There is so much to say about not only Part 2 but also about the entire story of Don Quixote, that I'll never fit it into one blog post. I'll try to limit this one to my thoughts on Part 2--the way Cervantes tried to limit himself from digressing into entire other novels after the first book--and instead include other thoughts in later posts.
The short version is: Part 2 is a significantly better read than Part 1, but you really have to read Part 1 to understand Part 2.
Part 2 starts with all those formalities that Part 1 lacked. The dedications in particular. And here Cervantes introduces us to an incident that evolves into a bit of an obsession throughout the work. After Part 1 became a success, someone else wrote a sequel without Cervantes's permission. He deemed it quite inferior, obviously, both in writing style and character development. The irony, of course, is that we're still reading Cervantes's Don Quixote 400 years later, and we would never even remember this counterfeit if he didn't harp on it so much.
In this world of Part 2, we encounter our Knight of the Rueful Countenance (later to be known as the Knight of the Lions) still in bed recovering from his second sally, just a month or so before. And somehow in this time, half of Europe has read the true history of Don Quixote (the one by Cide Hamete Benegeli, of course, the historian Cervantes claims to be translating through both parts) and is completely enamored with the protagonist and his squire. They discuss the short-comings of the book--specifically the crazy novel-within-a-novel part I complained about earlier and a plotting mistake--and it's funny to hear that the complaints of readers 400 years ago are so similar to today's.
Don Quixote and Sancho Panza decide to proceed on a third sally, and they sneak out of the house in order to do so. Since I promised to keep this brief, I won't recount their adventures here. The important difference between this and the first and second sallies is that they actually win sometimes. The reader cheers for them because not every adventure ends in a spectacular beating or a sheep slaughter. Not all (most) of their wins are objectively fair successes, but they think they're winning, and you can't help but want it for them. A lot of people play a lot of tricks on them throughout, but many of the tricks are harmless except that they increase the delusion of Don Quixote and Sancho.
We love them for their delusions. When Sancho occasionally contemplates walking away, the reader wishes him to stay. As mean as some of the tricks are, we are the trick-players. We want them to believe, maybe because we want to live in a world where their beliefs are relevant.
And that's the magic of Part 2. Despite all the cultural differences between early 17th century Spain and 21st century America, we can still relate to the emotions behind the characters and their stories. Maybe this is what earns Don Quixote the title of "the first modern novel," I'm not sure. But it feels modern.
Miguel de Cervantes published Don Quixote de la Mancha in 1605, and it was pretty much an overnight success. By 1612, it had already been translated into French, German, English, and Italian and spawned many bootleg counterfeits. Ten years after the first publication, in 1615, Cervantes published the sequel (because why not?), although today, these two parts are usually published as a single unit.
That strategy makes this book intimidatingly long. I’ve been listening to it in the car, and it’s 37 hours (by comparison, the copy of Moby Dick I listened to was 21 hours). I’m currently taking a short break between the first and the second parts, but I don’t think it makes sense to wait until I finish the entire thing before sharing some thoughts. For one thing, Wikipedia tells me that there’s a definite tone shift in the second part. They really do sound like two distinct novels.
The first book lasted until the end of CD 14. Unfortunately, all the stuff you’ve heard about–tilting at windmills, fighting the monks and merchants, the great sheep slaughter, the barber’s basin on the head–all pretty much happen within the first two discs. That leaves 12 more CDs filled with the parts you haven’t heard about. And do you want to know why? It’s because the narrative really slows down after that.
As a reader, you start to understand what you’re in for when Don Quixote and Sancho Panza take a rest with a bunch of goatherds and shepherds. These pastoral staples sing songs about their unrequited loves and tell a long story about a beautiful shepherdess who had the nerve to not be interested in some guy who then killed himself. They all feel so terrible about that fact that they attend this guy’s funeral and read aloud some of his chivalric poetry. Then the shepherdess shows up and gives a speech about how she has no obligation to love someone just because he loves her, and she’s doing perfectly well on her own, thank you very much, and then she hides and the reader doesn’t hear anything more about her. But that alone makes her the coolest female character in the entire book by a long margin.
