Tuesday 18 June 2024

Fuenteovejuna by Lope de Vega

Fuenteovejuna, sometimes spelt Fuente Ovejuna, is another famous play by Lope de Vega. I read Jill Booty’s translation from 1961.

It was originally in verse and translated into prose. 

1/ Look at this conversation between two women: 

“LAURENCIA The Commander may think I am just a spring chicken, but he will find me tough meat for his table. I do not want his so-called “love,” Pascuala, I had rather have a sizzling rasher of bacon for breakfast, with a slice of my own baked bread, and a sly glass of wine from mother’s jar. […] For all their wiles and tricks, their so-called love serves no other purpose than to get us to bed with pleasure, to wake in the morning with disgust.” 

(Act 1) 


“PASCUALA […] Men are just the same [as sparrows]. When they need us, we are their life, their being, their soul, their everything. But when their lust is spent, they behave worse than the sparrows and we are no longer “Sweety-hearts” or even “idiots,” but drabs and whores!

LAURENCIA You cannot trust one of them. 

PASCUALA Not one, Laurencia.” 


That reminds me of Emilia in Othello

“’Tis not a year or two shows us a man:

They are all but stomachs, and we all but food;

To eat us hungerly, and when they are full,

They belch us…” 

The difference is that Shakespeare depicts the contrasting perspectives of the ordinary, earthy Emilia and the saintly and naïve Desdemona, whereas Laurencia and Pascuala agree with each other. 

Anyway, note “spring chicken”, “tough meat”. 

Later on, there’s a moment when Fernando Gómez the Commander wants to have Laurencia. 

“LAURENCIA Flores, let us go. 


FLORES Mind what you say! You are plucky little chicks! 

LAURENCIA Has not your master received enough flesh for one day? 

ORTUÑO But yours is the kind he wants.” 

(Act 1) 

The Commander is “a whore-master and a tyrant”. He forces all the women, virgin or married, to have sex with him, and has the men beaten up.  

“COMMANDER Oh, these easy women. I love them well and pay them ill. If only they valued themselves at their real worth, Flores! 

FLORES When a man is never put in doubt, the delight he gains means nothing to him. A quick surrender denies the exquisite anticipation of pleasure. But has not the philosopher said that there are also those women who as naturally desire a man as form desires its matter? And that it should be so is not surprising, for—

COMMANDER A man crazed with love is ever delighted to be easily and instantly rewarded, but then as easily and instantly he forgets the object of his desire. Even the most generous is quick to forget that which cost him little.” 

(Act 2)  

Again, these two characters agree with each other. 

2/ Fuenteovejuna is among the Lope de Vega plays most frequently translated into English, and I’m under the impression that it’s also among his most famous and acclaimed plays in general (all right, I don’t speak Spanish, but I can see its multiple mentions on the Spanish Wikipedia page about the playwright). 

Is it so popular because it’s essentially a revolutionary play? 

“ALDERMAN Die, or bring death to the tyrants, for we are many, they are few. 

BARTILDO What, rise in arms against our master? 

ESTEBAN Only the King is master under heaven, not Fernando Gómez. If God is with us in our zeal for justice, then how can we go wrong?” 

(Act 3) 

Laurencia’s angry, accusatory speech in this scene is excellent. “Well may this village be called Fuenteovejuna for its people are nothing but sheep. A flock of bleating sheep who run from curs.”

It is an exciting play—Lope de Vega knows how to hook your attention, and he’s also good at the crowd scenes. The mutiny scenes are good; the scene where the judge interrogates the entire village after the murder of the Commander, and everyone under torture still says “Fuenteovejuna did it”, is very good. It’s good fun. 

But there isn’t much depth or complexity in the play. Fernando Gómez (the Commander) is a two-dimensional villain and the peasants are good people. Consider Shakespeare: Shakespeare always explores different aspects and depicts contrasting viewpoints; there’s no play in which he doesn’t do something to complicate things, to make it impossible to know with certainty where he stands. Cervantes does something similar in Don Quixote, which is why there have been lots of different views, different interpretations. 

The disagreement over Fuenteovejuna may be about whether Lope de Vega has sympathy for “the mass” rising up and killing their “oppressor” in a general sense, or only sympathises with this particular case (a real event from the 15th century) because of Fernando Gómez’s tyranny and cruelty, but there is no doubt that he thinks the Commander has it coming because of his actions towards the villagers. Lope de Vega does nothing to humanise the villain, to complicate the revenge of the villagers. 

I should add that this is not an early play. Fuenteovejuna was published in 1619, and R. D. F. Pring-Mill writes in the introduction that it “may have been written as early as 1611 (Morley and Bruerton place it between 1611 and 1618, and probably between 1612 and 1614).” Lope de Vega was born in 1562 (2 years before Shakespeare) but lived for a relatively long time, till 1635, and Fuenteovejuna belongs to the middle period of his career. 

That said, it’s a fun play and Laurencia is a vivid character. 

Monday 17 June 2024

Was Cervantes prompted to write Part 2 of Don Quixote thanks to Avellaneda?

Online I have often come across the suggestion that it was thanks to the fake Part 2 by Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda that Cervantes started writing his own Part 2. I’ve just come across that idea again in Martin Puchner’s The Written World

I can tell you with certainty that that’s not the case.

Part 1 of Don Quixote was published in 1605. Avellaneda’s fake Part 2 came out in 1614, then Cervantes’s Part 2 came out in 1615. 

