From: Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America
7.2 (1987): 97-99.
Copyright © 1987, The Cervantes Society of America
Some years ago I taught an undergraduate seminar
dealing with Don Quijote, and had my students use E. C. Riley's
Cervantes's Theory of the Novel as a supplementary text. My students
really didn't have enough background to profit properly from that book so
its use was not as successful as I had hoped. As I look back, I see that
instead of being a case of déjà vu, it was the opposite:
a case of pas encore vu. The current book would have been the
ideal one for that seminar.
I believe that all persons who review this book will soon realize that it is quite similar to what politicians call a motherhood issue: one that is of such universal worth that no one no matter what his political allegiance is can be against it.
The General Editor of the Unwin Critical Library, Claude J. Rawson, states that each volume in the series is devoted to a single major text. It is intended for serious students and teachers of literature, and for knowledgeable non-academic readers. It aims to provide a scholarly introduction and a stimulus to critical thought and discussion (p. vii). Knowing who the audience is, I can now discuss the book.
I confess that I was baffled by the organization of the book at first. Why does the chapter called Preliminaries come after the first two chapters, called The Man and the Moment and Cervantes and Contemporary Prose Fiction? But I soon came to realize that the book is organized beautifully. It is as if the Quijote is a sandwich and Riley's book is a glass of water. Our serious student or teacher takes a few bites of the book, then needs a few swallows of water so that he can go back to eating. That is, after you read part of the novel, Riley will tell you exactly what you need to know to understand what you have read and what you need to know to continue. It would thus be a wonderful thing for the experienced reader who has not yet read the Quijote to let Professor Riley be his guide.
In the first chapter, The Man and the Moment, Riley gives some of the background the title advertises, and he astutely states that biographers have long had almost nothing to rely on than his prefatory pages and that dangerous source, his fiction itself (my italics emphasize that worthy caveat, p. 4). On that same page he also says that the: prologue to the Novelas ejemplares (1613) contains that pen-picture of the author's appearance which is the only authentic portrait of him in any medium. I consider that Cervantes' prologues are part of his fiction. (Is there anyone who really believes that a friend fed Cervantes those Latin phrases mentioned in the
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prologue to Don Quijote I? particularly since he never used
them in his text. Is there anyone who really believes that Juan Ruiz was
accurate in his own self portrait? Did Cervantes really have the pelo
castaño he describes in the Novelas preface at age 67?)
In the second chapter, Cervantes and Contemporary Prose Fiction, the Quijote's literary antecedents are succinctly and well discussed: different types of romances and the picaresque novel.
Once the general background is known, one can proceed to the Preliminaries in chapter three the preliminaries relating to the novel itself, not to its background. It deals with the original printings of Part I, the intrigues associated with them (including some of R. M. Flores' ingenious detective work), and the first prologue.
Once our reader starts to read the Quijote through the first chapter, a flood of new questions naturally arises. For this the reader goes to the next chapter, Origins of the Work, which tells him that: Don Quixote is a complex parody and Don Quixote's whole endeavor is to be, quite literally, a hero of a chivalric romance (p. 36), which then leads to a discussion of the romances of chivalry and their direct influence on the book on different levels. The chapter also talks about The Question of Sources in which a model for the protagonist is discussed. Cervantes himself is happily rejected, as are a few other candidates. What is suggested is that the inspiration for Don Quixote comes from a number of possible literary sources.
Our reader then reads Chapter 5 to prepare for the rest of Part I, Don Quixote and Sancho in Part I After a warning that generalizations about the character of Don Quixote are unavoidable (and untrustworthy), we learn that Don Quixote: is not a type of an archetype and he is too complex to be a caricature. He is best summed up, perhaps, as an extreme case, an extension of certain human proclivities (p. 47).
Chapter 6, Literary Theory in Action, talks initially about what the title implies, the discussion with the Canon of Toledo (I, 47). Riley summarizes: a theoretical literary question about the relationship of chivalric fiction and true history is embedded at the heart of the novel (p. 62). But he also speaks about how Don Quixote is not the only figure in the book to imitate literature (p. 63) referring most notably to those ladies and gentlemen who play shepherds and shepherdesses.
In an intriguing paragraph from Chapter 6 on p. 68, Riley says that: Romance and fantasy . . . were frequently connected with dream. Cervantes makes this association in a significant number of passing references . . . . It is not hard to arrive at a corollary that, if the romance represents a world of dream, another kind of fiction is needed to deal with the world of walking experience.
Chapter 7, The Structure of Part I, discusses the main story in itself and the extraneous episodes. There is a good discussion of time: Commentators since 1780 have racked their brains trying to make sense about it, Temporal verisimilitude is outraged. And, finally, this good advice:
as we are reminded openly once or twice, the reader should not give
any more credence to the story than the judicious do to the books of
chivalry (p. 78). I believe that there is a rather obvious solution
to resolve the outraged temporal verisimilitude, which I hope
to show one day.
At this point I feel a bit like the salesman who is still trying to insist on the virtues of his product long after the buyer has decided to purchase it. I have tried to avoid giving too much away so that readers can enjoy Ted Riley's commentaries on their own the first time around.
The book does deal with Part II, of course, as well as narrative problems, and the fortunes of Don Quixote what happened to it once published.
What bothers me a bit is the high price exacted by the publisher for this book. Should we ask our students to pay more for a secondary work than they paid for their primary book? Then again, how much extra time do our students have, particularly the undergraduates, to devote to this course, given the amount required just for l'intelligence du texte? I would suggest that we use this book ourselves to help us prepare our classroom lectures it will certainly make them better.
THOMAS A. LATHROP
University of Delaware
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