Don Quixote, My Classic


Honore Daumier

It only took me two months of this new year to decide to get back to Don Quixote. I listened to it last year, and, after this podcast, I couldn’t resist any longer. I guess we all have our classic, that book we can read every year and never tire of reading.

I remember, reading The Moonstone, that the butler was always reading Robinson Crusoe. It was his bible. He opened it at random, and claimed he found the answers to his questions every time. It was hilarious.

Robinson Crusoe did the same with a real Bible. After all, even Agustin of Hipona tells us how at a time of crisis, he too opened the Scriptures and it seemed to give him right what he claimed converted him, (and we can’t prove or disprove if this was coincidence, or, -if we believe in it-, providence.) But I digress.

I’ve known those who cling to this conviction that, opening the bible at random, will provide with answers. I believe life and faith are more than a set of finite problems we could fix with just a simple fortuitous and casual turn of pages. That’s not to say that, when we are in the habit of searching the Scriptures, and listening to lessons being preached, it’s common we hear or come across just that which we needed, or what relate to us at that particular time.

Don Quixote is not my bible, but it’s surely a book of books, a book that speaks to my heart and mind. When I read or listen to it being read, there’s an immediate connection. As a reader, there’s something I must do, an active invitation to meet Cervantes at some point in the path of the story, (an invitation to find differences and similarities with other books, to discern the philosophy of life it holds, to interact with it, laughing, crying, shaking my head in disbelief.) But to want to do this, one has to have a previous bond with the book that cannot be forced but that depends on a combination of factors. That’s exactly why we all have different classics, and they may change or evolve as we add reading miles to our life.


Honore Daumier

I could never guess or explain all those factors that make a classic ready for us, or us ready for a classic, but I can identify some I recognize play a part in my case. One of them is language. There’s something in books in our mother tongue that establishes an inexplicable bond between reader and text. It won’t be something exclusive or absolutely necessary, but it is, nonetheless, very tied to another factor, which is the ability to perceive the humor. Maybe this is wrong or presumptuous, but I’m perceiving that many who speak highly of classics that others find much less than wonderful, talk about the humor, (explicit and/or subtle.) I won’t forget the excellent reviewer that perceived so much humor in the French edition of Madame Bovary. Or my friends who get all the funny and fun in Jane Austen. Maybe not all great works contain this element, -but maybe, if they are true tragicomic, they do.


And it’s possible that humor is what’s so difficult to translate. Cervantes, in the novel, tells us right away that the problem poetry faces, it’s that of loosing the rhyme when translated. (Notwithstanding, Don Quixote, in his library, had books in the original, and books of poetry in translation. I have not examined the chapter, (chapter 6), in detail, but if the books were in Italian in the original, or even in French, there’s a possibility, -with effort and talent, to render the translation respecting the rhyme.)


Another aside, this language barrier, (for thin we make it by learning other language or languages), made it impossible for me to connect with Fagles or Pope’s translations of Homer. Homer, I need him in Spanish. And poetry. I never fell in love with poetry until I came back to poetry in Spanish. From there, once that love took root, I can now branch into English poetry with a surer foot.

There’s that chapter in which Don Quixote fights with a Basque. If you know Spanish, or if you have ever heard a Basque speak what we call Spanish but they prefer to call Castilian, this chapter will bend you with laughter. To find an equivalence, it’d be a Scottish speaking in the middle of a very British book, or a British talking in a very American book. You get the idea. There’s also the nuances of Don Quixote’s speech. He talks different, -not only because he’s an educated man, but because he brings back the chivalresque language of knights, honor, rules, codes. He speaks with pomp, and he delights many who meet with him, (granted that he doesn’t engage in fighting them.) He is proof that, no matter how mad one is, you can reason anything you set your heart to justify and explain. (It’s so hilarious how Don Quixote finds an answer to all the questioning some, amused by his crazy ways, pose to him. When someone asks him how come such and such knight didn’t have a loved one, (since he claims all reputable knights have their maid), he promptly replies, “my man, one swallow doesn’t make summer!”)

Back to the podcast, and speaking of language, my favorite part is at the end, when the professor tells us all the English expressions we owe to the translation of Don Quixote and that didn’t exist before,

(the sky is the limit, thanks for nothing, a finger in every pie, a wild goose chase, mind your own business, think before you speak, forgive and forget, I smell a rat, I’m going to turn over a new leaf, haves and have nots, he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, the pot calling the kettle black, and you ain’t seen nothing yet.)


Even if Don Quixote is not your classic, the podcast professor said how it’s very accessible. Unlike erudite Dante, (whose genius is not under question), one doesn’t need to possess a lot of references or knowledge of previous literature and history to enjoy the book and laugh a lot. Like many formidable classics, (I’m thinking about C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books, and The Wind in the Willows), they are written in layers, and everybody gets something, -some more, some less, but all according to that which they are ready to enjoy. There’s no feeling of missing something.

