Don Quixote has been challenging my honor for decades.
“You want the world to think you are well-read, a true Señor of letters,” he admonished each time I looked up at him on the shelf. “You may even believe it yourself. Yet here I sit, my spine miraculously strong and stiff; a joke you would appreciate if you knew me.”
Once I reminded him that I had read the first 75 of his 940 pages – which is actually two books for goodness sake. Big mistake: “Then you, sir, are both a fraud and a quitter.”
As he spat those words, I heard his fellow guilt trippers, Andrew Bolkonski and Dorthea Brooke, snickering.
Funny how the mind enables us to think so well of ourselves – and expect others to do the same – despite our secrets. Our ability to make ourselves the hero of our own story is almost limitless.
And yet, for all our creative energies, reality (that which exists no matter what we think about it) persists. And insists.
When the inconvenient truth of the coronavirus began to bite back in March I had just finished Mark Helprin’s superb novel, “Memoir from Antproof Case.” I was feeling fine but, like a hanging, a global pandemic concentrates the mind. So as I asked the reader’s favorite question – what’s next? – a small part of me thought, what if this is it?
So I pulled down “Don Quixote” and sat up in my chair. I knew I had to be disciplined this time, so I set a minimum of 100 pages a day. I promised myself I wouldn’t tell anybody until I was at least half-way through. Believe me, that wasn’t easy. Oh the pleasure of saying/hearing, Me? I’m reading “Quixote.”
Naturally, I had high expectations. Cervantes’ masterpiece is widely considered the first modern novel and Harold Bloom’s introduction to Edith Grossman’s translation argued it had no rival save “Hamlet.”
Still, it was tough sledding at first because “Quixote” is not quite like other modern novels, which is probably why I had abandoned it before. The set-up is clear enough: “Don Quixote” is the story of a middle-aged man who has made the silly mistake of believing what he reads – in his case fantastic tales of chivalrous knights who slay countless wrongdoers in the name of the women they love. And so our eponymous hero sets out, with his trusty steed Rocinante and his hilarious manservant Sancho Panza, to revive that grand tradition of knight errantry by righting wrongs across Spain.
The novel describes their long string of misadventures with dozens of fleeting figures – innkeepers and maidens, barbers, aristocrats, priests, scoundrels, innocents and yes, a few windmills – who vanish as quickly as they appear. Don’t bother trying to remember anyone’s name.