Rereading Don Quixote

It moves at such a happy pace, Don Quixote, that I wonder why it has taken me 15 years to get back to it. There is much one forgets–conversations between Don Quixote and Sancho, and, stranger, how the Don and Sancho behave when they are separated from each other.

And there are the women. Don Quixote has many interesting and charming women, all wrapped up in high drama; Marcela wants to be left alone and tend her sheep, Lucinda gets tied up in a romantic potboiler, and Dorotea puts her harsh woe aside to help our Don with his adventures.

I’ve stopped now at the “Man Who Was Recklessly Curious” chapter, a 40 page novel within the novel. It’s a good place to stop. I’ll probably reread all of part 1 and wait on part 2 for a while. Cervantes waited 10 years for part 2, I can wait a couple months.

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Notes on Malamud stories

  1. Take Pity an odd story of a man who failed at life explaining it all to a census taker.
  2. The First Seven Years a love story from the view of a nosy father, who tries to set his daughter up with student Max. Mas doesn’t want Miriam, and Feld soon realizes his assistant Sobel at his shoe shop loves his daughter. She’s keen on him via the books Sobel has gifted her.
  3. The Mourners a great delayed outcome story in the mode of Bartleby, The Scrivener. This one plays out as a tenant-landlord saga. Funny that it recalls Malamud’s late novel The Tenant.
  4. Idiots First the best of the lot so far, a poor man looks to send his mentally challenged son to California. He shuffles around Manhattan begging for money at the homes of wealthy Jews. Lots of tension and suspense, and some old-world dark magic.
  5. The Last Mohican is a tale of unwanted encounters. Fidelman newly arrived in Rome to write a book on Giotto, meets Susskind, a hustler and peddler who claims to be an exile from Israel. Contrast is Fidelman’s pursuit of scholarship and the aesthetic while Susskind’s persistent nagging is a reminder of old and real world misery. Prey turns into pursuer. 

E. L. Doctorow (1931 – 2015)

In the mid-1990s I bought a beat-up hardback of E. L. Doctorow’s novel Ragtime at Green Apple for a few bucks, took it home, and thought about the movie version of the novel, and how it featured perhaps the first naked woman I’d ever seen, Elizabeth McGovern in the role of Evelyn Nesbit. The movie of Ragtime came out in the early 1980s and back then PG-rated movies featured nudity. It was a good time to be a kid and a moviegoer. McGovern more than Doctorow made me buy the book.

I read Ragtime in one long sitting. It’s a baffling novel, jokey with historical figures like Houdini and Theodore Dreiser, and kind and affectionate to its principals like Mother, Mother’s Younger Brother, Coalhouse Walker Jr, and Tateh. It’s a book about race and class and desire, it’s damn sexy and at times damn frightening, and there are interspersed scenes of Doctorow the narrator talking about shifts in mood and temperament of America–some of these are hokey but they serve the same purpose as the macro-USA chapters in The Grapes of Wrath. The prose is assured and at times seems to resemble newspaper reporting–that is meant as a compliment.

I enjoyed other Doctorow novels, especially The Book of Daniel, which might be his best novel, but there are a half-dozen sharp scenes in Ragtime I will never forget, no matter how much the rest of it fades from memory.

The novel The Revenant

Took a break from reading old big summer novels to read a somewhat new novel, Michael Punke’s The Revenant, a novel first released in 2002 and recently released again in conjunction with its forthcoming film adaptation. Based on its preview, the film looks vastly better than the novel.

The Revenant isn’t well-written, and it is difficult to see what inspired the filmmakers to make a movie of it. The novel has many gaps and holes in its tale–one wishes to know more of minor characters and less of major, and only one is a cinematic well-rounded type, our hero Hugh Glass–and perhaps that is what drew-in the adapters; they read and saw what might have been, instead of what is.

For every good description of injury in The Revenant–and there are many injuries to Glass and to select minor characters–there is a tired cliche nearby; war cries are “piercing,” a nose is “ruddy,” silence becomes “uncomfortable.” The story of The Revenant is interesting, yet the writing betrays it.

Having recently completed The Charterhouse of Parma, a book filled with ecstatic life and wild adventure that puts a noodle like The Revenant to shame, I was grateful for the two evenings spent with this book, for appreciating greatness becomes easier the more one encounters simple pleasures such as this.

