Viva Cervantes! Why the Spanish Writer Matters More than Ever

[SPOILER ALERT: This post contains plot details from Don Quixote.]

I’m very selective about the writers I like. For those who truly move me, I perform a special ritual in return. I visit their resting place. I can count on one hand the number writers’ graves I have visited (five in total). Cervantes is one of them. Why? Because after 400 years, his prose remains fresh, vital and vibrant. Don Quioxote 2

I mean think about it. What other writer resonates across 400 years like Cervantes???Oh! Right! That English guy…What’s his name? Will? Bill? That’s it! Bill Shakespeare! Now don’t get my wrong, the Bard is great. His plays still dominate theater. His turns of phrase have been adopted into modern English so deeply we don’t even notice them anymore. But, with all apologies, the plays and sonnets seem old. It’s not that the characters and action aren’t fresh, they are. But when I go to a night of Shakespeare, I have to mentally prepare myself for the archaic language, the ponderous soliloquies and so on and so forth. Not so with Cervantes. His pacing is slower than modern tastes like and some of the language is musty. But the ideas, themes and humor strike me as much more modern than those of the Bard.

It’s not just me. Don Quixote’s hold on writers, if anything, has only grown over the years:

Don Quixote would become perhaps the most published work of literature in history. Its influence on writers has been unparalleled. When the Nor­wegian Nobel Institute polled 100 leading authors in 2002 to name the single most important literary work, Don Quixote was a handsome winner; no other book came close.

I can’t really tell you exactly why that is, but below I have a few ideas on why Cervantes and his works continue to cast a spell.

1. His attitude toward fan fiction.
This is a rich vein to mine. First, you could say that Don Quixote itself is simply fan fiction. The character Don Quixote is motivated to go adventuring by reading too many chivalric adventures.

As Quixote is escorted home after his first ill-fated outing, his housekeeper cries at the top of her voice: “Woe is me! Now I know, and it’s true as the death I owe God, that those accursed books of chivalry he’s always reading have driven him crazy.”

And, no doubt, the author was motivated to write the piece by reading too many of the same books. He as much as hints in that in his preface.

And before Cervantes had a chance to complete this second part of his work, a certain Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda beat him to the punch and wrote his own version of part 2. Cervantes was upset, but instead of the modern remedy of litigation or the older method of restoring one’s honor through a duel, he simply decided to mock Avellaneda in introduction to part 2 of the real Don Quixote:

Thou wouldst have me call him ass, fool, and malapert, but I have no such intention; let his offence be his punishment, with his bread let him eat it, and there’s an end of it.

2. Comedy with a deeper purpose.
There’s something about the Quixote that is not comic. Like the best humor ever written, whether it’s Gogol or Monty Python or Leslie Jones, there’s a deeper point. The comic writer lulls you into a false sense of security, then they slip in a slight serious reference and a moment later it’s gone. But it makes you chuckle—and think.

Don Quixote is full of those moments. Don Quixote seems perpetually balanced between comedy and tragedy. At any given moment you don’t know which way it will head next. There’s no relief. He keeps you on a knife edge between tears and laughter.

There’s deep poignancy in the story: Don Quixote is, after all, insane. Right? But Cervantes takes a light tone with it, so it becomes comedic. Or does it? He meets others who decide to play along, not least his servant, Sancho. But they often seem to be doing so out of pity more than anything else. It becomes almost a general revolt against mundane reality. But there’s great humor too: from simple gags like fart jokes and ribald tales to more complex allegories like tilting at windmills. It’s an incredibly taut, controlled narrative in its way.

3. A master of stories and the novel.
It’s not easy to master the novel. And it’s even harder to master the short story. It’s damn near impossible to master both. But damn him, this guy did it.

You can look at Don Quixote, a very long novel, and he pulls it off. You can look at his Exemplary Tales, one of which I’ve discussed here, and he pulls that off as well. In fact, similar to medieval storytelling, Don Quixote can be seen as a string of shorter stories strung together in a larger narrative. It’s as if he’s writing stories within the longer narrative structure of a novel. And somehow, he makes it all work. Short stories, long novels, in prose Cervantes did it all.

4. The man who became myth.
I warned you about spoilers, so here it is. At the end of the novel, Don Quixote gives up chivalry, admits his madness, renounces knight errantry and dies. I’ll let you unpack what Cervantes meant by that on your own. But for me, it’s clear. Give up your dreams, your madness and you mine as well die. It’s a lovely way to end the book. [There’s that tragedy again.]

