Nabokov’s Don Quixote

October 15, 2020

Vladimir Nabokov is a crank, in his “Lectures On Don Quixote.”  He’s practically lost me with his declaration that the character of Sancho Panza is just a “generalized clown” and that he’s not funny.  Again, I wonder if the problem is with the edition that Nabokov read, but he certainly read the book in full, and perhaps in more than one language, because he’s conversant in the quality of various translations.

I don’t really know what the problem can be here, when Nabokov says that even Sancho’s cracks and proverbs are not funny, and that the “corniest modern gag is funnier.”  It really is true what Bloom says, that no two people seem to read the same “Don Quixote,” and that there’s no wide agreement on what its virtues are.

Nabokov rightly emphasizes the cruelty in the book, because too many people had forgotten it, and can forget it at any time, particularly with a media always willing to sentimentalize anything.  But he goes on and on, sarcastically, about how each abuse visited on Don Quijote and Sancho must have been uproariously funny.  That’s not where I find the humor.  I find it in the conversations, principally, and in the natural humor of the struggles these personalities find themselves, against each other and against circumstances both of their own making and not.  Perhaps there have been many readers who find the physical and mental abuse funny; there have always been such people.  And maybe in centuries past, mental illness was not seen for what it was, so that no one wondered whether a crazy-seeming person might be suffering from a powerful malady deserving understanding and compassion.  But we don’t need to look to the past (as Nabokov says himself), to see cruelty towards others, even toward the mentally ill.  I see what people do with our knight and squire in this book, and it repulses me; and I don’t take it as if Cervantes is asking me to laugh. 

I felt that the duke and duchess were abominable, but that Don Quijote and Sancho Panza, as I wrote above, were gradually beating those jokesters, by being better than they, and thus showing them all the more to be cretins. 

Maybe I come to this with a Christian understanding of nonviolence, particularly informed by MLK and Gandhi – an understanding in which, if you turn the other cheek, you heap shame on your abuser. St. Paul writes: “Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head.” (Romans 12:20).

If our knight or squire had fought back with angry fighting, well then suddenly the jokesters become another party in a violent fight, in which both parties may be able to share blame (not necessarily equally) and both can call on some sympathy (again, not necessarily with equal force).  But the response(s) by our knight and squire makes it impossible to have any sympathy for the jokesters or for what they’re after.

And then in ch. 70 of Vol. II, we have this, from Cervantes’ stand-in author: 

And Cide Hamete says, moreover, that for his part he considers the concocters of the joke as crazy as the victims of it, and that the duke and duchess were not two fingers’ breadth removed from being something like fools themselves when they took such pains to make game of a pair of fools.

“Don Quixote” is, as Harold Bloom says, a dark book; but that’s because it depicts cruelty in a way that feels true to life.  Yet it’s possible to read it with hope that cruelty can be revealed for what it is.  I think the book does that naturally, showing us, rather than telling us.  If Cervantes had stepped in immediately at the first offense, and at all subsequent offenses, to tell us, so we cannot doubt it, “This is bad,” it would have short-circuited that whole process in which cruelty is gradually revealed to be as foolish as it believes its victims to be and the latter are revealed as far superior to fools – their goodness and humanity no less abundant than their abusers’ cruelty is insatiable.

Such interventions by Cervantes also would have been too black-and-white, discouraging us from asking what part Don Quijote and Sancho had in their sufferings, or from remembering the harm they did to others.  They did no harm to the duke and duchess, certainly; but in Volume I they often invite trouble through our knight’s stubborn obliviousness to basic facts, and his willingness to land blows on others, like the man whose head he cracks in the yard of the inn, on his first “adventure”.  Our knight and squire mostly receive what they don’t deserve, but they’re not just innocent victims of cruelty; Nabokov risks portraying them that way when he recounts the abuse in the novel as a list of violent things done to our knight and squire.

Nabokov says in his lectures that he is interested in literature rather than in histories of the author, and perhaps he makes a mistake casting Cervantes’ life aside, because Cervantes suffered a lot of physical cruelty in his life, and his quest for success was largely Quixotic, before his novel about Don Quijote found success.  So I find it hard to believe that he presented our knight’s sufferings, and the rejection of him by the world, as mere comedy.

I did find it interesting that Nabokov recounts Don Quijote’s victories and defeats and he ends up with a tied score of 20-all, and two-sets-all, as in a tennis match.  I wouldn’t have thought there were so many victories; I thought that our knight lost almost all of his battles, but I was thinking of purely physical ones; Nabokov introduces other kinds of wins, which is fair.  He’s amazed that the score is so tight after such a long story, and takes this as a measure of Cervantes’ artistic skill.  I didn’t run up my own score-tally but I trust 20-20 is correct; and if so, it does show Cervantes keeping “in the balance” our estimation of Don Quijote’s success.

Nabokov wishes that Don Quijote had met the false Don Quijote of Avellaneda’s novel, rather than Samson Carrasco.  And he wishes that the false knight had beaten our knight, because in real life frauds beat authenticity more often than not.  This is what I mean when I say he sounds like a crank.  And I could not disagree more about the final joust.  To lose to Avellaneda’s false knight would be perverse.  And to beat him would serve no purpose – it would come off merely as Cervantes’ spite toward Avellaneda – and would leave Don Quijote still needing to be defeated.

Nabokov spends so long decrying what he finds as brutal or merely negative in the novel, that it was surprising to see him stop in a moment of appreciation for the scene in which Don Quijote has holed himself away in loneliness and is being serenaded by Altisidora.  And it is very touching, the way he had retreated into his room – so uncharacteristic of him.  He’s no longer feeling all-powerful and confident.  And then the serenade comes in, knocking him further about.

I had never read anything by Nabokov, fiction or nonfiction.  I intend at least to read “Lolita.”  That novel appeared some three years after these lectures were given; and in a foreword to the “Lectures,” Guy Davenport says that “Don Quixote” had some influence on “Lolita,” in which one of Nabokov’s themes would be “Courtly Love, its madnesses and follies.”  Davenport writes that Dulcinea of Toboso is Lolita’s “grandmama.” 

This particular scene involving Altisidora moved Nabokov and must have stayed with him; and it’s interesting to recall that Altisidora is described as a few months short of fifteen, perhaps implying that she’s underage.

I will read “Lolita” one day, though right now I want to read “Madame Bovary” first, largely because the title character has been called “the female Don Quijote”; and the influence of Cervantes’ novel on Flaubert appears to have been very great.

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