Monday, December 24, 2012

"Frosty" An Advent Ghosts story

My friend Loren Eaton invited me once again to participate in his "Advent Ghosts" scary Christmas story happening and I was supposed to put this up and link to his blog on the 22nd. Which I did not do. But I'm doing it today. So read this, then go read the other stories, and have a nice Christmas.


It’s getting dark, she said. Go check on the kids.

Where were they last, he said.

In the front, building a snowman.

I see the snowman, he said, looking out. Have you seen how big it is? They must’ve stood on each other’s shoulders to put the head on. It’s eight feet tall. I see Ricky’s scarf on the lawn.

He opened the door and called for his children. There was no answer. He turned to his wife and said, Maybe they’re at the neighbors? I swear that snowman’s closer to the house than it was a minute ago.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

saints are misunderstood and scorned: uncollected thoughts regarding Don Quixote

I’m almost finished with Cervantes’ Don Quixote, and I have nothing to say to you about it. Why write on a blog about Don Quixote? Who’s going to go read it? Who cares about Cervantes? What can I possibly say about this 400 year-old pair of novels that hasn’t already been said much better by much smarter readers? I don’t know. I will say that, in case anyone’s wondering, the reason this book remains in print after four centuries is because it’s a good book, a book worth reading. As Dwight says, once you read the Quixote, you start to see its influence everywhere. Not that Cervantes invented the picaresque (he was influenced by Apuleius’ The Golden Ass, or at least he stole one of the more colorful incidents and a great deal of the premise from Apuleius), or the satire (I’m sure Cervantes had read some Aristophanes and I think he mentions Horace by name in Don Quixote), or the tale of romantic knights. I’m not going to claim any familiarity with Spanish/European literature around 1600 beyond the Elizabethan playwrights so I can’t say just what Cervantes did, if anything, that was different from his literary predecessors. But when I read Don Quixote, it feels new, somehow. I get the sense that Cervantes was synthesizing his elements into a fresh form. It’s experimental, tentative here and bold over there and the sense of the author’s fun being had is very strong in a great many passages. In the latter parts of Book II, Cervantes starts playing more with the layers of narrative, with commentary cropping up about the marginalia of the original Arab author, who heard the tale from other sources and had his doubts about some of the events, and then there is the layer of commentary from the translator (not Cervantes) of the original Arabic, who has his doubts about some of the events that the Arab author apparently took at face value. There are other cracks in the presumed reality of the narrative, where one of the narrators (we don’t know if it’s Cervantes, the unnamed translator, or the Arab author) informs us that Don Quixote (the fictional character) recanted some of his tales later on, and of course there’s the whole problem of Book I (as well as the unauthorized sequel by a writer other than Cervantes) having been written, published and widely-read during the five minutes of “story time” that occurs between Book I and Book II. There’s not enough time within the narrative for these books to have been written and read, but there they are, a constant presence in Book II. Apparently the counterfeit sequel appeared while Cervantes was writing chapter 59 of his own sequel and he couldn’t resist commenting on it (Don Quixote roundly condemns the counterfeit sequel, of course, and changes his plans at one point merely to make a liar of the non-Cervantes author). Oh, what larks.

Anyway, this is a good book and if you haven’t read it, you should. Book II is much better than Book I, though Book I has all of the famous episodes people associate with Don Quixote de la Mancha (the windmills, the barber, the inn where Quixote gets knighted, etc). Quixote is a pain in the ass and at the end of Book I we’re wondering why Sancho Panza puts up with him and his arrogance, but Book II paints the Knight of the Sad Countenance (for a while calling himself the Knight of the Lions (an allusion to de Troyes le Chevalier au Lion? I don’t know)) in a more sympathetic light: once Quixote’s story is known over Spain, people begin to fabricate “adventures” for him to reinforce the knight’s delusions and to have a laugh at him. After not very long, the “adventures” take on a cruel edge and we’re presented with a story of bear-baiting a madman. He’s mad, yes, but he’s also noble and of good heart and he is in many ways a better man than the sane folk who are humiliating him. Why all this cruelty, I wondered? Why’s Cervantes being such a bastard? Of course it’s because a man like Don Quixote would be laughed at and made a figure of fun, even by those he’s sworn to serve, even by those he admires, even by those he’d die to defend. What’s the point of all this, then? That chivalry is a madness? That people ain’t no good? That saints are misunderstood and scorned? Maybe. I don’t know. Don Quixote de la Mancha is a good book, though. It’s well worth the time, so go read it, whyncha? I’m going to read something more current next, though. Something from this decade, possibly. It could happen.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Next Big Thing

