The democracy of Don Quixote

Issue 135 , June 2007
The democracy of Don Quixote
by Jonathan Rée
Novelists have always turned their hands to essays, and the essay-writing novelist remains a literary force to be reckoned with. The two forms share an inherent pluralism and scepticism that makes them natural allies of democracy
Jonathan Rée is a freelance historian and philosopher

In or around 1605, European literature changed. No one realised it at the time, but when Don Quixote set off to save the world, a new kind of writing was born. The old forms of storytelling—the epic, the romance, the oral tale—would from now on be pitted against a boisterous young rival. Before long it would be universally acknowledged that a reader hoping to enjoy a good story must be in search of a novel.

The novelty of the novel is of course connected with the rise of printing, and the growth of a literate public with time and money to spare. Beyond that, the sheer scale of the form allows storylines to be extended and multiplied as never before, crossing and re-crossing each other with ample scope for coincidence, surprise and contingency, and hence for the depiction of characters with whom, as William Hazlitt put it, the reader can "identify." But the most momentous way in which novels distinguish themselves from other kinds of storytelling is that they give a central role to a supernumerary character—the narrator—whose task is to transmit the story to us. All kinds of stories invite us to imagine the characters they portray, and involve ourselves in their fortunes and their follies; but to engage with novels we need to go one step further and imagine the people telling the story, or even identify with them.

The art of reading a novel involves a dash of experiment, conjecture, even risk. It requires readers to try out different narrative perspectives, styles, even personalities, and so to explore the inherent variousness of experience, and to recognise the vein of arbitrariness that runs through any possible version of events. Novels, in short, are implicitly pluralistic. In this respect they resemble essays, which, as it happens, came into existence at more or less the same time (Montaigne launched the form in 1580, with Bacon following in 1597). Essays tend to be classier, more learned and more demanding—there is no essayistic equivalent of the "popular novel"—and even when written in a perfectly casual style, they are likely to be strewn with half-concealed quotations or allusions to flatter or perhaps annoy the smarter class of reader. As exercises in hesitation, exploration and experimental self-multiplication, they are like novels, only more so. You might even say that the novel aspires to the condition of the essay, and there is certainly no shortage of novelists who have aspired to be essayists too. Think of Eliot or Henry James, Woolf, Forster or Orwell, or Mann, Sartre, De Beauvoir, Camus and Mary McCarthy. And as the four recently published books now lying open on my kitchen table demonstrate, the essay-writing novelist is still a literary force to be reckoned with.

In his luminous new collection, The Curtain (Faber & Faber), Milan Kundera argues that the special virtue of the novel lies in its ability to part the "magic curtain, woven of legends" that hangs between us and the ordinary world. The curtain has been put there to cover up the trivia of our lives, the forgotten old boxes and bags where "an enigma remains an enigma" while ugliness flirts with beauty, and reason courts the absurd. These neglected spaces were redeemed for literature, according to Kundera, at the moment when Cervantes got his readers to imagine Don Quixote as he lay dying while his niece went on eating, the housekeeper went on drinking and Sancho Panza went on being "of good cheer." By inventing a narrator through whose consciousness such dumb events could be worked up into an affecting "scene," Cervantes created a form of literature that could do justice to "modest sentiments"; and so a new kind of beauty—Kundera calls it "prosaic beauty"—was born. Henry Fielding took the technique further when he created a narrator who could charm his readers with benign loquacity, and Laurence Sterne completed the development by blithely allowing the story of Tristram Shandy to be ruined by the character trying to recount it.

If Cervantes rent the curtain that separates us from the prose of ordinary life, Kafka tore it down completely. After Kafka, according to Kundera, the novel entered a realm where reality could never "correspond to people's idea of it"; from now on the novel would be a constant witness to the "unavoidable relativism of human truths."

Kundera suggests that no one can become a novelist who has not passed through a long night of lyrical self-absorption to emerge on the other side in a state of bewildered, uncertain enlightenment. Novelists are specialists in the kind of moral wisdom which knows "that nobody is the person he thinks he is, that this misapprehension is universal, elementary, and that it casts on people… the soft gleam of the comical." And this gentle scepticism has political implications too, as Kundera notes when he recalls the "Manicheism" that deformed his native Czechoslovakia when he was a student in Prague after the second world war. Politics at that time was not a forum where perplexed citizens could engage in a collective search for freedom and happiness, or truth and reconciliation, but a battlefield where militant partisans would try to vindicate their correct views about everything and punish anyone who saw things differently. Kundera joined the Communist party, where he was taught that art must take sides in a historic "battle between good and evil," but he was never quite convinced. (In 1950 he was expelled from the party for his obtuseness, but eventually gained readmission, only to be expelled a second time in 1970, after which he escaped to France and set about rebuilding his literary life in a second language.) "Art is not a village band marching dutifully at History's heels," Kundera now says, and politics itself will suffocate without access to the forgiving fluidity of the novel. "The novel alone," as he puts it, "could reveal the immense, mysterious power of the pointless."

Jm Coetzee approaches politics with a similar combination of irony, seriousness and principled reticence. His political attitudes may be connected with the difficulties of being a liberal white South African, but they have their intellectual origins in his prodigious work as a novelist. His latest collection of essays, Inner Workings (Harvill Secker), keeps returning to the question of "the novel form," and how Cervantes created it in order to demonstrate the power of the imagination. One of the great virtues of the novel, according to Coetzee, is to teach us that there is no perfect way of carving up the world or recounting its stories. This is a lesson that bears on politics as well, counting against any political aspiration that arises from nationality, identity or tribal loyalty.