Clyde and Roberta and Sondra and Clyde

At the halfway point of An American Tragedy (Book 2, Chapter XXXVII) and bleakness sets in firmly; Clyde is moving fast onto Sondra while leaving Roberta in the dust. But Roberta’s pregnant, so Clyde travels to out-of-town pharmacies looking for medicine that might end it. The meds fail, so Clyde shops for an abortion doctor and finds one. Off the happy couple goes to meet him.

This is all very bleak, very repetitive, as the base childlike thoughts of Clyde and Roberta, who are both poor and unsophisticated and far removed from leisure, have abandoned whatever fairy tale qualities they had of romantic love–dread and horror have replaced love.

And Dreiser’s language is the hardest thing to pin down in all of this, as he is writing the thoughts and voices of common unworldly people. Clyde has the upper hand as he’s been in and out of trouble before, escaping his scrape in Kansas City and landing on his feet in Chicago. But he’s a schemer and dreamer and wise as a fire hydrant. Roberta is sinking, and there’s nobody to help her. The setting is claustrophobic and dark; Lycurgus isn’t a metropolis, it’s a small town blown big by the hot air of capitalism. There is nowhere to go for either of them.

The Charterhouse of Parma – chapter notes

  1. Chapter 1 a brief history of Napoleon’s invasions of Milan, and how Lombardy society cherished their invaders.
  2. Pre-Quisling I’d guess the term for Quisling was “Lombardy Hospitality”
  3. “It is ideas,” he would say, “which have corrupted Italy.” –Stendhal
  4. Chapter 3 — Fabrizio is chastised by a canteen woman for his dopey demeanor and runt horse. She sells him a horse and points him toward the battlefield. He falls in with a group of buffoons as dead bodies are piling up on the battlefield. Fabrizio lies about a connection to a soldier and gets drunk on brandy (too drunk to notice Napoleon when he passes by) and has his new horse stolen. Starving, he winds up back with the canteen woman.
  5. Fabrizio early tough to characterize; too young to be Quixotic, too dumb a King Arthur. Maybe Bertie Wooster is best?
  6. Chapter 4 –Fabrizio, after a nap, actually sees some action and shoots a man but is almost captured. A kind corporal takes the blockhead in, and with a few others they escape the battlefied. Again he has his horse stolen. Gets it back, guards a bridge (ala Lancelot) and is conned/stabbed. Some hero, this Fabrizio.
  7. Chapter 5 –Wounded Fab receives dubious care as he makes his way back home. His older brother has outed him as a Napoleon lackey, and he can’t come home without stealth. Once back, his aunt finagles a way to get him back in good graces. His penance is to attend mass, refrain from talking to anyone who might be intelligent, and to read only official state newspapers.
  8. Chapter 6 — Count Mosca shows up and begins schemin’ and shuckin’ and jivin’. Count me in.
  9. “I’ll wager,” said the Count, “that she’s bright enough to be ashamed of her father.” –Chapter 6
  10. The first virtue of a young man today is to be incapable of enthusiasm and not to have much in the way of brains. –Chapter 6
  11. Chapter 7 is first moves in political chess. The Prince tries to play the Count against his mistress, but the Count gets wise to the scheme. Meanwhile, the Count’s jealousy over Gina’s relationship to Fab almost ruins him. He calms down for the moment.
  12. Chapter 8 a transition of young Fab into adulthood; has a series of epiphanies alongside Lake Como, decides on the “flat and muddy” course of reality. His old tutor Abbe Blanes is on his deathbed and making predictions about Fab’s future.
  13. Chapter 9  more of Fab’s reverie on life and the end of youth. He has to sneak out of town, which he does, ineptly.
  14. “we are not in France, where everything ends with a song or a couple of years in prison.” –Count Mosca
  15. In every age, a base Sancho Panza triumphs over a sublime Don Quixote. –Count Mosca, 
  16. Chapter 11 –Fab kills his rival Giletti in a lengthy sword duel. After the death, Fab demands a mirror so that he might check his face for dramatic scars or injuries. Relieved that it’s only a shattered cheekbone, he escapes with help of peasants.
  17. Chapter 12 –Fab’s still on the run after killing Giletti. He receives letters that show how the Count and his aunt are being shunned and diminished in court for his misdeed.
  18. Chapter 13 an aside of main thread as Fab falls for a singer and woos her, is captured by her suitor a devious Count escapes from the Count, tires of the singer, and defeats the Count in a duel. His Aunt and Count Mosca disapprove of this latest nonsense.
