canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Critics in Disarray: On Don Quixote

by Douglas Glover

[an exerpt from The Enamoured Knight, Oberon Press, 2004]

Read another excerpt on The Globe and Mail website

One can quickly become confused, bemused and befuddled reading the file on Don Quixote. Walter Starkie, in the introduction to his translation, writes, "Out of a spirit of fin de siècle melancholy sprang Don Quixote, the first modern novel in the world...." Harold Bloom, in How to Read and Why, calls it "the first and best of all novels, which nevertheless is more than a novel...." In the New York Times, Carlos Fuentes writes, "If for many reasons Don Quixote is the first modern novel, it is pre-eminently because...." Walter Benjamin called it "the earliest perfect specimen of the novel."

But other critics tell us that it’s not the first novel or not even a novel at all. Ian Watt, in The Rise of the Novel, begins the history of the novel with Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe in England in the early eighteenth century because it reflects the common-sense realism of the rising English middle class. André Malraux said Madame de Lafayette’s La Princesse de Clèves (1678) was the first novel because it concentrates on depicting the inner emotional life of a character. In From Dawn to Decadence, Jacques Barzun gives credit for inventing the new genre to the anonymous author of La Vida de Lazarillo de Tormes (1554).

What makes the work, though short, a true novel is this double subject: character and social scene, both treated matter-of-factly and by inference critically. Don Quixote does indeed contain elements of what is the distinctive subject matter of the novel, but it merges them with allegory and philosophy. It is not bound by the plausible, whereas the novel pretends to be genuine history, full of real people and places. (From Dawn to Decadence, 111)

It’s actually not so difficult to figure out what the problem is here. When you look at what critics say about the novel, you find roughly five schools of thought; let’s call them the strict realist, the hybrid, the weak thematic, the easy-going (romantic and postmodern) and the experimental. The problem then is that no-one actually ever tells you there are five schools of thought. The poor reader or the neophyte novelist assumes everyone is on the same map when the subject of novels comes up when, in fact, there are multiple maps and they’re not congruent. They have fallen into what Milan Kundera calls "the slough where everyone thinks he understands everything without understanding anything."

The primary cleavage upon which theories of the novel divide is the concept of reality. Most theories are deficient because they privilege one type of novel, a particular era, a social class, or a particular subject matter: reality, the plausible, or as Theodor Adorno calls it "mere existence" (where the idea of what constitutes reality tends toward a capitalist bourgeois common sense definition of the term). With or without being conscious of it, every novelist begins by making quite complicated decisions about what is and is not realistic. In a sense, every novel moves the goalposts this way or that; every novel puts into question the nature of reality.

If you define plausibility strictly in terms of contemporary, common sense, everyday reality, then all sorts of texts and textual moves become non-novelistic. Old-fashioned motifs, borrowed from romance, epic and myth, become non-novelistic. Certain forms, such as the allegory, which direct the reader to a reality beyond the surface reality of the text, become non-novelistic. Form itself, the aesthetic exfoliation of repetitions, doubles and reflecting parallels, becomes non-novelistic. And anything that draws attention in the text to the fact that you are reading a book is non-novelistic. This last item involves a paradox: a novel assumes a certain definition of reality, but if that definition becomes an explicit part of the text the text becomes unrealistic. In other words, if the novel becomes too aware of itself as a novel, it somehow ceases to be a novel at all.

Don Quixote is exuberantly and self-consciously problematic on every single one of these points, which, in turn, problematizes much modern critical thought about novels. In fact, it’s possible to read Cervantes’ attack on those false, misleading and dishonest chivalric romances as an attack on verisimilitude, the suspension of disbelief, and books that pretend to seduce us into thinking they are true. Cervantes moves the goalposts to include the book itself; a book that does not confess its own bookishness as part of its reality is a fraud. Of course, this is partly a very witty joke, a play on the paradox of verisimilitude, the quality of seeming to be real. From the outset, Cervantes engages with the fakery of his own project; he composes that odd thing, an anti-novel, a book against books.

Or, to put this another way, Cervantes composes out of an awareness of the various novelistic possibilities suggested by the multiple meanings of that word "reality." At the outset, he invents a new form, playfully aware of itself as a book. But the history of the novel took another path, the path of verisimilitude. Writing about Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and Denis Diderot’s Jacques le Fataliste, similarly bookish books, Kundera makes a parallel argument.

They reach heights of playfulness, of lightness, never scaled before or since. Afterward, the novel got itself tied to the imperative of verisimilitude, to realistic settings, to chronological order. It abandoned the possibilities opened up by these two masterpieces, which could have led to a different development of the novel (yes, it’s possible to imagine a whole other history of the European novel....) (The Art of the Novel, 15)

As a matter of fact, however, it actually seems as if the novel followed several historical trajectories at once. While one kind of novel followed the path of conventional realism, what we might call an alternative tradition of self-consciousness, complexity, experiment, elaboration and playfulness has flourished simultaneously, though perhaps with leaner commercial success.


Other Douglas Glover features on The Danforth Review:






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