don quixote


In the north of England there once lived a middling sort of gentleman, who, due to a kind of cantankerous disinterest in the human race, was very much taken with reading, so much so, in fact, that he believed that he had read every novel that was worth reading. He had, to the astonishment of the online community, read In Search of Lost Time, Anna Karenina, Henry James’ later novels, The Iliad, The Magic Mountain, and so on, multiple times, and as a result the unfortunate man’s brains became addled. It was, however, perhaps Don Quixote, Cervantes’ famous novel about a crazy man who believed himself to be a knight errant, that did him the worst damage. He bought up numerous copies of the book, in multiple translations, and, after reading them all, he started to think himself, not any old knight, but the Knight of the Mournful Countenance, Don Quixote.

To this end, he ordered a helmet from ebay, which to the naked [or sane] eye would have looked like a reproduction Optimus Prime mask. Next, he purchased a sword, a samurai sword, to be exact, from some shady youngster whose acquaintance he had made on a street corner at 3am, and who had initially tried to persuade him to buy a small packet of white powder. These things, though lacking quality, came easy to our hero, but more difficult to acquire was his Rocinante, for there isn’t much call for horses in a busy northern city centre. A solution was found, however, when [P], for that was our hero’s name, spotted a mongrel, homeless dog one evening, which, to him, had the appearance of a magnificent steed. ‘You will be my Rocinante,’ he said to the nervous animal, as he patted its dirty flank. ‘You will accompany me on adventures great, will ride with me into battle.’ The mutt was none too interested in these promises, and so chose to nose its own leg throughout the short speech, but when [P] called it followed, hoping that this mad new master might have as much food in store as strange ideas in his head.

After being well fed and rested, both master and mutt set out the next day in search of chivalrous acts to perform. Early in their journey the pair came upon a man sitting on the ground, his hand out stretched, asking for alms. Of course, any sane person would have passed on by, or nonchalantly let a coin or two fall into the man’s palm, but [P], not being in his right mind, saw not a beggar, but a powerful Genii.

‘O most marvellous and talented Genii’, he said, ‘have you come to grant me wishes?’

‘Wot?’ said the man.

‘What do I wish? I wish…now let me think…’

‘Are you mad, man?’

’Who is Madman? Is he some kind of enchanter?’

The beggar rolled his eyes. ‘’Ave you got any change, mate?’

‘I do not carry a purse, Genii. I am Don Quixote, the Knight of the Mournful Countenance!’

‘You’re an imbecile!’

‘Hold your tongue; for although thou art a Genii I will not take insults from thee.’

At this, [P] drew his sword and Rocinante, not much in the way of a horse, barked excitedly.

‘Help! Police! This man is trying to kill me!’ shouted the beggar.

Fortunately for him, a Policeman was passing, and seeing, not a chivalrous knight, but Optimus Prime wielding a samurai sword, promptly intervened.

‘What is going on here!’ he said.

‘Good Sir fellow knight,’ replied [P], noting the Policeman’s uniform and baton, and thinking them a suit of armour and a lance, ‘this impertinent Genii hath insulted me and I must defend my honour, as befitting a noble and brave knight errant.’

‘I think you’ll be coming with me, sir,’ said the unruffled policeman, who had seen much worse than this whilst on duty.

‘You want me to accompany you to your kingdom? I must assume there is a knight’s council taking place; or perhaps you need my help in fighting some giant, who hath enslaved your beloved? Pray wait until I have taken care of this small business, and I will do my duty and aid thee.’

Our hero made ready to swing his sword, and would have cut the poor beggar in two, had not the Policeman expertly brained him with his baton. As a result of the blow, [P] fell to the ground in a daze, his sword flung far from him; he was bleeding from the head. ‘Ah, foul double-crosser! Thou art in league with the Genii! In fact, thou art probably not a real knight at all, but a vision, a trick of this so powerful magician!’ Full of wrath, he tried to rise to his feet, and so the Policeman brained him again, and gave him a number of hard punches in the mug for good measure.

