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Cervantes has a habit of interrupting his stories at critical moments. For example, in Chapter VIII, Character-Cervantes (as I discuss in my post Don Quixote: Meta-Masterpiece) interrupts the story of Don Quixote’s battle with the Basque to tell us he doesn’t actually know the ending.
Or, for example, the story of Cardenio, which the unfortunate gentleman relates to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza in Chapter XXIV until Quixote takes offense at Cardenio’s words about Queen Madásima from the novel Amadis of Gaul and sends Cardenio into a mad rage, effectively cutting off the story until later in the book.
Or again, when Quixote and company find themselves at the infamous inn of Sancho’s blanket tossing, where they seek amusement in the story,”The Tale of Ill-Advised Curiosity,” only to have the narrative interrupted by Quixote in the throes of a dream about slaying a giant but really destroying some of the innkeepers wine skins. The moment the story stops, is of course, the moment after we learn that one of the tale’s main characters will die.
This technique not only builds suspense and tension, but says something about readers, too: They are not passive audience members, but participants in the story.
Keep in mind that Quixote himself is a reader-turned-participant in the extremest sense. He has read all the books of chivalry he can find and has decided to take up the sword himself to do great deeds in the name of his Lady Dulcinea del Toboso. And we are, as Cervantes points out on many occasions, reading a book about his exploits. This makes Quixote the ultimate reader participant.
It’s worth noting too, that often, it is Quixote who causes the interruption in the telling of a story, be it on purpose or on accident. In the third example, that of “The Tale of Ill-Advised Curiosity,” the characters reading the tale are Cardenio, Dorotea, the curate and the barber. Cardenio and Dorotea are caught up in a love tangle (not triangle) somewhat similar to that in “The Tale of Ill-Advised Curiosity,” and all four of them have created a story in which Dorotea plays Princess Micomicona, who needs Quixote to slay a giant for her, in order to get Quixote home. They, too, have become participants in Quixote’s story, and it is only fitting that he should interrupt their entertainment to continue the story they’ve created.
Although Cervantes was ultimately parodying Spain’s complete obsession with chivalrous novels, I also read Don Quixote as a parody of the extreme inaction and passivity of those same readers. I doubt Cervantes wants us to put on armor and take up swords and wander around the country slaying wine skins, but interact with the books you read. Think about them critically. Talk about them. Write about them.
During the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s first ever Winter Read-a-Thon, I read a total of 50 hours and raised a total of $235 for my library!
I read the following books (links are to my blog posts concerning each book):
- Timequake by Kurt Vonnegut (audio book)
- Don Quixote by Cervantes (I’m still reading this… I’m taking my sweet time with it)
- Scott Pilgrim by Bryan Lee O’Malley (You can read a review I did of these books here)
- The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris by Leila Marouane (I just finished this last weekend and didn’t really like it, but didn’t really hate it, so I’m not sure what to say about it beyond that; article forthcoming)
- Close Range by Annie Proulx (an audio book that took over Timequake’s spot in my car since I didn’t have any other metafictional audio books; I’ll have to work on that)
In addition to those 4 1/2 books (since I’m only halfway through Don Quixote), I discovered just how much time I spent reading blogs, newspapers and magazines. Those five minute breaks at work and when I’m waiting for something really add up!
The Read-a-Thon was a lot of fun and I’m glad I was able to participate. Now I’ve got the fun job of collecting all the money and getting it into the library by March 7. Hopefully I’ll be able to collect my thoughts on The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris enough for a real post next week (I was traveling over the weekend, hence the late post this week… sorry!). I had put a hold on House of Leaves at the library at the beginning of the Read-a-Thon but it just came in late last week so I expect to start reading it this week or next week, so there should be lots of fun stuff coming up here at The Narrative in the Blog!
Oh, and if you’d like to participate in the Read-a-Thon, it’s not too late to make a one-time donation. Just shoot me an email at email@example.com and let me know how much you’d like to donate!
In the prologue, Cervantes laments to a friend about how he has no “preceding verses” to preface his book, or lists of great philosophers and thinkers that he’s quoted, as do his peers (mainly Lope de Vega, a playwright — he and Cervantes did not get along, to say the least).
His friend tells him that he doesn’t need such things, because the books is whole without them, but suggests if Cervantes must have quotes, he should copy a list of quoted men from another book, because no one will be able to tell the difference, and what place does Aristotle have in the story of Don Quijote, a great knight-errant?
I could spend an entire post on the prologue, but it’s what comes after the prologue that I think is really brilliant and drives home the point of how frivolous the preceding verses and quotations are.
Cervantes goes on to write — get this — sonnets and poems from famous knights to Don Quijote, Sancho Panza, Dulcinea del Toboso and even Rocinante, Quijote’s horse. His point, with the sonnets, is that a work should stand on its own without a long list of quotations or heavy borrowing on another book.
His book is a parody, which means by necessity he relies heavily on other works. He does so not to puff himself up, but to show how ridiculous it is to do so: Don Quijote is no Amadis of Gaul, that’s for sure.
