The first part of Don Quixote was published in 1605, and the second in 1615; it is often described as the first modern novel, and Cervantes as the father of modern literature. In a new translation, Edith Grossman has put the tales of the famous knight into clear and accessible English. Don Quixote is not just the first novel, it might be the best.
In the English-speaking world, two images of early modern Spain prevail: those of the Spanish Inquisition and Don Quixote. The former evokes thoughts of cruelty, repression and religious tyranny while the latter is associated with madness, humour and modern thought.
How could they coexist in the same country? The fact that they did shows us that the 16thand 17th-century Catholic world was not one-dimensional but, like any other society, involved in a continuous cycle of regression and progress. Don Quixote, which ridiculed the chivalric tradition that had dominated literature for so long, was an instant hit with the Spanish public; evidently Cervantes had perfectly caught the mood as it changed from medieval to modern. He avoided censorship not only because he phrased his work so carefully but also because the Inquisition was not as forbidding as Protestants like to imagine.
Edith Grossman has produced an excellent translation of Don Quixote, all the more impressive on account of the novel’s extraordinary complexity. Above all, she succeeds in conveying the energy and fizz of Cervantes’ essentially modern language, which contrasts so sharply with Don Quixote’s chivalric nonsense.
Earlier translations, such as those by Thomas Shelton (1616), Peter Motteux (1700-03), Tobias Smollett (1755) and J M Cohen’s Penguin Classics version (1950) all have their virtues; Edith Grossman, however, makes the very best of being the most recent in the field. Quite rightly, she has produced an uncompromisingly modern edition of this first great modern novel. She manages to bring out the full range of Cervantes’ achievement. The adventures of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are at once hilarious, tragic, disgusting, delightful, and solemn — everything fiction can be. This is perhaps why Henry James found the book a “loose, baggy monster”; different genres and techniques are taken up and discarded. But the flow and sparkle of the story are never lost, despite this awesome breadth, depth and length.
Don Quixote was the only the book that Dr Johnson wanted to be longer. The hero’s famous hallucinations are outrageously funny, and the conversations between the mad knight and his fat little squire humorous and moving. Perhaps some of the word-play is lost in translation, but Grossman has taken care to explain in footnotes jokes that do not work in English.
Although superficially not a religious book, Don Quixote has been called “the Spanish Bible”. And indeed, although Cervantes had to be wary of censorship when dealing with religion, the spirit of the book is mystical. Don Quixote, like a mystic, rejects the world and uses his imagination to see beyond reality. Of course, for most of the book he embraces chivalry rather than God. At the end, however, he renounces chivalry to become Alonso Quixano the Good, a saint ly figure. Perhaps he has just substituted one fantasy for another, but whereas his first state causes him great mental and physical torment, the last returns him to sanity and grants him eternal peace. Don Quixote’s death scene at the end of the novel is laced with tender Christian feeling.
Earlier, when Cervantes is mocking his hero, he is also teasing the reader. Don Quixote has gone mad from reading too much chivalric fiction. Having imposed his delusions upon himself, he seems able to step in and out of his own story. The reader is drawn into the same pattern, so that, like the mad knight, he finds his disbelief gradually suspended. In the process, the line between imagination and reality blurs, so that the ridiculous can become sublime and the laughable almost divine.
Cervantes, a literary magician, performs so many tricks of this kind that we are left dazzled. The narrator changes; the book discusses itself; we are constantly left guessing. How much does Don Quixote believe his own nonsense? Where is Cervantes hiding behind the changing authorial voices? Where can we put ourselves? The absence of certainty, both in style and substance, gives the book a freshness that is hard to find in medieval texts. In the end perhaps, the chief meaning to be extracted is that there is no meaning.
Like his contemporary Shakespeare, Cervantes takes a sceptical view of this world, but this approach, so far from implying a denial of God, assists our faith in Him: to understand that one cannot understand anything is to begin to seek the divine.
In a sense, the intellectual atmosphere of the 21st century, with its belief in material progress, is simply not sceptical enough to promote religion. By contrast, Cervantes, through undermining worldly reality, emphasises the need for a supernatural religion. And today, in the face of science and technology, faith has more than ever become a quixotic quest.