Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Lectures on Don Quixote by Vladimir Nabokov

Nabokov entered the U.S. in 1940. He was given a leave of absence from Cornell so that he could accept a visiting appointment at Harvard in the Spring semester of the academic year 1951-1952 (3c years before writing Lolita). Harry Levin taught a well-known course at Harvard on the novel. Nabokov took his place and they both agreed to cover Don Quixote. He delivered six lectures that were captured in book form in 1983, edited by Fredson Bowers, distinguished American bibliographer.

Guy Davenport's foreword is very insightful. Nabokov tore apart the novel before 600 students in Memorial Hall (photo), much to the horror and embarrassment of colleagues. Nabokov discovered that "professors had gentrified the cruel and crude old book into a genteel and whimsical myth about appearance and reality" (p. xiii). Nabokov's new reading was an event in modern criticism. Steady sentimentalization of the book is evidenced by modern connotations of the word "quixotic." It should mean hallucinated, self-hypnotized, yet now connotes admirably idealistic.

Nabokov came to learn the book is not what people think it is, especially with the interpolated novellas that impede the plotless plot. The book elicits cruel laughter. Cervantes' lifetime saw expulsion of the Jews and Moors. Spain kept gladiatorial slaughters in the arena long after the Roman Empire abandoned them. The national entertainment, the bullfight, sets Spain aside among civilized people even today. Nabokov wasted no time disabusing the students of any preconceived notions of knight-errantry. He drew detailed pictures of a windmill on the blackboard, and explained why a country gentleman might mistake them for giants, since they were an innovation in 17th century Spain. Nabokov sees that Cervantes created a character greater than the book from which he has wandered. Don Quixote remains a book of peculiarly Spanish cruelty. It was written in an age hen dwarfs and the afflicted were laughed at, when dissenters from official thought were burnt alive in city squares to general applause. Nabokov states "Don Quixote has been called the greatest novel ever written. This, of course, is nonsense" (p. 27).

Cervantistas have reacted bitterly to Nabokov's comments. I reproduce the opening paragraph of an article written by Catherine Kunce for the Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America (1993).

Many cervantistas will recall that Vladimir Nabokov famously objected to Don Quixote because of its “hideous cruelty —with or without the author's intent— which riddles the whole book and befouls its humor”. A more contemporary look at “hideous cruelty,” intentional or otherwise, may be in order here. While Don Quixote's inability to see the “real” Dulcinea does no harm to Aldonza Lorenzo, Humbert's disregard of the “real” Dolores enslaves a vulnerable and lonely pre-pubescent child and befouls the humor of Nabokov's Lolita. That Humbert's actions destroy Lolita psychologically is evidenced by his parenthetical recollection of her “sobs in the night —every night— the moment I feigned sleep”. Lolita sobs for good reason: Humbert himself admits that, to Lolita, he is “not a boy friend, not a glamour man, not a pal, not even a person at all, but just two eyes and a foot of engorged brawn”. Lolita's attempts to escape from those eyes and brawn only increase Humbert's rapacity: “thrusting my fatherly fingers into Lo's hair from behind, and then gently but firmly clasping them around the nape of her neck, I would then lead my reluctant pet to our small home for a quick connection before dinner”. Nabokov fans have tended to regard this rape of a resistant child as cavalierly as does his hero. The time has come to rethink the label of “hideous cruelty,” which is radically qualified by Nabokov's use, and abuse, of Cervantes.

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