Marks and Remarks
Food for the Mind and Eye

No. 0153, January 5, 2018


  Don Quijote and I

     The Lomographic Project: Item No. 005:
    "View of the Bomb Cyclone From My Desk, Lomographized"

Copyright 2018 by S.W. Paul Wyszkowski

     Long time ago, in a country far far away - to be specific, in Poland circa 1938, a four year old boy was given for his nameday (which was the same as mine, November 13) a seriously hefty book. He was, if I remember correctly, delighted and impressed with this gift, more so than with any other he had ever received up to that time (and long since forgotten). Even though he was not yet able to read it, there were many pictures in the book that instantly grabbed his attention and inflamed his imagination. This incident was most likely the origin of serious bibliophilia that dogged him for the rest of his life. Ever since, throughout his childhood, books, the fatter the better, were his favorite presents.

     This particular book was "Don Quijote" by Miguel Cervantes de Saavedra. It was an abridged version though not by much - it was not one of those simplified children's versions - and it was illustrated with engravings by Gustave Doré, one of late 19th century's most popular and prolific illustrators. Unfortunately, the following year, as the boy was just starting to read, the book was lost (along with everything that could not be hand carried) as he and his family fled from the Nazi invasion. Lost but not forgotten.

     Many years later, the boy, now grown up and living in the USA (it's a long story), had in his library fourteen best English translations of "Don Quijote" (there are over a hundred), the best translation into Polish (better than any of the English ones because Polish is closer in spirit to the XIVth century Spanish idiom), and three editions of the original Spanish text, one of them a splendid commemorative two volume set acquired in Madrid. And a complete set of all of Doré's illustrations to "Don Quijote".

     "Don Quijote" is considered to be the first modern novel. Its realism and character driven structure have no known precedents. On top of that, many critics consider it to be the greatest novel written to date, a credible claim though harder to substantiate. Certainly "Don Quijote" gave the world two of the most memorable characters ever: the mad knight himself and his squire Sancho Panza. The novel is an ironic tragicomedy bitingly satirizing romances of knightly chivalry which were the popular literature of Cervantez's time. More universally, it illuminates the folly of idealization, how ideals can rule an uncritical mind. Contrary to the misconception propagated in many of its adaptations, "Don Quijote" is not a story of a noble though deluded character on a mission to make a corrupt world better. Alonzo Quijana, self-styled as Don Quijote, at the core a decent and rational man, is seduced into taking up knight-errantry by the imagined glory of it, for personal aggrandizement. That is the tragic error underlying his delusional interpretation of the world. His ultimate defeat as knight errant is, in fact, his redemption. Nevertheless, we instinctively empathize with his reach for greatness, however doomed and pathetic.

     "Don Quijote" is the third most published book in history, after the Bible and Shakespeare's collected works. Who hasn't heard of the great Don Quijote de la Mancha? (How pleased he would be if he knew the extent of his real world fame!) My early contact with the novel is not so surprising (as you may have suspected, that four year old boy is an earlier incarnation of myself). What is unusual about it is that it was the real thing and not a kiddie version. That is, I believe, why it had such a lasting impact. Doré's engravings, of course, were a major factor as well.

     My great regret is that, so far, no adequate film adaptation of "Don Quijote" exists. There have been several attempts, with the two most promising ones ending in a failure for technical or existential reasons. Orson Welles started, restarted and never completed his version, and Terry Gilliam was wiped out on location in La Mancha by rains and storms of Biblical proportions as well as by the death of the actor playing the knight. There's a decent but uninspired BBC version, a Spanish version that I have not seen (not yet available on DVD), and there's a Hollywood musical that essentially misses the point. Terry Gilliam says he hasn't given up yet, but I'm not holding my breath. What we have for now, as a consolation, is a Soviet film version from 1957, directed by Gregory Kozintsev. It's a very well made, well intentioned (if slightly propagandized) and very loose adaptation that often strays far from the text. Still, it comes closest to (but does not fully realize) Cervantez's original concept. Perhaps I expect too much. The "Don Quijote" that lives in my imagination may be unfilmable.

     As of my last move, from a house to an apartment, my library has perforce shrank from ten bookcases to bare essentials crowded into mere four. It now contains only one original Spanish text edition, three English translations and one Polish translation. And yes, Doré's engravings, the Bible (in English and in Polish) and Shakespeare's complete works. (Factoid: Shakespeare and Cervantez died on the same day, April 23, 1616.)