Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Rereading Monsignor Quixote


It was in 1988 that I read Graham Greene for the first time. And the novel was Monsignor Quixote. I have since read almost all the novels of Greene, but, in 1988, I didn’t quite know what kind of writer Greene was. All the same, I was as fascinated by the “adventures” of Monsignor Quixote, who seemed a modern counterpart of his illustrious ancestor, Don Quixote, in Miguel de Cervantes’s novel of the same name, as I felt stimulated by the food for thought Greene offered in the novel. It was this novel which led me to the other novels of Greene, especially The Power and the Glory, and a couple of biographies of Greene, the most sensational among them being Michael Sheldon’s The Man Within.  It was a pleasure to read Monsignor Quixote again after about a quarter century last week, and I thought I must write about it here.

But, before I write about Monsignor Quixote, let me give an account of what happens in its 407-year-old literary forebear, Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes. Since it was first published in Spanish on January 16, 1605, the book, acclaimed as the world's "first modern novel" and the "first best-seller", has been translated into more than 60 languages.  Throughout these 400-odd years, the novel has been avidly read in different languages by the young and the old alike, and its hero, Don Quixote, "the Knight of the Doleful Countenance", and his little squire, Sancho Panza, have remained two of the most fascinating characters in all fiction.

Misguided by books on knight-errantry, Quixada, a lantern-jawed and lanky Spanish gentleman of about fifty, decides to become a knight-errant.  He clambers into an old, creaky suit of armour.  A barber's bowl serves as a helmet.  A pitiful beast, all skin and bones, which he names Rocinante, is his steed.  The name Quixada will no longer do; he calls himself Don Quixote de La Mancha!  The "knight" is all set to go forth in quest of adventure, righting wrongs and rescuing damsels in distress.

Two things, however, are still missing.  A knight needs a fair lady to be in love.  Quixote soon finds one in a farm-girl to whom he gives the name "Dulcinea del Toboso".  Next, he needs to be knighted.  He achieves it under comic circumstances.  He arrives at an inn, which he imagines is a castle, and attacks a pair of muleteers there.  When he wins that ridiculous battle, the landlord "knights" him to get rid of him. 

On his first "expedition", Don Quixote launches an attack on a group of taunting merchants.  Unfortunately, Rocinante stumbles and falls, leaving the knight to roll away.  The merchants break his lance into several bits and beat him with them. 

After two weeks' rest, the gallant knight sets out on another expedition with a simple yokel called Sancho Panza accompanying him as a squire.  Soon, they come across a number of windmills which Don Quixote imagines are giants.  He charges at them.  But his lance sticks into a spinning sail and he gets hurled across the plain.  Never one to accept defeat, Quixote alleges that an evil spirit which did not want to see his victory has in the last moment changed the giants into windmills!  After several such misadventures, the armoured lunatic and his unquestioning squire return home, battered and bleeding.

Soon, Quixote sets off on yet another expedition – the third and the last.  The entire second part of the novel is devoted to his comic adventures on the third expedition at the end of which Quixada dies – but not before realizing that he is not a knight after all.  Before his death, he bequeaths his estate to his young niece, but adds a word of caution in the will: 'She should marry a man of whom she has first had evidence that he does not even know what books of chivalry are.'

Don Quixote is one of the masterpieces of world literature.  Miguel de Cervantes, the genius who produced this work, is now well-known and honoured all over the world.  But when he died about a decade after the novel had been published, he died in utter poverty and was given a pauper’s funeral.

Now, Graham Greene’s Monsignor Quixote. Set in Spain, the novel recounts the adventures of a humble Roman Catholic priest who, in a characteristic confusion of fact and fiction, believes that he is a descendent of Don Quixote, "the Knight of the Doleful Countenance."

In a comic turn of events, Father Quixote, living in his parish in El Toboso, gets promoted to the rank of Monsignor. This happens thanks to an Italian bishop who, when stranded by the breakdown of his car in El Toboso, has been much impressed by Father Quixote’s ability to fix his car – by simply discovering that the car has run out of petrol!  When the letter of promotion arrives from the Vatican, Father Quixote’s bishop, who has long since dismissed Fr Quixote as nothing short of an idiot, is outraged. At Father Quixote’s request, he grants him leave of absence and sends a young priest, Father Herrera, to replace the old priest in the parish. Monsignor Quixote sets out in the company of the Communist ex-Mayor of El Toboso, whom he calls Sancho, in the former’s old Fiat, which he calls Rocinante after his ancestor’s steed. Also accompany them on this “adventurous” journey are a few cases of the local wine, adequate amounts of cheese and sausage, books like St. Francis de Sales, St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa (which correspond to Don Quixote’s old books of chivalry), a work by Father Heribert Jone on moral theology, which is frequently referred to in the novel in the discussions between the priest and the mayor, and a copy of The Communist Manifesto.

At the very beginning of the journey, there is an interesting argument about the Holy Trinity. Father Quixote attempts to explain it, using the wine bottles they have recently emptied as illustrations.  Before long, he realizes that he has committed the sin of heresy because he allocated two full-sized bottles to the Father and the Son and only a half-bottle to the Holy Spirit!