When [P] came round he found that he had been imprisoned in some sort of castle tower. His head hurt and his legs felt weak, both of which he attributed to having been given a potent potion, famous for sapping the strength of the most chivalrous and hardy knights. After a moment or two [P] collected his wits, and noticed that he was not alone in the cell, for a young lady was sat on the bench beside him.

‘O beauteous lady,’ he said. ‘O Princess, did the bad knight and the evil Genii capture you too?

‘Great. A crackhead,’ she muttered to herself.

‘Why, yes, they attempted to crack my head. You are unharmed, I trust?’

‘Lay off the pipe, man.’

‘Let me introduce myself, Princess,’ said [P] with a flourish.

‘The last guy who called me princess asked for a handjob and then broke my jaw.’

‘A villain! How could it be!’

‘Occupational hazard. I’m a hooker, love.’

‘Ann Hooker? I have not before heard of thee or the Hooker kingdom,’ replied [P] musingly. ‘I am Don Quixote, the Knight of the Mournful Countenance.’

‘What, as in Cervantes?’

Ah, does her knowledge surprise you? Can a prostitute not read?

‘Cervantes, my father?’

‘No, as in the author who wrote Don Quixote. I have a degree in English literature, you can’t fool me. So where is Sancho, DQ?’


‘Yeah, Sancho Panza, your sidekick, your foil. You have to have a Sancho. He’s the one who you promise the insula to.’


‘Yes. An island. At first it seems as though Sancho is stupid, that he is following you out of greed. But it becomes clear that, really, he is doing so out of friendship. To some extent, Don Quixote is a kind of buddy comedy. It’s quite moving, really, in that way. Anyway, you need a Sancho, because he, unlike you DQ, sees the truth of what you encounter, he…Oh oh oh, oh no…I’M YOUR SANCHO!’

‘Friend Sancho, why art thou dressed as a lady?’ said [P], for he now believed that the once-lovely vision he had seen before him was in fact his loyal squire. ‘Are you here to break me out of this castle prison?’

‘Oh no, listen, I expect to be paid for my services.’

‘I have promised you an insula,’ he replied with great seriousness.

‘Look, DQ, I see what you’re doing here. It’s all very quixotic. You know that word came from the book, right? Something excessively romantic. The modern world needs you, I get that. Ideals. Dedication to just causes. Ok. But have you tilted at windmills? That’s important. It’s a very famous scene.’

‘There are no windmills in the city.’

‘Exactly. And who is going to write your history? The real DQ had Cervantes. And, y’know, you can’t just ignore the fact that in the second half of the book he is famous, because the first part, Cervantes says, had spread word of his madness and adventures.’

‘Ah, I have this covered. I’ve set up a twitter account. You must follow me, Sancho!’

‘Right. And I guess you’ve already got the ‘is art dangerous’ angle covered. Uh, clearly it is dangerous; look at you! Y’know, Flaubert used that idea, or stole it if you like, for Madame Bovary. How much can art, books, whatever, influence you? It’s a fascinating question. They burn your books, y’know, your friends do.’

‘They what my what now? This is an outrage. I have a pristine hardcover copy of The Man Without Qualities!’

‘Gone, DQ. That kind of book gives people unsuitable ideas. What about the stories-within-stories stuff? Lots of that kind of thing in Don Quixote.’

‘Well, this was my first sally. I haven’t got around to all that yet. But I did meet this Ann Hooker lady, a beautiful Princess. Her story ought to be told.’

‘But Ann is Sancho, remember?’

‘Stop quibbling, Sancho. And, er, your bra strap is showing, please adjust it. I will tell the most interesting tale of how Sancho met Princess Ann, and persuaded her to swap costumes.’

‘Very good. But, I must warn you, that being DQ is very likely to cause you physical harm. Nabokov called the book crude and cruel, and, well, it is violent. DQ gets beaten up frequently.’

‘One must risk all to win all.’

‘Fair enough. But, y’know, the whole thing becomes repetitious, there’s no denying that. You’ll have to do the same sort of thing over and over again.’

‘Such is life, Sancho. I would rather encounter the same wonderful thing again and again than have terrible variety.’