And it’s not so different from the life of the man, Cervantes. He lived life to the fullest. Was a soldier, a prisoner, a slave in Algiers, and an accountant. He did time in prison for fraud. He was always with the people, not in an academic or cloistered environment. He probably lived and heard more stories than almost any man. He wrote until the very end and when he ceased to write, to dream, just like his greatest creation, he passed away.

Over time he’s been memorialized by a literary prize, uncounted books, stories and poems. My favorite of these is by another master of the Spanish tongue, Borges. I quote it here because it’s so outstanding.

Defeated by reality, by Spain, Don Quixote died in his native village around 1614. He was survived only briefly by Miguel de Cervantes.

For both of them, for the dreamer and the dreamed, the tissue of that whole plot consisted in the contraposition of two worlds: the unreal world of the books of chivalry and the common everyday world of the seventeenth century.

Little did they suspect that the years would end by wearing away the disharmony. Little did they suspect that La Mancha and Montiel and the knight’s frail figure would be, for the future, no less poetic than Sinbad’s haunts or Ariosto’s vast geographies.

For myth is at the beginning of literature, and also at its end.

The myth of Cervantes has only begun and will continue for a very long time. Viva Cervantes!

See you next time,

Darius

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One More City–with Merle Haggard

So, you probably don’t know this about me, but I’m a huge country music fan. Huge. Not the new stuff, but the classic country. From around the 30s to mid-70s (from about Jimmie Rodgers to Waylon Jennings). The modern stuff doesn’t really do it for me. BigCityMerleHaggard

As such, I was truly bummed this week to learn Merle Haggard had passed away. Many of you, especially those  of you outside the U.S., might not have heard of him. Well, let me cure you of that with a look at three songs from one of America’s greatest singer-songwriters. All written and performed by Haggard.

I’m including just the lyrics because they’re lyric-driven songs and I love the simple stories they tell.


1. Big City

Always loved this one. It’s a simple story really, about a guy who has had enough.

I’m tired of this dirty old city
And tired of too much work
And never enough play
And I’m tired of these dirty old sidewalks
Think I’ll walk off my steady job today.

So, he takes off running way out into the middle of nothing.

Turn me loose, set me free
Somewhere in the middle of Montana
And give me all I’ve got coming to me.

And Merle, being Merle, couldn’t help but pack a little political edge into the song.

And keep your retirement and your
So called Social Security
Big city turn me loose and set me free.

I love that “so-called Social Security.” I always feel the guy who ran was better for it, happier and just plain freer. And for the record, I have blasted this song while driving my truck through the middle of Montana. Near a place called Grass Range. Literally.

2. Here in Frisco

Haggard famously dissed the City by the Bay in one of his most famous songs, “The Okie from Muskogee.” Fair enough. But what a lot of people don’t know is that he wrote one of the most beautiful songs ever written about the city. It’s kind of a love song for the city and whenever I’m there, I can hear wisps and catches of it playing in my mind.

It’s four a.m. in New York City three a.m. in Dallas
The night is still early here in Frisco.

One a.m. is pretty early for San Fran. I’ve seen it “swinging” at 3 a.m. and even after that (especially, on St. Patrick’s Day).

They say it’s raining in Chicago and it’s cold and clear in Denver
Been windy all night long here in Frisco
Trolley cars are clinging, the big Bay Town’s swinging
And I’m still all alone here in Frisco.

That nails it for me. I just feel myself transported back there walking through the streets, hearing the trolleys clanging, the wind blowing. It’s a great little tribute to the city.

This is a deep track on his Keep Movin’ On album, but very worth tracking down.

3. Silver Wings

Another favorite. It starts out well enough.

Silver wings,
Shining in the sunlight,
Roaring engines,
Headed somewhere in flight.

But this is a country song, so things head south fast.

They’re taking you away
Leaving me lonely
Silver wings
Slowly fading out of sight.

You can tell where this is headed: Nowhere good.

Don’t leave me I cried
Don’t take that airplane ride
But you locked me out of your mind
Left me standing here behind.

All that’s left is that sad, sad refrain.

Silver wings
Slowly fading out of sight.
Slowly fading out of sight.

This is another deep track from the A Portrait of Merle Haggard album.


So what does this all mean? First, sad to see him go. Second, I learned from him that you can tell a great story using a few, simple words. It doesn’t require complexity or big words. You can convey a whole mood and idea very, very simply. And tersely.

But perhaps the biggest thing I admire about him is how he brought country music into the modern era. All those things he sang about above are modern things: big cities, San Francisco, jet airplanes. Before him, country music singers sang about honky tonks, white lightning and trains. He wrote about those things too, but he also brought in new things, keeping the old sounds and phrasing. Every great art form contains within it tradition and innovation. If tradition become the dominating feature, that art form stagnates and dies. If only innovation dominates, the good things about that tradition can be forgotten and the whole art form can be lost. The key seems to be finding a balance between tradition and innovation to create something new within an existing tradition. That’s when really great artistic moments can happen.

