It is the curse of the supportive parents that their children turn on them and bite, precisely because of all they’ve done. It seems that much great art stems from deprivation. Look at Cervantes. He was poverty stricken, wounded, imprisoned. And from it sprung what many call the greatest work of literature, the first modern novel. I strain trying to imagine what life was like in 1605, the year it was first published, and fail, though of course, all was essentially the same: We are mostly slaves to our emotions, full of greed and desire and jealousy and joy.
Normally, I wouldn’t be one to reference Cervantes. But while bike riding in Madison with my husband, I wonder if perhaps there is a happening at Shockrasonica. And because my husband is trying to make up for some rudeness at the beginning of our ride, he acquiesces, agreeing to return a half mile in order to swing by the house.
Sure enough, the interior is aglow. We both recognize the saxophone player from Jill’s annual Christmas Eve party. His bandmate wears a little pointed hat and taps on kitchen pot lids, until the hat falls off. Then he howls and throat sings and parlays with a guitar. At some point, I ask the man who is hunched over a book in the narrow front hall, what he is reading. Something by Washington Irving. He calls it research since he enjoys adorning his modern prose with old turns of phrase.
Isn’t it strange that these writing styles come and go, that a voice is so intricately connected with its context, that to write in another era’s style today will be flatly rejected by even the savviest publishers? Of course these thoughts come out a mess and the man most likely thinks me a fool because the closest I’ve come to reading Don Quixote, his favorite novel, is watching Looney Tunes, and I can’t even recall who played Don Quixote and who played Sancho.
He, the man reading Washington Irving, is Kathleen’s brother. Both share the house with Seth, whoever that is. Kathleen seemed to remember me from the first time we stopped, months back. She’s amazed that we happened to catch a show since they are rare, though the man on the porch who Andrew talked with said they have thirty a year.
He (Kathleen’s brother) recommends his favorite translation of his favorite novel. I have nothing to say about various translations of any work, having neither the brain nor the patience to read Don Quixote once, let alone several times. So I state the obvious as I’m so good at: That such an undertaking, translating a thousand pages of anything, is immense beyond imagining. I say I hate to use the word “talent”, because it implies these monumental tasks are somehow effortless, whereas mostly, it just requires a lot of hard work. The man counters that there’s a great deal of hard work poured into mediocre novels. How well I know that!
He rubs the fuzz on his head, and suggests that really, talent is everything, that it takes more than hard work to turn a mediocre novel great. He taps his forehead and uses the word “germ” as he looks up, searching for how to define what it is that’s present in the mind of a person who can write Don Quixote.
The next day I tell my mother-in-law about the conversation, and she says she just downloaded Don Quixote onto her reader yesterday, to take on the trip to Spain. A sign. I go home to pluck it from my shelf, a copy I bought for a quarter, a half dozen years back, intending to read it of course, but never knowing if I really would. I see it is not the man’s favorite translation.
I begin regardless.
"Do you ever read really old books?" he asked.
I couldn’t remember a single one, always so foolish when talking with a very intelligent person. How powerful, these slightest shifts of perspective. From confident to crumbing in a moment. I’ve heard it said that if instead of telling our kids that they did a good job on their math test, we tell them they are good at math, their performance improves by some significant percent.
Did anyone ever tell Cervantes that he was good at math? What if Cervantes had a computer? How does such an array of editing and publishing tools change the words? What trysts and parties and adventures did Cervantes miss in order to write Don Quixote? What did the neighbors think? Was he a good friend? What if he hadn’t ever been hungry, or cold, or poor? How thin is the line between the madness of a character and the madness of the mind that created him? Is there such a thing as free expression, being so bound as we are to our culture, our language, our land?