One of the risks of appearing on a “best of” list, is that a book, film, piece of music, anything really, will be considered wonderful, possibly even bought, but not actually sampled, and so experienced only by reputation. I’ve still not seen Citizen Kane.
Hence my slight aversion to the list of “must read” works contained in Harold Bloom’s famous The Western Canon. Bloom himself is utterly in love with literature, but has pretty much disowned the list, not surprising when you see some of what’s in it.
One book that always makes it into these exercises though, is Cervantes’ Don Quixote. And I have just finished all 940 pages of it.
One of the problems with delving into ‘great’ literature is that much of it has to be read in translation. I’m always left with a slight feeling of uncertainty as to whether that was what the author actually meant. The problem is worse the further back you go – try comparing different translations of the Georgics or the Iliad, to see what I mean.
So, my version of Don Quixote was the translation that first appeared in 2003, by Edith Grossman, with an introduction is by Harold Bloom himself, which is superb, especially if reread after finishing the novel. A concise version of the introduction is here.
I first tried and failed to read Don Quixote in an ancient translation when I was about 18. Probably a bad idea. This timed I enjoyed every page. So, what is it exactly?
Well, it barely has a plot, the characters are nearly all unbelievable, it’s set in Old Spain, which could hardly be less like contemporary Britain, and the hero is a deluded, virginal, middle aged Catholic madman. At least on the face of it.
It’s actually hard to say in a few words why the book is so great. A series of shaggy dog stories, pastoral interludes, ridiculous adventures and coincidences, and an almost non stop dialogue between Don Quixote himself and Sancho Panza, his squire. The obvious answer, which is largely true, is that these two, and the various others who they meet are all shades of Everyman, and like another translated genius, Tolstoy, Cervantes is a subtle and brilliant depictor of ourselves, often at our worst. Unlike Tolstoy, he can be very funny, itself amazing in a 400 year old book. The ending, unlike many otherwise fine books (and films) is masterly.
However, claims like this, however well-intended, can’t really provide the true picture. For that you have to read this remarkable work. The last word goes to Bloom again:
“All novels since ‘Don Quixote’ rewrite Cervantes’s universal masterpiece, even when they are quite unaware of it.”