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Lectures on Don Quixote Paperback – August 23, 2016
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Quite the least interesting, most dutiful of Nabokov's collegiate lectures on literature, these talks on Don Quixote were given at Harvard, 1951-52. Again, Nabokov applies principles of categorization to the text at hand: dimensions, numbering, topographies, maps. And he offers some (but not much) general discussion of the book's enduring genius. "What we shall witness now is the evolution of the epic form, the shedding of its metrical skin, the hoofing of its feet, a sudden fertile cross between the winged monster of the epic and the specialized prose form of entertaining narration, more or less a domesticated mammal, if I may pursue the metaphor to its lame end;" Nabokov sees Don Quixote as a logical continuation of earlier chivalric romances, "with the elements of madness and shame and mystification increased." The book, he finds, is one of those "perhaps more important in eccentric diffusion than in their intrinsic value." Clearly not one of Nabokov's favorite books, he sees it as neither humane nor humorous: a whole section of the lectures is given over to literally scoring (as in tennis) the Don's cruel humiliations. And Cervantes' comedy receives little praise: "Dulcinea shall be restored to Don Quixote if - now comes the rib-splitting joke - if Sancho consents to take 3000 lashes on his bare behind. Otherwise, says the Duke when he hears of the requirement, you do not get your island. The whole thing is very medieval, coarse, and stupid fun, as all fun that comes from the devil. Authentic humor comes from the angels." True, Nabokov is sometimes entertaining when he kibbitzes, one novelist to another, taking Cervantes to task for not having done a scene better; he does admire the hapless Don himself. ("He stands for everything that is gentle, forlorn, pure, unselfish, and gallant. The parody has become a paragon.") But the bon mots here are scarce, and the book is little more than an acerbic, uninvolved study-guide - for Nabokov fanatics only. (Kirkus Reviews)
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Building up on the themes of cruelty and insanity, Nabokov points out that in 1600's both were enjoyed as entertainment. The raw cruelty of 3,000 lashes that Sancho is to receive, or Don Quixote's suspension by the hand for two hours during which he "bellows like a bull", or the sick pleasure that many of the book's characters derive from Don Quixote's insanity and from playing into it - all that was run of the mill fun in Cervantes's Europe. Nabokov believes that this crude entertainment was the main source of the book's appeal for the readers when the book came out.
The novel's structure (which in Nabokov's world is second only to style) is really nonexistent: "The book belongs essentially to a primitive form, to the loosely strung, higgledy-pickled, variegated picaresque type". Nabokov notes that the many inconsistencies in the book Cervantes seems to either ignore or simply attribute to magic.
The novel's cruelty, its appeal to the "primitive reader" as a source of crude entertainment and its messy structure are described in convincing detail. By comparison, Nabokov's occasional appeal to Cervantes's genius is not developed into a stronger argument. Nabokov does note the dramatic dialogue which is "marvelous [...] even in translation", artistic and original depiction of Don Quixote and the equal number of the knight's losses and victories in each of the two parts of the book (Nabokov associates symmetry and balance with artistic genius). On balance, these lectures are much more about the novel's flaws.
If these lectures prompt one to pick up "Don Quixote", it would not be for the novel's artistic beauty that Nabokov highlighted: the first half of the book is mostly devoted to analyzing the novel's shortcomings and the second part to going over the synopsis of every chapter, with little commentary from Nabokov. These lectures are remarkable, however, for presenting a high standard of reading: for the attention to detail and for their inspiration to develop a literary opinion that you could truly claim your own.
One quibble is that Nabokov seems convinced that Cervantes cruel/sadistic humor at Don Quixote and Sancho Panza's expense is meant to be funny rather than illicit the disgust which Nabokov emits - although I am not so sure. As Cervantes' narrator states, "in his opinion, the deceivers are as mad as the deceived, and that the duke and duchess came very close to seeming like fools since they went to such lengths to deceive two fools." Elsewhere he writes that "jests that cause pain are not jests and entertainments are not worthwhile if they injure another." Perhaps Cervantes was toying with his readers' internal sense of morality as Nabokov would do some 350 years later.
Otherwise, Nabokov's is exactly correct when he describes the novel as a "very patchy haphazard tale which is saved from falling apart only by its creator's wonderful artistic intuition that has Don Quixote go into action at the right moments." His description of Don Quixote as a "gaunt giant on a lean nag" looming above the "skyline of literature" is priceless.