Thursday, October 31, 2019

The 100 greatest novels of all time / No 5 / Tom Jones by Henry Fielding (1749)

The 100 greatest 

noveloall time

No. 05

Tom Jones 

by Henry Fielding (1749)

ow many readers, if they are honest, discovered some of the greatest novels through film or television? GatsbyPride and PrejudiceThe English PatientDr Zhivago? I first got interested in Tom Jones having seen John Osborne's famous adaptation, starring the young Albert Finney as the eponymous hero. That's an exceptional film. Classics often don't make good films, or only do so – such as Oliver! – through a process of reinterpretation.
Tom Jones, however, might have been made for the screen. Never mind its numerous chapters and teeming cast of misfits and scoundrels, the central character is an attractively unbridled young man of fierce temper and unrestrained sexuality who pursues true love through contemporary Britain in a sequence of scandalous and hilarious adventures. Published in the mid-18th century, Tom Jones is a classic English novel that captures the spirit of its age and whose famous characters – Squire Western, the chaplain Thwackum, the scheming Blifil, seductive Molly Seagrim and Sophia, Tom's true love – have come to represent Augustan society in all its loquacious, turbulent, comic variety.
The secret of Tom Jones was to be intimately connected to its contemporary audience. By the 1740s, the English novel was attracting new kinds of reader and, in turn, new kinds of writer. Not only was there an explosion of print media and a booming middle-class audience, there were innovative novelists for whom this popular new genre offered the prospect of a decent living. Many would continue to starve in Grub Street, but some had begun to make money. Samuel Johnson, famously, sold his over-earnest romance, Rasselas, to pay for his mother's funeral.
Henry Fielding was typical of this new generation. Born in 1707, he was a wholly 18th-century man. With a classical education at Eton, family connections and a good career in the law, in which he is sometimes credited with laying the foundations of the Metropolitan police, he turned to fiction partly to fund an extravagant lifestyle and partly to engage with a stimulating contemporary audience.

Fielding was writing at a time of intense social and political change and took up his pen in response to the crises of the moment. Until the repressive Licensing Act of 1737, he had enjoyed a reputation as the author of satirical burlesques. When the Jacobite uprising (the '45) threatened the Hanoverian settlement, Fielding sprang to the defence of George II, and edited the True Patriot.
In hindsight, the English novel was an obvious new arena for his imagination, but it was literary rivalry that pushed him, in middle age, on to the path of fiction. In 1740, Samuel Richardson's Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, the tale of a young woman who becomes a great lady and finds true happiness by defending her chastity, was the London sensation of the season, an early bestseller. Fielding's response to Pamela was complicated. He admired its success, scorned its sententious moralising, and attacked it in an anonymous parody, Shamela (1741). Thriving on the competition with Richardson, Fielding next completed his first novel, Joseph Andrews (1742), which began as a further parody of Pamela before finding its own narrative voice. After this debut, following the dramas of the '45, Fielding began work on his masterpiece, The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling.
For Coleridge, this long novel was, withOedipus Rex and The Alchemist, one of "the three most perfect plots ever planned". It was also highly original and deeply comic. Fielding broke away from Richardson's epistolary technique of "writing to the moment" to compose his narrative in the third person. This engaging picaresque tale about the adventures of Tom, a high-spirited bastard, rollicking through England, was an instant hit, selling some 10,000 copies at a time when the population of London was only around 700,000.
One conservative critic denounced Tom Jones as "a motley history of bastardism, fornication, and adultery", which can't have done sales any harm. Samuel Johnson, more measured, thought that such novels were a dangerous distraction "to the young, the ignorant and the idle…", offering merely "the entertainment of minds unfurnished with ideas". However, for better or worse, this mass audience represented the future of the genre, and inspired Fielding's opening credo, which was to provide "an entertainment" for public consumption. "The author", he wrote in his first chapter, should provide "a mental entertainment", where "all persons are welcome for their money". Quite so.
A Note on the Text:
Fielding had read parts of Tom Jones to friends and circulated privately printed episodes from the novel in the autumn of 1748. The official publication date was 10 February 1749, though Fielding's bookseller, Andrew Millar, began distributing copies a week earlier, playing the role of publisher in an age when such a profession did not exist. The first edition was exhausted at once; second and third editions followed on 28 February and 12 April. The fourth edition came at the end of the same year and it's this text that remains the basis for modern editions.
Three other Fielding books:
The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews (1742); A Journey from this World to the Next (1749); Amelia (1751)