‘You’ve become a philosopher, DQ.’

‘I am simply a knight, Sancho, but we knights do trust in our brains, as well as our arms, on occasion.’

‘You’re very good at this, I must say. That sounded just right. Ok, but one last thing, if you have read Don Quixote then you must be aware that what the hero of the book thinks he experiences isn’t real, that where he sees giants there are only windmills, and where he sees The Helmet of Mambrino there is only a barber’s bowl.’

‘Ah, Sancho, of course I know that. But isn’t life more beautiful if you approach it with a noble heart, with wonder and awe? I am not advocating that everyone ought to become Don Quixote, because to be him is to be insane, but one should have a little of his spirit in you. Isn’t that the book’s true message? Those batterings that he takes, which grouchy old Nabokov objected to, those are but the workaday world rapping you on the knuckles, telling you to settle, to be reasonable, to give up your ideals, to stop dreaming the impossible dream. Well, I tell you, friend Sancho, I tell all of you, to dream on, dream the fuck on.’



“I detest common feelings, and moderate heroes, the kind that exist in real life.” – Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary.

Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence is one of my favourite novels. I find it both beautifully written, and incredibly moving. It was composed, I seem to recall, as a kind of apology, or as a way of making amends for an earlier, scathing attack on the institution of marriage. It is not always wise, the moral of the novel appears to be, to forsake the homely and the dependable for the glittering, exciting and romantic. Ah, un noble sentiment! Unfortunately, bearing in mind her great love of books, and her tendency to draw inspiration from them, The Age of Innocence was published in 1920, some sixty years after Emma Bovary’s death. Had it been available in 1857 would Emma – the castigator of family values – have heeded Wharton’s warning and changed her attitude towards her husband, Charles, her daughter, Berthe, and her bourgeois life in Yonville? Peut-être. She would probably have given it a go for a day or two. That chick was crazy enough to try anything once.

I find it strange that Emma is so despised by a not insignificant number of readers, that she is thought to be without a single redeeming feature. Not only is she, to some degree, modern in her outlook, and therefore you would think we would identify with her, she is also, well, admirable. She is modern in the sense that she is extraordinarily self-obsessed, and selfish in her actions. Everything, for Emma, is about me; and considering, and judging, everything only in the way that it affects me is, I would argue, the prevailing modern attitude. Furthermore, as far as I am concerned, people, certain types of girls especially, are increasingly of the opinion that they are entitled to some kind of exciting existence. It is not enough, for example, to have a partner that loves you; oh no, they must treat and spoil you, they must, in effect, provide you with a lifestyle equal to the fantasies that exist within your head or at the very least provide you with one that is superior to those enjoyed by your peers.

How, then, you might ask, can I find all that admirable? Well, on one level, I don’t. Selfishness is an ugly trait; and I do not find competitive living, i.e. the need to have something so that you can rub other people’s noses in it, at all likeable, but, on the other hand, I will not condemn someone for wanting excitement, or novelty, in their life. For me, that is what Emma is looking for, or demanding; she is admirable because she refuses to accept drudgery, to accept mediocrity, even to her own detriment. Of course, she doesn’t go about fulfilling her desires in the right way, but her approach to life is, in my opinion, not without charm; in fact, I find it kind of beautiful. My guess is that the readers who charge Emma with ungratefulness, do so, at least in part, because they have accepted the mediocrity of their own lives, and therefore believe that everyone else must do the same. It’s a ‘suffer with me’ attitude: I have learned to accept a mundane existence, so anyone who does not accept it is therefore worthy of my contempt.

