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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
“Estaban acaso a la puerta dos mujeres mozas, destas que llaman del partido, las cuales iban a Sevilla con unos arrieros que en la venta aquella noche acertaron a hacer jornada; y, como a nuestro aventurero todo cuanto pensaba, veía o imaginaba le parecía ser hecho y pasar al modo de lo que había leído, luego que vio la venta, se le representó que era un castillo con sus cuatro torres y chapiteles de luciente plata, sin faltarle su puente levadiza y honda cava, con todos aquellos adherentes que semejantes castillos se pintan.”
“At the door there happened to be two young women, the kind they call ladies of easy virtue, who were on their way to Sevilla with some muledrivers who had decided to stop at the inn that night, and since everything our adventurer thought, saw, or imagined seemed to happen according to what he had read, as soon as he saw the inn it appeared to him to be a castle complete with four towers and spires of gleaming silver, not to mention a drawbridge and deep moat and all the other details depicted on such castles.” -Don Quixote, Cervantes
First to the most obviously wonderful thing about the passage: As long ago as the early seventeenth century, in The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, Cervantes is playing with ideas of fiction and make-believe, but with so light a touch, it’s hardly noticeable; he never takes me out of the magnificent world he is creating. I don’t finish reading this sentence—or the hundred others like it—reflecting on the cleverness of its writer, or the complexity of some abstract idea. In fact, I don’t read this thinking at all; I’m full of wonder; I’m amused; I feel a little pity.
The key is: “Todo cuanto pensaba, veia o imaginaba le parecia ser hecho y pasar al modo de lo que habia leido, luego que vio la venta, se le represento que era un castillo con sus cautro torres…” Since everything he thought, saw or imagined seems to be made and to pass in the style of all he had read, as soon as he saw the inn it looked to him as if it were a castle with its four towers…” The sentence is magic: the inn appears to me, too, as a castle with four towers and silver spires, a mote and a drawbridge? I laugh at Quixote for mistaking what is before him based on his reading, when I hold the book in my hand, know the fictional truth is that the place is an inn, and that the fictional falsehood is that the place is a castle, and still, I see the castle as he does: with four towers, a mote, a drawbridge.
When I see the castle, there is no inn; if I see the inn, I’ve no hope of seeing the castle. Thinking about this is like trying to grab hold of a flickering candle flame. What is it I am referring to here? An inn? What inn? Where? Or a castle? How? I can only see one detail at time. When I see the gleaming silver spires, the rafters disappear. When I go back to the rafters, there are no walls or roof for them to support. To the extent that Quixote is reading the landscape before him as he travels (what more urgent reading lesson can there be when on the road than reading the tracks, weather and smoke around you?), I am no different than he. I think of picking up this favorite book as though a transparent, airy likeness of my body is stepping into his rusty, well-used armor and animating it again.
I miss in a lot of contemporary writing this creative play that dismisses if not verisimilitude, then anything like a fixed and certain world and culture about which to write. I miss the notion built into this passage—and my experience of reading it—that poets don’t just record what they see, they also create what they see. And, to some extent, what the culture sees.
Then there’s the mysterious experience of reading it in Spanish. The images, the whole landscape—it’s all somehow sharper in its original language. Why would this be so? There are darker shadows, brighter light, deeper color. The last light of day casts a rosy hue on the inn’s thatched roof, which is somehow only a bland, brownish-blonde when I read it English. There’s a crush of starlight in the noun phrase “aquella noche” that I can’t find in “that night.” Perhaps most interestingly, “it seemed to him to be” lacks the peculiar quality of the reflexive verb phrase in “se le represento que era.” In the latter, the Don seems to have much more deliberate will and hence responsibility for seeing a castle where a country inn stands. He represents it to himself. Why would he do such thing? Is it delusional, or hopeful, or willful fantasy? What about me, when I see a castle where—only half a sentence earlier—I learned in no uncertain terms there was only a country inn?
Finally, in the phrase “and all the other details depicted on such castles,” I am given the freedom to make and imagine my own castle. This is powerful, for Cervantes trusts us—not as in: “Hey, reader, take a stab at this book writing thing yourself, I’m sure your imagination will serve,” but more like: “Hey, reader, I know what you are to the extent that I know what I am (which is not very much). I know you will see what you see according to what you read, as Quijote does, and as I have…for Quijote is no more or less imaginative (or delusional, or wishful, or tragic) than you and I.” We have creative space and I think, some personal accountability if we find it’s a book or an adventure we don’t like, understand, or believe. No doubt it’s been in part my own fault I haven’t loved more books than I have.
Bonnie Nadzam’s work has appeared in Harper’s Magazine, Granta, The Iowa Review, Epoch, and many others. Her first novel, LAMB, was the recipient of the 2011 Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize.