It’s 1974 and I sit in my world literature class, watching the girls in the other side of the room cross and re-cross their legs, their short skirts inching up their thighs with each crossing. I am 17 years old, and the teacher has yet to arrive.
I chat with Johnny, my best friend, and with Gary, the friend that I have kept in touch with my entire life. We talk about high school cross country practice that is scheduled to begin at 12:45, joking about how hard we plan to run, dreading the discomfort, wondering if we will be running long, doing a tempo run, or repeats on the cinder track. All I can think about is the fact that I have to go to work after practice and how tired my legs will be.
I take out my book: “Don Quixote of the Mancha,” and I start reading. I’m about halfway through book one. I’m unsure what to make of the story; I don’t know if Cervantes is being serious or funny. Some of his phraseology seems a little off-center, quirky, and I wonder what readers in the 17th century thought about it.
But it is those very sentences that often make me laugh, that even today bring a smile to my face, such as these in Chapter 12 when Don Quixote sits on the ground after another failed intervention “and there crammed himself with weeping” or this from Sancho Panza when speaking about his master, Don Quixote, and his love of Dulcinea del Toboso, “of whom his lord was enamored up to the livers.”
Mrs. Dempsey walks into the classroom. She is a petite woman. She has brown-colored hair, and she wears thick-rimmed glasses. Her eyes rise over the lenses when looking at us.
“For those of you behind in your reading you’re in luck,” Mrs. Dempsey says. “I’m going to give you time to read in class today. So pull out your books and start reading.”
Tom Selkow immediately reaches for his Cliff Notes.
“You need to read the book, Tom,” Mrs. Dempsey says.
Johnny snickers. He looks as happy as a termite in rotted wood.
“I’m just going to read a little in here first.”
“Read the book, Tom. There’s no enchantment in Cliff Notes.”
“OK,” Tom says.
“Cliff Notes are an abomination,” Mrs. Dempsey says. “If you fail to read the book you’re missing out on magic and wonder.”
In reading Don Quixote for the first time, I had no idea, until years later, that I was reading something positively new. Perhaps Mrs. Dempsey mentioned that the novel was essentially the first one ever written, at least in the modern sense. But as a boy I don’t recall feeling particularly enlightened by Cervantes writing, although through the years I have come to realize how much is extraordinary about the Quixote.
I don’t recall, in my world literature class, that we read the second part of Don Quixote. Published in 1615, the author in truly prescient form, though different from early 19th-century “Dear Reader” style, such as Austen, commented on his characters, themselves being aware that “others” have read about them. And it isn’t just this metafictional trick Cervantes employed that has made him copied by writers from all over the world. Cervantes was metafictional long before David Foster Wallace.
Fiction by its very nature is an imaginary device whereby readers essentially “suspend” disbelief. In Don Quixote, Cervantes sends his hero out into the world on adventures to save the world from injustices. Of course, what he surmises as wrongs are frequently misinterpretations, often due to misrepresentations of the people he meets. These misrepresentations, naturally, begin with him. One can imagine Cervantes sitting in a room somewhere, a candle burning well into the night, while he wrote feverously, unsure of what he was creating, but enjoying himself immensely.
What is this crazy thing I am creating, I imagine him speaking out loud.
Of course Don Quixote isn’t solely about the madcap adventures of a demented middle-aged man, and his robust companion. But this is what initially draws in the reader. Later, one understands there is social and political commentary and that one can read the novel on many levels, as satire, magical realism, adventure story, or any number of other ways.
I read parts of Don Quixote every year. I’m reading it now. This being the 400th anniversary of its publication, events are taking place across the Triangle, in celebration. Go to iamquixote.com for details and find out what the Quixote is all about, and why in the Harvard Classics translation by Thomas Shelton Cervantes himself is attested to have said: “It is so conspicuous and void of difficulty that children may handle him, youths may read him, men may understand him, and old men may celebrate him.”
Please write Robert at firstname.lastname@example.org. He will be participating in a literary gathering on Oct. 12 at the John Hope Franklin Center where he’ll be reading a new story about Don Quixote.