The 100 greatest novels of all time / No 4 / Gullivers's Travels by Jonathan Swift (1726)

The 100 greatest 

novels of all time

No. 04

Gullivers's Travel 

by Jonathan Swift


Robert McCrum
Sunday 6 October 2013


On the island of Lilliput: a colour print from an 1860s edition of Gulliver’s Travels.

even years after the publication of Robinson Crusoe, the great Tory essayist and poet Jonathan Swift – inspired by the Scriblerus club, whose members included John Gay and Alexander Pope – composed a satire on travel narratives that became an immediate bestseller. According to Gay, Gulliver was soon being read “from the cabinet council to the nursery”.

In its afterlife as a classic, Gulliver’s Travels works on many levels. First, it’s a masterpiece of sustained and savage indignation, “furious, raging, obscene”, according to Thackeray. Swift’s satirical fury is directed against almost every aspect of early 18th-century life: science, society, commerce and politics. Second, stripped of Swift’s dark vision, it becomes a wonderful travel fantasy for children, a perennial favourite that continues to inspire countless versions, in books and films. Finally, as a polemical tour de force, full of wild imagination, it became a source for Voltaire, as well as the inspiration for a Telemann violin suite, Philip K Dick’s science-fiction story The Prize Ship, and, perhaps most influential of all, George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World by Lemuel Gulliver (to give its original title) comes in four parts, and opens with Gulliver’s shipwreck on the island of Lilliput, whose inhabitant are just six inches high. The most famous and familiar part of the book (“Lilliputian” soon became part of the language) is a satirical romp in which Swift takes some memorable shots at English political parties and their antics, especially the controversy on the matter of whether boiled eggs should be opened at the big or the little end.

Next, Gulliver’s ship, the Adventure, gets blown off course and he is abandoned on Brobdingnag whose inhabitants are giants with a proportionately gigantic landscape. Here, having been dominant on Lilliput, Gulliver is exhibited as a curious midget, and has a number of local dramas such as fighting giant wasps. He also gets to discuss the condition of Europe with the King, who concludes with Swiftian venom that “the bulk of your natives [are] the most pernicious race of odious little vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth.”

In the third part of his travels, Gulliver visits the flying island of Laputa (a place-name also referenced in Stanley Kubrick’s film Dr Strangelove), and Swift mounts a dark and complicated assault on the speculations of contemporary science (notably spoofing the attempted extraction of sunbeams from cucumbers). Finally, in the section that influenced Orwell (Gulliver’s Travels was one of his favourite books), Swift describes the country of the Houyhnhnms, horses with the qualities of rational men. These he contrasts with the loathsome Yahoos, brutes in human shape. Orwell would later echo Swift’s misanthropy, looking ahead to a time “when the human race had finally been overthrown.”

At the end of it all, Gulliver returns home from his travels in a state of alienated wisdom, purged and matured by his experiences. “I write,” he concludes, “for the noblest end, to inform and instruct mankind… I write without any view to profit or praise. I never suffer a word to pass that may possibly give the least offence, even to those who are most ready to take it. So that I hope I may with justice pronounce myself an author perfectly blameless…”
When he died in 1745, Swift, remembered as “the gloomy Dean”, was buried in Dublin with the famous epitaph “ubi saeva indignatio ulterius cor lacerare nequit” (where fierce indignation can no further tear apart his heart) inscribed on his tomb.
A note on the text:
Swift probably started writing Gulliver’s Travels in 1720 (when Crusoe fever was at it height), and delivered the manuscript to the London publisher Benjamin Motte in March 1726. The book was published, anonymously, at top speed. Motte, who sensed a bestseller, used several presses to foil any attempt at piracy, and made many cuts to reduce the risk of prosecution. The first edition appeared, in two volumes, on 26 October 1726, priced 8s 6d, and sold out its first printing in less than a week. In 1735 the Irish publisher, George Faulkner printed a collection of Swift’s works. Volume III became Gulliver’s Travels, based on a working copy of the original manuscript. The textual history of Gulliver’s Travelsnow becomes incredibly complicated, and Swift later disowned most versions, including Motte’s first edition, saying it was so much altered that “I do hardly know mine own work”. Later scholarly editions of Swift have to choose between Motte and Faulkner, but whatever the version it has never been out of print since the day it first appeared.

