Monthly Archives: May 2007

Prologue to DQ

Cross-posted at Tilting at Windmills 

I read the prologue to Don Quixote with great delight; there’s something very appealing about its lighthearted tone that bodes well for my enjoyment of the rest of the book (and having read the first couple chapters now, I can say I’m enjoying it greatly). Sylvia has already written an interesting post on the Prologue; I thought I’d add to her post a few thoughts on some of my favorite passages.

I love the way Cervantes claims that he’s not asking for the generosity of readers as they read and judge his book, and yet he’s asking for their generosity at one and the same time. He says:

I do not wish to go along with the common custom and implore you, almost with tears in my eyes, as others do, dearest reader, to forgive or ignore the faults you may find in this my child, for you are neither his kin nor his friend, and you have a soul in your body and a will as free as anyone’s, and you are in your own house, where you are lord, as the sovereign is master of his revenues, and you know the old saying: under cover of my cloak I can kill the king. Which exempts and excuses you from all respect and obligation, and you can say anything you desire about this history without fear that you will be reviled for the bad things or rewarded for the good that you might say about it.

How can you read this passage and have any desire whatsoever to criticize this poor author? How could you heartlessly attack this novel after the author so kindly refrained from asking you not to attack it? I like the way this figures the author/reader relationship — no, the author can’t do anything whatsoever to keep readers from criticizing his book, except to appeal to their sense of kindness, to call the book his child, to imply that they couldn’t possibly be so mean as to say a harsh word. All the author has, besides the strength of the book itself, is the chance to flatter the reader into liking it.

After this uncertain opening, the author’s self-doubt deepens; first we get a description of writer’s block — he absolutely could not write the Prologue, try as he might:

For I can tell you that although [the book itself] cost me some effort to compose, none seemed greater than creating the preface you are now reading. I picked up my pen many times to write it, and many times I put it down again because I did not know what to write.

Fortunately for him, a friend comes along while the author continues to bemoan his weakness and uncertainty. He’s worried about how the public will receive the book, about how long it’s been since he’s published anything, how he has no sonnets by famous people to open his book with, how he’s lacking all the serious, scholarly paraphernalia other books have, the citations from Aristotle and Plato and the marginal notes and indexes. In despair, he says:

In short, my friend … I have decided that Don Quixote should remain buried in the archives of La Mancha until heaven provides someone who can adorn him with all the things he lacks; for I find myself incapable of correcting the situation because of my incompetence and my lack of learning, and because I am by nature too lazy and slothful to go looking for authors to say what I know how to say without them.

He comes across here as someone worried only about the quality of the book, as someone self-effacing enough to put the book away until an author more qualified comes along to publish it. He is not in this for personal gain. If he is lazy and slothful, it’s because he’s honest and doesn’t want to ask others to say what he can say himself. What is not to like about this poor, beleaguered author?

His friend answers with a hilarious speech about how the author can overcome all these problems:

By God, brother, now I am disabused of an illusion I have lived with for all the time I have known you, for I always considered you perceptive and prudent in everything you do. But now I see that you are as far from having those qualities as heaven is from earth.

What a friend. He goes on to say that the author can solve these problems quite simply: he can write his own sonnets and falsely attribute them to famous people; he can insert Latin phrases that he already knows by heart into relevant passages to make them seem more scholarly with a minimum of effort; he can create instant annotations by naming characters after famous people and then write notes to explain the allusions; he can make up a list of references to add to the back of book and he doesn’t have to worry if he doesn’t actually use those references — no one will notice or care.

But then after this joking, the friend gets more serious and says that the book doesn’t need all this scholarly apparatus because it’s doing something completely different. His goal is to mock books of chivalry, and that’s something classical authors knew nothing about. The author is heading off into a completely new direction and he needs to rules and guidelines. What he needs to do instead is:

to make use of mimesis in the writing, and the more precise that is, the better the writing will be … instead you should strive, in plain speech, with words that are straightforward, honest, and well-placed, to make your sentences and phrases sonorous and entertaining, and have them portray, as much as you can and as far as it is possible, your intention, making your ideas clear without complicating and obscuring them.

What he should worry about is the writing itself, not the book’s packaging, the apparatus that surrounds the story itself. It’s the story and the writing only that matter:

Another thing to strive for: reading your history should move the melancholy to laughter, increase the joy of the cheerful, not irritate the simple, fill the clever with admiration for its invention, not give the serious reason to scorn it, and allow the prudent to praise it. In short, keep your eye on the goal of demolishing the ill-founded apparatus of these chivalric books, despised by many and praised by so many more, and if you accomplish this, you will have accomplished no small thing.

He will have accomplished no small thing indeed. This strikes me as a wonderful description of what the novel, or at least one form of it, can do — it’s about mimesis, or capturing life as accurately as possible, and doing so in beautiful and clear language. And it’s a form that everyone can enjoy, from the melancholy to the cheerful, from the simple to the clever.

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Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters

I finished Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters a couple days ago and found it was a satisfying read; it wasn’t quite as absorbing as I wanted it to be, but as I’ve written here before, that could well be my fault. I did find myself consistently interested in the characters and stories and I found lots to think about. I’d say this is a book that was more likely to make me pause and think than to keep turning the pages at a fast pace.

