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Nabokov’s Lectures on Don Quixote: Two Portraits: Don Quixote and Sancho Panza

August 16, 2007

(cross posted on Tilting at Windmills)

Yes, I still plan on reading and posting on the entirety of Nabokov’s Lectures on Don Quixote. I stopped in May because so much of what Nabokov spoke of would have “spoiled” the book for those still reading it, and I would have to take great care not to mention any specific events that occur later in the text. Now it’s September, and quite a few have finished with the novel, and even those yet to finish have read enough so that I don’t have to worry about ruining (quite so much). Onward!

Nabokov does not think very highly of Sancho Panza. His first true lecture, “Two Portraits: Don Quixote and Sancho Panza,” begins:

Even if allowance is made for the falling away of the Spanish in the twilight of translation, even so Sancho’s cracks and proverbs are not very mirth provoking either in themselves or in their repetitious accumulation. The corniest modern gag is funnier.

I disagree with this and, judging from what I’ve read, most of the members of this group probably do as well. But this stance fits with Nabokov’s general approach to Don Quixote, namely to highlight the cruelty of the book and not its whimsy. His reading of the book’s two main characters is the first aspect of this approach:

The Knight of the Mournful Countenance is as unique individual; with some reservations, Sancho of the matted beard and tomato nose is the generalized clown.

Let’s consider them each in turn.

The Man Don Quixote

Nabokov first considers the “gruesome details” of the Don’s appearance: he is gaunt and grizzled, with a suit of armor that is “old, black, and moldy,” and a horse that is the image of its master. Despite this less-than-inspiration exterior, Nabokov considers Don Quixote to be “a gallant gentleman, a man of infinite courage, a hero in the truest sense of the word,” even insisting in parenthesis “(This important point should be kept in mind.)” Nabokov’s Don Quixote is “without malice” and “trustful as a child.”

In explaining Don Quixote’s madness, Nabokov reveals a highly amusing anecdote about his choice of food:

At fifty he plunged into the reading of books of chivalry and took to eating heavy suppers, including what one translator (Duffield) renders as “resurrection pie” (duelos y quebrantos — literally, pains and breakage), a “pot made of the flesh of animals who have died accidental deaths by falling down precipices and getting their neck bones broken.”

More important is Nabokov’s insistence that Don Quixote views the world in dual form: “Reality and illusion are invterwoven in the pattern of life.” He also remarks upon the fact that the Don, unlike many epic heroes (Odysseys and Aeneas are cited), does not have any divine support for his mission – he is completely on his own.

The Man Sancho Panza (The Pig Belly on Crane Legs)

Nabokov’s study of Sancho Panza is less than illuminating. After I finished it, my only thought was that Nabokov clearly did not find Sancho funny, at all, and that this is a flaw in his reading of the book. He insists that Sancho is a “product of generalization” who is “never as detailed as Don Quixote.” This is true only in the fact that Don Quixote is the namesake of the text, and Sancho the secondary character. He is remarkably round for a supporting actor, and far from the “perfect bore” that Nabokov portrays.

Near of the end of his lecture Nabokov slips in a nasty attack on readers with different taste than his, claiming that “all readers can be separated into Don Quixotes and Sancho Panzas.” You have one guess to determine which one Nabokov thinks that he is.

Nabokov’s determination not to see any humor in the book is a serious shortcoming, and one that will concern me as a read the rest of his lecture series. Read this, and you’ll see why:

Scholars who speak of sidesplitting episodes in the book do not reveal any permanent injury to their ribs. That in this book the humor contains, as one critic puts it, “a depth of philosophical insight and genuine humanity, in which qualities it has been excelled by no other writer” seems to me to be a staggering exaggeration. The Don is certainly not funny. His squire, with all his prodigious memory for old saws, is even less funny than his master.

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