Crazy Don

Michael Wood

Not only one of the (many) unread classics, Don Quixote is a book almost no one seems to have any intention of reading. People don’t feel bad about ignoring it, don’t need to pretend they’ve read it, don’t say they’ve always been meaning to take it to the beach. I hope I’m wrong about the novel’s actual readership, for the sake of several publishers and many readers who would immensely enjoy the book if they got to it, but I don’t think I’m wrong about the way things look.

Fielding and Sterne loved Don Quixote, and so did Flaubert and Dostoevsky. It’s hard to imagine what their work would have been like without this affection in the background. But there don’t seem to be many modern writers who care about the book, or have been marked by it. Thomas Mann wrote a wonderful essay about it, but its moral world seems very far from his own. Faulkner said he used to read Don Quixote once a year, but you wouldn’t guess this from his writing. The influence of Don Quixote on Latin American fiction has been enormous, but more as a cultural legacy, an idea of Cervantes and his work, than as any great devotion to the novel itself.

I think part of what’s happened is that we imagine we know Don Quixote, and don’t need to know it better. We recall the famous images of Doré and Picasso and Dalí. We hum the tunes from The Man of La Mancha, even if we didn’t see the musical. We remember Kosintsev’s movie, and Welles’s movie fragments. Above all, perhaps, we think of our kitschy souvenirs from Spain, those proliferating tea-towels, plates, jugs, statues, prints, and other Quixo-Sanchic junk that we brought back from Malaga, along with the bullfight mementos and the castanets. Why would we need to read the book? It’s about a tall thin sad fellow, and a short round sensible one. About ideals and their fate in the humdrum world; on my right illusion, on my left reality. In the older Spanish and most English readings, reality wins, although illusion has some nice moves. In the reading of the German Romantics, of most Spaniards since the early 19th century, and of almost everyone in the 20th century except the English, illusion takes the high ground, wins the long war of dreams, even as it loses the shorter battle of the everyday world.

It’s reasonable to think that a new translation might help us out here, that the stuffiness of the old translations is the problem. Burton Raffel says he took on the task because he ‘did not feel comfortable recommending any of the existing translations of Don Quixote’. I wish he’d said what made him uncomfortable, particularly with Putnam’s 1949 version for Viking, which has always seemed to me admirable, although I suppose Raffel must think of his work itself as an implicit judgment on the competition. There is plenty of that, since almost every well-known English version of Don Quixote has been reprinted in recent years. In order of original publication, there are: Motteux 1700-1712 (Everyman, 1991), Jarvis 1742 (Oxford, 1992), Smollett 1755 (Farrar, Straus, 1986), Ormsby 1885 (Norton, 1981). There is also J.M. Cohen’s 1950 Penguin translation, and Walter Starkie’s 1964 version for Signet. The only thing lacking is a good modern edition of Shelton’s wonderful Jacobean translation: the first part appeared in 1612, before the second part of the Spanish Quixote was published; the second in 1620.

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