7) The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha (Part I), by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
I decided to read this because the Norwegian book clubs survey put it at the top of their list of the 100 best novels of all time. It’s surprisingly approachable, for Great Literature, but very long at almost 1000 pages in the Penguin edition, so I’ve given myself a break after finishing the first part, as published in 1605 (almost 400 years ago), and will leave the second part, of 1615, for some later time.
It reminds me of nothing so much as Tristram Shandy, except that it has a far more coherent plot (this is not saying much of course). Don Quixote himself is gloriously delusional, and of course unwittingly plays a satirical role in exposing the workings of society. Interesting too that the distance between his society of 1605 and ours of 2004 seems much less than the distance between 1605 and the medieval world of chivalry which he imagines himself to inhabit. Of course Quixote’s medieval world is a creation of fantasy, and his 1605 is rooted very firmly in contemporary reality.
Apart from the narrative frame of Don Quixote himself and his delusions, there are lots of romantic sub-plots – actually so distinct from one another that you could almost call them novellas – some of which eventually get tied together in a way that is reminiscent of Wodehouse. Added to that, the geopolitical tension of Spain vs the Islamic world of North Africa is eerily reminiscent of another modern genre – the beautiful Zoraida almost seems like an ancestor of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold.
For all that, I’m not utterly convinced that this really is the best novel of all time. I’m sure it deserves honour and celebration as being the first (or among the first) attempts to write a novel per se. But to say that is a bit like Johnson’s remark about a woman preaching being like a dog walking on its hind legs, the impressive thing being not that it is done well but that it is done at all. Perhaps if I ever get around to the second half it will make more of an impact on me.