While not missing anything that could make the reading experience a total bore, it could be such if assigned, if there’s no overlap between our universe and Don Quijote’s, if our timing is wrong.

One of the most daunting attributes of this book, that keeps many at bay distance, it’s the size. The size is part of its beauty, and the biggest deterrent. If there’s no motivation or desire, the needed time commitment will be hard to find. If the chapters are not refreshing and exhilarating, we enter each new one with fatigue and desperation. Pleasure turns into duty or disinterest.

In my case, this third time, I’m laughing in less obvious parts. Some familiarity with the big boulders, is making me notice smaller rocks. I’m convinced that, in years to come, I’ll keep finding more and more pebbles. What pebbles?, jewels strung in the path of a book larger than life.

I can talk for long about the chapter when the priest and barber are choosing what books to burn, and which ones to keep. The bad books, Inquisition fashion like, they are burning, the good ones they are keeping, (and their criteria is hilarious, completely biased to what they like and what they want to indulge in), and those they don’t know yet, they leave in a pit, as Joseph was left by his brothers. Their talk on the value and effects of poetry, chivalry books, on the changes in art, translation, and their opinion of the very own Cervantes as a writer, is profound but uninhibited. Truth and specially fault, are well perceived when others behave at ease, -and the barber and priest are surely comfortable and enjoying their roles as censors and judges. We listen, like a fly on the wall, laugh and learn.

I just finished Marcela, the shepherdess’s chapter, that ends with such an intrepid speech on women by a woman, (what it means to be beautiful, or not, to be loved, to correspond, to want to be independent, the frustration of being seen as an object of men’s desire.)  If the word feminism weren’t as full of connotations that run in opposite directions, I’d be tempted to call her speech a feminist one. But I prefer to say that, among numerous qualities, (and sadly a few salient and ugly biases), women in Don Quixote, (as much as those from social classes who, before him, had never had any importance in books or in real life -see Sancho), have, like the podcast commentator said, “microphone time”.)

Whether this is your classic or not, if, and only if, you find yourself in the right frame of mind to read it, you won’t regret giving this book a chance.

P.S: Of interest, List of works influenced by Don Quixote, and Don Quixote.

33 thoughts on “Don Quixote, My Classic

  1. Pingback: Plans and projects | Silvia Cachia

  2. I’ll follow along if you do a read along! I had intended to read the book in preparation to introduce it to my son next school year.

  3. Lovely post! I am just starting Part II of Don Quixote. I enjoyed Part I, but I keep getting sidetracked by reading books about DQ. Then I wandered into other early Spanish books (in English) like Celestina. There is an Open Yale Course called Cervantes’ Don Quixote, which I am following (it’s free) and I am learning so much. DQ may become my favorite novel! I have the Edith Grossman translation which I like. I would love to join in if you do a reading of DQ!

  4. Looks like a number of us would love for you to host a read-along/book club for this book. 🙂 It will be great! Really looking forward to it!

  5. That’s encouraging! So far, Les Mis has been moving along quickly mostly because the characters are so engaging. You want to see what happens to them. But I know nothing about Don Quixote so it’ll be fun to be surprised with that book.

  6. And it’s not that dragging at all, -I think it is much simpler than Les Mis, Kim. I would love to have you read along. It’s exciting.

  7. One day I’m sure I’ll get to this! Love that it’s your classic to come back to 🙂 Those are always good, solid, comforting reads. And you end up picking up on so many small details. A read along at your blog would be a good idea! Maybe my big book for next year?!

  8. I am totally with you, it’s something ingrained in your persona, even if you have been in Australia since 9, your Scottish traits, -humor most specially, is something that will always set you apart.
    The best thing they did at the dating agency almost 20 years ago, was to match Steve, my husband, and I. As two people same age, and both from Mediterranean cultures, our common bond was the strongest factor that resulted in marriage. It would not have been easy for any other man to understand the difficult and peculiar situation we are living with my parents. My husband has been extremely supportive and patient.

  9. Yes, I would gladly do that, (maybe early next year.)Thanks for your trust in me to guide you. We will have fun together. And this book can appreciate some guidance and community.

  10. I really want to read the Edith Grossman translation….not this year however, since I already have Les Miserable and The Tin Drum on the go.

    I wonder if you would consider hosting a read-along at some point in the future of this book? You would be a wonderful guide and companion as your post so evidently shows!

  11. Loved how you wrote this, Silvia & for the podcast link. One of my older sons & I were discussing this apsect of humour & culture this week. My extended family were here for my daughter’s engagement & my kids always comment on the banter between us & how what we think is funny as Scots but Aussies don’t get. I think that was one of the hardest things about coming from a different culture, even though we’re still ‘English’ speakers (if full on Scots can be called ‘English’) and I was only 8 yrs of age when we came here but that part of me hasn’t changed.

  12. Not to sound imposing, but part II wraps it up in an amazing way. If part I is DQ, part II is Sancho. Part II is less endless and connected stories, and more Sancho’s philosophy of life. People in the book know this pair, and they set them up and laugh at their expense. There’s more tragedy than comedy, there’s an impending fatality, a black cloud, some defeat, and the recognition of how much we need these two men in our life.

