On Reviewing Don Quixote

How to Cite

Noonan, W. (2005). On Reviewing Don Quixote. M/C Journal, 8(5). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.2415
Vol. 8 No. 5 (2005): 'review'
Published 2005-10-01

The book review might be thought of as a provisionally authoritative assessment designed to evaluate a book on behalf of potential readers, and to place the text within an appropriate literary context. It is, perhaps, more often associated with newly published works than established “classics,” which exist both as saleable commodities in the form of published books, and as more abstract entities within the cultural memory of a given audience. This suggests part of the difficulty of reviewing a book like Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote, originally published in 1605 (Part I) and 1615 (Part II).

Don Quixote is a long book, and is often referred to through ellipsis or synecdoche. Pared back to its most famous episode, Don Quixote’s tilting at windmills (Part I ch. 8: 63-5), it is frequently interpreted in terms of a comic opposition between the world of chivalric romance that determines the central character’s perceptions and actions, and the world of early modern Spain in which he is set. This seems as good a summary as any of Don Quixote’s behaviour, as the “quixotic” symbolism of this episode is easily transposed onto both the internal world of the text, and the external world in general. But Cervantes’s novel also seems to resist definition in such simple terms; as I intend to suggest, the relationship between what Don Quixote is seen to represent, and his role in the novel, can generate some interesting repercussions for the process of reviewing.

Cervantes represents his character’s delusions as a consequence of the books he reads, providing the opportunity for a review (in the sense both of a survey and a critique) of various contemporary literary discourses. This process is formalised early on, as the contents of Don Quixote’s library are examined, criticised and selectively burnt by his concerned friends (Part I ch. 6: 52-8). The books mentioned are real, and the discovery of Cervantes’s own Galatea among those reprieved suggests a playful authorial reflection on the fictional quality of his work, an impression reinforced as the original narrative breaks off to be replaced by a “second author” and Arabic translator between two chapters (Part I ch. 8-9: 70-6).

Part II of Don Quixote depicts characters who have read, and refer to, Part I, effectively granting Don Quixote an internal literary identity that is reviewed by the other characters against the figure they actually encounter. To complicate matters, it also contains repeated mentions of a real, but apocryphal, Part II (published in Tarragona in 1614 under the name Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda), culminating in Don Quixote’s encounter with a proof copy of a (fictional) second edition in a Barcelona printing shop (ch. 62: 916). Ironically, while this text appears to question the later, authorised version from which it differs markedly, Cervantes’s mention of it within his own text allows him both to review the work of his rival, and reflect on the reception of his own.

These forms of self-reflexivity suggest both a general interest in writing and literature, and a rather more perplexing sense of the text reviewing itself. In an odd sense, Don Quixote pre-empts and usurps the role of the reviewer, appearing somehow to place external reviewers in the position of being contained or implied within it.

But despite these pitfalls, more reviews than usual have appeared in 2005, the four hundredth anniversary of the publication of Don Quixote, Part I.

Some refer specifically to editions released for the anniversary: Jeremy Lawrance reviews two new editions in Spanish, while Paddy Bullard examines a newly-restored edition of Tobias Smollett’s 1755 translation, recommended “for readers of Cervantes who are interested in his profound influence on eighteenth-century British culture, or on the development of the novel as a modern literary genre.”

This also suggests something about the way in which translations, like reviews, serve to mark and to mediate their own context. Lawrance’s verdict of “still readable” implies the book’s continuing capacity not only to entertain, but also to generate readings that throw light on the history of its reception.

Don Quixote provides a perspective from which to review the concerns implied in critical interpretations of different periods. Smollett’s translation (like Laurence Sterne’s invocations of Cervantes in his Tristram Shandy) suggests an eighteenth-century interest in the relationship between Don Quixote and the novel. This may be contrasted, as Yannick Roy suggests (53-4), both with earlier perceptions of Don Quixote as a figure to be laughed at, and the post-romantic perception of a tragicomical everyman seen as representative of a human condition.

Modern interpretations of Don Quixote are also complicated by the canonisation of its hero as a household word.

