Sunday, January 16, 2005

A Good Beginning

quixotic 1. Caught up in the romance of noble deeds and the pursuit of unreachable goals; idealistic without regard to practicality. 2. Capricious; impulsive. [From English Quixote, a visionary, after Don Quixote, hero of a romance by Miguel de Cervantes. (The American Heritage Dictionary, Third Edition) And so I take up Don Quixote, on this the 400th anniversary of the publication of part one of what is widely considered the first western novel. In spite of the novel's importance and cultural pervasiveness I have never read it. In high school instead of reading the novel we watched the movie version of The Man from La Mancha. As a consequence, I know the general story and have the dreadful "Impossible Dream" song stuck in my head forever. It has been playing since I decided to meet the challenge of Sandra from Book World to actually read the book this year. I hope once I get into the book Cervantes' story will drown out the song. Sandra figured that Don Quixote can be read in one year if we read three chapters a week. And so she and I and Susan from Pages Turned are all going to give it a go. There is also a group of folks at Well-Educated Minds reading the book as well. I am excited about the undertaking. I tried to read the book once, long ago, but I didn't make it past chapter 20. At the last attempt I was reading the Signet Classic version translated by Walter Starkie. I still have this copy and my Bookman is going to attempt to read it while I read the newer Edith Grossman translation. I am not much for reading introductions to books, they always assume you have read the book already and give away the ending. So I save the intros until after I finish the book. But this time I decided to read the introduction and I am glad I did. Harold Bloom writes the intro to the Grossman translation. Normally I don't much care for Bloom--he is a smart man but likes to tell you how smart he is. But his intro is quite good. It has brought Don Quixote into some context for me. For instance I never realized that Cervantes and Shakespeare were contemporaries and even died on the same day--April 23, 1616. Cervantes also had a rather hard life. At the age of 24 he was wounded at the naval battle of Lepanto and permanently lost the use of his left hand. In 1575 he was captured by Barbary pirates and spent five years as a slave in Algiers. He spent time as a spy for Spain in Portugal and Oran. Then he lived in Madrid where he tried to make a living writing plays but failed terribly. So he turned to tax collecting and was sent to jail in 1597 for alleged malfeasance. He was released and imprisoned again in 1605. Tradition has it that he began Don Quixote while in jail. He wrote part one quickly--it was published on this day in 1605. Part 2 was published in 1615. While Cervantes became famous after the publication of part one, his publisher stole all of his royalties. He would likely have died in poverty if it weren't for the patronage of a nobleman the last three years of Cervantes' life. Why is it that so many of the west's greatest artists suffer lives of poverty? It is such a common thing that poverty (and madness) are frequently viewed as part of the job description for any artist but particularly the writers living in a dark garret with bread, wine and his/her art as the only sustenance. But I digress. And so the quest of "the Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha" begins. If nothing else, the book is so heavy that by the time I finish it I will have grown some nice muscles in my arms.