Years afterward, Vladimir Nabokov recalled how in the spring of 1952, as a Harvard University guest lecturer, he had taken “delight” in “tearing apart Don Quixote, a cruel and crude old book, before six hundred students. ...” He might have omitted this vastly influential work from his syllabus—he had omitted it during the twelve preceding years at Wellesley College and Cornell University—had not Harvard insisted that he make it the starting point in his discussions. Nabokov approached his new task with characteristic alacrity and thoroughness but also with an obvious distrust of the book’s reputation. In Lectures on Don Quixote, admirably edited and prefaced by Fredson Bowers, one may trace the growth of Nabokov’s esteem for his subject. The lectures also stimulate intriguing speculation as to Don Quixote de la Mancha’s possible influence on the lecturer’s own literary productions.
What prompted Nabokov’s initial suspicion was the highly sentimentalized view of Don Quixote de la Mancha prevalent in the early 1950’s, when scholarship of Miguel de Cervantes was at a low ebb. Was the man Quixote indeed the sweet, charmingly befuddled but admirable idealist that critics made him out to be? Was Sancho Panza truly a levelheaded peasant with a flair for pithy, comical observations about life? Above all, how should one characterize the world of seventeenth century Spain in which they had their adventures? When Nabokov delivered these lectures, the accepted notion of the Don Quixote milieu was epitomized by Aubrey F. G. Bell, a critic for whom Nabokov reserved particular scorn. In Cervantes (1947), Bell remarks that “the general character that emerges” in Don Quixote de la Mancha “is that of a sensitive, keen-witted nation, humorous and humane.” On the contrary, retorts Nabokov. The characters of the novel display a barbarous, sadistic nature in subjecting Quixote and Sancho to “a veritable encyclopedia of cruelty.” Anyone who thinks otherwise simply has not read the book attentively or perhaps not read it at all. Indeed, the novel has inspired so many films, ballets, and musicals that many who have never laid eyes on it could supply a reasonably accurate plot summary, along with the popular sentimental interpretation.
To clear the interpretive ground, Nabokov presented his six hundred Harvard students with his own chapter-by-chapter synopsis based upon an extremely close reading. (Bowers has appended this lengthy classroom handout to the text of the lectures, making the book a highly useful crib sheet as well as a fresh interpretation of Don Quixote de la Mancha.) The synopsis serves as an empirical foundation for Nabokov’s attempts to demolish the body of myths surrounding Don Quixote de la Mancha and its author.
The notion, for example, that Don Quixote de la Mancha is “the greatest novel ever written”—or even one of the greatest novels—Nabokov dismisses as utter nonsense. Nor, unlike many other critics, will he grant Cervantes any Shakespearean powers of mind or imagination. Aside from his influence on posterity, says Nabokov, Cervantes is in no respect the peer of the Bard. Nabokov does not even find Don Quixote de la Mancha particularly well planned or well constructed, except for the very first and last sections, which he contends were originally intended to stand alone. Otherwise, the novel is merely a picaresque tale, stringing together stories, episodes, and jests as the protagonist moves from place to place. Nabokov’s commentary on the book is studded with phrases such as “an artless composition” and “a very patchy haphazard tale.”
Another myth he rebuts is that of Sancho Panza as a down-to-earth character whose witty proverbs serve as a foil to Quixote’s high-minded delusions. There is no true symmetry between the two characters, says Nabokov, partly because Sancho is more a foreshortened version of the Don than his opposite. For example, despite Sancho’s “peaceful disposition, he enjoys a fight when he is really aroused; and when drunk he looks upon dangerous and fantastic adventures as excellent sport.” The Don, of course, embodies chivalric courage, whether because he is insane or for some other reason.
At first Cervantes stresses the lucid quality of the fat squire’s common sense, but we soon discover in chapter 26 that Sancho is curiously absentminded, a dreamer in his own right: witness his forgetting a certain letter that would have given him three ass-colts. He persistently tries to correct Don Quixote’s delusions, but suddenly in the beginning of part two plays the part of an enchanter himself and in a most cruel and grotesque manner helps to deepen his master’s main delusion—the one referring to Dulcinea. But then he becomes confused about his responsibility for that delusion.
Finally, attacking a different aspect of the Sancho myth, Nabokov finds that the squire’s “cracks and proverbs are not very mirth provoking either in themselves or in their repetitious accumulation. The corniest modern gag is...
(The entire section is 2108 words.)