My friend Rick Daley sent me one of those interwebloggy meme things, which I usually avoid but, you know, it turns out to be an opportunity to talk about myself and that, Reader, is something I cannot resist. The meme thing is called "the next big thing" and concerns the piece I'm currently writing. The form of the meme thing is that of questions and answers. Not quite a Socratic dialogue, and I will likely only answer those questions that amuse me. And so, onward.

What is the title of your next book?
Mona in the Desert

Where did the idea come from for the book?
I don't know, really. I had an image bouncing around in my head, of a woman dressed circa 1950, walking down a highway in the American southwest, heading toward some sort of confrontation. While I was working on a project centered around attempting to find the oldest memories I have, the image of this woman presented itself again and I saw that I could combine the search for memories with the tale of this woman in the desert.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
I am not there yet; I've got, I figure, about 10,000 more words to write. If you look in my briefcase, inside the front cover of the spiral notebook in which I'm writing this novel, you'll find a small stack of color-coded index cards. On these cards is the outline for the end of the novel. So I just need to sit down and turn those 12 or so cards into 10,000 words of beautiful prose. A couple of weeks, I guess. I started this project around the end of July.

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?
An aging writer about to leave his wife constructs fictionalized histories of his family members, focusing on the repeated instances of failed relationships; three primary story lines move in parallel over the length of the narrative. Think Finnegans Wake meets Pride and Prejudice. That won't help you imagine my book, but it's still fun to think about.

Monday, December 17, 2012

And there are sword fights

D. G. Myers has written a post about the term "literary fiction" in which he reveals that his students equate that term with "boring books." This of course brings up the whole problem of how people who love "literary" fiction refer to and define the fiction they love. How do we talk about a type of art without naming it?

"Literary fiction" is a term popularized by New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani. We all know that, right? Kakutani was as unsuccessful at defining the term as the rest of the world has been. I'm not going to attempt to define it either, I hope.

However, I might think that Dr Myers' students are onto something with their description of high-quality interpretive fiction (no, that's not a definition) as "boring." They just don't know what they're actually saying. I'm going to claim that the works in question aren't "boring," so much as they are in some way difficult. What's difficult about the works in question is merely that reading and understanding them requires an active reader who is willing to pay attention and examine the ideas put forth in the works, to be willing to work within narratives that differ formally from other narratives they've read, to read books that might defy their expectations as readers. In other words, the difficulty is that there is work--action--required of the reader, rather than passive reading. This can be, for readers not used to the activity, fatiguing, and I claim that particular fatigue is often mistaken for boredom. (This does not rule out the soporific effects of some books.)

I remember thinking, back in my youth, that a lot of the classics looked hard, impenetrable, difficult, etc. And they were, for someone who'd been reading a lot of light fiction and sci-fi. Good art requires effort on the part of the viewer/reader/listener/whomever. The thing is, though, that once a reader gets habituated to this active manner of reading, he sometimes becomes addicted to it and seeks out literature that engages the mind in this and similar ways, and literature that fails to do so becomes, well, boring. So that's that, all settled for everyone, right?

What I really wanted to say about Dr Myers' post but didn't want to clog up his blog with a long and half-thought-out comment, is that as someone who might be writing "literary fiction," I'm never sure how to talk about my own novels. I have two coming out next year, by the way. Buy them both. See sidebar. I digress. If it's impossible to talk about "literary fiction" as a reader, it's doubly impossible to talk about it as a writer (yes, I know, "impossible" isn't a matter of degree; it is or it ain't, and Wittgenstein would mock me for that "doubly"). So I claim.