I can’t really even talk about Dorothea and Lucinda. I just… whatever.
There’s a lot more wandering around and encountering people like this, but the whole thing really goes off the track around the time Cardino is introduced. The plot from there on is too complicated and silly to explain here, but take my word that it’s very slow and rather non-nonsensical, and it delves into the sort of ridiculous “fancy meeting you here” coincidences that Doctor Zhivago so relied upon.
The one part I just couldn’t believe was happening (and sat through in the same sort of awe you might watch a terrible movie with) began when Don Quixote goes into another room for a nap, and the remaining characters all agree to read an entire other novel out loud. Cervantes was all like, “Hey, I heard you like novels, so I put a novel in your novel.” Pimped my novel. This sort of thing happens a lot throughout the last three quarters or so of the first part–other characters just hijack the narrative, and we have to listen to their long and unbelievable tales of woe.
Of course, this entire novel–from its structure to its topic to its characterization to its plotting–relies upon the chivalric novel tradition that was already going strong in Europe at the time. That’s not a field I have a lot of experience with, so I’m sure there are subtleties that I’m missing. Many of the (to me) less interesting parts reminded me of lesser Shakespeare comedies. That is, the plots are silly, the characters unrealistic, and everyone falls in love at the end. Also something like Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta opera, which I saw recently (thanks, Met HD!). I also have a passing knowledge of Renaissance poetry and prose thanks to my English degree, and that background also helped me place this in context. Even so, I don’t think I recognized a single title that the curate and barber pull off of Don Quixote’s shelves and burn (another long and detailed scene that doesn’t really translate too well to today). Without that familiarity, this would have been an even harder read than it was.
But, enough whining about what was boring and inaccessible. There were many good parts, especially near the beginning. In the prologue, for example, the author is bemoaning the fact that his novel doesn’t have enough important Latin phrases uttered by important people, and there’s no weighty bibliography to accompany it, as was the custom. Then his buddy comes by and tells him to fake it. Just copy a bibliography out of another book, he says, and make up all the Latin phrases and poetry that you’ll need! Only a bachelor of arts will argue with you, and who ever listens to them? I kind of loved that.
And Don Quixote is a pretty amazing character himself. His way of seeing the world, warping every detail to fit his fantasy, is simultaneously awe-inspiring and horrific. Sancho’s way of dealing with Don Quixote’s eccentricities emphasizes the idea that you don’t have to be considered crazy to mold what you experience to fit with your preconceived notions. We all do that everyday. Don Quixote’s “adventures” are really entertaining, and you’re rooting for him despite all the terrible things he brings upon himself, Sancho, and others because he’s just so confident about it.
The fact that it’s such a mockery of the existing literature of the day adds a wicked little gleam to Don Quixote. Cervantes revels in pointing out some of chivalric literature’s great pitfalls, even if he does fall into them himself. For example, Don Quixote insists that knights never pay for lodging or food or armor repair or anything of the sort because he’s never read of such a thing, to the great consternation of the innkeepers he encounters (which results in Sancho’s comedic epic “blanketing”). He also insists that knights don’t have to regularly eat or see to the calls of nature, but Cervantes focuses quite a bit on the unavoidability of these things. Don Quixote and Sancho piss and shit and bleed all over each other for various reasons, and at one point, Don Quixote vomits all over Sancho’s face. Yes, at points, Don Quixote reads like late-16th century “Jackass.”
But while the early part of the novel mocks the adventure-story part of the chivalric literature, the latter part focuses on mocking (sometimes too subtly for my attention span) the romantic parts. And that is so much more boring.