Greene packs the novel with several "adventures" many of which are reminiscent of those in Cervantes’s novel.  For instance, when the priest and the ex-mayor incur the wrath of Guardia Civil, the mayor compares the state police to the windmills with whom the knight tilted. Similarly, when Father Quixote helps a robber escape the Guardia, the reader is reminded of the Don’s freeing of the galley slaves.

The “adventures” of Monsignor Quixote reach the ears of his bishop who is scandalized by the priest’s association with a known Communist, Father Quixote's run-ins with the Guardia Civil and his stay in a brothel, which the innocent priest thought was a very friendly hotel. The bishop concludes that Father Quixote has gone mad, and arranges for him to be abducted and brought back to El Toboso where he is kept locked in his own room. The mayor, however, comes back and helps him escape (the escape itself is comic: even as the mayor makes desperate attempts to break the door open, the priest simply jumps out through the window!) The rest of the novel is about their escape from El Toboso and their further adventures concluding with the performance of a hallucinatory mass by Father Quixote and his death.

A convert to Catholicism as well as one attracted towards Marxism, Greene, was however, evidently uneasy about the submission to authority both of them (Catholicism and Marxism) demanded and seemed to favour heterodoxy. Some of his so-called Catholic novels – ‘Catholic? Nonsense. Greene was, if anything, anti-Catholic, and so are his novels!’ Sheldon, his biographer, would say  – skirt heresy: the whisky priest finding sin “fascinating” in The Power and the Glory and the apparent sanctioning of Scobie’s suicide in The Heart of the Matter are just two instances.  In an interesting passage in Monsignor Quixote, the mayor who, like Graham Greene himself, cannot resist feminine charm, asks Father Quixote, who is unmoved by women, whether he has never been troubled by sexual desires. ‘Never,’ says the priest. ‘You are a lucky man,’ says the mayor. 'Am I?’ the priest questions himself. ‘Or am I the most unfortunate?  ... How can I pray to resist evil when I am not even tempted? ...’  And he prays: ‘O God, make me human, let me feel temptation. Save me from my indifference.'  In all his novels, Greene shows great understanding of – and sympathy towards – human weakness.

‘A devastating blend of humour and sharp insight,’ said New Statesman when the novel was published in 1982. I couldn’t agree more.

Monsignor Quixote is the last of the fourteen novels I have read during this vacation. The vacation is, alas, coming to an end. Having accepted invitations to run two ELT workshops in the second week of June, I must now brace myself for the task. How I wish I had more time to read fiction!

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Some reflections on little magazines


A little magazine in English, called the little magazine (that's the name of the magazine – in little letters with no capitals!), I came across at the Vijayawada Book Festival in January 2005 made me think about the history of the little magazine movement. I put down in my diary the information I had collected as well as my thoughts on the subject. I chanced upon the notes this morning while looking for something else, and it was a pleasure to read the diary entry seven years after it had been recorded.

The term "little magazine" can be applied to a range of different publications, but it is often used with reference to literary magazines which carry serious writings.  The writings are usually avant-garde and non-commercial and may not be acceptable to mainstream publications either because they deviate from the established moral or aesthetic norms, or because the writers are little known.

The aim of the earliest little magazines published in the late nineteenth century was to establish a literary movement.  In the twentieth century, the little magazine became a fixture in the cultural and political life of several nations, especially, the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Germany.  The first three decades of the century saw two kinds of little magazines – those which laid emphasis on literary and aesthetic form and theory, and left-wing magazines.  To the former belong Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, edited by Harriet Monroe and Ezra Pound; Others, edited by Margaret Anderson; and Dial, edited by Marianne Moore.  The most significant of the proletarian or left-wing magazines was The Masses, published from New York.

The little magazines published since the 1940s have been supported and sustained by writers in academic circles.  Two of the most noteworthy examples are The Kenyon Review, founded by John Crowe Ransom in 1939, and Scrutiny, edited by FR Leavis.

Several famous writers have had their first publication in little magazines.  The list includes T S Eliot, Robert Frost, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, Ernest Hemingway, and James Joyce.  Joyce's Ulysses had its first US printing in The Little Review, after which the magazine was completely broke!

How is the Indian little magazine scene?  In the last quarter of the twentieth century, hundreds of little magazines were being brought out in different languages.  Printed on the cheapest possible paper, on presses run by printer's devils, they were a real eye-sore.  While most of them have disappeared for want of readership, some still survive.  They not only survive but have taken an attractive form, thanks to the institutional support they receive from some publishers.  I have watched with amazement the evolution of Kanaiyazhi, a little magazine in Tamil to which I was a subscriber for two-and-a-half decades and an occasional contributor.  I no longer subscribe to it, having switched my loyalty to two other little magazines, Subhamangala, which was wound up a few years ago when its editor, Komal Swaminathan died, and Kalachuvadu, published from Nagercoil in Tamil Nadu, but Kanaiyazhi is so attractive in its modern avatar that it doesn't look a little magazine at all!

The little magazine I came across at the book festival is very well produced with a variety of engaging features and is edited with great competence by Antara Dev Sen, formerly Senior Editor with the Hindustan Times.