Well, James Naughtie has put his foot among the pigeons. How do you pronounce Don Quixote? I pronounced it in the English fashion and had there been any objections from the academics who so sturdily spoke about the knight errant this morning, I would have asked them whether any other pronunciation would have made the word ‘quixotic’ redundant.
For your information, we spoke to Edwin Williamson prior to the programme (who was tremendous in encapsulating the biography of Don Quixote), on the pronunciation of Don Quixote. He pointed out that Don Quixote is an archaic Spanish spelling that has now fallen out of use. The Spanish now spell and pronounce it as ‘Don Quijote’ ie. don-key-hoe-tee.
However, Don Quixote has always been a highly international piece of literature. The Italians have always pronounced it ‘don-key-show-tay’; the French have always pronounced it as ‘don-key-sho-ta’; and the English have always traditionally pronounced it as ‘don–quix-ot’.
The adoption of the Spanish pronunciation in the English language has only appeared with the wide inclusion of the book onto the undergraduate curriculum in many American Universities over the last 20 to 30 years. The vast majority of English academics still refer to the book in the old English pronunciation ‘don-quix-ot’ out of habit and in recognition of the book’s status as an international classic.
So there we are on that one.
There was much commendation of Cervantes' masterpiece on this morning’s programme, but in one of Barry Ife’s articles about the book, he included a review by Martin Amis. I think this may entertain you. “In March 1986, Amis reviewed a reprint of Tobias Smollett’s translation of Don Quijote for the Atlantic Monthly, and he characteristically took the opportunity to get one or two things off his chest. ‘While clearly an impregnable masterpiece,’ he wrote, ‘Don Quixote suffers from one fairly serious flaw – that of outright unreadability.’ For long stretches (approaching about 75 per cent of the whole) it is ‘inhumanly dull’. This epic is epic in length only, he argues; ‘it has no pace, no drive…it simply accrues. The question “what happens next?” has no meaning because there is no “next” in Don Quixote’s world: there is only “more”.
Warming to his task, Amis goes on to describe the first 20 chapters or so as ‘squalid, savage and attritional’ as the knight, impelled by ‘madness and high ambition’, and the squire, by ‘stupidity and greed’, beat up sundry innocent carriers and other passers-by in the pursuit of wrongs to right. Unprovoked except by chivalric paranoia, Don Quixote tries to murder a Biscayan traveller, gets involved in a brawl in an inn, chops up ‘about seven’ little lambs during an attack on a flock of sheep, and ‘continuing on his sociopathic way’ assails some defenceless mourners, robs a barber, pummels an itinerant prison guard, and frees a band of convicts. At this point, says Amis, it dawns on the reader that there are still 700 pages to go."
So Don Quixote not only still stirs the blood, but it stirs the mind of writers.
One of the things I most appreciated was the life he had led. Not wholly unlike that of Chaucer. It is something that we may return to – the connection between the life of a writer (and other artists too, I’m sure) and the work. Nowadays we seem to be consumed with the idea of the lone or specialist writer, setting up tower on his or her own from the very beginning. Here with Cervantes we have a man who would probably have described himself, until late in life, as a professional soldier who finally turned to writing to scrape a living.