"What's your book about?" people are asking me. I flail, unsure how to answer. "It's a riff on 'Hamlet,'" I say. "It's got sword fights and a trained bear," I say. "It's an examination of the idea of the cultural worth of geniuses and the worthiness of leader figures," I might add. "It's about a Renaissance astrologer who turns assassin, in Denmark, around Christmas," I tell you, "But it's not a Christmas story." My interlocutor's eyes begin to glaze and they turn up their nose at the perceived stench of Literature. "It's got sword fights," I say. "Buckets of blood, and ghosts, and comedy and sex." So it's historical fiction, they ask? "No, because I'm not really sticking with history. It's sort of alternative historical fiction. It's well-written," I say. "And there are sword fights." No, I don't know how to answer. I vacillate between the adventure-tale aspects of the narrative and the thematic ideas I was working with, and I know I daren't mention Shakespeare because, you know, the glazed eyes and it's not Shakespeare anyway.

But it's not just that book. I have no real way to discuss any of my novels, do I? And then I realize that "literary fiction" is, primarily, a marketing term. People who read and discuss literary fiction never use the term; they just say, "This is a good book. Have you read it yet?" So I'm apparently thinking of my novels in terms of marketing, which is annoying and difficult. Very likely, I write books that will bore some college students. But I'm not trying to pack them full of intellectual vitamins, or to somehow improve the reader. I think they're just cracking good books. But then I think Moby-Dick and Ulysses and The Ambassadors and The Iliad and True History of the Kelly Gang  and Lord of Misrule and The Sun Also Rises and Wise Blood are all cracking good books. I swear I had something interesting to say here today, but that something seems to have flown away while I stepped out for a meeting. Anyway, sword fights and psychic dwarfs and the rejection or acceptance of father figures as limits to one's own personality. How can that bore anyone?

Thursday, December 13, 2012

First sentences

Writers are told many things about first sentences these days, the implication generally being that the first sentence of your novel is the thing that will win or lose a reader (though of course in most of the conversations had with writers, the first sentence is presumed to be the thing that will win or lose an agent or editor, not a reader*).

So, to a writer, the first sentence of a novel is the Big Moment, the Valuable First Impression, the Opening Gambit upon which the fate of the whole game rests, etc. Bollocks, you know, all of it. I have sat here thinking very hard and I've only managed to come up with a half dozen first sentences of novels I've read, and most of those I only remember because I make a point to avoid writing first sentences modeled on them. "It was the best of times; it was the worst of times" is a stupid way to start a novel, you know. "Every happy family is the same, etc" is a statement of theme that Tolstoy should've buried in the end of the second act of that novel, not hit the reader with on the first page. Leo had a bad habit of tipping his hand sometimes.

What I think matters, really, is an arresting image, not a finely-tuned bit of grandiloquence. The opening of Our Mutual Friend is kinetic and mysterious and I vividly recall the scene on the river, though I cannot tell you what the first sentence of the book was. I have no idea. Nobody can tell me what the opening paragraphs of Tale of Two Cities are supposed to mean, because that's just Dickens clearing his throat and playing with pairs of opposites until he wears out his welcome. Which he does.

I can tell you how The Hobbit opens, because that's my sort of first sentence. It gets the job done of starting off the book, and it takes the tone that the author will continue to use for the whole narrative. Nothing fancy from old John, just a bit of exposition: In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Note the lack of immediate conflict, note the lack of action, note the lack of a clear protagonist. "In a hole in the ground there lived a rabbit?" Tolkein then goes on to talk about the hole, not the hobbit.

My own first sentences are prosaic enough:

It snowed again today, the third time this week.

Gustavus had lost a lot of blood.

They'd arrived on the island, as had most of the other guests, only the day before.

"They will hang me tomorrow," the prisoner said.

It was Thursday, and it was David and Violet Molloy's fifteenth wedding anniversary.

I am sick of Hamlet (I wrote to a friend, another novelist).

None of these sentences is the novel-in-miniature, none of them introduces the protagonist nor the primary story question. None of them is fancy nor do any of them attempt to grab the reader by the throat and refuse to let him go. What they do, I hope, is take the first step toward a vivid image that will draw the reader into the narrative. Very little of that image is visible from these bare little sentences.

Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.

Both of those sentences are full of meaning beyond themselves, but that meaning only becomes clear as the novels progress. They are keys to the narrative doors, but they are not the views behind the doors. I don't know where I'm going with all of this. Possibly to suggest--and this is by no means my own idea--that a novelist should simply cut the first paragraph of his latest novel before letting anyone read it, letting the narrative begin at the start of the second paragraph. Chekhov, in his wisdom, suggested doing that very thing (he also suggested cutting the last paragraph as well, and I think that was fine advice).

I remember now: I was thinking about how I've done this very thing with the first paragraph, cutting it and starting the novel a paragraph later. I did this with my upcoming novel The Astrologer when I realized that the paragraph (actually, it was two paragraphs) over which I'd labored long and hard and headachingly was completely unnecessary and most of it was exposition that I repeated a few pages later on, where it really belonged. There was some good stuff in that first paragraph, too: My breath came in clouds of white, as if my own ghost had realized how cold I was and, mistaking me for dead, was taking leave of my body. That's a nice bit of prose. Cut, cut, cut.

*because, yes, agents and editors aren't real readers. They don't read books the way actual people do. I suspect they aren't real people.

Monday, December 10, 2012

"I was old then; I am much older now." A book update

I got initial edits from my publisher this morning for The Astrologer. I'm pleased to report that mostly it was formatting changes, including the addition of a bushel of the hated Oxford commas. But I don't protest; I know that while I despise the serial comma in theory, I don't actually notice it when I'm reading.

It pleases me to realize how much I still like this novel. In the years since writing The Astrologer, I've written three and seven-eighths other books, which means that the novel of mine which will pub in a little over two months is a book that I've forgotten a lot about. I'd forgotten the eels, and I'd forgotten all the blue, and I'd forgotten the narrator's obsessive reportage of the food served at royal banquets. I'd forgotten all manner of little touches I put in just for fun. I'd forgotten how much fun I had with dialogue:

     “I heard a rumor that you were too elderly to maintain your parish, but clearly this is mere slander,” Christian said. “I do not think you have aged a minute since I first laid an eye upon you, Father.”
     “I was old then,” Maltar said. “I am much older now, my lord. I am ancient.”
     “Nonsense, Father. You have a clear eye and a strong voice. I had expected a withered leaf of a man, not a stout oak. You are yet a powerful warrior of Christ.”
     “I am a barrel of lard, you mean.” Maltar put a wounded tone into his voice but he smiled at the prince.
     “You do not waste away and that is an excellent piece of news, Father.”
     “As you insist, my lord.” Maltar raised a hand as if to ward off any further praise. “Tell me, my lord, what do you at St. Ibb’s?”
     “I come to confess.”
     “My lord?”
     “I have joined good Soren’s party out at the old Brahe manor and must take the sacraments here, Father. I am not shriven since going into battle at Copenhagen, and I would confess myself to you, if you will do me the duty.”
     Maltar did not seem to know what to think of this request. He sat on his bench with eyes half closed and shook his heavy head.
     “You recall how to take confession?” Christian prompted him.
     “I do, my lord.” Maltar blinked slowly, an old bear caught hibernating in his den. “Is not the bishop of Copenhagen your confessor, my lord?”
     “He is. The bishop is a most excellent fellow. My mother is fond of him also.”
     “I doubt it nothing.” Maltar turned his face away from the prince. “My lord, I cannot take your confession. The bishop is a nobleman, but I am not. Before I found my calling, I was the son of a journeyman stevedore who worked Elsinore’s wharves. Men such as I, even though we wear cassock and Roman collar, are not fit to be in your confidence. Go to Copenhagen to be shriven, my lord. Or at least to Elsinore. Father Olaf is a gentleman. I am proud to be a peasant and a priest, but I am still a peasant.”
     The old man was talking rubbish. He wanted the crown prince of Denmark to beg him to be his confessor. He would brag about it for years to come.