Emma’s life is a life lived in the imagination. She, in fact, appears to prefer her imagination to reality, for reality has a way of always letting one down, of disappointing. The parallels with Don Quixote, which Flaubert himself acknowledged, are clear: they are both influenced by what they read, of course, but, more significantly, they are both dreaming the impossible dream, they are both striving for something, a romantic ideal, that doesn’t actually exist; Quixote wants the world to be honourable, Emma wants it to be intoxicating. Both, also, behave badly in pursuit of their ideal; it seems to be often overlooked, but Quixote is an absolute menace; he frequently attacks entirely innocent people. Emma, on the other hand, is, amongst other things, unfaithful to her husband, and neglects her child. Of course, in the real world, i.e. our world, neither Quixote nor Emma’s behaviour is acceptable, but it doesn’t have to be; these two characters are not, nor were intended to be, examples to follow, but, are, rather, epic personalities, so grand in scale that they resemble the Gods and Goddesses in Greek mythology. You should not try to be them [because both are, let’s face it, mental], yet you should, in my opinion, have a little of their spirit in you.

As hinted at in the preceding paragraph, I do not agree with the popular opinion that Madame Bovary is a realist novel, or the first realist novel. Of course, it does not feature magical creatures, or bending of the laws of nature, but then neither does, for example, Balzac’s work, which preceded Flaubert’s. To a certain extent, I understand the realist tag, because the novel is, at least partly, about the mundane, and features characters that have no great abilities. I’ve already written about why I do not think Emma is realistic, yet, even setting her aside, there is one other important aspect of the novel that distinguishes it from genuine realist fiction, and that is the prose. Flaubert’s prose is what I would call hyper-realist, which means that it is so baroque and sensual and detailed that it makes the real unreal. In this way, his work has more in common with Proust, or Carpentier or Lima or Nabokov, than it does Emile Zola.

It is something of a cliche, but always worth reiterating, that Flaubert’s prose, even in translation, is extraordinary. On occasions, his attention to detail took my breath away [that is not hyperbole – I actually gasped more than once], such as when he describes the fine, stray hairs at the back of Emma’s neck blowing in the wind, or when Charles sees his own head and shoulders reflected in her eyes as they lay in bed, or when the rolling eyes of a man having a fainting fit are likened to “blue flowers drowning in milk.” Flaubert was, also, something of an innovator, with many of his techniques adding to the experience of the novel [which isn’t always the case – flashy authors tend to piss me off]. The best example of this, or the one that sticks in my mind anyway, is when he wants to suggest that Emma and Leon are having sex in a hired carriage. I’ve written recently about sex in literature, and how I think it is unnecessary to linger over the grubby particulars. Flaubert manages to give the impression of a passionate tryst without ever mentioning it, without going into any details at all, by remaining outside the carriage and simply listing the numerous streets down which it passes, its curtains drawn.

Of course, the more renowned an author is for his or her prose, the more important the translation. I’ve read Madame Bovary twice now, most recently Lydia Davis’ treatment of the novel. Davis’ translation has come in for a lot of stick from so-called Flaubert experts. Yet, while I’m certainly no expert myself, I feel as though a lot of the criticism that has been aimed at her is unwarranted, and more than a little bit pompous. This is not to say that her version is flawless; in fact, for the first 40-50 pages I regretted having picked it up. for she frequently falls into the same trap that Pevear and Volokhonsky [the much-hyped translators of Russian literature] do, in adhering too strictly to the author’s original word-order. Thing is, different languages construct sentences differently; therefore, what reads smoothly in French, or Russian, or Spanish, may not, if directly translated into English, make sense. Sticking too closely to the French word-order means that Davis’ English is, in the early stages of the novel, clunky at best, and unreadable at worst. Furthermore, I really do not like to see Americanisms, such as ‘gotten’ in a translation of a French novel. However, after a while her translation settles down and becomes smooth and elegant. Davis’ harshest critics may pick out individual sentences and compare multiple translations [and use this to question her abilities], but that is an unfair and arbitrary exercise, because no translation is without its clunkers, and there is no objective standard, merely one’s personal preference.


Recently I wrote a post about my ten favourite novels, and Madame Bovary was not included, but that was simply an oversight. Had I not forgotten about it, it would have taken its place on that list. Few books touch me, fascinate me, and enchant me as much as this one does.