Comparing the anniversary of Don Quixote to the attention given to the centenary of Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity (1905), Simon Jenkins notes “few English people read Don Quixote, perhaps because they think they know it already.” It is frequently described as a foundational text of the modern novel; however, at a thousand pages, it must also compete for readers’ time and attention with the ever-increasing gamut of long prose narratives it helped instigate. Don Quixote, the deluded knight-errant lives on, while the subtleties of Cervantes’s narrative may increasingly be dependent on sympathetic reviewers.

It would seem that it is no longer necessary to read the story of Don Quixote in order to know, or even write about him. Nevertheless, not least because the book entertains a complex relationship with its character, and because it seems so conscious of its own literary enterprise, Don Quixote is a dangerous book not to have read.

Responding to Jenkins’s claim that Cervantes’s work represents a more unique, and more easily grasped, achievement than Einstein’s, Stephen Matchett takes exception to a phenomenon he describes as “a bloke who tilted at windmills.” Arguing that “most of us are sufficiently solipsistic to be more comfortable with writers who chart the human condition than thinkers who strive to make sense of the universe,” he seems to consider Don Quixote as exemplary of a pernicious modern tendency to privilege literary discourses over scientific ones, to take fiction more seriously than reality.

Even ignoring the incongruity of a theory of relativity presented as a paradigm of fact (which may speak volumes about textual and existential anxiety in the twenty-first century), this seems a particularly unfortunate judgement to make about Don Quixote. Matchett’s claim about the relative fortunes of science and literature is not only difficult to substantiate, but also appears to have been anticipated by the condition of Don Quixote himself. Rather than arguing that the survival of Cervantes’s novel is representative of a public obsession with fiction, it would seem more accurate, if nonetheless paradoxical, to suggest that Don Quixote seems capable of projecting the delusions of its central character onto the unwary reviewer.

Matchett’s article is not, strictly speaking, a review of the text of Don Quixote, and so the question of whether he has actually read the book is, in some sense, irrelevant. The parallels are nevertheless striking: while the surrealism of Don Quixote’s enterprise is highlighted by his attempt to derive a way of being specifically from a literature of chivalry, Matchett’s choice of example has the consequence of re-creating aspects of Cervantes’s novel in a new context. Tilting at chimerical adversaries that recall the windmills upon which its analysis is centred, this review may be read not only as a response to Don Quixote, but also, ironically, as a performance of it.

To say this seems absurd; however, echoing Jorge Luis Borges’s words in his essay “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” “to justify this ‘absurdity’ is the primary object of this note” (40). Borges explores the (fictional) attempt of obscure French poet Pierre Menard to rewrite, word for word, parts of Cervantes’s Don Quixote. Menard’s initial undertaking to “be Miguel de Cervantes,” to “forget the history of Europe between 1602 and 1918,” is rejected for the more interesting attempt to “go on being Pierre Menard and reach the Quixote through the experiences of Pierre Menard”. While Menard’s text is identical to Cervantes’s, the point is that the implied difference in context affects the way in which the text is read. As Borges states:

It is not in vain that three hundred years have gone by, filled with exceedingly complex events. Amongst them, to mention only one, is the Quixote itself. . . . Cervantes’s text and Menard’s are verbally identical, but the second is almost infinitely richer (41-2).

Menard’s “verbally identical” Quixote can also be identified as a review of Cervantes’s text, in the sense that it is both informed by, and dependent on, the original. In addition, it allows a review of the relationship between the book as published by Cervantes, and the almost infinite number of readings engendered by the historical permutations of the last three (and now four) hundred years, from which the influence of Don Quixote cannot be excluded.

Matchett’s review is of a different nature, in that it stems from an attempt to question the book’s continuing popularity. It seems absurd to suggest that Matchett himself could have served as a model for Don Quixote. But the unacknowledged debt of his piece to Cervantes’s novel, and to the opposition of discourses set up within it, reveals a supremely quixotic irony: Stephen Matchett appears to have produced a concise and richly interpretable rewriting of Don Quixote, in the persona of Stephen Matchett.

Author Biography

Will Noonan