Academic journal article Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America

Don Quijote and Lolita Revisited

Academic journal article Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America

Don Quijote and Lolita Revisited

Article excerpt

I remember with delight tearing apart Don Quixote, a cruel and crude old book, before six hundred students in Memorial Hall, much to the horror and embarrassment of some of my more conservative colleagues.


AS THE SMOKE AND conference halls clear follow-ing celebrations of the 400th anniversary of Don Quijote (Part I) and the 50th of Lolita, a reconsideration of Nabokov's infamous pronouncements on Cervantes is in order. Much has already been done to set the record straight. Hispanists have rightly pointed out that Nabokov's Lectures on Don Quixote is a somewhat dubious piece of literary criticism (Close, Kunce, Marquez Villanueva); Milan Kundera persuasively suggested how Nabokov misunderstood Cervantes' humor (Kundera 59-61); Robert Alter, Michael Wood, and others have discussed similarities between Lolita and Don Quijote. Yet the links between these two masterpieces--the titles of which regularly appear in close proximity on the fashionable "top ten lists"--have by no means been exhausted.

Nabokovians, who have tended to focus primarily on the French, Russian, and English-language references in Lolita, could benefit from a more thorough consideration of Don Quijote. (2) And cervantistas have more to gain than a vindication of our dear novel, so sensationally maligned in Nabokov's lectures. A look at Lolita's self-reflexiveness, deployment of parody, and representation of games and play affords a useful perspective from which to reconsider some of the critical debates surrounding Don Quijote, particularly the occasionally misleading assumptions behind the "romantic" vs. "hard school" controversy. If I commit the sin of anachronism by drawing Don Quijote into a modern conceptual framework, recklessly disregarding its Counter-Reformation context, I am also guilty of attempting to demote Lolita as a paragon of postmodern allusion and mirror-play.

Nabokov's near-categorical denial of influence on his own work certainly merits skepticism, and Hispanists are entitled to their righteous indignation at his Lectures on Don Quixote. But Catherine Kunce distorted the issue by asserting, in this ,journal, that "Nabokov is really an imitator [of Cervantes]" (103). Kunce's many insightful observations regarding character, theme, and narrative strategy in Don Quijote and Lolita would benefit from a more nuanced approach to the complicated question of influence. Nabokov himself comments: "The only matter in which Cervantes and Shakespeare are equals is the matter of influence, of spiritual irrigation--I have in view the long shadow cast upon receptive posterity of a created image which may continue to live independently from the book itself" (Lectures 8). This "long shadow" represents influence in a very general sense, what Nicholas Round terms "availability" in contrast to the more direct and intentional mining of "appropriation." Archetypes such as Falstaff and Don Quijote, or techniques of narrative self-reflection become so generally familiar that a particular author need not have even read the original work to be within its range of influence. Alter, for whom the two novelists form the bookends of his study of the self-conscious novel, provided one of the most substantial discussions of Cervantes' "availability" to Nabokov. (3) The representation of fictitious "found manuscripts" and editors who ponder their meanings is just one example of how both novelists unremittingly interrogate the nature of story-telling in the very act of telling the stories. As Alter made clear, even though Cervantes looms smilingly behind such practices, there were many other sources from which Nabokov might have drawn--including his own very idiosyncratic earlier works. Michael Wood has entertainingly argued that, notwithstanding the modern master's celebrated involutions, Cervantes' self-reflexive narrating in certain respects is actually more radical than Nabokov's. (4)

The following pages are concerned with how Don Quijote's influence on Lolita involves both availability and direct appropriation. …

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