I missed these gems on my first read-through of the novel, which was in Spanish, in Spain, but alas, an abridged version. (I was okay with that at the time since it was for a class and there simply was not time to read the whole thing, which is part of the reason I’m coming back to the book now. Not to mention that it’s much easier to understand the jokes in my native tongue.)
Amadis of Gaul is the most famous book of chivalry, and was the most popular in the late 1500s when Cervantes was writing his masterpiece. Quijote often quotes Amadis, as well as other famous knights. So I picked the following sonnet to share (from the Signet Classic 1964 translation by Walter Starkie).
Amadís de Gaula to Don Quijote:
You who my sorrows once did imitate,
When I was scorned and hied me all forlorn,
To Peña Pobre’s beetling crags to mourn,
My joy transformed to penance by my fate;
You who of old your pitiless thirst did sate
With saltish tears that flow from both your eyes;
You who all tins and platters did despise,
And on earth what the earth gave you ate,
Live on secure that for eternity,
At least as long as o’er this earthly sphere
Fair-haired Apollo goads his steeds of day,
Your name for valor shall exalted be,
Your fatherland above all lands appear,
Your learned author, unique, men will say.
Taken in perspective, the above sonnet is hilarious, in my opinion, especially the last line. Cervantes may have been a bit bitter about his less-than-ideal life circumstances (he was always poor and suffered an injury that left his left hand lame), but he’s not being all that stuck up here. Certainly he’s elevating himself, but all of Don Quijote is one big joke, so it makes sense that he’s elevating himself partly in jest, as Don Quijote is elevated and “exalted for valor” in jest.
These sonnets add to the overall mood of satire and parody in the book, as well as pointing out how silly they are, not only in this book, but in any book. Amadis de Gaul, an “actual” knight who went on real adventures and fought real evils would never write this kind of thing to a raving lunatic who ran around with a barber’s wash basin on his head. But that’s why it’s funny.
Cervantes does skip the list of quoted authors and philosophers, but I think the sonnets from characters in Amadis de Gaul to characters in Don Quijote more than make up for its lack.
So now a challenge for you writers out there: Write a sonnet (or any kind of poem) from the characters in another book to the characters in one you’ve written or are writing. If you’re not writing a book, just pick two books and write a sonnet from one character in one book to a character in a different book. Leave your poems in the comments or link to your own blog. I’ll share mine next week!
During the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s 2011 Winter Read-a-Thon, Jan. 8 – Feb. 19, I will be blogging about the books I read. For more information or to see a list of books I’m reading, go here. I’m a little behind in hours this week, but not too much, and I’ve still got lots of time to catch up (I should have 11 so far to reach my goal of 50).
- Hours read as of 1/16: 9.25
- Funds raised as of 1/16: $47
April 19, 2010 in Metafiction, Metajournalism, Metamusic, Metanonfiction, MetaTV | Tags: Avellaneda, cervantes, Don Quixote, fiction, literary criticism, Metafiction, novels, storytelling | by Kelly Lynn Thomas | Leave a comment
Last week’s post talks about metafiction and what exactly it is. I argued that structures and constructions that use the story-within-the-story format are inherently metafictional because their simple existence provides commentary on the storytelling process.
Now it’s time to back up my claims! I’ll use Don Quixote as an example, because it features two of the more common story-in-story tropes.
In the second volume of Don Quixote (published about ten years after the first), the story within the story comments on Spanish society at the time, as well as defends the book against a “false” second volume released by one of Cervantes’ critics. It also draws attention to the fictional devices of the novel because the story within the story is, in fact, Don Quixote!
It’s pretty easy to see why that first trope is metafictional, so what about the second?
There’s another story within the story in the first book of the novel. “Cervantes” appears as a narrator, and delivers this tale as if it were a legend. He tells it to us in a rather conversational manner.
That first story within a story is interesting to look at, because although Cervantes appears as a character, he does not appear as a writer—in the novel he is collecting this legend and recounting it, but he is not writing it, although it is written down by an Arab historian, and he has it translated.
The fact that he has to have the legend translated by a friend does imply some form of writing, but that is overpowered by the way Cervantes recounts the story much the way one would share a story around a campfire. He draws attention to different “versions” of the story, and freely admits some things have been forgotten.
In this first book, Character-Cervantes becomes a storyteller, not a writer. And despite that, despite the fact that Cervantes does not go out of his way to shout “look at me, I’m writing a book about writing a book aren’t I so clever???” the first installment of Don Quixote does draw an incredible amount of attention to its own conventions without being obvious.
The story of Don Quixote, not the novel Don Quixote, makes fun of the Spanish obsession with novellas de caballaria, or novels about heroic knights. Author-Cervantes takes into account the way these stories are told and puts a twist on that when he tells his story, so the format/story frame does also comment on the novellas de caballaria.
Although there are two different levels of commentary in the first book, Cervantes could have achieved the same storytelling commentary had he made up another character (instead of using himself) to tell the story. Of course, Cervantes wanted to do much more than comment on storytelling.
The narrator, who speaks in first person, tells us the story of Don Quixote as if it were a legend, and brings in a proxy narrator in Cide Hamete Benengeli, the Arab historian who’s recorded the entire “legend.”