But Coetzee does not confine his attention to novelists, and an outstanding essay on Walt Whitman allows him to explore a conception of democracy that he himself would evidently endorse: democratic politics, he suggests, is "not one of the superficial inventions of human reason but an aspect of the ever-developing human spirit, rooted in eros." Those who make a fetish out of politics, he implies, are in danger of foreclosing on democracy. Take Walter Benjamin, for example. Coetzee, refusing to treat him with the awed indulgence that has become customary, contends that when Benjamin decided to become a good communist, it was not through an imaginative appraisal of political options, but was simply "an act of choosing sides, morally and historically, against the bourgeoisie and his own bourgeois origins." And if there was something silly and unconvincing about Benjamin's Marxism—"something forced about it, something merely reactive"—it could perhaps be attributed to a certain literary narcissism. "As a writer, Benjamin had no gift for evoking other people," Coetzee says; he had "no talent as a storyteller," and no capacity for the kind of compassionate intelligence implicit in the art of the novel. In a perverse attempt to opt for political realism rather than literary imagination, Benjamin managed to cut himself off from both.

Susan Sontag would have agreed with Coetzee about the political significance of literature. The novel, as she remarks in her last, posthumous collection At the Same Time (Hamish Hamilton), exists to recall us to a sense of the interminable diversity that is the basis of what she calls "politics, the politics of democracy." In a substantial essay on Victor Serge, she praises him for having combined political militancy with a serious engagement with the art of writing. As a mature novelist, she says, Serge was able to deploy "several different conceptions of how to narrate," elaborating a capacious "I" as a device for "giving voice to others." It was through his narratorial doubles that he liberated himself from what he called the "former beautiful simplicity" of the fight between capitalism and socialism, so as to produce books that were "better, wiser, more important than the person who wrote them."

Sontag herself never found it easy to reconcile the languorous pleasures of imaginative writing with her impulse to political plain speaking. "The wisdom of literature is quite antithetical to having opinions," she said, and "a writer ought not to be an opinion-machine." But she remained an irrepressible opinionator, and in At the Same Time—which contains much that she might have revised if death had not intervened—she sometimes lurches into monologues, adopting an unappealing tone of dogmatism, petulance, hyperbole and egocentricity. She finds it hard to talk about writers without telling us who is or is not "great" or "supremely great," as if world literature were a competitive sport, and she the ultimate umpire. And her fury at the condition of the US—she speaks of a "culture of shamelessness," marked by an "increasing acceptance of brutality" in which politics has been obliterated and "replaced by psychotherapy"—seems to have made her forget her own better self, and her neat summation of the wisdom of the novel: the generous knowledge that whatever may be happening, "something else is always going on."

Kundera, Coetzee and Sontag are, one feels, the kind of writers who might have steered clear of politics if they had not had it thrust upon them; but Mario Vargas Llosa has, on at least one occasion, gone out of his way to achieve political power. He won literary fame in the early 1960s and pursued a charmed career as a writer not only in his native Peru, but also in Britain, Spain and the US. But in 1990 he took a vacation from literature in order to campaign for the presidency of Peru. He came quite close to winning—some say he would have done if his work as a novelist had not been held against him—and if he had done, Peru might have enjoyed an experiment in pluralistic centre-right liberalism instead of the disastrous ten-year kleptocracy of Alberto Fujimori. After his defeat, Vargas Llosa returned with relief to his old preoccupations, and in Touchstones (Faber & Faber), his new collection of miscellaneous writings, he elaborates on the case for the political relevance of the novel.

The longest item in Touchstones is a piece of reportage rather than an essay: an account by Vargas Llosa of an extended visit to Iraq in 2003, chronicling his reluctant conversion from visceral opposition to the western invasion to firm if wary support. He was well aware that thousands of Iraqis were dying, and many coalition soldiers as well, and that the deaths were bound to continue for years; but politics is about comparisons, and he is persuaded that the death rate under the occupation is considerably lower than under the old regime. Beyond that, apart from a scary encounter with an enraged imam, he kept encountering an elated sense of freedom that was more than merely political. "As novelists know very well," he says, "fantasies generate realities," and in Iraq he sensed a gradual awakening from the paranoid fictions that flourish under a dictatorship.

Vargas Llosa's optimism about Iraq may seem excessive, but it is bound up with a subtle understanding of the political responsibility of the novelist. He writes admiringly, for example, about Isak Dinesen; she claimed that she had no interest at all in "social questions," but Vargas Llosa finds more political vitality on every page of her Gothic Tales than in any old-fashioned "literature of commitment," which, as he puts it, "revolved maniacally around realist descriptions." He traces the same kind of practical fertility in a vast range of 20th-century novelists, from Conrad, Mann, Woolf, Orwell and Hemingway to Henry Miller, Camus, Grass, Nabokov and Borges. A society that ignores imaginative literature, he argues, is liable to succumb to the bovine complacencies and populist idiocies of nationalism, and so to degenerate into "something like a sectarian cult."

Vargas Llosa's prose is sometimes slow-paced, but it speeds up when he reflects on the "collectivist ideology" of nationality. "There are no nations," he says, at least not in a way that could "define individuals through their belonging to a human conglomerate marked out as different from others by certain characteristics such as race, language and religion." For Vargas Llosa, nationalism is always "a lie," but its rebuttal is to be found not so much in high-toned internationalist universalism as in the dissociative particularities of literature, and especially in a well-narrated novel. The novel, he thinks, articulates a basic human desire—the desire to be "many people, as many as it would take to assuage the burning desires that possess us." Alternatively, it stands for a basic human right—the right not to be the same as oneself, let alone the same as other people. And the defiant history of democracy began not in politics but in literature, when Cervantes first tackled "the problem of the narrator," or the question of who gets to tell the story. No doubt about it: Don Quixote is "a 21st-century novel."

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