In the Prologue of Exemplary Novels, Cervantes wrote “first you will see, and soon, the continuation of the deeds of Don Quixote and the delights of Sancho Panza.” He published Exemplary Novels in 1613.

This is why Cervantes didn’t mention Avellaneda until chapter 59, then for the rest of the book (73 chapters in total), constantly took a dig at it. 

PS: I love Cervantes’s wit. The constant digs at Avellaneda in Part 2 are hilarious. But I also like his Hitchcock-style cameos in Part 1. When the priest and the barber go through Don Quixote’s books with the intention of burning them, for example, they come across “La Galatea by Miguel de Cervantes”. Hmm, I wonder who that is.

The priest says: 

“For many years that Cervantes has been a great friend of mine, and I know that he’s more versed in misfortunes than verses. His book has some originality—he proposes something but concludes nothing. We have to wait for the second part that he promises. Maybe after he does his penance, he’ll receive the compassion that has been denied him so far. While we wait for this to happen, keep it in seclusion at your house, señor compadre.” (P.1, ch.6)  

Later, when the captive tells his tale:

“The only one who fared well with him was a Spanish soldier named So-and-So de Saavedra, whom he never beat, nor had beaten, nor said a harsh word to, even though the Spaniard did things that will stick in people’s memory for many years—and all of them to attain freedom—and for the least of the many things he did, all of us were fearful that he would be impaled, and he feared it himself more than once. If time permitted, I’d say things now that this soldier did that would interest and astonish you much more than the narration of my own story…” (P.1, ch.40) 

*cough* Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra *cough*.  

I should perhaps pick up a Cervantes biography. His life seems fascinating. Does anyone know any good one? 

PPS: The chapter about Don Quixote in The Written World is not very good. Martin Puchner does give you some useful information about piracy (literal and figurative) and printing, but his reading of Don Quixote is rather superficial. Cervantes may have started out writing a book to kill all chivalry romances, featuring a man driven mad by reading, but such a book it does not remain—does Puchner think the author actually agreed with the book burning?—Cervantes complicated things and added different layers just in Part 1, and Part 2 was greater, more complex and profound.

I also don’t like that Puchner writes about the lack of copyright and the fake Don Quixote, but doesn’t talk about the brilliance of Cervantes’s response to Avellaneda. I mean he briefly mentions it, but doesn’t talk about its brilliance. He also doesn’t talk about the meta aspect of Part 2, which gives Don Quixote the reputation as “the first postmodern novel”. 

Sunday 16 June 2024

The Dog in the Manger by Lope de Vega, contemporary of Shakespeare and Cervantes

Born 15 years after Cervantes and 2 years before Shakespeare, Lope de Vega died 19 years after the two of them and claimed to have written something like 1,500 plays*, about 400 of which survive. In Spain, he was a successful playwright when Cervantes wasn’t (Nabokov called Cervantes a frustrated playwright who found his medium in the novel). But most importantly, Jonathan Bate argues in The Genius of Shakespeare that if the Spanish Armada hadn't been defeated by England and Spanish had become the international language rather than English, Lope de Vega would have taken the place of Shakespeare.

Well, I have to find out for myself. 

(But how many of those 400 plays—or let’s say 50, the number of plays that have been translated into English—do I have to read before I can deliver my judgement?) 

1/ The Dog in the Manger is, in the original, El Perro del hortelano. I read Jill Booty’s translation from 1961. 

Was the play originally written in verse? Jill Booty translates it into prose.

The trouble with reading classic non-English language plays is that sometimes you think you found the play but it’s “adapted by…” or “a version by…”. That’s what happened with quite a few Spanish plays I picked up. So I got this one, but found in the small print that “Miss Jill Booty would describe her translations as ‘acting versions’” and she “has had to sacrifice much Golden Age rhetoric in the interests of producing credible dialogue”, and now I have no idea how far it is from Lope de Vega’s text. 

Oh well. 

2/ Lope de Vega can be quite funny. 

The play begins with Diana, Countess of Belflor**, shouting that some man’s just in her chamber in the middle of the night. Her people find a hat. 

“DIANA But the feathers I saw… why the hat was loaded with plumes, how can they have shriveled to this? 

FABIO They must have got burned when he threw it at the lamp, madam. Feathers would go up like chaff, you may be sure. Why, did not the same thing happen to Icarus? As soon as he flew too near the sun, his feathers caught fire, and down he fell into the foaming sea. That is what must have happened. The lamp was the sun, the hat was Icarus, its feathers were consumed by fire, and it fell on the stairs—where I found it. 

DIANA I am in no mood for jesting, Fabio...” 

(Act 1) 

Diana then finds out that the man is Teodoro, her secretary, and he’s in love with one of her maids, Marcela. She’s jealous, she has always had a thing for Teodoro. The premise of the play is that she cannot have him, as he’s socially beneath her, but she doesn’t let anyone else have him either—that’s why the play is called El Perro del hortelano, the Spanish equivalent of “dog in the manger”.

Anyway, upon finding out, Diana comes to Teodoro and makes up a story about a friend of hers, a highborn woman, as a roundabout way of confessing to him her feelings: “this lady […] had never felt any loving desire for him. But when she saw him love another, the jealousy she felt awoke her love for him…” 

This bit is interesting: 

“TEODORO You reason well. And yet Icarus, and Phaeton too, plunged down to their destruction, the one with his wax wings destroyed by the furnace of the sun, and the other the golden horses cast headlong upon a rocky mountain, because they aimed too high. 