While I'm certain that I've become a better writer since The Astrologer, I'm also certain that this novel is a book I can still be proud of, a narrative that remains fun and clever even after having read the damned thing scores of times. The symmetrical structure of the narrative still strikes me as a thing of beauty, and the lessons I learned while essentially re-envisioning this story half a dozen times and once rewriting it entirely from scratch, are lessons that have stuck with me, valuable lessons I use every time I pick up a pen. So that's all good news. I won't be ashamed to tell everyone I know on March 1st that it's incumbent upon them to run out and buy a copy of my novel. Because it is. Incumbent. This means you.

Friday, December 7, 2012

The 80% Solution

I have, at this point, written several different beginnings for Chapter 12 of Mona in the Desert, a work-in-progress. I can't quite decide how to continue with the story. The pressure at this point in the drafting process always increases because I am of course terrified that I'm about to ruin the whole thing with a clownish misstep, a sudden misunderstanding of what I'm doing with the book, or a cowardly hiding behind cliche. Or something. Anyway, I keep writing "chapter 12" at the top of a fresh page and beginning again with a different opening gambit. I blame Davin Malasarn, frankly, for egging me on to write my last draft (Go Home, Miss America) without an outline which turned out well enough that I pushed ahead and am now writing Mona without an outline. Which leaves me dangling in space, as it were, unsure where to put my feet next. Damn you, Malasarn.
     I figure I'm about 80% of the way through, which translates into about 10,000 or so more words to write in this first draft. It'll be more short novel than novella, but that's okay, and it'll likely expand a bit more during revisions (slated to begin when? 2014 or so?), but all of that's moot if I can't figure out what chapter 12 is going to be. I am tempted to simply incorporate into the narrative every variant of chapter 12 that I've written (or am writing), giving the reader a succession of abandoned Chapters 12, one after the other. That's an attractive idea sure to annoy prospective agents and editors and even readers, God bless 'em. Which is, of course, all the more reason for me to do it. Which gives me the further idea of going back through the MS and creating variants of other chapters, possibly giving different versions of the story than what's already written. You could have three Chapters 3, or two Chapters 7 and the like. Yes, an intriguing idea.
    Possibly what's missing from Chapter 12 is Olive O'Hurleighy doing the ironing. Yes, that could be it. I'll know more after lunch.
    Current wordcount (I add for my own reference) is 50,669.

     Also, despite all the talk recently about a novel concerning a Wittgensteinian philosopher, a Constance Garnettian translator and a Sylvia Beachesque publisher, I am pretty sure that the next book I write will be the long-awaited Nowhere But North, about an ill-fated American expedition to Antarctica in 1914. I seem to be thinking about that one a lot these days, and making a lot of notes. Surely that's indicative of something, yes?

     Also, also, chapters 3 and 4 of Cervantes' Don Quixote, Book II are clearly prepostmodernist literature (with at least three timelines collapsing impossibly into a single afternoon as the characters discuss reader reception of and continuity errors in the novel Don Quixote, Book I, which, given the lack of a fictional chronological gap between Book I and Book II, has not had--in Cervantes' fictional world--an opportunity to have been written yet), a good 150 years before Laurence Sterne. All of this newfangled experimental literature has always been with us. Everything old is new again, etc.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Wittgenstein versus Pascal (Mona in the Desert, an excerpt)

