Don Quixote is one of my favourite ever novels. I think everyone who loves fiction should read it – because it is the best story I know about the blur between life and fiction, and in the 21st century we seem more and more to live in this blurred realm. I’m not sure I’ve ever managed to persuade anyone to read it – its size alone is daunting, at over 1000 pages in my densely worded Modern Library version, and while the translation that I’ve read and love, by Tobias Smollet (1755), is still lively, it’s also somewhat archaic. But Don Quixote is a truly extraordinary novel, one which has been all things to all people across all times.
Considered to be the first modern novel, Don Quixote is still the world’s most published and translated book, after the Bible. Its story of a middle-aged man setting out on his ‘skeleton of a horse’ for a life of adventure with his pleasure-loving companion and trusty squire Sancho Panza is one of the best-known stories in the world.
Don Quixote is addicted to the romances of chivalry. Here’s how Cervantes describes him: ‘this said honest gentleman at his leisure hours, which engrossed the greatest part of the year, addicted himself to the reading of books of chivalry, which he perused with such rapture and application, that he not only forgot the pleasures of the chace, but also utterly neglected the management of his estate: nay to such a pass did his curiosity and madness, in this particular, drive him, that he sold many good acres of Terra Firma, to purchase books of knight-errantry, with which he furnished his library to the utmost of his power’.
And it was none other than Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain and its French translations and adaptations that were the source of the chivalric literature that so transfixes Don Quixote. These books inspired a new literary genre, the Arthurian romance, and introduced to the medieval world a new contemporary hero – the knight or ‘Christian hero’ – in place of the epic heroes of pagan Greece and Rome, such as Achilles, Odysseus and Aeneas.
Don Quixote, determined to live by the codes of chivalry he’s read about in books yet oblivious to the fact the times have changed utterly (it’s early 17th century Spain not medieval Europe), comes to the rescue of damsels who are not in distress and terrorises the countryside in his quest for wrongs to right.
Cervantes was over 50 when he wrote Don Quixote, which he probably dreamt up while he was in prison for financial misdemeanours. The first of the two volumes of The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote of La Mancha appeared in January 1605 and caused an immediate sensation. The adventures of Don Quixote (known as the ‘Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance’), Sancho Panza and Don Quixote’s horse Rozinante so captured the public’s imagination that from the moment they appeared in print they were impersonated in parades and festivals from South America to Germany.
Don Quixote was widely translated and published in English in 1612. Its popularity was so widespread that a counterfeit second volume by one Alonso Fernandez de Avellaneda appeared in 1614, before Cervantes could publish his own second volume in 1615. In Cervante’s Volume II, Don Quixote is aware of his own renown throughout the real world:
‘so that, by numberless exploits becoming a christian hero, I am now celebrated in print through almost all the nations of the habitable globe. Thirty thousand copies of my renowned history are already in the hands of the public.’
Cervantes was born in 1547 about 20 miles from Madrid, but his family moved from town to town for his father’s work as a barber-surgeon. His life can be seen in two distinct parts: a decade of high adventure, followed by years of financial difficulty as he struggled to make a living from writing while working as a government administrator. He spent his early adulthood as a soldier, fighting with the Spanish infantry against the Turks near Corinth in 1571. On his return voyage to Spain four years later, his ship was captured by Barbary pirates and he was sold into slavery in Algiers, the centre of Muslim trade in Christian slaves. He was held captive for five years until 1580, when his family paid the ransom for his release.
Back in Spain, work was hard to find and life was expensive (Europe experienced its first inflation in the 16th century). With his first published book, La Galatea (1585), Cervantes discovered he couldn’t make a living from writing and was forced to take a series of administrative posts, including one with the Spanish Armada (which he lost when it was destroyed in 1588) and one collecting taxes.
As Cervantes explains in his preface, his ‘sole aim’ in writing Don Quixote was to spoof the pulp fiction of his day: the tales of chivalry. Or, as he puts it, ‘to invalidate the authority, and ridicule the absurdity of those books of chivalry, which have, as it were, fascinated the eyes and judgement of the world, and in particular of the vulgar.’
The rambling conversations and see-saw relationship of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are the source of most of the book’s comedy. Their preposterous friendship, characterised by great affection and intense frustration, is echoed in the 20th century in couples from Samuel Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot to the friends played by Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels in the Farrelly brothers’ film Dumb and Dumber (1994). Don Quixote’s hold on reality is famously slippery – Carlos Fuentes describes his failure in practical matters as ‘the most gloriously ludicrous in recorded history’ – and this appals the practical Sancho, who never ceases to be astonished by the extent of his friend’s madness, yet loves him dearly in spite of it.
Cervantes was a great literary experimenter and the fictional world he creates in Don Quixote is complex. The novel’s purported genesis is multi-layered. Don Quixote presents itself as the work of an Arab historian, Cide Hamete Benengeli, which has been translated into Spanish by a Moor and then edited by Cervantes himself. The lines of truth and fiction are further blurred by Cervantes when he appears in his own novel – one of the characters says: ‘that same Cervantes has been an intimate friend of mine, these many years, and is, to my certain knowledge, more conversant with misfortunes than with poetry’.
And, as Woody Allen did in his film Zelig (1983), in which he superimposed Zelig onto footage of key moments of the 20th century (as did Forrest Gump in 1994), Cervantes places Don Quixote in real historical moments with real people of his time. Cervantes even includes the counterfeit second volume of Don Quixote (written by the historical Avellaneda) in his own Volume II, allowing his Don Quixote to change his plans so as to distinguish himself from Avellaneda’s Don Quixote, ‘so eager was [Don Quixote] to fix the lye upon the new historian by whom they said he was so scurvily treated.’
When it first came out Don Quixote was read as a comedy, but by the end of the 17th century it was taken more seriously and viewed as a mock epic in prose. The early German Romantics saw the comic figure of Don Quixote as a tragic hero, and Dostoyevsky called Don Quixote ‘the saddest book of them all’. In the Soviet Union, Don Quixote was seen as the ideal rebel anti-capitalist hero; in Revolutionary France as a doomed visionary. Cervante’s novel has inspired countless artists, including Picasso, Dore and Daumier, and writers like William Faulkner, who read Don Quixote every year.
Superstition says that all attempts to adapt the novel to film are doomed to failure – Orson Welles tried to make a film of it for 20 years and failed. Terry Gilliam’s attempt to film it, starring Johnny Depp, was so plagued by misfortune that it ended up as a documentary, Lost in La Mancha (2002). Gilliam made a second attempt to film it, with Robert Duvall and Ewan McGregor as The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, but its funding collapsed in 2010 before filming could begin. Gilliam said at the time: ‘Don Quixote gives me something to look forward to, always. Maybe the most frightening thing is to actually make the film.’ Don Quixote has been made into a musical, Man of La Mancha (1965), and adapted by the BBC for television as Donovan Quick (1999), starring Colin Firth.
Don Quixote, in his determined efforts to live by archaic codes of chivalry in a world which left them behind long ago, still moves audiences to laughter and tears 400 years after his first appearance in print.