I’ve debated whether I should begin the second part or just be satisfied with the first; after all, there’s no one asking me to finish this. After reading the Wikipedia entry, I’ve decided to at least give it a try. The concept sounds pretty awful–noble people in Spain have read Part One and now trick Don Quixote into chivalric acts for their amusement–but the reader is promised fewer diversions and more focus on character and societal themes.
So, would I recommend Don Quixote, Part One? Only in one of two circumstances: 1. you just really want to give it a try, knowing it’s a challenge (I read Moby Dick and failed to read Les Miserables for this reason), or 2. you’re studying it in a class where you have the benefit of a teacher to curate related readings and to facilitate discussions. Since I don’t have the benefit a teacher, I plan to watch some movie versions and read some more of the Internet before delving into Part Two. (Also, major props to my public library for carrying these movies that I can’t find on Netflix!)
When I was a little less than half-way through Doctor Zhivago, I mentioned it casually to a thoughtful and well-read friend. “Ugh,” he said without hesitation and rolled his eyes. I was confused by this--I was enjoying it so far. Sure there were a million characters, each with multiple names, but the Internet helps with this a lot. And the author does a pretty good job of reminding you who’s who as you go along.
Granted, I expected to have trouble with this book. I have a pretty shaky grasp of Russian history. It wasn’t taught in my grade schools, and I didn’t pursue it in college. My 9th grade English teacher taught us Animal Farm as an Aesop’s-Fable-type story about the importance of knowing your place. I expected to get lost in some of the “who’s fighting who, when, and ostensibly why” details of this novel, which stretches from the early 1900s through World War II–a pretty active time in Russia. And I did.
But I kept reading (rather, listening; I got it on CD for my commute). I read without an unusual amount of eye rolling until chapter 13, “Opposite the House of Sculptures.” And then it lost me; I turned. Glancing through other reviews on Goodreads, I’m not the only one who turned at this point. It’s a ginormous chapter in which two characters who are supposed to have the most pure, passionate love ever known to existence speak to each other in impersonal monologues, explaining their feelings and large sections of the plot that the reader has already witnessed.
The chapter probably shouldn’t feel so ridiculously long and boring and forehead-slappingly unbelievable. The reader is supposed to understand the intense passion that these two feel for each other. The problem, obviously, is that we don’t. And this was the point in the book when I realized that there wasn’t going to be any further character development. The characters were fully formed, but they were wooden. The only other explanation for their reactions, emotions, and absences we’d get would be delivered in monologue--either by themselves or the narrator.
I felt and understood this great and perfect love exactly once: [SPOILERS!] Yuri is headed home to confess his affair with Lara to his pregnant wife, Tonia. On the way, he convinces himself that he really didn’t end things right with Lara and should probably go back and talk to her again. (Eye rolling, because you want him to be better--this poet/philosopher/physician--but it’s realistic.) He’s so overjoyed at the prospect of seeing Lara again, even if it’s just to break up with her. But then, on the way, when the reader is anticipating a beautiful love scene, he gets kidnapped by partisans. And marches around the woods with them for about 2 years. And then, when he finally escapes, he goes to Lara’s house first so that they can give speeches at each other for hours. Ugh. [/SPOILERS!]
After that turn in chapter 13, Doctor Zhivago wasn’t able to win me back. The coincidences get ludicrous. Reading this, you’d think there are only about four houses in Russia, because everyone keeps appearing at the same places. They walk straight across Siberia and end up at the same house. Really.
(All of that said, Pasternak comes up with some of the more beautiful nature descriptions I’ve ever read. His scene descriptions are the strongest part of the novel. And the relationship between Lara and Komarovsky in part 1 is, oddly, the most believable and human relationship in the book.)
Once I finished Doctor Zhivago, I read the Wikipedia page and a few other online resources. Maybe, I thought, I missed something. Maybe each of these characters is a metaphor for some aspect of Russian culture or history that is lost on me in my ignorance. Maybe that would explain the way they all interact with each other, fade and reappear, go to their fates. But no. At least, I didn’t find an interpretation that supported that theory.
