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Don Quixote: a very modern madman

A very modern madman

Why the story of Don Quixote has such a hold on our cultural imagination

Why the story of Don Quixote has such a hold on our cultural imagination

Jasper Rees | April/May 2016

It’s a story of a mad old man who imagines himself to be a knight errant. On his quests he sees virgins in prostitutes and castles in roadside inns. His adventures have spawned an adjective that describes delusional idealism, typified by the activity of tilting one’s lance and charging at windmills one has mistaken for an army of giants.

For Milan Kundera, the modern era – “and with it the novel”, he adds – is born when Don Quixote rides forth on his nobbly nag Rocinante. “The Adventures of Don Quixote” by Miguel de Cervantes was published in two parts, the first in 1605. By the time the second appeared a decade later, the title’s fame had already spread around Europe and into Spain’s colonies in the Americas. It has since become one of the most influential works in the entire canon of literature. Along with Homer’s “Iliad”, Dante’s “Divine Comedy” and Milton’s “Paradise Lost”, “Don Quixote” is a book that begat multitudes.

And yet unlike all those other masterpieces, its canvas does not usher genuflecting readers into the orbit of lofty gods, or of God himself, or into the presence of the great heroes and heroines. Rather it tells of a simple man who has read too many chivalric romances, inspired by which he prances out on a quest to perform deeds in the heroic style of bygone knights.

This was why Kundera anointed it the first novel. Here for the first time is a whole epic about ordinary human clay, bathetically stripped of all but the most ragged medieval armour. Romance is dead. The protagonist is left to his own devices, his only company the stolid squire Sancho Panza. Together they form obverse halves of the human psyche. Where Quixote is a fantasist who barely feels the deforming blows of his many assailants, Sancho is a dull-witted, earthbound pragmatist. The book is a rambling chronicle of their uproarious misadventures, in which wayward farce eventually makes way for the pathos and redemption of self-knowledge.

Cervantes had made a lifelong study of the folly of heroism. A Spanish marine, he was hospitalised for six months following the Battle of Lepanto, then captured by Barbary pirates and imprisoned in Algiers for five years, where after four failed attempts at escape he was ransomed by his parents. Later he became a tax collector. His writing career was an indifferent tour of tired literary fashions until, past 50, he dispatched his knight into the arid plain of La Mancha to have his romantic illusions slowly peeled away. And all the while Cervantes supplied a running commentary, which is the book’s other priceless invention: the metatextual ironist who discloses the machinery of narrative.

This 900-page brick is not easy reading. But all novelists, whether they like it or not, are creatures of Cervantes, who turned himself into a character in his own fiction four centuries before John Self, the anti-hero of Martin Amis’s “Money”, ran into a shady figure calling himself Martin Amis. “That Cervantes has been a great friend of mine for many years,” boasted Don Quixote of his creator. “His book has some clever ideas; but it sets out to do something and concludes nothing.” The English picaresque novel’s earliest practitioners are unthinkable without him: Fielding, Smollett, Sterne. The story has been repurposed by Chesterton, Kafka, Greene, Borges, Rushdie and so on and on.

This year is all about Shakespeare, who died on 23 April 1616. Smudge out the discrepancy between the Julian and Gregorian calendars and he shares a death day with Cervantes. So, as is right and proper, the Royal Shakespeare Company has found room in the celebrations to stage the doorstopper in a new adaptation by James Fenton. David Threlfall makes his first return to the RSC in the 30 years since he played Smike in the globe-trotting hit “Nicholas Nickleby”. As Sancho Panza there’s Rufus Hound, who made his name playing low-life chancers in “One Man, Two Guvnors” and “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”.

Quite apart from the novelists, Cervantes, with his self-referencing feints, inspired other art forms to enter into a dialogue with him from the start. “Cardenio”, thought to be a lost play by Shakespeare, was based on a fable from “Don Quixote”. The book has since been made into operas by Telemann, Mendelssohn and Massenet, a sprightly, yearning tone poem by Strauss, and a long-running Broadway musical called “Man of La Mancha”, later filmed with Peter O’Toole. The National Theatre in London staged the book in 1982 with Paul Scofield astride a penny farthing. And then there are the ballets choreographed by Balanchine and Petipa. Alexei Fadeyechev’s latest version of Petipa’s “Don Quixote” for the Bolshoi is currently marking the anniversary in Moscow and will be seen outside Russia later this year. Meanwhile Cervantes’s rackety life is entertainingly toured in William Egginton’s new biographical study, “The Man Who Invented Fiction: How Cervantes Ushered in the Modern World”.