DIANA But the sun is not a woman…” 

(Act 1) 

Icarus again. Note that Diana says “the sun is not a woman.” 

Now look at the scene where Diana’s suitors are watching each other: 

“CELIO Have you never seen a fair May morning break, when the sun shines in the sign of the bull—the white bull, the poets call him—that grazes among the ruddy clouds of dawn? So came she forth, and yet more perfect, for Diana, the Countess of Belflor, shines with two suns, while the heavens boast only one. 

RICARDO […] You do well to depict so fair a landscape and to portray Diana as the sun, for so she is, and as the sun passes through each sign of the zodiac in turn, so her eyes pass over her suitors, resting on none. See, there is Federico, waiting for his share of the golden beams. 

CELIO Which of you will prove the bull this morning? Upon whom will her spring light fall? 

RICARDO Federico was here before me, and so wins the sign of Taurus, but I will be the Lion, and hope her warmer gaze shall shine on me.” 

(Act 2) 

The sun imagery and the Icarus metaphor recur throughout the play. Teodoro says “my reason is to blame, that allows my hopes to soar too near the sun” and at some point says “Oh, sun, melt to nothing the waxen wings that bore me up so presumptuously to set myself beside an angel!” (Act 2). 

3/ There is a scene where Diana, in anger and jealousy, gives Teodoro a bloody nose, spoiling his handkerchief.

Then she comes back. 

“DIANA Show me your handkerchief. 


DIANA Give me it. 

TEODORO Why do you want it? 

DIANA I want it, Teodoro. Go and speak to Octavio. I have ordered him to give you two thousand escudos. 

TEODORO For what? 

DIANA You will need some new handkerchiefs. [She goes

TEODORO Did you ever hear such madness? 

TRISTÁN She must be bewitched.” 

(Act 2) 

Not hard to understand Lope de Vega’s popularity in the Spanish Golden Age. There isn’t much depth in The Dog in the Manger, but it’s a fun play. I will not compare him to Shakespeare (for now), but if we compare him and Christopher Marlowe, Lope de Vega scores two points against Marlowe: firstly, his characters are more individualised whereas Marlowe tends to have one important character (either a Machiavelli or an overreacher) and everyone else speaks with the same voice; secondly, Marlowe isn’t good with female characters whereas Lope de Vega’s Diana is a rather good depiction of a proud, unpredictable woman who keeps changing and keeps contradicting herself (just don’t expect Cleopatra). Marcela is also all right—in some ways, she mirrors Diana in her games with Teodoro, but she is different. 

(Obviously I’m being unfair, Marlowe’s power is mostly in his poetry—“his mighty line”—rather than characterisation and psychology). 

If I’m not mistaken, in Spain women were allowed to perform onstage in the late 16th, early 17th century—this means that Lope de Vega had an advantage over Shakespeare, John Webster, and other English playwrights. 

I’m going to read more Lope de Vega. 

*: Most likely a shameless exaggeration, but he probably wrote about 500, which is already a lot. The Shakespeare canon has fewer than 40 plays. 

**: I don’t know where that is, but the play is set in Naples.  

Friday 14 June 2024

Ivan Turgenev’s “Hamlet and Don Quixote”

How fascinating that Shakespeare and Cervantes—especially the characters of Hamlet and Don Quixote—loom large in Russian consciousness. I have read Dostoyevsky and Nabokov, I have known for some time that 19th century Russians spoke of the Hamlet type and the Don Quixote type, so reading Turgenev’s essay is inevitable. 

1/ Overall, Turgenev makes some errors (like saying that Hamlet and Part 1 of Don Quixote were published the same year, or Shakespeare and Cervantes died on the same day) and says some strange things, but it’s an interesting essay mainly because of the thesis: 

“In these two types, it two contrasting two poles of the human axis about which to basic tendencies, the they revolve. All men, to my mind, conform to one type or the other; one to that of Hamlet, another that of Don Quixote…” 

(translated by Moshe Spiegel) 

“What does Don Quixote typify? Faith, first of all, a belief in something eternal, indestructible—in a truth that is beyond the comprehension of the individual human being, which is to be achieved through the medium of self-abnegation and undeviating worship.” 

He acknowledges “his deranged imagination” and that “this constitutes the comic side of Don Quixote”, but “his ideal itself remains undefiled and intact.” 

I don’t agree with everything. Why, for example, does Turgenev say Don Quixote “does not probe or question”? Don Quixote becomes haunted by doubt and uncertainty near the end of Part 2. Why does Turgenev call him illiterate and unlearned? He has vast knowledge, and only seems soft in the brain regarding chivalry matters. Turgenev also says “Don Quixote loves Dulcinea ideally, chastely—so ideally that he does not discover that the object of his passion does not exist”. But we know this isn’t true: in Part 2 chapter 32, our knight says “God knows if there’s a Dulcinea in the world or not, or if she’s imagined or not” (translated by Tom Lathrop); and in the end, he can no longer pretend that Dulcinea exists. 

But generally, Turgenev is right about his faith, idealism, and lack of egotism. 

“Don Quixote is an enthusiast, radiant with his devotion to an idea.” 

Like the revolutionaries in Turgenev’s day? 