  13. Oh Silvia, you sure make me want to pick this up. I think I’ll go hunt for a different translation, and start reading it. At a pace of maybe a chapter a day, I will be able to manage it.
    I had no idea we owed so many sayings to this book. I agree with you on classics having layers. I’m currently laughing my head off reading Winnie the Pooh to my little ones. They have no idea why I am laughing, but they just laugh along.

  14. I thought that. It’s so long that we can make it count for the challenges. Actually, 2 books, and it’s not cheating, since he wrote part 1 in 1609, and part 2 in 1615.

  15. I’m up for that. If some would want to count it for a book challenge, though, (for example, a book in translation category), you might consider October-November-December OR January-February-March. That way it wouldn’t start at the end of one year and go into the beginning of the next year and therefore not be able to count for a challenge. Just a thought. 🙂

    I read some of the thoughts shared on translations at the link you gave. What would be your preferred translation?

  16. I loved reading this! Such a fascinating and inspiring read! Don Quixote is on my TBR list and after having read this post, I want to read it even more! Have you ever considered leading a book club on your blog for it sometime? Like maybe a good winter read since it’s a longer book?

  17. I can tell all of you why this is called the first modern novel, but that may ruin it if you haven’t read it. I rather let those reading it to see why this is the case. Maybe there’s something we need to investigate, why books written in the 1600’s feel so modern in style and tone, (saving the contents that speak of a non technological society, of course.) There must be elements in that culture, (at least in Europe), that connect our centuries, and while sometimes it’s very hard for me to read those huge contemporary pieces, highly sophisticated in language, very complex in technique, ambitious, books that those who know claim one needs to read with a degree of preparation, I can at least reach DQ, ha ha ha.

  18. It was a person who, like you, felt like I do about DQ but for Dickens, who inspired me to read Great Expectations. I loved it. That’s the beauty of classics in general, and once we latch to the one that feels right to us, we can re-read and there’s always a new reveal that delights even more. It’s like peeling layers and layers, or excavating and finding new treasures that a first pass can’t notice.

    DQ has captivated many common people (it was super popular in its time, part I was published in 1609, part II in 1615), and famous writers alike, (like Faulkner, who, every year, read the Bible and DQ.) Inside, there’s books, poems, Shakespearean like drama, historic fiction, meta literature, and what not. It’s also very different. It’s definitely a book for a mature reader, (who could be young or old.) I love the fact that Cervantes wrote part I in prison at the age of 65. Cervantes as a person, is someone cherished too, he never got much riches from his books, but I believe he loved life, and while captive, -in battle, in Lepanto, he lost one arm too, nobody could rob him of the freedom of his imagination.

  19. Wonderful post! I haven’t read Don Quixote – never really been tempted by it, but you’ve tempted me now. Your feelings about it sound much like mine for Dickens – there are several of his books I could re-read constantly, each time finding something new to delight me.

  20. True, Rob, it can be that the translator lacks the ability to transmit that humor, or beauty, or whatever it is the original possesses, and that can be attributed to, at least, two causes I can think of, one, the translator missed that “fifth sense” floating over every novel, two, the translator as a writer, failed to preserve that quality in his rendering.

    However, for Don Quixote, there’s a consensus on good translations that capture the spirit of the original. Ormsby is Victorian, and I found this comment too,

    There are several quality translations. Samuel Putnam’s is a standard, but Tobias Smollett’s may offer an even greater period translation… Smollett being a novelist of great merit and a near contemporary of Quixote. Of newer translations Burton Raffel offers a version that does much to capture the vernacular language of the original. Edith Grossman’s new translation, however, is highly acclaimed and perhaps the first option.

    It’s invigorating, and, if you loved Candide, by Voltaire, you’ll find something in that tradition with Don Quixote.

  21. Great post! It’s always interesting to consider how much control a translator has over the reader. Whenever I find a translated novel lacking, I always wonder if there’s something in the original text that I’m just not seeing in my translated edition.

    I really need to read Don Quixote…

  22. Oh, and the pictures. The best painters painted DQ, for sure, Daumier, Doré (illustrator of many scenes), Picasso, Dali, -those I included, but there’s a lot more.

  23. LOL, you know, I’d also take Robinson Crusoe to that island. The Moonstone was a very enjoyable book. It was satisfying in many terms, (and hilarious too.) There’s a change of point of view, which makes it attractive. One of the narrators, reminds me of Aunt Norris (or any of those fastidious women in Jane Austen or Victorian lit, for that matter.)

  24. This is fantastic, Silvia!

    Now I want to read the Moonstone, since I love Robinson Crusoe, too. I always thought that if I found myself on a desert island with only ten books (why is that such an enjoyable fantasy?), Robinson Crusoe would be one of them. And of course I would have “my” classic, Kristin Lavransdatter.

    I love the pictures you included, too.

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