Roberto leaned against a section of chain link fence, his book open and a cigarette in the corner of his mouth. He looked away from Ernesto even when Ernesto stood close enough that the shadow of his handsome head fell upon the pages of the Confessions. I have not missed your company, Sergeant Grassi. Nonetheless, Ernesto answered, I have come to speak to you. Does it concern the sister of Desdemona O’Hurleighy, Roberto asked. No, Ernesto said. Then I will hear your question, but I cannot guarantee I will answer it. Ernesto rubbed his mustache. It concerns, he said, the sister of Olive O’Hurleighy. And does she have many sisters, Roberto asked. Only one that I am aware of: the one called Desdemona. You know nothing about Desdemona, Roberto said. And as Mr Wittgenstein tells us, whereof you can say nothing, thereof you must be silent. I will tell you nothing, Sergeant Grassi, and you will be silent. Your reaction just now tells me a great deal, Ernesto said. I think I could propose a number of things concerning you and the sister of Olive. Roberto snapped his book shut. You can do no such thing, he said, for you are aware that speaking in the absence of absolute certainty is to speak non-sense, to say nothing. I do not, Ernesto answered, accept Mr Wittgenstein’s claim that provisional awareness is an illusion. Uncertainty is no better than another form of ignorance, Roberto said, and so you must remain silent regarding your inferences about Desdemona. Ernesto smiled. Surely you do not believe this? Mr Wittgenstein makes an elaborate joke of a self-referential semiotic nature, Roberto. He was not in earnest. Had he been sincere, his book would contain nothing but blank pages. If your proposition is true, then you cannot understand me when I tell you that your proposition is false. Preposterous, absurd, Roberto said. Mere air, these words, words, words. You are changing the subject, Ernesto said, and conflating two different plays. Why should I tell you anything, Roberto asked, since I cannot say anything that is not a tautology? Inability to speak absolute uncontradicted truth doesn’t rule out actual knowledge of things, Ernesto said. It only rules out ideal statements about those things. Language doesn’t create the world; the world exists despite our silences. No, Roberto said. Language is existence: in the beginning was the word. Ah, you presume to make true statements about God, do you? Where’s your Mr Wittgenstein now, Roberto? If he’s right, we can’t possibly believe anything we’ve been told about the divine revelation of God’s existence. Roberto nodded. That presents a problem. I am tempted to write to Mr Wittgenstein at Cambridge and put the question to him. He won’t be able to understand your letter, Ernesto said, or so Wittgenstein himself implies. No matter what you write, it will be nonsense. And yet the temptation remains, Roberto said, a slight smile briefly appearing on his face. I confess that I do not enjoy Mr Wittgenstein, Ernesto said. Many of his claims are objectionable. And I tell you in confidence that much of the time I simply cannot understand what he writes about. I become lost in his formulas and my head aches a great deal for hours afterward. He is no poet, Roberto agreed. He consigns to the realm of nonsense all culturally important utterances, such as literature, scripture and the whisperings of lovers. I do not find this sort of philosophy particularly appealing, Ernesto. His denial of causality and subsequent disregard of the ethical ramifications of that are what I find most disquieting, Ernesto said. I could not read beyond the claim that all propositions of logic say the same thing: nothing. This was the case for me as well, Roberto said. The logico-philosophicus is a parody, yes? I much prefer the self-contradictory but genuine philosophical poetry of Pascal. Ernesto raised a cigarette to his lips and Roberto lifted his brass lighter, letting Ernesto lean into the bright flame to puff the cigarette into life. I do not think Mr Wittgenstein would make Pascal’s bet, he said. But not betting, replied his friend, is to wager anyway, as Pascal saw it, yes? Yes, for Mr Wittgenstein says that proposing something in the negative admits the possibility of the affirmative case. I do not think Mr Wittgenstein would say that it is the case that to not wager is in fact to wager. Ah, there I think we must again ask Mr Wittgenstein to clarify his position. I think, Ernesto said after a moment, we can draw an illustrative point from his claim that while tautology and contradiction are without sense, they are however not senseless. What do you suppose he means by that? I have no idea, Roberto said. Nor do I, Ernesto replied. But I think perhaps that Mr Wittgenstein has somehow lost his sense of God, and as Pascal reminds us, a man who has lost his sense of God is capable of seeing it in anything, even in his own destruction. Did Pascal say this? I paraphrase, Ernesto said. But at least he admits the possibility of living with doubt. Indeed, Roberto said, do you know the one about seeing too much to deny and not enough to affirm, putting us all in that pitiful state of wishing Nature would either proclaim God absolutely or erase all signs of Him? It’s as if we are forced to live in a world only half awake. And so we have no choice but to wager, Ernesto said. Though Pascal’s computation of the odds is obscure and doubtful. He works not by arithmetic, but by rhetoric. And Wittgenstein works through arithmetic, Roberto said, not through rhetoric. As Polonius wisely noted, men are so unerringly mad that for them not to be mad would be another type of madness. Ernesto scratched his right cheek. I do not think Polonius said that, he offered. I paraphrase, Roberto said.

