The following post was written by Dale Pratt, a Fellow for the Center.
Almost exactly four hundred years ago this month, Miguel de Cervantes published the second volume of his masterpiece, Don Quixote. The 1605 publication of the first volume had made him famous but not rich (he had sold the rights to the book to the printer); the book became an almost instant best seller, read throughout Europe in Spanish and in translation. The 1615 volume brought the long overdue comfort and even wealth for which Cervantes had longed throughout his many adventures: as a war hero during the famous Battle of Lepanto (which left him with a maimed hand), as a prisoner/slave of the Moors in Algiers, as a novelist and frustrated playwright whose fine theater was easily eclipsed by younger rival Lope de Vega’s, as a tax collector required to collect tribute from church leaders who excommunicated him (twice) for his efforts. He died in 1616, six months after the second volume was published, and was buried on the same date (but because of different calendaring systems, not the same day) as William Shakespeare. He was buried inside a Trinitarian convent, and for hundreds of years his tomb was lost.
The adventures of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are well worth revisiting (or visiting for the first time!) in this anniversary year. The excellent translations by Diana de Armas Wilson (Norton) and John Rutherford (Penguin) make the humor accessible to a twenty-first-century reader. The eternal juxtapositions between appearance and reality, idealism and cynicism, the beautiful and the grotesque, and dreams and quotidian life—tensions any thinking human experiences daily—are stunningly explored in Don Quixote.
When I was about 13 or 14, my parents took me to see John Raitt as Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha. Little did I know then that I would read Cervantes’s original in Spanish 13 or 14 times before I reached the age of Don Quixote during his first sally. My students often describe Don Quixote as “an old man” (he’s 50—my age!). Happily, the book ages well, perhaps better than I am doing. I learn something new every time I read it. I laugh more now at the book than I ever could have imagined when I first started looking up archaic Spanish vocabulary describing medieval armor or horsemanship.
When I was a student at BYU, the Honors reading room in the basement of the Maeser building was the best place to do serious reading; it was as silent as death. I loved that room. I read parts of Don Quixote, volume II, in that dungeon of learning . . . but only parts. At one point I started laughing so loudly I began disturbing my fellow Honors students. I could not stop—Sancho Panza’s reaction to the ridiculous phrases of La Condesa Trifaldi were so absolutely perfect, so divinely funny, that my whole body shook until the tears came. I had to leave.
In this time of so much anxiety and pain in the world—similar in so many ways to the time and world in which Cervantes lived—tears of laughter will do us all good.
I read Don Quixote in translation my first semester of my PhD program at North Carolina as part of a seminar on the 18th-century British novel. The professor, Albrecht Strauss, asserted that to understand the development of the novel in England, one first had to deal with Cervantes’ classic. Of course, he was completely right about that. He also insisted on pronouncing the novel’s title without a hint of a Spanish accent, Don Quicksut, to everyone’s initial amusement and later consternation. I still wish I were fluent enough to read it in Spanish.