Don Quixote’s name can sometimes occlude his indispensable companion. As the Stranglers once asked, “Whatever happened to…Sancho Panza?” Well, he has tagged along in this eternal afterlife too. In 2002 he was going to be reincarnated as Johnny Depp in Terry Gilliam’s film version. Depp was to play an ad exec who writes a commercial featuring Quixote, only to find himself transplanted back to the 17th century and mistaken by Quixote for his squire.

Gilliam’s quixotic quest to film “Don Quixote” is fast becoming the most famous unshot movie in cinematic history. His 2002 production was undone by a flash flood which irretrievably altered the parched location, while his knight errant Jean Rochefort was invalided out with a doubled herniated disc. Last year Gilliam was all set to saddle up again, only for John Hurt to get pancreatic cancer. There are fresh rumours of a recommencement. Gilliam can take courage from Quixote’s eternal optimism. As he says after being beaten up for the umpteenth time, “Fortune always leaves one door open in disasters to admit a remedy”.

LOUDLY FLOW THE DONS
From left to right Don Quixote by Honoré Daumier, c1865-1870, Stephen Manton takes alarm in the Intimate Opera Company’s production of Wilhelm Kienzl’s “Don Quixote” (c1950), Paul Scofield cycles forth at the National Theatre in Thomas d’Urfey’s 1694 theatrical adaptation of the novel (1982)

FROM LEFT TO RIGHTRichard Van Allan strikes a pose in the English National Opera’s staging of Massenet’s “Don Quichotte” (1994), Miguel Angel Blanco’s Don woos Viengsay Valdés’s Kitri in the Ballet Nacional de Cuba’s visit to Sadler’s Wells (2006), Christopher Saunders saddles up in the Royal Ballet’s production, choreographed by Carlos Acosta (2013)

 

Don Quixote at the RSC Stratford, Feb 25th-May 21st; Bolshoi “Don Quixote” at the Royal Opera House, Jul 25th-28th; “The Man Who Invented Fiction: How Cervantes Ushered in the Modern World” by William Egginton, out now

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suetamm - May 4th 2016

Quixote is a unique moment in literature. Cervantes not only creates the novel, but he create prose. This novel is our first real break from poetry. All the previous epics are written as poems. So this work is truly a complete break in our literary tradition. Why is the story in prose, why is the hero an anti hero, a madman, a fool? Some suggest that Cervantes was from a Jewish family who had to hide their faith in order to continue to live in the Inquisition's Spain which banned all Jews. But whether or not Cervantes was hiding his true faith, no one under the Inquisition's rule could tell the truth. So Cervantes has to find a way to tell the truth without telling the truth, much as we do today under our surveillance culture with weekly assassinations being reported as natural deaths. We have become again people living under threat and truth is not possible except in disguise. So Cervantes, like many of us, creates a mask and a contrast between an earthy barber who is stuck in prosaic realism and the commonplace view of reality who is the companion or protector of a mad, foolish old man who must live in dreams and illusions and books. So this is a book about books, what are books, where are we when we read? As we sway back and forth between their two completely opposite world views, Cervantes is able to question what is reality, and who speaks the truth in a world which does not permit the truth to be told. Quixote was one of the most popular books in its time. Everybody read it because it told the truth about what was really happening in Spain under the Inquisition. But if the Church censors worried about any point of criticism of their rule, Cervantes could laugh, but this is just the ravings of a crazy old man, a joke. And then the truth was safe, hidden in the humor, the truth was told to the delight of Europe. But on another level, we grasp that Sancho's realism is not the truth or the whole truth. We realize that the oppression of the Church has strangled the truth of the human spirit, poisoned it into the mundane, the prosaic. And we begin to understand what poetry is because it is lost, it is missing and our world is impoverished without poetry. We begin to see that the truth of our souls most often lives in our books and in our poems, not in the factual world which often destroys human imagination and dreams and turns our dreams into prose. The world of Romance keeps escaping from Quixote's bewildered mind, from all the books that have fed his imagination. His death scene is surly the most beautiful moment in the novel. Quixote confesses that he knows now that he has been escaping into fantasies and he admits that he must give up these silly fantasies. But as he confesses his illusions, his family and friends beg him not to abandon his dreams. Only in his dreams can they live the real life of their souls. They insist that he restore them to his magical insight, to the hidden truth of who they really are beneath the masks of poverty and abuse in their violent, warped culture. After Cervantes creates this first novel, we turn often to prose rather than poetry to tell our stories. Verse still rules the theater and epic and lyric poetry. But we stay in this new prosaic world to capture who we are. But the questions remain for centuries, where is the truth of our being, in our imagination, in our dreams, in our stories or in our confrontations with "THE WORLD"? We still are searching for an answer to Cervantes's question. Is his hero mad, or does he see too clearly for the world in which he lives? What is the truth when we are forced to live a lie?