Then what does Hamlet represent? 

“Above all, analysis, scrutiny, egotism—and consequently disbelief. 

[…] Doubting everything, Hamlet pitilessly includes his own self in these doubts; he is too thoughtful, too fair-minded to be contented with what he finds within himself.” 

His self-consciousness, Turgenev says, is “the antithesis of Don Quixote’s enthusiasm.” 

“He distrusts himself and yet is deeply solicitous about himself; does not know what he is after, nor why he lives at all, and still firmly adheres to life.” 

Like the nihilists and the “superfluous men” in Turgenev’s day?  

Now that I’ve read Turgenev’s essay, I can see the idea of the Hamlets and Don Quixotes in 19th century Russia. Hamlet “vacillates, equivocates, consoles himself with self-reproach” and eventually only kills Claudius accidentally, whereas Don Quixote, “a poor man, without social connections, old and solitary, attempts single-handed to uproot all evil and to deliver the persecuted throughout the world, whoever they may be.” 

2/ Turgenev does see both sides of Don Quixote—he does see that Don Quixote is ridiculous—Nabokov focuses on only his nobility and says he “stands for everything that is gentle, forlorn, pure, unselfish, and gallant.” 

Turgenev says: 

“[Hamlet] would never crusade against windmills; and were they giants in actuality, he would likewise stay away from them. […] I presume even if truth incarnate were to arise before Hamlet, he would remain skeptical of its authenticity. Who knows but that he would challenge it, saying perhaps that there is no truth, just as there are no giants?” 

I like this point: 

“We laugh at Don Quixote, but, my dear sirs, who of us can positively affirm with certainty that he will always and under all circumstances know the difference between a brass wash basin and an enchanted golden helmet?” 

Good, that’s good.

3/ I don’t know why Turgenev talks about “the relation of the mob, of the so-called human race, to Hamlet and Don Quixote” and says that Polonius and Sancho Panza reflect this mass respectively.  

4/ Turgenev’s essay also has an interesting passage about love. Can Hamlet actually love? he asks. Turgenev says Hamlet’s feelings for Ophelia are either cynical or hyperbolic—I don’t think I would be so negative about Hamlet—there is a nobility in Hamlet that Turgenev seems not to notice, and the Russian writer doesn’t talk about the fact that Hamlet is so depressed, so cynical because he is grieving his father, angry at his mother, and disillusioned with humanity as a whole. 

This is a good point though: 

“Hamlet’s spirit of negation is skeptical of the good, but it is indubitably certain of the existence of evil, and militates against it constantly. […] Hamlet’s skepticism is unceasingly at war with falsehood and lying; thus, while disbelieving the possibility of truth’s realization now or ever, he becomes one of the chief vindicators of a truth which he himself does not fully accept.” 

5/ Turgenev says: 

“We esteem Hamlet a good deal more because of Horatio’s devotion to him.” 

But why? Is Sancho Panza not devoted to Don Quixote? 

6/ Turgenev doesn’t only compare Hamlet and Don Quixote—there’s also a section in which he compares Shakespeare and Cervantes. 

I will resist commenting—I have to think some more, and should probably read Exemplary Novels first. 

An interesting essay. Read it for yourself and tell me what you think. 

Wednesday 12 June 2024

Nabokov on the 7 Don Quixotes

Is Don Quixote my new obsession? Well, as you can see… 

After Fighting Windmills: Encounter with Don Quixote, a very good book by Manuel Durán and Fay R. Rogg about the context and influence of Cervantes’s novel, I’ve been reading Vladimir Nabokov’s Lectures on Don Quixote. I’m glad to have picked it up despite my misgivings, because Nabokov, as always, has lots of interesting things to say.

As I’m too busy with work and busy feeling down to write about every single interesting observation in these lectures, we have to make do with a few remarks: Nabokov’s blind spot is that he doesn’t get Cervantes’s sense of humour—it’s not his kind of funny—so he sees the book as crude, cruel, and not humane (did he read a bad translation?* I wonder). He has some other complaints—Nabokov’s gonna Nabokov—but his main problem is that he doesn’t get Cervantes’s comedy and doesn’t particularly like Sancho Panza (like Tolstoy complains about Shakespeare’s jokes and puns). But Nabokov is a great writer and an interesting critic, so these lectures offer many great insights about the book. I also think that a few reviews I read or quotes I came across misrepresented Nabokov’s views, because he does speak of Cervantes’s genius, and loves the character of Don Quixote. 

What I’m saying is, you should read Nabokov’s lectures. 

Anyway, here’s an interesting observation from him:

“From the very first, in the original itself, the figure of Don Quixote undergoes a shadowy multiplication. (1) There is the initial Señor Quijana, a humdrum country gentleman; (2) there is the final Quijano the Good, a kind of synthesis that takes into account the antithetic Don Quixote and the thetic country gentleman; (3) there is the presupposed “original,” “historical” Don Quixote whom Cervantes slyly places somewhere behind the book in order to give it a “true story” flavor; (4) there is the Don Quixote of the imagined Arabic chronicler, Cid Hamete Benengeli, who perhaps, it is amusingly assumed, underplays the valor of the Spanish knight; (5) there is the Don Quixote of the second part, the Knight of the Lions, in juxtaposition to the first part Knight of the Mournful Countenance; (6) there is Carrasco’s Don Quixote; (7) there is the coarse Don Quixote of the Avellaneda spurious continuation lurking in the background of the genuine second part. So we have at least seven colors of the Don Quixote specter in one book, merging and splitting and merging again.” 

