The 400-year history of the deeply influential Spanish novel.
Confessing his enduring love of Hispanic civilization, Stavans (Latin American and Latino Culture/Amherst Coll.; A Most Imperfect Union: A Contrarian History of the United States, 2011, etc.) claims that Cervantes’ masterwork is the “essence, the blueprint” of that culture’s DNA. The book’s irresistible theme “is that one must live life in a genuine way, passionately, in spite of what other people think.” Ranging across cultures and time, Stavans argues persuasively that Don Quixote has captivated the imaginations of writers (Dostoevsky, Flaubert, Borges, to name a few), artists (Picasso, Dalí, and Gustave Doré), filmmakers (Eric Rohmer, Peter Yates, and others), and even video game designers. Seven ballets are based on the novel, “all of them forgettable” in the author’s estimation. Except for the Bible, he notes, the novel is the most translated book into English—and he has read all of the translations, from Thomas Shelton’s (1612) to James H. Montgomery’s (2009). Stavans considers John Ormsby’s 1885 text the best. In Spain, the novel was rediscovered by the Generation of 1898, writers seeking “clues about Spain’s future” after the country’s devastating loss of its colonies. Quixotism, Stavans writes, “portrayed the idealism of the knight-errant as proof that Spain was delusional about its past, yet it implied that only idealism might help the country out of its depression.” Investigating the novel’s influence in the U.S., Stavans discovered that George Washington bought a copy on the day the Constitution was adopted; that Melville called Don Quixote “the greatest sage that ever lived”; and that Faulkner reread the novel every year. Quixote is the only literary character, Stavans notes, whose name has become an adjective, reflecting his “universal status.” The novel “is a mirror,” interpreted differently by different beholders.
Stavans brings infectious enthusiasm and penetrating scholarship to this lively investigation of a grand novel and its readers.