So, the question remains: Why is this Nobel-winning novel such a drag? Maybe it’s because it’s written in a style that modern (American) readers aren’t familiar enough with--like trying to watch Lawrence Olivier act and wondering how anyone could ever have tolerated him for a whole movie. It’s not very old (smuggled out of Russia and published in Italy in 1958), but it’s a bit old, and it’s Russian. Or maybe the reason for its popularity and critical success during the Soviet era had a lot more to do with what it said about the Soviets and less about its plot and characterization. Are the readers or the book to blame?
I don’t have enough information to answer the question. But if you’re a student of Russian history, I encourage you to read Doctor Zhivago and tell me what you think. Let’s talk about it. Because it’s very possible I just missed something obvious, and you have something to teach me.
While The Time Machine’s plot is pretty quick moving and interesting, and the world that Wells creates is intriguing, the book as a whole suffers from one of the same problems that I think most H.G. Wells novels suffer from. The characters are anonymous to the point of being uninteresting.
“The time traveler” himself doesn’t even get a name, let alone much of a backstory. The narrator of the frame story refers to other characters as “Mr. ____” or “the editor” and provides no other personality traits. There’s a mysterious character who appears the night that the time traveler returns and tells his tale, but it’s never revealed who he is or why he’s important.
This is an attribute of a lot of science fiction, especially written in this era. But I find it very difficult to understand a character’s motivations when the author provides no information about how they have come to the world--what they’ve seen before and how they might interpret the situations before them. The author develops a robust environment, but crucial details of it get lost when the reader can’t understand the main character’s train of thought.
Also, and again like Wells’s other works I’ve read, the characters have an intolerably English-white-male-centric view of the world. From the little I know about Wells as a person, I understand that he was quite progressive for his time. But his nameless, featureless characters who travel to exotic and fantastic worlds with entirely different species and culture can only interpret things from the most basic, stereotypical, privileged viewpoint imaginable.
All that said, The Time Machine contains some really interesting ideas. Even if the time traveler’s motivations aren’t always decipherable, his actions are entertaining, his descriptions are vivid, and his fear feels real. The reader is drawn into the mystery of the futuristic world he encounters and saddened to realize the horrible truth behind it.
But for my taste, unique concepts and plotlines aren’t enough to sustain a novel.
As far as I can remember, this was my first time reading The Phantom Tollbooth. Throughout every page, I thought it would be more enjoyable if I were reading it out loud to a child. I don’t have kids, and this didn’t provide any nostalgic thrill, so I undoubtedly didn’t like it as much as many other people do.
The story doesn’t make a ton of sense--there are big gaps in the plot that are largely ignored. The wordplay was more cute than clever, mostly puns. Again, kids would like this, but it falls pretty flat to an adult. There are a lot of characters who run quickly in and out of the story without having much effect. The characters generally only have one personality trait or aspect each, and even those are not consistent. The moral(s) are generally positive, although there are also a ton of them, and they are not regularly applied by the characters. It’s not like Milo began to appreciate learning and used that to save the princesses, for example.
Overall, The Phantom Tollbooth is a collection of cute ideas that would likely appeal to children, especially if it’s being read to them in small segments. But without the nostalgia kick, it doesn’t hold appeal for adults.
Despite an intriguing concept and an interesting final quarter, The Island of Dr. Moreau fails to really engage the reader. The first three quarters of the book are filled with rambling info-dumps, detailed plot lines, and character introductions that aren’t really necessary to the story. The narrator, Prendick, spends a long time building up to the reveal of what’s happening on the island. If he were dropping clues and piecing together the puzzle himself, the reader would be right there along with him. But instead, he simply narrates odd things that happen around him without seeming to be able to come to any conclusions. It’s up to Dr. Moreau himself to explain everything in a lengthy monologue, and only after Prendick has seen it first-hand.