This is in the lecture “Victories and Defeats”. Even if we drop Carrasco’s Don Quixote (because he, disguised as the Knight of the Mirrors, makes up a story before fighting Don Quixote), there are 6 Don Quixotes. 

Nabokov continues: 

“And beyond the horizon of the book there is the army of Don Quixotes engendered in the cesspools or hothouses of dishonest or conscientious translations. No wonder the good knight thrived and bred through the world, and at last was equally at home everywhere: as a carnival figure at a festival in Bolivia and as the abstract symbol of noble but spineless political aspirations in old Russia.”

This is when I interrupt the quote to smugly say that I’ve just got from the library a copy of Turgenev’s book Hamlet and Don Quixote

Back to Nabokov:

“We are confronted by an interesting phenomenon: a literary hero losing gradually contact with the book that bore him; leaving his fatherland, leaving his creator’s desk and roaming space after roaming Spain. In result, Don Quixote is greater today than he was in Cervantes’s womb.” 


The Brits are masters of such characters, characters bigger than the books they’re (originally) in: besides a bunch of Shakespeare characters (Hamlet, Othello, Shylock, etc), we also have Sherlock Holmes, Dracula, Frankenstein, Mr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Ebenezer Scrooge, Peter Pan, Robinson Crusoe, Alice, and so on and so forth. The Spaniards have Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. I can’t think of any such characters from the Russians. If any of Pushkin’s characters loom larger than their own books, they’re confined in the Russian language. Not even Raskolnikov exists outside Crime and Punishment. Perhaps Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man is such a character? I’m not sure. Hold on, the answer is Lolita. 

What was I saying? 

Oh yes, Nabokov. He then says: 

“He has ridden for three hundred and fifty years through the jungles and tundras of human thought—and he has gained in vitality and stature. We do not laugh at him any longer. His blazon is pity, his banner is beauty. He stands for everything that is gentle, forlorn, pure, unselfish, and gallant. The parody has become a paragon.”

We still laugh, but Don Quixote does stand for all these things Nabokov says. He is both absurd and noble, both ridiculous and sublime. That is the genius of Cervantes. 

These lectures make me love Don Quixote even more. 

*: I checked. It was Samuel Putnam's translation that Nabokov used for the lectures.

Tuesday 11 June 2024


The loveliest person in the world gave me this present for my birthday! Look! 

(I am at this moment reading Vladimir Nabokov's Lectures on Don Quixote). 

Monday 3 June 2024

Don Quixote and reality

Appearance vs reality is a major theme in Jane Austen. In Northanger Abbey, Catherine imagines life to be like gothic novels (hmm, that sounds familiar); in Sense and Sensibility, both Elinor and Marianne misread things; in Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth misunderstands Mr Darcy, she and everyone else misperceive George Wickham; in Mansfield Park, Fanny is the only one with clear sight, the Crawfords fool everyone—including some readers—with their utter charm and appearance of goodness; in Emma, the titular character, combining in her both pride and prejudice, misinterprets everything around her and almost messes up everyone’s lives; Persuasion is the only Jane Austen novel in which appearance vs reality is not a major theme, but even then the likeable William Elliot turns out to be wildly different from what he has appeared to be. 

It is also one of the major themes in Shakespeare, most obvious when he explores the theme of jealousy and slander, or the danger of words: Much Ado About Nothing, Othello, Cymbeline, which lead up to The Winter’s Tale, a play in which jealousy explodes out of nowhere and destroys everything, without even a slanderer (or shall we say the slanderer is in Leontes’s mind?). But it’s not just those plays—appearance vs reality is a constant theme in Shakespeare as the plays constantly feature some form of disguise, some kind of acting or plotting or pretending. 

Cervantes too is interested in the theme of reality, but from a different angle: through the theme of fantasy vs reality, through the interplay of Romance and Realism, through the contrast between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Cervantes toys with us and makes us wonder what’s real, what’s not real, and more importantly, what it means to be real. It is tricky from the start when he creates multiple narrators, but he pushes it further in Part 2, and creates more layers. How reliable are the narrators? Is Don Quixote mad, or does he pretend to be mad? Does he reinvent himself to escape his own mundane life, or is he rebelling against reason and reality? Is Dulcinea del Toboso actually a peasant woman named Aldonza Lorenzo as Don Quixote says in Part 1, or is she completely imagined? Why does he say he has seen her a few times, and later say he has never met her and has no idea what she looks like? 

(From Britannica: illustration from a 19th century edition)

It’s fascinating to look at the way Cervantes explores the theme of fantasy vs reality and its possibilities. Don Quixote lives in his fantasy and looks at everything in the light of the chivalry romances he has read. When confronted with reality, he makes up another lie. As he gets knocked down, beaten up, pranked on…, he creates more and more elaborate fantastical explanations till he’s finally defeated by reality and no longer able to deny it. 

The more interesting thing is that Don Quixote is not alone—Cervantes also creates Sancho, and Don Quixote’s fantasy affects him. The squire has never doubted that his master would give him an ínsula. The effect is sometimes even stronger: in Part 1, for example, there’s a moment when Sancho thinks Don Quixote has just killed a giant when he attacked and destroyed some wineskins. 