Three more from Jonathan Swift

A Tale of a Tub (1704); A Modest Proposal, an essay (1729); Verses on the Death of Dr Swift (1739)

The 100 greatest novels of all time / No 3 / Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (1719)

The 100 greatest 

noveloall time

No. 03

Robinson Crusoe

by Daniel Defoe


Robert McCrum
Sunday 23 September 2013 

Robinson Crusoe

A 1719 illustration of Robinson Crusoe and Man Friday on the desert island. Photograph: Mpi/Getty Images
English fiction began with The Pilgrim's Progress, but nearly 50 turbulent years, including the Glorious Revolution, passed before it made its great leap forward. The author of this literary milestone is a strangely appealing literary hustler of nearly 60 years old originally named Daniel Foe (he added "De" to improve his social standing), a one-time journalist, pamphleteer, jack of all trades and spy. Like Bunyan, he had suffered at the hands of the state (the pillory, followed by prison in 1703). Unlike Bunyan, he was not religious.
His world-famous novel is a complex literary confection. It purports to be a history, written by Crusoe himself, and edited by Daniel Defoe who, in the preface, teasingly writes that he "believes the thing to be a just History of Fact; neither is there any Appearance of Fiction in it".

So what do we find in this "History" ? Robinson Crusoe has three elements that make it irresistible. First, the narrative voice of the castaway is Defoe's stroke of genius. It's exciting, unhurried, conversational and capable of high and low sentiments. It's also often quasi-journalistic, which suits Defoe's style. This harmonious mix of tone puts the reader deep into the mind of the castaway and his predicament. His adventures become our adventures and we experience them inside out, viscerally, for ourselves. Readers often become especially entranced by Crusoe's great journal, the central passage of his enforced sequestration.
And here is Defoe's second great inspiration. He comes up with a tale, often said to be modelled on the story of the castaway Alexander Selkirk, that, like Bunyan's, follows an almost biblical pattern of trangression (youthful rebellion), retribution (successive shipwrecks), repentance (the painful lessons of isolation) and finally redemption (Crusoe's return home). In storytelling terms, this is pure gold.

And third, how can we forget Defoe's characters? The pioneer novelist understood the importance of attaching memorably concrete images to his narrative and its characters. Friday and his famous footstep in the sand, one of the four great moments in English fiction, according to Robert Louis Stevenson; Crusoe with his parrot and his umbrella: these have become part of English myth. Defoe, like Cervantes, also opts to give his protagonist a sidekick. Friday is to Crusoe what Sancho Panza is to Quixote. Doubles in English literature will regularly recur in this list: Jekyll and Hyde, Holmes and Watson, Jeeves and Wooster.
Which brings me to Defoe's final quality as a writer. He was the complete professional, dipped in ink. Throughout his life, he produced pamphlets, squibs, narrative verse and ghosted ephemera (he is said to have used almost 200 pen names). He was a man who liked to be paid for what he wrote, lived well and was almost always in debt. He was not a "literary novelist", and would not have understood the term, but his classic novel is English literature at its finest, and he hit the jackpot with Robinson Crusoe.
By the end of the 19th century, no book in English literary history had enjoyed more editions, spin-offs and translations than Robinson Crusoe, with more than 700 alternative versions, including illustrated children's versions. The now-forgotten term "Robinsonade" was coined to describe the Crusoe genre, which still flourishes and was recently revived by Hollywood in the Tom Hanks film, Castaway (2000).
Note on the text:
The text was first published in London by W Taylor on 25 April 1719. This first edition credited the work's fictional protagonist Robinson Crusoe as its author, and its title was The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner: Written by Himself. It sold well; four months later, it was followed by The Further Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. A year later, riding high on the market, came Serious Reflections During the Life and Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. Most readers will only encounter the first edition.

The 100 greatest novels of all time No. 02 / The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan (1678)

The 100 greatest 

noveloall time

No. 02

The Pilgrim's Progress 

by John Bunyan (1678)

The one with the Slough of Despond and Vanity Fair.

