. The Romantic movement, especially in Germany, inevitably rejected the Rowlandsonesque comedy in favour of a spectrelike tragic hero in the saddest of stories – Daumier has celebrated this aspect of the work, which was further elaborated by Gustave Doré. Today we resist both these exclusive views, preferring to interpret the narrative self-consciousness of the author as evidence of the book’s modernity.

For Charlotte Lennox it appears to have been a simple matter to transfer Don Quixote’s book-based heroic lunacy to a charmingly sheltered heroine of impressionable age. From her reading of French and Italian romantic novels beautiful Arabella expects similar behaviour from her real-life suitors and the world. The resulting paradoxical episodes are efficiently done, but her unvaried charm soon palls. The problem is that Arabella is only interesting in relation to her romantic requirements: the author turns out to be as guileless as her teenage heroine. Quixote, Lennox’s model, has fifty years’ experience to deny while attempting to force the world to grant him a second youth. Consequently he is interesting as well as absurd: Arabella is absurd but at 17 less interesting. When Don Quixote discourses on the Age of Gold or disputes with the Canon about literature, we listen: Arabella has no character and nothing original to say outside her book-fed desire for romantic behaviour from her subjugated suitor and friends.

The Female Quixote has been republished under the Pandora package title of ‘Mothers of the Novel’ and clearly represents another effort to revise the sexual politics of Eng Lit. As material for such an enterprise, it seems rather pallid and something of a shelf-filler. Paladin offer another female knight – Kathy Acker’s Don Quixote – which was a dream, first published in the United States. It is a dead-eyed romance, indebted to Burroughs rather than Cervantes. Acker’s aborted dogescorted Quixote seeks love, but she gets the brush-off from Nixon’s surreal Russo-America. There is plenty of sado-masochism, bags of centrist anarchism, and, built into the text as well as the title, the enervating get-out clause that what we are reading is really just a dream for author and reader alike.

The publication of my own Cervantine novel The Duchess’s Diary, recently discussed in these pages, is something of a Cinderella story. Quixotically, I published it myself under the imprint of Boudicca Books in March 1980. It has since been published in Spain and is currently appearing in France. Last year Faber and Faber re-published it after I had sold out my first edition.

Perhaps every author should just once in a lifetime print and peddle his own work? It is an instructive experience: the cost alone is enough to turn you into your own best critic, and any vanity you may have had at the start is likely to evaporate when your first edition is delivered in bulk to your door – to see even fifteen hundred copies of the same title can satiate the most voracious ego.

The initial production process is, however, delightful. You are at perfect liberty to choose the name of your publishing house with its title list of one, the format for your book, the paper, fount, cover design, price – everything. It is a heady freedom such as Baldesar Castiglione and Virginia Woolf enjoyed – you have become your own patron. But then after you’ve checked the galleys, read the proofs and had the book bound, your first edition will be delivered, and as I have said, this is when reality comes home to roost. Twenty-two stoutly packaged parcels each containing 68 copies (the remaining four came separately in a manila envelope) must be safely stored before you even begin to sell them – if sell them you can. I certainly couldn’t wait to be rid of them, especially since my printer had billed me on delivery, as agreed, for the third and final instalment of the total printing and binding costs. In 1980, as a matter of record, this was £2,298 for 1500 superior-looking paperbacks to be sold to the public at £3.95 each.

Distribution proved daunting. But before that a publication date had to be chosen. I settled for 28 March. Books, I discovered, are pre-sold. Booksellers subscribe ahead of review, so books are bought by the trade without regard for their critical reception. I did, however, take the precaution of inviting Paul Theroux and Fay Weldon to read mine, and, if they wished, to give me a quotation for the cover. Both agreed, and their comments were extremely helpful in persuading booksellers that here was a book they might risk having on their shelves. Robin Denniston of the Oxford University Press then very generously wrote on the book’s behalf to a number of leading literary editors suggesting that this was a novel worth sending out for review. The book was widely noticed, and liked as well. Reviews helped library sales enormously and resulted in a number of orders from bookshops who until then had not stocked it.

If you publish yourself, you can find distributors for your work, but they charge a very considerable percentage, which, together with the trade discount of 35 per cent (40 per cent in the case of W.H. Smith), can make the cost prohibitive. This, too, I did myself, which meant I had to go into the leading bookshops of London, Oxford and Cambridge, ask for the manager or fiction buyer, and, like Willy Loman riding on a smile and shoeshine, try to sell. By going in myself I had considerable success, but I couldn’t visit bookshops throughout the country, so I sent off a brochure to fifty major outlets. Without exception they went into fifty wastepaper baskets. Many of these shops, however, did order later on when individual customers asked for the book.

I realise now that I was extremely fortunate. Having barged in where angels fear to tread I was saved from disaster by the nature of the novel itself. As a satellite work of Cervantes’s Don Quixote (the duchess of the title is seen in her fictional form in Part Two), the book had an interest beyond the story it had to tell. I have had many requests for it from the oddest corners of the world. Ironically, my previous publisher Hodder and Stoughton declined the book on the grounds that its Cervantine connection was of minority appeal. Perhaps this made it appropriate that it should then be published by a minority of one.

Of the many pleasures of self-publication perhaps the best was to receive a letter from Julio Cesar Santoyo, whose eye had been caught by the cover of the Diary (a 17th-century map of Madrid) in the window of Dillon’s bookshop. Curious to know why an English book should have such a cover, he asked for it, discovered its subject to be Spanish, and having read it, wrote to me to ask if he might translate it and find a publisher in Spain. He did both. I suspect Santoyo’s was the hardest task of all here. Since the diary purports to be a translation from the Castilian, he had to write what we might call the original.

[*] Pandora, 423 pp., £4.95, 22 May, 0 86358 080 7.