Cervantes also creates multiple levels of fantasy. For example, when Sancho is charged with finding Dulcinea in Part 2, rather than expose the lie that he never delivered the letter to her and/or confront the reality that she doesn’t exist, he points at some peasant girl and makes up a lie about enchantment. The imagined Dulcinea is now made flesh by a fantasy. Don Quixote later sees the peasant girl, or “the enchanted Dulcinea”, in his vision in the Cave of Montesinos, which Sancho knows is not real, but he cannot expose the fantasy about the Cave and the enchanted Dulcinea because then he would also be admitting his own lie. 

It becomes even more complicated when the Duke and Duchess play a prank on them about the disenchantment of Dulcinea. 

“Wonder once again fell on everyone, especially Sancho and Don Quixote. Upon Sancho because he saw that, in spite of the truth, they would have it that Dulcinea was enchanted; upon Don Quixote because he couldn’t be sure if what had happened to him in the Cave of Montesinos was true or not.” (P.2, ch.34) 

(translated by Tom Lathrop) 

This leads to another series of lies and deception—you get the point. 

But then we get to the final moment, and when Sancho tries to give encouragement, to save Don Quixote with some more fantasy but Don Quixote—now Alonso Quixano—is no longer capable of pretending that his fantasies are real, it is heartbreaking.  


On another level, Cervantes explores the question of the realness of fictional characters. 

Throughout the story, Don Quixote argues with other characters that Amadis and other knights errant in the chivalry romances are real. He himself is not real—Cervantes’s book is a novel—but even within the fictional world of the book, he is not real—he is an invention of a hidalgo named Alonso Quixano. But at the same time, he is real, because of the fake Don Quixote by Avellaneda, released after Part 1 but before Cervantes’s Part 2. Cervantes hates the book with such a burning passion that he alludes to it several times in his own book and includes a scene basically declaring the other Don Quixote and Sancho to be impostors. That adds another layer. 

In addition, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are fictional, and yet over the past 400 years, we have loved and discussed them as though they’re real. There’s a Don Quixote Museum in Spain. There’s even a museum for Dulcinea, who doesn’t exist in the novel.


I’m enjoying Fighting Windmills by Manuel Durán and Fay R. Rogg. They write well about the context of Don Quixote and Cervantes’s techniques. 

Now I’m reading about its influence on later novels. 

Saturday 1 June 2024

My 10 favourite novels

Is this hasty? I don’t think so, though it may appear to be. Here’s the new update: 

Anna Karenina by Lev Tolstoy

War and Peace by Lev Tolstoy

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes 

Hong lou meng by Cao Xueqin 

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu 

Bleak House by Charles Dickens 

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

The list might be slightly different on a different day. I might swap something out for Madame Bovary, or The Age of Innocence. I might remove something to make space for The Brothers Karamazov

But Anna Karenina and War and Peace are the two novels dearest to my heart, with moments imprinted on my mind, like Vronsky meeting Anna, Kitty at the ball, the horse race, Levin’s proposal scene, Levin in the fields, Anna’s death, Natasha at the ball, Andrei at Borodino, Lise’s death, Nikolai in battle, Petya’s death, and so on. These novels shaped my taste, and in some way, shaped me as a person.

Don Quixote might even fight Moby Dick for the third spot—we’ll see. Don Quixote is perhaps one of those novels that resonate more when one is a bit older. 

So what can one learn from my list? 6 of these novels are over 700 pages. 6 are from the 19th century, 1 from the 11th, 1 from the 17th, 1 from the 18th, and 1 from the 20th. 6 are arguably about everything, 5 depict an obsession, with overlaps (Mansfield Park is the outlier, about neither). 8 are Western, 2 are Eastern; 5 are originally written in English, 2 in Russian, 1 in Spanish, 1 in Japanese, 1 in Chinese; 9 I read in the original English or in an English translation, 1 I read in a Vietnamese translation. 

Not sure what all that says about me.

I’m currently reading Fighting Windmills: Encounters with Don Quixote by Manuel Durán and Fay R. Rogg. 

Friday 31 May 2024

Don Quixote: “vanished into the shadows and smoke”

1/ The quote in the headline comes from chapter 53, when Cide Hamete Benengeli talks about the end of Sancho’s government, and about “the swiftness and instability of earthly life.” 

The last 100 or 150 pages of Don Quixote have some very sad moments. Part 2 is more inventive and complex than Part 1—it’s also more profound and sadder, especially towards the end. In Part 1, Don Quixote gets knocked down, beaten up, mocked… and yet doesn’t seem defeated. At the end of Part 2, things are different. Don Quixote says: 

“And just when I was expecting palms, triumphs, and crowns, earned by and deserved through my brave deeds, I find myself this very morning stepped on, trampled, and thrashed by the feet of filthy, vile animals.” (P.2, ch.59)

(translated by Tom Lathrop) 

It’s much worse after the battle with the Knight of the White Moon. 

“Don Quixote was in bed for six days, under the weather, sad, pensive, and in a bad mood.” (P.2, ch.65) 

This is especially sad, when Don Antonio comes in and mentions that Don Gaspar Gregorio (Ana Felix’s lover) is onshore:  

“… Don Quixote cheered up a bit and said: “In truth, I’m almost at the point of saying that I would be better pleased if it had turned out quite the opposite, because then I’d have to go to the Barbary Coast, where with the strength of my arm I would free not only Don Gregorio, but also all the captive Christians there are in Barbary. But what am I saying, wretch that I am? Am I not the vanquished one? Am I not the fallen one? Am I not the one who cannot take up arms for a year? What am I promising? What am I boasting about if I’m better suited to work a spinning wheel than to take up the sword?”” (ibid.) 

