I read John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces last year. It was an effort that took about 15 years. I’d tried to complete it at least twice before, at the urging of folks who claim it’s a masterful comedy that captures the spirit of New Orleans like no other book.
While I feel like “masterful” is an apt descriptor, I’m less inclined to agree with the comedy part. Every time I tried to read it, I found it really, really depressing. It’s evident to me how much of himself Toole poured into the book, and I believe it was ultimately his undoing. And while it definitely captures a flavor of New Orleans that only a native could express so truthfully; it’s a bitterer flavor, and a meaner spirit than I hope to capture in my fiction.
Anyway, I steeled myself and managed to finish it. And it spurred an interest in reading Miguel Cervantes’ Don Quixote. How so, you may ask? Because, I’d seen more than one reviewer describe Dunces’ main character, Ignatius Reilly, as a 20th-century Don Quixote. So I marked Don Quixote as a “Read Later” on my Serial Reader app, with the intention of starting it as 2021 began.
And, so far, so good. I’m enjoying Don Quixote much more than A Confederacy of Dunces. And I definitely am NOT getting the sense that Don Quixote was Cervantes’ undoing. Here are a few observations thus far:
- Two stories / ten years. Don Quixote consists of two parts, published roughly ten years apart. It’s my understanding that the the first part of the story was an unprecedented success for Cervantes, and led to his writing further adventures for his protagonist. (Fascinating bit of 17th-century intrigue: an impostor apparently published a “fake” story featuring Don Quixote before Cervantes released the second part.) But as far as Cervantes’ original, I notice a difference between the two parts, which I really dig. The humor of the first part seems to be more at Don Quixote’s expense; while he comes across as a stronger and more aware character in the second part. I feel more empathy for him, and like him better in the second part.
- Life for a noble in 17th century Spain. The experience of reading Don Quixote has been very immersive for me. The world of the novel feels evident and tangible, more so than most of the classics I’ve read over the last several years, with the exception of War and Peace. But while Tolstoy’s classic dropped me off in Russia in the early 1800s, Don Quixote sends me back another 200 years! And even given the further time displacement, the climate of Spain and all the Catholic stuff feel very familiar to me, more so than the world of War and Peace. Plus, the fact that Cervantes philosophizes a whole lot less than Tolstoy has made it a more entertaining read.
- Knights-errant / superheroes. One last thought: while most of the knights-errant of the chivalric romances — the objects of Don Quixote’s obsession — are unfamiliar to me, it’s been very easy to imagine them as superheroes. Heck, they even call Batman the Dark Knight. Just another thing that makes the world of Don Quixote seem a lot closer than 400 years ago.