And Merle Haggard will always be a fine example of that.

Rest in Peace, Merle. And Thanks,

Darius.


If you want to learn more, Wikipedia has a great article on Merle and you can pick up one of his greatest hit albums to start with and then dip into his actual albums if you’re hungry for more. I hope you will be.

See you next time,

DJ

Past Masters: Qishti-Marduk

[This is the first post in a new series on Past Masters of world literature.]

This series of blog posts will focus on Past Masters of literature. In it, I hope to highlight my favorite writers and analyze their writing technique.

This series differs from my Rare B Sides series in that Rare B Sides covers individual works (a novel, play or story), whereas Past Masters will cover an individual author’s entire body of work, along with a bit about their life and times. It’s entirely possible that I will feature an author’s Rare B Side before following it up with a Past Masters post covering their work as a whole.

Got it? OK, let’s roll.


With a start of a new series, it’s fitting to start at the beginning. In this case, I’m tackling one of the earliest writers recorded, Qishti-Marduk. Qishti was the scribe, if not exactly author, of the Cyrus Cylinder.

Cyrus-Cylinder

The Cyrus Cylinder (to steal from Wikipedia, see quotes below) is “an ancient clay cylinder, now broken into several fragments, on which is written a declaration in Akkadian cuneiform script” in the name of the Persian king Cyrus the Great. The cylinder is significant because it records the history of early Persia and may “be evidence of Cyrus’ policy of the repatriation of the Jewish people following their Babylonian captivity.”

For those who want more, Neil MacGregor does a great job of describing the cylinder and its history in this video.

The object, and the writing, lives on.

I was able to catch the cylinder at an exhibit at the Sackler Museum in Washington, D.C. They had the cylinder, a few other ancient Persian artifacts and Jefferson’s copy of the Cyropaedia (a biography of the Persian king by Xenophon).

As a writer, I couldn’t help but wonder who actually inscribed the darn thing. I assumed it couldn’t have been Cyrus. Bosses are usually too busy to deal with the details. And in a side display case I found it: Qishti-Marduk. We know, because he(?) signed the last line of the cylinder:

45. […a secure throne and an enduring rei]gn, [and may I …… in] your heart forever.

a. [Written and check]ed [from a…]; (this) tablet (is) of
b. Qishti-Marduk, son of […].

That really made me smile. Here’s this scribe, writing away, trying to please his boss/publisher (don’t we all?), making these little incisions line after line in wet clay, making sure they were all perfect. And at the end, he takes the liberty to put in his own name, knowing it will travel along with Cyrus’s down the ages.

The guy even did his own proofreading, making him the original Indie author.

Anyway, with all this attention on the mighty Cyrus, I thought I would write this post to honor his scribe, whom everybody has seemed to overlook.

As for the writing itself, Qishti does one interesting thing despite the restrictions of this highly stylized art form. He starts off the narrative in third person (from the perspective of the god, Marduk).

[When … Mar]duk, king of the whole of heaven and earth, the ……. who, in his …, lays waste his…….

[………………………………………………………………] broad? in intelligence, …… who inspects (?) the wor]ld quarters (regions)

[……………………………………………………..…]his [first]born (=Belshazzar), a low person, was put in charge of his country,

but [……………………………………………………………………….] he set [a (…) counter]feit over them.

To replace the corrupt King Belzhazzar, Marduk searches the face of the Earth for one just king. Finally, he finds Cyrus and calls “him by name” to be a king of kings, an emperor of many peoples, a shahanshah (شاه‎).  It’s a new kind of leadership, a man anointed to govern not just his own tribe, but many tribes and peoples. Suddenly, the narrative switches to first person, but this time it’s from Cyrus’s perspective.

I am Cyrus, king of the universe, the great king, the powerful king, king of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four quarters of the world…

It’s a nice touch and one that intimately, seamlessly links the human and divine natures of ancient kingship through the switch from 3rd person to 1st person narrative. I also feel it has a writer’s—not a King’s—touch. Of course, the boss would have to endorse it, but it’s nice to see the idea made it through the rough draft to the final proof. 

The exhibit ends in DC soon, see it if you can. If not, the cylinder is headed to Texas, New York and California before it heads back to Britain. The tour dates are here.


Johnny Cash did a great song about the wicked King Belzhazzar, adversary of Cyrus. Apparently, it was the first song he sang at Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee when he was looking for his first big break. Enjoy.

 

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