Vladimir Nabokov called Don Quixote a story of hideous cruelty. While I think that this statement is horribly reductive and does the great and beautiful and moving novel a huge disservice, one can still understand where he was coming from; on face value, the knight of the mournful countenance is a mentally disturbed old geezer who is beaten and tricked and taken advantage of. There is a strain of literature, perhaps beginning with Cervantes, that deals with the naive or foolish being put through the wringer. For our entertainment, no less. Indeed, this isn’t specific to novels, or even fiction. Look at TV programmes like I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here and its ilk; the most engrossing aspect of those shows is the opportunity to watch a bunch of idiots [who, we at least like to think, clearly underestimated the situation they have signed up for] being physically and mentally tortured.

Other notable examples of literature as hideous cruelty are Voltaire’s Candide, Honore de Balzac’s Lost Illusions, and the novel under review here. In fact, The Sot-Weed Factor is essentially what you would have if you had asked Voltaire or Cervantes to rewrite Lost Illusions, which, like Barth’s novel, deals with a budding poet being introduced to the savage ways of the world. I don’t think that is a coincidence; Barth was clearly paying homage to these great writers, not only by stealing their content but, perhaps most impressively of all, by aping their style:

Is man a savage at heart, skinned o’er with fragile Manners? Or is savagery but a faint taint in the natural man’s gentility, which erupts now and again like pimples on an angel’s arse?

So, yes, like Candide et al, the unfortunate Ebenezer Cooke encounters just about every form of misfortune within the pages of this book. The Sot-Weed Factor is near 800 pages long and so the misery and pain he suffers becomes as attritional and relentless as the sort served up in some kind of art house movie [Requiem for a Dream, maybe. Or Miike’s Audition]. And, yet, I must confess, that far from eliciting my sympathy I thought Cooke, in the beginning at least, a near insufferable, gratingly supercilious moron, and cynically licked my lips at the prospect of his downfall. This is maybe where Barth’s character differs from the characters we have been comparing him to; one roots for Quixote and Candide because we can relate to their aims, because we find them charming and romantic. Lucien is not quite so likeable, but, unlike Cooke, he doesn’t consider himself superior and is prepared to involve himself in the world [which ultimately leads to his ruin]. Ebenezer, on the other hand, is largely unsympathetic because he is so precious; and therefore one wants him to fail, one wants him to see the light, or recognise the truth of the world.

And then he does, and, miraculously, my opinion of the book and the character changed. It was somewhere around the halfway mark I realised that I was for the hapless poet, that I felt for him and his plight, that far from making him bitter, or even more pompous, the disasters that befall him make him more humane, more likeable, and ultimately heroic. What is most satisfying, most original, about The Sot-Weed Factor is this journey, is Ebenezer’s transformation, which is actually the inverse of Lucien’s; the more awful the world reveals itself as being, the more he wades into the slough of life, the more Ebenezer is normalised. In Lost Illusions, however, Lucien starts out full of optimism and humility, only to become corrupted. I liked Barth’s take on this more than Balzac’s; I like the idea that the reality of the world doesn’t have to leave you cynical and mean, but that experience, good and bad, can actually help to shape you in a positive way.

It would have been nice to have ended my review on that positive note, to be able to laud John Barth for bestowing upon America a novel that fills in, to some extent, a space on its bookshelf. Indeed, he has, to a large extent, given us the American novel that it had until this point lacked [with the notable exception of Huck Finn]. However, there is one aspect of the book that caused me some consternation, and it would be remiss of me not to mention it. There is, unfortunately, a lot of rape in The Sot-Weed Factor, and I have a hard time understanding its purpose. Certainly, the rape isn’t gratuitous, but that is almost worse; it is tossed off so frequently and matter-of-factly that I was made to squirm more than if he had laboured over it. At least when a rape scene is gratuitous the author is saying this is significant. Barth appears to use it as a kind of comic prop, and that bothered me immensely, because never, in my opinion, is rape funny. Rape has no comic potentiality. I really don’t give a fuck if that makes me seem humourless or overly-serious. I don’t buy, either, the argument that the author was merely showing us how life was in the 17th century. Was everyone running around madly raping each other in the 17th century? No. Barth was clearly having too much fun, creating scenes in which women are caught  – arse invitingly displayed – in the rigging of a ship, for that argument to convince.