Robert McCrum
Monday 23 September 2013 08.00 BST

he English novel begins behind bars, in extremis. Its first author, John Bunyan, was a Puritan dissenter whose writing starts with sermons and ends with fiction. His famous allegory, the story of Christian, opens with a sentence of luminous simplicity that has the haunting compulsion of the hook in a great melody. "As I walk'd through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place, where was a Denn; And I laid me down in that place to sleep: And as I slept I dreamed a Dream."
A "Denn" is a prison, and Bunyan wrote most of the book in Bedford county gaol, having been arrested for his beliefs during the "Great Persecution" of 1660-1690. He shares the experience of prison with Cervantes, who had the idea for Don Quixote while incarcerated in La Mancha. Like so many novels that follow in this list, The Pilgrim's Progress blends fact and fiction. As well as being the record of Bunyan's dream, a well-known fictional device, it is also an archetypal tale – a quest, fraught with danger. Christian's pilgrimage takes him through the Slough of Despond, Vanity Fair and the Delectable Mountains in a succession of adventures that keep the reader turning the page. With his good companions, Faithful and Hopeful, he vanquishes many enemies before arriving at the Celestial City with the line that still reverberates through the English literary tradition: "So he passed over, and all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side."
In Hollywood terms, the novel has a perfect "arc". It also contains a cast of unforgettable characters, from Mr Worldly Wiseman to Lord Hategood, Mr Stand-fast and Mr Valiant-for-Truth.
More profoundly, as an allegory of state repression, it has been described by the historian EP Thompson as one of the "foundation texts of the English working-class movement". Part of its uniquely English quality is a robust and engaging sense of humour that has cemented its appeal to generations of readers.
The Pilgrim's Progress is the ultimate English classic, a book that has been continuously in print, from its first publication to the present day, in an extraordinary number of editions. There's no book in English, apart from the Bible, to equal Bunyan's masterpiece for the range of its readership, or its influence on writers as diverse as William Thackeray, Charlotte Bronte, Mark Twain, CS Lewis, John Steinbeck and even Enid Blyton.
Huckleberry Finn speaks for many readers when, recalling his Mississippi education, he says: "There was some books too... One was 'Pilgrim's Progress', about a man that left his family it didn't say why. I read considerable in it now and then. The statements was interesting, but tough."
The story of a man in search of the truth is the plot of many kinds of fiction, fromPortnoy's Complaint to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Like many of the writers in the list that follows, Bunyan had a wonderful ear for the rhythms of colloquial speech and his allegorical characters come to life in dialogue that never fails to advance the narrative. Story is one thing. The simple clarity and beauty of Bunyan's prose is something else. Braided together, style and content unite to make a timeless English classic.
Note on the text:
The Pilgrim's Progress, from this world, to that which is to come was first published in Holborn, London by Nathaniel Ponder, a non-conformist, at the beginning of 1678 in an edition of 191 pages. It was an immediate success. A second edition appeared before the end of 1678, with many new passages, a third in 1679, and several subsequent editions before Bunyan's death in August 1688. The Second Part of The Pilgrim's Progress was published in 1684, with a second edition in 1686. Eventually, the English text comprised some 108,260 words. It has never been out of print, and has been translated into more than 200 languages.
Literary connections
Rachel Joyce's Booker-longlisted novel 2012 novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, was a modern reworking of Pilgrim's Progress, with her everyman hero Harold walking the length of England in yachting shoes to reach a dying friend.

The 100 greatest novels of all time / No 1 / Don Quixote (1605)

The 100 greatest 

noveloall time

No. 01

Don Quixote

by Miguel de Cervantes

The knight in the mirror
The first modern novel

Don Quixote - the first modern novel - remains the finest. As a new translation of the Spanish classic is published, Harold Bloom argues that only Shakespeare comes close to Cervantes' genius

Harold Bloom
Saturday 13 December 2003 23.56 GMT

What is the true object of Don Quixote's quest? I find that unanswerable. What are Hamlet's authentic motives? We are not permitted to know. Since Cervantes's magnificent knight's quest has cosmological scope and reverberation, no object seems beyond reach. Hamlet's frustration is that he is allowed only Elsinore and revenge tragedy. Shakespeare composed a poem unlimited, in which only the protagonist is beyond all limits.
Cervantes and Shakespeare, who died almost simultaneously, are the central western authors, at least since Dante, and no writer since has matched them, not Tolstoy or Goethe, Dickens, Proust, Joyce. Context cannot hold Cervantes and Shakespeare: the Spanish golden age and the Elizabethan-Jacobean era are secondary when we attempt a full appreciation of what we are given.

