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.


  1. Grrr. Ok I need to read DQ. I also need to read more Nabokov.

    1. You must.
      Have you read any of Nabokov’s lectures?


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