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'Don Quixote' Speaks To The 'Quality Of Being A Dreamer'


One must live life in a genuine way, passionately, in spite of what other people think. That is the central tenet of "Don Quixote," according to Professor Ilan Stavans. Stavans is not alone in his love for that book. A few years ago, the Norwegian Academy polled 100 writers, and they voted "Don Quixote" the best novel of all time. This year, the book turns 400. In 1615, Miguel de Cervantes published part two of "Don Quixote." Ilan Stavans, professor of Latin American and Latino culture at Amherst College, joins us now. Welcome to the program.

ILAN STAVANS: It's a pleasure.

SIEGEL: The "Quixote," which, I gather, is what serious literary people call the book, is the story of a Spanish gentleman taken with romances about chivalrous knights who sets out to become one centuries after such knights truly lived, if ever. What is it about that premise that is so modern and so novel in the history of literature?

STAVANS: This is a book about a man who, at age 50, has run out of ideas, probably run out of energy to live and devotes his entire life just to read. Reading chivalry novels defines his days, and at one point, his imagination runs loose and he becomes one of the heroes in one of those novels. And it is very modern and it is very urgent because of the way we connect the imagination with reality. Many of us wanted to become when we were little the superheroes that we saw on screen. And later on, when we felt in love with a novel or with a movie, those characters defined the parameters of our personality. Cervantes, at the very beginning of the 17th century, just struck luck figuring out the connection between the world of fantasy and the world of reality where we are in constant need of finding something that justifies our days.

SIEGEL: And the notion that reality can be something so subjective is also - it's a very modern idea.

STAVANS: This is the novel that invented modernity. This is the novel that teaches us that everything is subjective, that truth is relative, that each of us can have a dream and push for that dream and that we ultimately can transform the world based on that dream. That is why "Don Quixote's" such an attractive figure because people project onto him that desire to become somebody and become exceptional and transform the world. And the book is a chronicle of the adventures of this character that, in the end, is heroic in having pursued his own passion.

SIEGEL: So you - you have written a book - "Quixote: The Novel And The World" - that's about a book that's about books. It's quite a literary venture that you're into.

STAVANS: I have written a book that is about the book that has defined me as a person since I was a teenager. It is a book that has changed every time I read it. I have understood the meaning of a classic based on this many readings when I was a young man. I thought this was a book about an idealist. And now that I am the age of the character - I am in my 50s - I have concluded that it is about a middle-age crisis and it is about trying to reconnect with the dreams that you had as a young person.

SIEGEL: You have mentioned dreams, so for that I'm going to cue some Schmaltzy music right now.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) To dream the impossible dream, to fight the unbeatable foe...

SIEGEL: The song "The Quest" from the musical "Man Of La Mancha" illustrates a couple of things that you write about in the book. First, it's one of a great many adaptations of the "Quixote" story to other media. It was also used a little bit by the Robert F. Kennedy campaign in 1968, so it's one of those examples of "Don Quixote" as a political idea.

STAVANS: "Don Quixote" is a very political book that has been used by diplomats, politicians, guerrilla fighters, to inspire people, to convince them that they themselves can become quixotic. George Washington had a copy of the book on his desk when signing the U.S. Constitution. How many different works of art have been inspired by "Don Quixote?" Thousands. Most people enter the novel, for better or worse, through the musical the "Man Of La Mancha. It is a nice entry. It is schmaltzy, as you said, indeed because...

SIEGEL: I was quoting you in the book actually when I said that.

STAVANS: (Laughter) I'm writing having said that - in that it turns elements in the book upside down. It's hackering (ph). It also perverts some of the messages. We have the impression that it is a book written against the Inquisition, which wasn't really true. We have the impression that Cervantes was in jail when he was writing it, which isn't really true. But it doesn't matter.

SIEGEL: Cervantes, as you write, died in the same year as Shakespeare. Because of the calendar change, I guess they didn't die on the same day, but it's close. Unlike Shakespeare, who went from Stratford to Pont-Aven to London and that was about it, you note Cervantes really saw a great deal of the world. This was a man who'd - he was a wounded war veteran.

STAVANS: He was. This is a man who, having been born in central Spain, enlisted in the army, fought in the great Battle of Lepanto where he was wounded and lost control of his left arm. On the way back from central Europe to Spain, he was captured and was a captive in Algiers for several years. He had visited as a young man Italy. In other words, this is not a provincial writer. This is a writer that saw the world and experienced it, came back to Spain, tried his luck in different literary genres and finally settled on the most popular but the least intellectually celebrated of them all - the novel. And in doing so, literally created the very first modern novel, the novel in which a character changes from where he is at the beginning to where he ends up and does something seldomly seen before - he has an inner life.

SIEGEL: You've concluded that quixotic is the only word coined by the actual title of a novel. We can talk about things that are joycean or swiftian, but those are about the writers. This is actually about a literary character, and we can't find anyone ever being called Macbethian or something like that.

STAVANS: Right. I find that to be just extraordinary. The name of the character has become an adjective, and in some ways, it's even divorced from the book. You can be quixotic without having any understanding of who or what Don Quixote does. Quixotic has also traveled across languages, and it is present in every single standardized language that I know. And it speaks to the quality of being a dreamer. If a writer doesn't do anything but give a new word to his language and from there maybe to other languages, I think that writer redefines the world.

SIEGEL: Ilan Stavans, thank you very much for talking with us about your book and about the occasion of the 400th anniversary of "Don Quixote."

STAVANS: It's been a pleasure, thank you.

SIEGEL: Professor Stavans's book is called "Quixote: The Novel And The World." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.