WH Auden found in Don Quixote a portrait of the Christian saint, as opposed to Hamlet, who "lacks faith in God and in himself". Though Auden sounds perversely ironic, he was quite serious and, I think, wrong-headed.
Herman Melville blended Don Quixote and Hamlet into Captain Ahab (with a touch of Milton's Satan added for seasoning). Ahab desires to avenge himself upon the white whale, while Satan would destroy God, if only he could. Hamlet is death's ambassador to us, according to G Wilson Knight. Don Quixote says his quest is to destroy injustice.
The final injustice is death, the ultimate bondage. To set captives free is the knight's pragmatic way of battling against death.
Though there have been many valuable English translations of Don Quixote, I would commend Edith Grossman's new version for the extraordinarily high quality of her prose. The spiritual atmosphere of a Spain already in steep decline can be felt throughout, thanks to the heightened quality of her diction.

Grossman might be called the Glenn Gould of translators, because she, too, articulates every note. Reading her amazing mode of finding equivalents in English for Cervantes's darkening vision is an entrance into a further understanding of why this great book contains within itself all the novels that have followed in its sublime wake. Like Shakespeare, Cervantes is inescapable for all writers who have come after him. Dickens and Flaubert, Joyce and Proust reflect the narrative procedures of Cervantes, and their glories of characterisation mingle strains of Shakespeare and Cervantes.
Cervantes inhabits his great book so pervasively that we need to see that it has three unique personalities: the knight, Sancho and Cervantes himself.
Yet how sly and subtle is the presence of Cervantes! At its most hilarious, Don Quixote is immensely sombre. Shakespeare again is the illuminating analogue: Hamlet at his most melancholic will not cease his punning or his gallows humour, and Falstaff's boundless wit is tormented by intimations of rejection. Just as Shakespeare wrote in no genre, Don Quixote is tragedy as well as comedy. Though it stands for ever as the birth of the novel out of the prose romance, and is still the best of all novels, I find its sadness augments each time I reread it, and does make it "the Spanish Bible", as Miguel de Unamuno termed this greatest of all narratives.
Don Quixote may not be scripture, but it so contains us that, as with Shakespeare, we cannot get out of it to achieve perspectivism. We are inside the vast book, privileged to hear the superb conversations between the knight and his squire, Sancho Panza. Sometimes we are fused with Cervantes, but more often we are invisible wanderers who accompany the sublime pair in their adventures and debacles.
King Lear's first performance took place as part I of Don Quixote was published. Contra Auden, Cervantes, like Shakespeare, gives us a secular transcendence. Don Quixote does regard himself as God's knight, but he continuously follows his own capricious will, which is gloriously idiosyncratic. King Lear appeals to the skyey heavens for aid, but on the personal grounds that they and he are old.
Battered by realities that are even more violent than he is, Don Quixote resists yielding to the authority of church and state. When he ceases to assert his autonomy, there is nothing left except to be Alonso Quixano the Good again, and no action remaining except to die.
I return to my initial question: the Sorrowful Knight's object. He is at war with Freud's reality principle, which accepts the necessity of dying.
But he is neither a fool nor a madman, and his vision always is at least double: he sees what we see, yet he sees something else also, a possible glory that he desires to appropriate or at least share. De Unamuno names this transcendence as literary fame, the immortality of Cervantes and Shakespeare. We need to hold in mind as we read Don Quixote that we cannot condescend to the knight and Sancho, since together they know more than we do, just as we never can catch up to the amazing speed of Hamlet's cognitions. Do we know exactly who we are? The more urgently we quest for our authentic selves, the more they tend to recede. The knight and Sancho, as the great work closes, know exactly who they are, not so much by their adventures as through their marvellous conversations, be they quarrels or exchanges of insights.
Poetry, particularly Shakespeare's, teaches us how to talk to ourselves, but not to others. Shakespeare's great figures are gorgeous solipsists: Shylock, Falstaff, Hamlet, Iago, Lear, Cleopatra, with Rosalind the brilliant exception. Don Quixote and Sancho really listen to each other and change through this receptivity. Neither of them overhears himself, which is the Shakespearean mode. Cervantes or Shakespeare: they are rival teachers of how we change and why. Friendship in Shakespeare is ironic at best, treacherous more commonly. The friendship between Sancho Panza and his knight surpasses any other in literary representation.