--from Chapter 11, Mona in the Desert, a work-in-progress

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

the poor man is incapacitated from showing the virtue of generosity

I have finished the first half (the 1605 book) of Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote. It's a swell novel, and no wonder it's the pride of Spanish literature. You might think it's a picaresque comic novel about a wealthy man who, in his later years, is overcome with delusions that he is a knight errant from the Spanish Middle Ages and sets out to have brave adventures. You'd only be partially right. Don Quixote is in fact a long consideration of the state of Spain on the verge of the Renaissance, examining the tension between a crumbling, ramshackle kingdom where titles are respected above real achievement and a Spain where the money is more and more in the hands of a middle class of merchants and landowners, the peasants just beginning to voice the opinion that perhaps the nobility are less bright and capable than might be thought. It's a book that loves Spain with all its heart but knows the nation's flaws, and possibly Cervantes, who was a professional soldier until his forties and fought in famous battles under the command of famous captains, was mourning a loss of idealism and pride no longer to be found in the Spaniard of his day. When Don Quixote is brought back to his home after the first unsuccessful adventure, the local priest asks him if he isn't aware that he's not really a knight errant, and if he doesn't really know that his brain has been temporarily overwhelmed by a bunch of harmful fiction. The hero's reply?

"I know who I am," replied Don Quixote, "and I know that I may be not only those I have named, but all the Twelve Peers of France and even all the Nine Worthies, since my achievements surpass all that they have done all together and each of them on his own account."

Four hundred or so pages later, after many adventures and humiliations, Quixote is discussing knight errantry and the literature thereof with a canon of the church. The canon has gone on at eloquent length, dismissing Quixote's beloved fables as harmful, empty fantasy. The hero's reply?

"It appears to me, gentle sir, that your worship's discourse is intended to persuade me that there never were any knights-errant in the world, and that all the books of chivalry are false, lying, mischievous and useless to the State, and that I have done wrong in reading them, and worse in believing them, and still worse in imitating them, when I undertook to follow the arduous calling of knight-errantry which they set forth; for you deny that there ever were Amadises of Gaul or of Greece, or any other of the knights of whom the books are full."

"It is all exactly as you state it," said the canon; to which Don Quixote returned, "You also went on to say that books of this kind had done me much harm, inasmuch as they had upset my senses, and shut me up in a cage, and that it would be better for me to reform and change my studies, and read other truer books which would afford more pleasure and instruction."

"Just so," said the canon.

Quixote is not to be convinced, for the literature of knight errantry has given him gifts nowhere else to be found in the Spain he inhabits. Says the hero:

"...since I have been a knight-errant I have become valiant, polite, generous, well-bred, magnanimous, courteous, dauntless, gentle, patient, and have learned to bear hardships, imprisonments, and enchantments; and though it be such a short time since I have seen myself shut up in a cage like a madman, I hope by the might of my arm, if heaven aid me and fortune thwart me not, to see myself king of some kingdom where I may be able to show the gratitude and generosity that dwell in my heart; for by my faith, senor, the poor man is incapacitated from showing the virtue of generosity to anyone, though he may possess it in the highest degree; and gratitude that consists of disposition only is a dead thing, just as faith without works is dead."

Cervantes, of course, shows us how out of place a knight is in 17th-century Spain. Don Quixote's illusions do not have any place in the modern world and he is bound for failure and further humiliation. His adventures are to no purpose: there are no giants to behead, no damsels to rescue, no fair Dulcinea whose heart he might win through his bravery and the might of his right arm. There is nothing for Don Quixote in all of Spain, in all of Europe, except to go back to his business and his property and to put aside his fantastic novels and his fantasies of derring-do. And yet, Cervantes tells us, it is only when our aging middle-class hero believes he is the Knight of the Sad Countenance that he is valiant, polite, generous, well-bred, magnanimous, etc., and the implication is that those Spaniards who surround him, not being knights errant, all lack those qualities. Cervantes' modern Spain lacks those qualities, and the reader of Don Quixote cannot help but sympathize with our poor deluded hero because, we fear, he is right: something has been lost, somehow he is better than those sane folk who surround him, laughing as the fearless knight shatters his ancient lance against windmills.