(HOST) If you’re looking for the perfect novel to read on vacation this summer, commentator Peter Gilbert recommends the very first – and possibly the very best – novel ever written.
GILBERT) These days we take novels for granted and assume that they’ve always existed. But four hundred years ago they were literally a “novel” literary form.
Not every book of prose fiction is a novel. Romances are a popular fiction genre, but technically they’re not novels. Romances feature simplified, stereotyped characters like evil stepmothers, noble princes, and dastardly villains in circumstances removed from common life, often involving adventure, mystery, or ideals in
places like Brigadoon, Shangri-La, or Sherwood Forest bathed
in moonlight. But novels are fictional stories related to the real, every-day world, featuring individualized, life-like characters.
Many scholars consider Cervantes’s Don Quixote to be the first novel. Some also consider it the greatest work of fiction ever.
I’ve always thought it ironic that Cervantes’ novel is all about the remnants of that preexisting fictional form, the romance. Don Quixote reads too many romances with knights in shining armor and damsels in distress. As a result he loses touch with reality and decides to become a knight errant himself. With his squire, Sancho Panza, he sets out on his emaciated old horse, searching for wrongs to right. His chivalric imagination causes him to idealize reality – and gets him into a lot of trouble.
Don Quixote is where we get the word “quixotic,” meaning “idealistic and impractical,” and the expression “tilting at windmills,” a phrase Vermonters have recently heard cited
in the wind power debate. A satire, Don Quixote asks what love and honor are, what virtue and goodness are. It plays constantly with the issue of reality and illusion. Indeed, this first of all novels is as modern – or postmodern – as any English professor could want. Its perspective shifts between narrator, author, and character; and sometimes the characters are clearly aware
that they’re in a book.
While the madness of Don Quixote’s is comic, it’s also noble, inspired by and driven toward a generous and humane view of
the world. The eighteenth century literary giant Dr. Samuel Johnson identified one reason for the book’s greatness and long-lasting popularity when he noted how the reader identifies with the title character – mad, comic, and satiric though he may
be – quote – “When we pity him, we reflect on our own disappoint-
ments; and when we laugh, our hearts inform us that
he is not more ridiculous than ourselves. . . .” Unquote.
Don Quixote was published in two parts – the first four hundred years ago last year. The second shortly before Cervantes died –
on April 23, 1616 – the same date as another of our greatest and most original writers – William Shakespeare. Today, Shake-
speare’s work is more widely known than Cervantes’, but that wasn’t necessarily always the case. It’s doubtful that Cervantes knew of Shakespeare’s work, but we know that Shakespeare knew of Cervantes because he collaborated with another playwright on a play – now lost – entitled “Cardenio”,
based on a subplot in Don Quixote.
Peter Gilbert is the executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council. Our music is from the musical Man of La Mancha with Richard Kiley.