We do not have Cardenio, the play Shakespeare wrote with John Fletcher, after reading Thomas Shelton's contemporaneous translation of Don Quixote. Therefore we cannot know what Shakespeare thought of Cervantes, though we can surmise his delight. Cervantes, an unsuccessful dramatist, presumably had never heard of Shakespeare, but I doubt he would have valued Falstaff and Hamlet, both of whom chose the self's freedom over obligations of any kind.
Sancho, as Kafka remarked, is a free man, but Don Quixote is metaphysically and psychologically bound by his dedication to knight errantry. We can celebrate the knight's endless valour, but not his literalisation of the romance of chivalry.
But does Don Quixote altogether believe in the reality of his own vision? Evidently he does not, particularly when he (and Sancho) is surrendered by Cervantes to the sadomasochistic practical jokes - indeed, the vicious and humiliating cruelties - that afflict the knight and squire in part II. Nabokov is very illuminating on this in his Lectures on Don Quixote, published posthumously in 1983: both parts of Don Quixote form a veritable encyclopedia of cruelty. From that viewpoint it is one of the most bitter and barbarous books ever penned. And its cruelty is artistic.
To find a Shakespearean equivalent to this aspect of Don Quixote, you would have to fuse Titus Andronicus and The Merry Wives of Windsor into one work, a grim prospect because they are, to me, Shakespeare's weakest plays. Falstaff's dreadful humiliation by the merry wives is unacceptable enough (even if it formed the basis for Verdi's sublime Falstaff).
Why does Cervantes subject Don Quixote to the physical abuse of part I and the psychic tortures of part II? Nabokov's answer is aesthetic: the cruelty is vitalised by Cervantes's characteristic artistry. That seems to me something of an evasion. Twelfth Night is comedy unsurpassable, and on the stage we are consumed by hilarity at Malvolio's terrible humiliations.
When we reread the play, we become uneasy, because Malvolio's socio-erotic fantasies echo in virtually all of us. Why are we not made at least a little dubious by the torments, bodily and socially, suffered by Don Quixote and Sancho Panza? Cervantes himself, as a constant if disguised presence in the text, is the answer. He was the most battered of eminent writers. At the great naval battle of Lepanto, he was wounded and so at 24 permanently lost the use of his left hand. In 1575, he was captured by Barbary pirates and spent five years as a slave in Algiers. Ransomed in 1580, he served Spain as a spy in Portugal and Oran and then returned to Madrid, where he attempted a career as a dramatist, almost invariably failing after writing at least 20 plays. Somewhat desperately, he became a tax collector, only to be indicted and imprisoned for supposed malfeasance in 1597. A fresh imprisonment came in 1605; there is a tradition that he began to compose Don Quixote in jail. Part I, written at incredible speed, was published in 1605. Part II was published in 1615.
Fleeced of all royalties of part I by the publisher, Cervantes would have died in poverty except for the belated patronage of a discerning nobleman in the last three years of his life. Though Shakespeare died at just 52, he was an immensely successful dramatist and became quite prosperous by holding a share in the actors' company that played at the Globe Theatre. Circumspect, and only too aware of the government-inspired murder of Christopher Marlowe, and their torture of Thomas Kyd, and branding of Ben Jonson, Shakespeare kept himself nearly anonymous, despite being the reigning dramatist of London. Violence, slavery and imprisonment were the staples of Cervantes's life. Shakespeare, wary to the end, had an existence almost without a memorable incident, as far as we can tell.
The physical and mental torments suffered by Don Quixote and Sancho Panza had been central to Cervantes's endless struggle to stay alive and free. Yet Nabokov's observations are accurate: cruelty is extreme throughout Don Quixote. The aesthetic wonder is that this enormity fades when we stand back from the huge book and ponder its shape and endless range of meaning. No critic's account of Cervantes's masterpiece agrees with, or even resembles, any other critic's impressions. Don Quixote is a mirror held up not to nature, but to the reader. How can this bashed and mocked knight errant be, as he is, a universal paradigm?