On Don Quixote, Dostoyevsky says: 

“Man will not forget to take this saddest of all books with him to God’s last judgment. He will point to the most profound and fateful mystery of humans and humankind that the book conveys. He will point to the fact that humanity’s most sublime beauty, its most sublime purity, chastity, forthrightness, gentleness, courage, and, finally, its most sublime intellect – all these often (alas, all too often) come to naught, pass without benefit to humanity, and even become an object of humanity’s derision simply because all these most noble and precious gifts with which a person is often endowed lack but the very last gift – that of genius to put all this power to work and to direct it along a path of action that is truthful, not fantastic and insane, so as to work for the benefit of humanity! But genius, alas, is given out to the tribes and the peoples in such small quantities and so rarely that the spectacle of the malicious irony of fate that so often dooms the efforts of some of the noblest of people and the most ardent friends of humanity to scorn and laughter and to the casting of stones solely because these people, at the fateful moment, were unable to discern the true sense of things and so discover their new word – this spectacle of the needless ruination of such great and noble forces actually may reduce a friend of humanity to despair, evoke not laughter but bitter tears and sour his heart, hitherto pure and believing, with doubt…” (full post

That helplessness in Don Quixote is something we all feel. 

There are many ways of interpreting Cervantes’s novel—it’s such a rich, complex book—but I do like Dostoyevsky’s interpretation. 

2/ I like this speech from Sancho: 

“I only understand that while I’m sleeping, I have no fear, no hopes, no work, no glory. Blessed be the person who invented sleep, the cloak that covers all human thoughts, the food that takes away all hunger, water that drives away thirst, fire that warms you when you’re cold, coolness that tempers heat, and, finally, the money with which all things are bought, the scale that makes the shepherd equal to the king and the fool to the wise man...” (P.2, ch.68) 

Contrast that speech with Henry IV’s speech in Shakespeare:  

“How many thousands of my poorest subjects

Are at this hour asleep! O sleep, O gentle sleep,

Nature’s soft nurse, how have I frightened thee,

That thou no more will weigh my eyelids down,

And steep my senses in forgetfulness?

[…] Canst thou, O partial sleep, give thy repose

To the wet sea-boy in an hour so rude;

And in the calmest and most stillest night,

With all appliances and means to boot,

Deny it to a king? Then, happy low, lie down!

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” 

(Henry IV, Part 2, Act 3 scene 1) 

Now look at this speech from Don Quixote: 

““… I’d like for us, Sancho, to imitate them and become shepherds, just for the period of our seclusion. I’ll buy some sheep and all the other things needed to be a shepherd, and I’ll call myself ‘the Shepherd Quixotiz’, and you will be ‘the Shepherd Pancino’, and we’ll wander about the hills, woods, and meadows, singing here, lamenting there, drinking the liquid crystal from springs or clear creeks or sometimes from raging rivers. Oak trees will give us their sweet fruit with their generous hand; cork trees will provide a seat with their hard trunks; willows will furnish shade; roses, a sweet aroma; the broad fields, carpets of a thousand harmonizing colors; the stars and moon, light, in spite of the darkness of night; song will give us pleasure; weeping, happiness; Apollo, poetry; love, conceits with which we can become immortal and famous, not only in present times, but also in future ages.” (P.2. ch.67) 

His idealisation of the shepherd’s life makes me think of a speech in Henry VI, Part 3

“KING HENRY […] Would I were dead! if God’s good will were so;

For what is in this world but grief and woe?

O God! methinks it were a happy life,

To be no better than a homely swain

[…] Ah, what a life were this! how sweet! how lovely!

Gives not the hawthorn-bush a sweeter shade

To shepherds looking on their silly sheep,

Than doth a rich embroider’d canopy

To kings that fear their subjects’ treachery?

O, yes, it doth; a thousand-fold it doth.

And to conclude, the shepherd’s homely curds,

His cold thin drink out of his leather bottle.

His wonted sleep under a fresh tree’s shade,

All which secure and sweetly he enjoys,

Is far beyond a prince’s delicates,

His viands sparkling in a golden cup,

His body couched in a curious bed,

When care, mistrust, and treason waits on him.”

(Act 2 scene 5)

Neither Shakespeare nor Cervantes have any illusions about the shepherd’s life however. 

3/ Don Quixote is known as the first modern novel*, and also the first postmodern novel. 

I love that Don Quixote is a book about books, about reading and writing and being in a book. Some characters are readers, some are storytellers, some—like Don Quixote and Sancho—are both, but they’re also characters—in the book we’re reading and in the book some other characters have read. I love the different layers of the book, the multiple narrators, the metafiction. But the thing I especially love about the book, the equivalent of which I reckon the postmodern novels of the 20th century don’t have, is what Cervantes does with the fake Don Quixote written by Avellaneda, to whom he refers a few times as “the Aragonese”. He hates that book! 

(Apologies to other novelists, but Cervantes must be the wittiest, funniest, and most likeable of novelists). 

4/ At this point, I guess some bloggers may put out a spoiler alert, but could any reveal spoil a wonderful book such as Don Quixote? And it came out before Shakespeare’s death!

