Cervantes’ pulp fiction

October 14, 2020

In the 1885 edition of “Don Quixote” there is this, in the introduction (penned presumably by Ormsby):

But it would be idle to deny that the ingredient which, more than its humour, or its wisdom, or the fertility of invention or knowledge of human nature it displays, has insured its success with the multitude, is the vein of farce that runs through it. It was the attack upon the sheep, the battle with the wine-skins, Mambrino’s helmet, the balsam of Fierabras, Don Quixote knocked over by the sails of the windmill, Sancho tossed in the blanket, the mishaps and misadventures of master and man, that were originally the great attraction, and perhaps are so still to some extent with the majority of readers. It is plain that “Don Quixote” was generally regarded at first, and indeed in Spain for a long time, as little more than a queer droll book, full of laughable incidents and absurd situations, very amusing, but not entitled to much consideration or care. All the editions printed in Spain from 1637 to 1771, when the famous printer Ibarra took it up, were mere trade editions, badly and carelessly printed on vile paper and got up in the style of chap-books intended only for popular use, with, in most instances, uncouth illustrations and clap-trap additions by the publisher.

In other words, for a time, Cervantes’ novel was sanitized in such a way that it got grouped in with the superficial tales it critiqued.  It was read superficially, in short, for entertainment – not an uncommon result for any work of art that’s really entertaining.

At dictionary.com, there is this definition of “pulp fiction”:

Pulp fiction refers to a genre of racy, action-based stories published in cheaply printed magazines from around 1900 to the 1950s, mostly in the United States.

Pulp fiction gets its name from the paper it was printed on. Magazines featuring such stories were typically published using cheap, ragged-edged paper made from wood pulp. These magazines were sometimes called pulps.

Pulp fiction created a breeding ground for new and exciting genres. Though the heyday of pulp fiction magazines has passed, their eye-catching covers and dramatic, fast-paced, and simple stories have left behind a legacy that can be seen in today’s movies, TV, books, and comics featuring action heroes and over-the-top villains.

From that same 1885 introduction to “Don Quixote,” there’s this extraordinary witness of one impact that “Don Quixote” had on real life:

The true nature of the “right arm” and the “bright array,” before which, according to the poet, “the world gave ground,” and which Cervantes’ single laugh demolished, may be gathered from the words of one of his own countrymen, Don Felix Pacheco, as reported by Captain George Carleton, in his “Military Memoirs from 1672 to 1713.” “Before the appearance in the world of that labour of Cervantes,” he said, “it was next to an impossibility for a man to walk the streets with any delight or without danger. There were seen so many cavaliers prancing and curvetting before the windows of their mistresses, that a stranger would have imagined the whole nation to have been nothing less than a race of knight-errants. But after the world became a little acquainted with that notable history, the man that was seen in that once celebrated drapery was pointed at as a Don Quixote, and found himself the jest of high and low. And I verily believe that to this, and this only, we owe that dampness and poverty of spirit which has run through all our councils for a century past, so little agreeable to those nobler actions of our famous ancestors.”

That sounds to me likely exaggerated, but it’s striking nevertheless.  It’s not impossible to believe that a really popular book can change the way people address each other and give them new ways, if they wish, of saying, on the spot, “This is foolish – this is Don Quixote foolishness.”

And this final passage in Ormsby’s introduction:

But it is, after all, the humour of “Don Quixote” that distinguishes it from all other books of the romance kind. It is this that makes it, as one of the most judicial-minded of modern critics calls it, “the best novel in the world beyond all comparison.” It is its varied humour, ranging from broad farce to comedy as subtle as Shakespeare’s or Moliere’s that has naturalised it in every country where there are readers, and made it a classic in every language that has a literature.

It is funnier than any other book I’ve read – and it has an unparalleled collection of proverbs.

Incidentally, Ormsby’s essay has taught me a lot about Cervantes:  about how long he was a captive, and how his fellow captives loved him for the way that he protected them and never threw them under the bus.  In “Don Quixote” itself, the Captive refers to Cervantes (by another name) in passing, as the one slave whom their tyrannical master did not abuse.  It seems that Cervantes had qualities that, in certain circumstances, even bad men could appreciate.  A little like Andy Dufresne in “The Shawshank Redemption” perhaps.  But the first person who came to mind was the man that Pierre Bezukhov met while a prisoner, Platon Karataev.

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