Even listening to this monologue, Prendick asks the wrong questions. He seems to be so caught up in the impropriety of the island that he can’t bring himself to think deeper about any of it. Moreau makes a point of saying that he doesn’t use any humans in his experiments, but how is that possible? How do you combine a bat and a dog and come up with something that walks on two legs and can speak English? And if the Hyena-Swine is a cross between those two animals, then what, exactly, are the Leopard-Man and Ape-Man created from? Since Prendick never asks about it or suspects Moreau was lying, it seems like a rather large plot hole.
The world view that underlies Prendick’s narration hurts the book as well. He clearly has an ideal of a white, heterosexual, educated Englishman as the pinnacle of civilized life. There are many subtle examples of this bias throughout the narrative, but the most egregious (to me) was his comment that the female Beast Folk seemed to be more aware of their grotesqueness and to feel shame about it, dressing themselves up more with pretty fabrics. Retch.
If you can make it through the problems in the first three quarters of the book, though, you’ll be rewarded with the ending. After a pretty dramatic action scene (relatively), the tenor of the island changes. Prendick’s priggishness, snobbery, and self-righteousness finally start to affect his safety, and he’s forced to either change his behavior or face a dangerous, lonely life. He mostly chooses the latter. These final 4 months on the island are skimmed over for the most part, but it is only then that Prendick actually begins to change a bit. The most introspective Prendick ever gets is when he returns to England and finds himself utterly traumatized by the events of the island. After being so caught up in propriety and civilized behavior for so long, Prendick finds he can’t quite blend back into society.
Maybe Wells chose Prendick as his narrator specifically to show how ridiculous his attitude is and how ill-equipped it leaves him to deal with anything more difficult than a London train delay. If so, I think this would have come through more clearly if the story were told in third-person rather than Prendick’s rather shallow first-person narration. But the fact that the unnamed narrator of The War of the Worlds had some of these same hang-ups gives me pause. At any rate, it makes both narrators difficult to sympathize with.
Like Moby Dick, The Old Man and The Sea clearly isn’t for everyone. But I loved it. You don’t pick this one up for the plot, you pick it up for what it says about the human condition. About each one of us, more so the older we get. Life is a struggle. Sometimes we get lucky and something amazing happens. But even then, does it really matter? We can feel proud and we can feel shame, we can face the world as an impoverished Cuban fisherman or as the great Joe DiMaggio, we can feel energy or exhaustion, and we can put up brilliant and incredible fights… but in the end, does it matter? We all die. We all struggle and die and then are eaten.
That sounds horribly depressing, I realize, but it’s not! Truly! How freeing to know that no matter what you count as your personal successes and failures in life, we all end up the same way. The trick is just to keep fighting. Just keep striving for better, for stronger, for longer. Be content with what you have and what you’ve achieved, yes, and allow others their own choices, but strive, always strive.
Santiago is like some kind of Zen master, never begrudging the other fishermen for their success, still loving the boy even though he has had to join a more successful boat, and deeply respecting the marlin who struggles so epically and forms such a worthy adversary. The sharks finally snap the calm, peaceful thread through this story, the sharks that defeat the old man.
There will always be sharks. There will be 85-day stretches without a fish. There will be giant marlins who fight for 3 days. There will be times you have to eat dolphin without lime or salt. The nobility of these struggles comes not from the struggle themselves, but out of how we react to them. Each of us has a choice at every moment to get angry, bitter, and frightened. Or, we can choose to recognize the ultimate meaninglessness of these tiny battles and accept life for what it is.
This story could very well be the defining one of Santiago’s life. But who will know about it outside his village? How much will he even tell the boy? This is just one small story in the course of one small life, the kind of thing that gets quickly forgotten by everyone else. But what is a life but a series of small stories–accomplishments mixed with failures? And what can a story from another small life contribute to mine?
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