Don Quixote and Sancho are victims, but both are extraordinarily resilient, until the knight's final defeat and dying into the identity of Quixano the Good, whom Sancho vainly implores to take to the road again. The fascination of Don Quixote's endurance and of Sancho's loyal wisdom always remains.
Cervantes plays upon the human need to withstand suffering, which is one reason the knight awes us. However good a Catholic he may (or may not) have been, Cervantes is interested in heroism and not in sainthood.
The heroism of Don Quixote is by no means constant: he is perfectly capable of flight, abandoning poor Sancho to be beaten up by an entire village. Cervantes, a hero at Lepanto, wants Don Quixote to be a new kind of hero, neither ironic nor mindless, but one who wills to be himself, as José Ortega y Gasset accurately phrased it.
Don Quixote and Sancho Panza both exalt the will, though the knight transcendentalises it, and Sancho, the first post-pragmatic, wants to keep it within limits. It is the transcendent element in Don Quixote that ultimately persuades us of his greatness, partly because it is set against the deliberately coarse, frequently sordid context of the panoramic book. And again it is important to note that this transcendence is secular and literary, and not Catholic. The Quixotic quest is erotic, yet even the eros is literary.
Crazed by reading (as so many of us still are), the knight is in quest of a new self, one that can overgo the erotic madness of Orlando (Roland) in Ariosto's Orlando Furioso or of the mythic Amadís of Gaul. Unlike Orlando's or Amadís's, Don Quixote's madness is deliberate, self-inflicted, a traditional poetic strategy. Still, there is a clear sublimation of the sexual drive in the knight's desperate courage. Lucidity keeps breaking in, re-minding him that Dulcinea is his own supreme fiction, transcending an honest lust for the peasant girl Aldonza Lorenzo. A fiction, believed in even though you know it is a fiction, can be validated only by sheer will.
I cannot think of any other work where the relations between words and deeds are as ambiguous as in Don Quixote, except (once again) for Hamlet. Cervantes's formula is also Shakespeare's, though in Cervantes we feel the burden of the experiential, whereas Shakespeare is uncanny, since nearly all his experience was theatrical. So subtle is Cervantes that he needs to be read at as many levels as Dante. Perhaps the Quixotic can be accurately defined as the literary mode of an absolute reality, not as impossible dream but rather as a persuasive awakening into mortality.
The aesthetic truth of Don Quixote is that, again like Dante and Shakespeare, it makes us confront greatness directly. If we have difficulty fully understanding Don Quixote's quest, its motives and desired ends, that is because we confront a reflecting mirror that awes us even while we yield to delight. Cervantes is always out ahead of us, and we can never quite catch up. Fielding and Sterne, Goethe and Thomas Mann, Flaubert and Stendhal, Melville and Mark Twain, Dostoevsky: these are among Cervantes's admirers and pupils. Don Quixote is the only book that Dr Johnson desired to be even longer than it already was.
Yet Cervantes, although a universal pleasure, is in some respects even more difficult than are Dante and Shakespeare upon their heights. Are we to believe everything Don Quixote says to us? Does he believe it? He (or Cervantes) is the inventor of a mode now common enough, in which figures, within a novel, read prior fictions concerning their own earlier adventures and have to sustain a consequent loss in the sense of reality. This is one of the beautiful enigmas of Don Quixote: it is simultaneously a work whose authentic subject is literature and a chronicle of a hard, sordid actuality, the declining Spain of 1605-15. The knight is Cervantes's subtle critique of a realm that had given him only harsh measures in return for his own patriotic heroism at Lepanto. Don Quixote cannot be said to have a double consciousness; his is rather the multiple consciousness of Cervantes himself, a writer who knows the cost of confirmation. I do not believe the knight can be said to tell lies, except in the Nietzschean sense of lying against time and time's grim "It was". To ask what it is that Don Quixote himself believes is to enter the visionary centre of his story.
This curious blend of the sublime and the bathetic does not come again until Kafka, another pupil of Cervantes, would compose stories like "The Hunter Gracchus" and "A Country Doctor". To Kafka, Don Quixote was Sancho Panza's demon or genius, projected by the shrewd Sancho into a book of adventure unto death. In Kafka's marvellous interpretation, the authentic object of the knight's quest is Sancho Panza himself, who as an auditor refuses to believe Don Quixote's account of the cave. So I circle back to my question: Does the knight believe his own story? It makes little sense to answer either "yes" or "no", so the question must be wrong. We cannot know what Don Quixote and Hamlet believe, since they do not share in our limitations.