So, if you take Cervantes out of that picture, I believe the way he tells the story, and brings in Benengeli (making it a book-within-a-book, or more appropriately, a-bunch-of-scrolls-within-a-book), does in fact still comment on the storytelling and writing process.
So what does it say?
It says that people change stories, either for their own purposes or because they forget. It says that society is fascinated with larger-than-life people, whether because they are great or because (as in this case) they are “crazy,” and by extension it shows us glimpses of our voyeuristic nature.
I see all story-within-story constructions as metafictional in this way, but I will concede that not everyone will. But, I, having an unhealthy obsession with metafiction and structure, am wont to go looking for metafiction in unusual places. I love stretching the boundaries of genre, metafiction being no exception.
What do you think? Are all stories-within-stories metafictional, does it depend on the story, or am I full of doggie doo? Leave a comment and let me know!
Miguel de Cervantes may not have invented metafiction, but he did take it to the next level when he wrote The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote of La Mancha, one of the first—and still one of the best—modern novels. Cervantes published part one in 1605 and part two in 1615.
I was forunate enough to read this book for the first time in Alcalá de Henares, the town in which Cervantes was born, and where all of his contemporaries studied. I went into my reading expecting to be bored to tears, but having the book put in its proper historic and social context made me realize that the Quixote is about much, much more than a lunatic chasing windmills. Not only is it a story within a story, but a story within a story within a story, and Cervantes uses that story within a story within a story to make one of the most hilarious social commentaries this world will ever see.
Cervantes begins the book with who we eventually learn is Character-Cervantes, the narrator. He writes as if he’s telling the story directly to you, as if it’s a legend. In fact, he’s not even sure what the main character’s real name originally was. Quexana? Quesada? Accounts differ (Chapter I). He sets it up to be a grand tale akin to a Greek epic poem, but in Chapter VIII, when Don Quixote is in the middle of a battle to the death, the story stops.
“But it spoils all, that at this point and crisis the author of the history leaves this battle impending, giving as excuse that he could find nothing more written about these achievements of Don Quixote than what has been already set forth.”
In Chapter IX, Character-Cervantes relates how he discovered the rest of the legend of our brave knight in a marketplace, written in Arabic on some old papers. He tells us the papers were written by the Arab historian Cide Hamete Benengeli, and that a friend translated them into Spanish. So now, it is Benengeli who tells the story, although Character-Cervantes interjects every so often.
In 1614, someone writing under the pseudonym Avellaneda put out a second Don Quixote book that heavily criticized Cervantes and the world he’d created. While Don Quixote is certainly farcical, it is, at its core, an intelligent and hilarious commentary on the Spanish obsession with novellas caballerscas—adventure novels about knights.
The false Quixote is anything but intelligent and hilarious. Of course, it is possible, even probable, that Cervantes would have never finished part two without the Avellaneda book.
After his first (mis)adventure, Don Quixote’s niece and housekeeper lock him up in the house so he can’t wander off again. But one day Sancho comes over and informs his master that Samson Carrasco has just returned from his studies with a book entitled The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote of La Mancha—and most of Spain has read it, and loved it (Chapters II and III).
“…Some swear by the adventure of the windmills that your worship took to be Briareuses and giants; others by that of the fulling mills; one cries up the description of the two armies that afterwards took the appearance of two droves of sheep; another that of the dead body
on its way to be buried at Segovia…” says Samson.
Now, there’s the story of Don Quixote within the second part of Don Quixote, which was already framed inside Benengeli’s history told by Character-Cervantes. To top it all off, in Chapter LIX, Don Quixote and Sancho encounter some characters who are reading the false Quixote. Cervantes takes the opportunity to tear the novel apart. That adds another layer to the structure, making it two stories within a story within a story.
Cervantes didn’t use the stories-within-a-story-within-a-story structure for the hell of it, either. This structure (to say very little about the content itself) accomplishes several goals:
1. It creates at least three layers for Author-Cervantes to work with in commenting on and criticizing knight adventure novels, the people who read them, Spanish society and other authors who criticized Cervantes.
2. It creates a dialogue between what’s fiction and what’s real. Character-Cervantes tells us that Benengeli wrote a true history, but he also tells us that all Arabs are liars. Since Benengeli is Arab, he must be a liar, so how could he write a true story?
Samson then brings up a point about the difference between historians and storytellers: “The poet may describe or sing things, not as they were, but as they ought to have been; but the historian has to write them down, not as they ought to have been, but as they were, without adding anything to the truth or taking anything from it” (Part II, Chapter III).
There’s a poet (Cervantes) writing the book that is supposed to be the history of a knight-errant recorded by a lying Arab historian (Benengeli), which creates even more truth-fiction tension. Cervantes, as the poet, should be the liar, but instead it’s the historian. Who’s a poor reader to trust?!
3. It gives Cervantes a clever—and reasonable within the framework of the book—way to correct some of the errors he made in the first part of the novel that Avellaneda pointed out in the false Quixote and address the criticisms Avellaneda made. Cervantes was not always so great about keeping his details straight, but of course, for each knight adventure story there were ten novels with ten different endings, so it’s possible this was a conscious choice that wound up looking sloppy.
Brilliant, isn’t it?