The novel’s title is a big clue as to its themes, of course; it’s all about family relationships, particularly as they affect women. This is a typical 19C novel in the sense that it’s about young women as they reach marriageable age, telling the story of how they and their families negotiate all the difficulties this brings. Two of the main characters, Molly and Cynthia, contrast in interesting ways; Molly is a quiet, meek, obedient, nearly-perfect heroine, but Cynthia is much more complex and troubling. She is flirtatious and popular; she is secretive and slightly suspicious; she is not quite regular and proper and therefore destined to a nice-quite-perfect fate. Molly is likeable, but Cynthia is much more compelling; Gaskell makes it clear that it is her upbringing — her mother’s neglect, in particular — that has made her the way she is, and while this is not her fault, there is no getting around the fact that she must suffer for it. Cynthia knows this and she seems to mourn it a little, but she also accepts it bravely.

There is something troubling about this; Gaskell leads the reader to sympathize with Cynthia — Molly sympathizes with her too — but it’s clear that there is no way Cynthia can overcome this handicap. She is doomed by her upbringing. Well, not really doomed — she ends up in a reasonably nice marriage — but there is no way she will reach the level of Molly’s goodness and happiness. This is typical of 18C and 19C novels where characters can seem stuck; a certain amount of change may occur but ultimately they’ll get sorted out according to their family background, their upbringing, their innate level of goodness, and rewarded or punished at the novel’s end accordingly. You know from fairly early on that Molly will find a good husband and be happy, and that Cynthia will struggle and suffer and make mistakes and wind up with a clearly less-than-perfect end. Her story is more about how she will accept her circumstances rather than how she might change them.

I was also interested in the fates of the two main male characters, Roger and Osborne (whom I wrote about here). Not surprisingly, these two have more room to change and grow and make mistakes than the female characters do; Roger’s main story is that he falls in love with the wrong woman, but he is allowed to recover from this and eventually find the right one, and Osborne marries the “wrong” woman who eventually turns out to be the right one, or at least an acceptable one, and he is forgiven. These are things that Molly would never, ever do, and that Cynthia gets punished for.

Roger is an outdoorsy type, a scientist, a traveler, and a writer; the introduction to my edition notes that Gaskell modeled him after Charles Darwin. He’s a much more stereotypically masculine figure than his brother Osborne, the poetry-writer, the romantic, the handsome one, the one with a secret life. It’s like Gaskell is writing the end of the Romantic era and the beginning of the Victorian one; the book was published in 1866, and my introduction tells me it was set about 40 years earlier than its writing. The book is clearly written from an 1860s perspective, looking back at the 1820s; it’s full of references to the way things used to be, to the peaceful, quiet past, and also to changes to come, the railroads, for example.

This is only a brief sketch of a few things going on the in novel; there is so much more to notice. Molly’s father I find troubling — at the beginning of the book he mentions in conversation that he doesn’t think women need much training in reading and writing, which surely is Gaskell’s signal that we are to be a bit suspicious of him — and her stepmother is as well. She’s a comic figure much of the time, so self-absorbed and manipulative she’s almost unbearable. There is also a host of minor characters who are amusing and annoying and thought-provoking in turn. This makes the second Gaskell novel I’ve read; I think I may well end up reading more.

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Race report

I just checked the last time I rode in a race, and it was April 1st. I hadn’t realized it was quite so long ago. The Tuesday night race series began tonight — it will run through the beginning of September, so I have the luxury of a local race once a week for the next four months. These aren’t “official” races, not USCF ones, but I don’t really care about that — I’m just happy to have a race to ride in.

I had no idea how I would do tonight. As I’ve written about recently, I haven’t ridden all that much in the few weeks, so I was unsure of my fitness level. And these races are hard — there are only two groups of riders, the A group and the B group, when usually with bigger races there are 6 or 7 groups, or something like that. What this means is that I ride with fast people. I ride with Hobgoblin, in fact. I rode in this series last summer, and did okay — sometimes I could stay with the pack and sometimes I couldn’t.

So, this afternoon before the race, Hobgoblin and I went through our litany of excuses — I’m tired, my head hurts, my stomach hurts, I don’t feel like racing, I’m too stressed about school, etc., etc. I really, truly didn’t feel like racing. But I’ve learned by now that if I don’t race, I usually regret it, so I forced myself to put on my cycling clothes and ride over to the course. One of the first things that happened when we got there was that it started raining. Perfect, right? We hung out under a small tent until it let up a little bit, and then it was time to start warming up.

Once we started riding, I settled into it pretty well. I forgot about the headache and the stress. I spent the whole race hoping I could hang on another lap, but the thing is, I always did end up hanging on, and I ended up staying with the pack right through the final sprint. All 23 laps, 45 minutes, 18 miles or so of the race. This is still relatively unusual for me, and so it’s quite a pleasure to be with the pack as they head up the hill for the last time and then to do a cool-down lap with the group, talking over how things went. One of the highlights of the race was catching up to Hobgoblin and riding next to him for a minute or two, talking a bit about how the race was going. Most of the time, though, I could see him up at the front, pushing the pace.

So I feel like I’m back into racing after a month off; I’m pleased because I’ve got a bit of confidence back and I won’t dread next week’s race quite as much.

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