Thomas Mann loved Don Quixote for its ironies, but then Mann could have said, at any time: "Irony of ironies, all is irony." We behold in Cervantes's vast scripture what we already are. Johnson, who could not abide Jonathan Swift's ironies, easily accepted those of Cervantes; Swift's satire corrodes, while Cervantes's allows us some hope.
Johnson felt we required some illusions, lest we go mad. Is that part of Cervantes's design? Mark van Doren, in a very useful study, Don Quixote's Profession, is haunted by the analogues between the knight and Hamlet, which to me seem inevitable. Here are the two characters, beyond all others, who seem always to know what they are doing, though they baffle us whenever we try to share their knowledge. It is a knowledge unlike that of Falstaff and Sancho Panza, who are so delighted at being themselves that they bid knowledge to go aside and pass them by. I would rather be Falstaff or Sancho than a version of Hamlet or Don Quixote, because growing old and ill teaches me that being matters more than knowing. The knight and Hamlet are reckless beyond belief; Falstaff and Sancho have some awareness of discretion in matters of valour.
We cannot know the object of Don Quixote's quest unless we ourselves are Quixotic (note the capital Q). Did Cervantes, looking back upon his own arduous life, think of it as somehow Quixotic? The Sorrowful Face stares out at us in his portrait, a countenance wholly unlike Shakespeare's subtle blandness. They match each other in genius, because more even than Chaucer before them, and the host of novelists who have blended their influences since, they gave us personalities more alive than ourselves. Cervantes, I suspect, would not have wanted us to compare him to Shakespeare or to anyone else. Don Quixote says that all comparisons are odious. Perhaps they are, but this may be the exception.
We need, with Cervantes and Shakespeare, all the help we can get in regard to ultimates, yet we need no help at all to enjoy them. Each is as difficult and yet available as the other. To confront them fully, where are we to turn except to their mutual power of illumination?
· This is an edited extract from Harold Bloom's introduction to a new edition of Don Quixote, translated by Edith Grossman, published by Random House at £20.
Extract: Don Quixote by Cervantes
The opening of Cervantes' entrancing tale of a gentle knight and his servant, Sancho Panza
Somewhere in La Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, a gentleman lived not long ago, one of those who has a lance and ancient shield on a shelf and keeps a skinny nag and a greyhound for racing. An occasional stew, beef more often than lamb, hash most nights, eggs and abstinence on Saturdays, lentils on Fridays, sometimes squab as a treat on Sundays - these consumed three-fourths of his income.
The rest went for a light woollen tunic and velvet breeches and hose of the same material for feast days, while weekdays were honoured with dun-coloured coarse cloth. He had a housekeeper past 40, a niece not yet 20, and a man-of-all-work who did everything from saddling the horse to pruning the trees. Our gentleman was approximately 50 years old; his complexion was weathered, his flesh scrawny, his face gaunt, and he was a very early riser and a great lover of the hunt. Some claim that his family name was Quixada, or Quexada, for there is a certain amount of disagreement among the authors who write of this matter, although reliable conjecture seems to indicate that his name was Quexana. But this does not matter very much to our story; in its telling there is absolutely no deviation from the truth.
... this aforementioned gentleman spent his times of leisure - which meant most of the year - reading books of chivalry with so much devotion and enthusiasm that he forgot almost completely about the hunt and even about the administration of his estate; and in his rash curiosity and folly he went so far as to sell acres of arable land in order to buy books of chivalry to read, and he brought as many of them as he could into his house...
His fantasy filled with everything he had read in his books, enchantments as well as combats, battles, challenges, wounds, courtings, loves, torments, and other impossible foolishness, and he became so convinced in his imagination of the truth of all the countless grandiloquent and false inventions he read that for him no history in the world was truer.
· Translated by Edith Grossman