The death scene of Don Quixote—or I should say, Alonso Quixano—must be one of the most memorable deaths in fiction. Sancho’s speech is heartbreaking. 

I have now finished reading Don Quixote. Over 5 weeks for Part 2. About 8 weeks (not including the break) for the whole book. 

It is one of the greatest novels I’ve ever read. 

*: You know my stance on this. 

Tuesday 28 May 2024

Don Quixote: “I love him with all my heart”

1/ We generally don’t think about how difficult it is to create a character with contradictions till we come across some bad writing—a book, a film, or a TV series—and think “She wouldn’t act like that!”. Then we pick up Proust or Tolstoy and encounter their characters—full of contradictions but also consistently themselves—and wonder how they achieved it. 

About Sancho Panza, Don Quixote says:  

“At times his naivety is so sharp that it’s curious to wonder if he’s a simpleton or keen-witted. He does mischievous things that condemn him as a rascal, and has an absent-mindedness that confirms him as a fool. He doubts everything and he believes everything. 

Just when I think he’s going to topple into something foolish, he comes up with something wise that raises him to the heavens.” (P.2, ch.32) 

Sancho is full of contradictions—he is a practical man, he is a glutton, he doesn’t have his head in the clouds like Don Quixote, and yet he has never doubted that Don Quixote will make him governor of an ínsula—even other characters wonder if the knight’s madness has infected his brain. 

More interestingly, Sancho is a rustic and an illiterate, his speeches are littered with proverbs and malapropisms, his beliefs are naïve and foolish, and yet we aren’t surprised when he becomes a good governor, as he’s a man of flesh and blood, of common sense, of good heart. 

With Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Cervantes has created the most vivid, memorable, and fascinating pair of characters in fiction. 

I especially love the tenderness for his master in Sancho’s words to the Squire of the Forest: 

“I mean, there’s nothing of the rogue about him. He’s as kind as can be. He doesn’t know how to harm anybody, but does good to all. A child can make him believe that it’s night at noontime, and because of this simplicity I love him with all my heart and I can’t leave him, no matter how many foolish things he does.” (P.2, ch.13) 

They make each other more real—and more lovable—in their love for each other. 

2/ I like that Cervantes includes in his novel the expulsion of the Moors, or the Moriscos, the descendants of Spain’s Muslim population who had been forced to convert to Christianity. Have to read more—I knew nothing. 

Let’s look at the timeline. Spain signed the edict to expel the Moors in 1609. Part 1 of Don Quixote had been published in 1605, in which Cervantes created the conceit that the book was actually based on a manuscript by a Moorish author named Cide Hamete Benengeli. Spain expelled the Moors from 1609 to 1614. Then in 1615, Part 2 of Don Quixote came out, in which Cervantes played more with the Benengeli conceit and also included an episode relating to the expulsion. 

I’m starting to wonder if, apart from parodying some manuscript conceit in chivalry romances, Cervantes had any particular reason for creating the Moorish narrator. 

(It’s funny how I’ve been indifferent to Spain for my whole life but now I’m interested in all things Spanish thanks to Don Quixote). 

Now look at the timeline, in a broader context. Around the time Part 1 of Don Quixote came out in Spain, England was exploding with King Lear, then Macbeth, then Antony and Cleopatra. It’s fascinating. 

I have always been amazed by the fact that Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Chekhov were alive and working in the same country at the same time—the first two had great influence on the novel, dividing writers and readers into Tolstoy people or Dostoyevsky people; Chekhov forever changed theatre and the short story. But it’s even more extraordinary that Shakespeare and Cervantes were contemporaries (and died within less than 2 weeks of each other)—everything in English culture traces back to Shakespeare and everything in Spanish culture leads back to Cervantes; the two of them helped shape Western literature and also had monumental influence on the other arts (drama, opera, ballet, painting, cinema). Since I got the Shakespeare bug, I’ve spotted Shakespeare references everywhere, and now I see that everyone has talked about Don Quixote

3/ People say Don Quixote is a madman, but is he madder than the people he comes across on his adventures? Look at them. Is it sensible to burn books? Is it sound to die after getting spurned by a woman? Is it rational to call a woman cruel for rejecting a man, and blame her for his death? Is it sane to kill the man you love in a jealous rage, without letting him speak? And so on and so forth. 

Many of the people Don Quixote encounters are a lot madder, more irrational than he is. 

If other characters in Part 1 beat up Don Quixote and Sancho, many in Part 2 manipulate them and play with their feelings. Does Cervantes have a cruel sense of humour? Or does he depict Don Quixote subjected to such abuses and tortures because life is cruel, and no power of fantasy can save one from such torments? The callousness and cruelty of the Duke and Duchess contrast sharply with the nobility of Don Quixote; and Sancho is clearly a better governor than the Duke is a duke. 

Don Quixote says to Sancho: 

“And just when I was expecting palms, triumphs, and crowns, earned by and deserved through my brave deeds, I find myself this very morning stepped on, trampled, and thrashed by the feet of filthy, vile animals.” (P.2, ch.59) 

I don’t buy the idea that sadness for Don Quixote is a modern invention; I don’t believe that Cervantes laughed at him when he wrote that line.  

4/ Looks like I’m going to have to read The Female Quixote. It was inspired by Don Quixote and in turn influenced Northanger Abbey

Do we know whether or not Jane Austen read Cervantes’s book?