  19. Despite the pleading of his Duchess aunt, Fab is finally arrested in Chapter 14 –high drama, low scheming.
  20. Chapter 15 and the Duchess learns of Fab’s imprisonment. Clelia, daughter of the jailer, pines for Fab. Ah, foreshadowing.
  21. “In you, dear Count, I see nothing, now, but the shadow of someone who was once dear to me” –Ch. 16
  22. Chapter 16 includes a long soliloquy from Gina re: how to save Fab and save her own raison d’être.
  23. Chapter 17 finds Count Mosca rehearsing all the  angles he might play against the Prince to free Fab and win back Gina.
  24. “–it requires a great deal of intelligence and a strong character to succeed in being a tyrant.” –Ch. 17
  25. Chapter 18 most all to do with Fab in prison. He’s got a view of Clelia’s orchard, hears the birds, pines, muses, sulks.
  26. Ch. 20 finds Fab’s life in danger due to attempted poisoning. Clelia compels him to escape and flee but he wants her and wants to stay in Parma and not skulk around. Duchess Gina plans Fab’s escape, sending him details of how and when and the Prince and his faction look to redouble their efforts to get rid of Fab. Chapter ends with Fab getting the signal to bust out.
  27. Chapter 21 a behind-the-scenes look at Duchess Gina’s plans for saving Fab from certain death-by-poison.
  28. “I am inclined to think that the immoral delight Italians experience in taking revenge is a consequence of their power of imagination.” –Stendhal
  29. Ch. 22 of and Fab finally escapes from the tower, the dozens of guards drunk on brandy, and Fab lowering himself via a series of thin super-ropes made up by his buddies. Duchess and the Count get him to Piedmont where he can recuperate. Duchess plans a final humiliation for the Prince, and rested Fab pens a letter to his jailer, apologizing for breaking out!
  30. Fab is bored and lonely in chapter 23 so Count Mosca and the Duchess make moves to get him back into Parma but the blockheaded Prince is a blockhead. Duchess Gina plays the Count and the Princess, and Fab sneaks back into Parma in disguise.
  31. Chapter 24 full of court nonsense as Duchess plays the Prince and Princess against her enemies…Fab meanwhile returns to the tower and jail, across the way from Clelia, who is set to be married to another anon.
  32. Fab saved by Clelia from a poisonous meal in ch. 25 while Duchess Gina offers up herself to the Prince if he gets Fab out of the tower. Fab is rescued, acquitted of his crime, installed as a Grand Vicar. He is miserable w/o Clelia.
  33. Much like Sarah Miles in Greene’s The End of the Affair Clelia made a vow to avoid Fab should he live/survive poisoning attempt.
  34. Ch. 26 features Fab coming out of his funk, going to Court, whist with the Prince, starting a new friendship w/ Clelia.
  35. The penultimate chapter finds Fab on the rise as a dazzling preacher. He’s also recalled as a Napoleonic hero which is hilarious since his true record of service w/ Napoleon is having his horse stolen countless times.
  36. Order of death in sad last chapter: Sandrino (Clelia and Fab’s son); Clelia; Fab; Countess (formerly Duchess Gina) Mosca

Clyde Griffiths, supervisor

When Clyde gets a job supervising a couple-dozen women, it serves two purposes; one, it gives Clyde’s wealthy Lycurgus relatives a chance to lord over their poor cousin, and secondly, it lets Clyde’s basic revelations about people come to the fore. Here’s Clyde on the women he oversees:

Up to this time, apart from the girls to whom he was so definitely drawn, Clyde was not so very favorably impressed with the type of girl who was working here. For the most part, as he saw them, they were of a heavy and rather unintelligent company, and he had been thinking that smarter-looking girls might possibly be secured. Why not? Were there none in Lycurgus in the factory world? So many of these had fat hands, broad faces, heavy legs and ankles. Some of them even spoke with an accent, being Poles or the children of Poles, living in that slum north of the mill. And they were all concerned with catching a “feller,” going to some dancing place with him afterwards, and little more. Also, Clyde had noticed that the American types who were here were of a decidedly different texture, thinner, more nervous and for the most part more angular, and with a general reserve due to prejudices, racial, moral and religious, which would not permit them to mingle with these others or with any men, apparently.

from Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, book 2, chapter 12