The triumph of the short story

Good things come in small packages, they say. In Spain we say: “lo bueno, si breve, dos veces bueno” the same thinking can be applied to the short story. If you can develop characters and plot in not too many pages instead of hundreds you might have what it takes.

Your end of apprenticeship project in the Middle Ages required you to do a miniature of whatever your craft was; If you were a carpentry apprentice you had to make a tiny piece of furniture. These pieces where far more difficult to make than a regular sized piece. Again, the same goes for short stories. Boiling down a full story to a few pages requires a craftmanship not all writers have.

Short stories are the reason I fell in love with Literature (yes, with capital L). My high school Spanish lit teacher Soledad Sprackling had me reading Borges, and García Márquez. Later on I devoured Poe, Hemingway, Cortázar, Cervantes’ Novelas Ejemplares, Rosario Castellanos, Fuentes, etc. etc.

I recently read back-to-back books of shorts stories and was surprised to see that I have never written about short stories in this blog.

Las guerras perdidas is by Oswaldo Estrada, a dear friend and professor at UNC. Unfortunately, I never took any of his courses since our research interests did not match. Regardless, we became good friends. Last year on a weekend trip to Chapel Hill he even hosted a tapas dinner for me. His bittersweet short stories about loss and pain are beautifully written, his prose is reminiscent of García Márquez “Y aunque te bañes y perfumes, siempre hueles a tristeza.” Estrada’s insight into the human condition is precise, but sweetly narrated, which makes for a wonderful read. Highly recommended, five stars, two thumbs up!

Chilean Benjamín Labatut writes Un verdor terrible (oh yes sorry, both books are in Spanish). Labatut focuses his stories on physicists and chemists, scientists and their discoveries during the first half of the XX C. These are deeply researched stories that mix fiction and history in unknown (to the reader) quantities. It makes for scary but rewarding reading, riveting.

If you like short stories and read Spanish, I recommend both of these books. You are welcome.

Please leave your comments and recommendations below!

Greece again (five years later)

My love for Greece started during my first visit there in 1985. Since then I have returned a few times and enjoyed it every single minute. It is easy for me to remember the last time I went to Greece because it was the Summer right before my father died, 2015. This time was a bit different.

My love for Greece is very much in the Romantic vein, like Lord Byron, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats or Shelley. Maybe even in a philosophical vein like Socrates and Plato, like the Stoics. In Greece you are transported to the origins of our Western civilization, our education, our way of thinking, dare I say, we haven’t even improved that much the concept of Democracy… other than the obvious -although we might even be regressing on that front since it looks like the state of Florida will not allow convicted felons to vote, as if they were not citizens.

The special aspect to this visit was that I arrived by boat! (see previous post). Our first stop was Methoni. This village sits on the farthest South Western corner of the Peloponnese (the mainland) and is therefore a strategic location for anybody passing by. Because of this strategic location, there has been a castle there since Medieval times. During the Venetian expansion they took over the Ionian sea, up to and including Methoni, building or re-building the tower which manages to be strong yet elegant at the same time. Later, the Ottoman Empire took over, and they added their characteristic Byzantine “touch”. Eventually the town and the castle passed hands a few more times as it saw action during the Turkish invasion and World War II. In this fortress in Ottoman times Cervantes was held captive after his participation in the Battle of Lepanto.

Right between the castle walls with its Venetian coat of arms -The winged lion of St. Mark’s- and the beach is the lovely Methoni Beach Hotel, where Efi served us a couple of delicious Gin and Tonics! Since we had swam ashore, we were lucky to find a generous fisherman that gave us a lift to the boat. Even though he was a Barça fan and that he did not like Real Madrid, I am grateful for the lift.

Our next stop was a couple of “fingers” over, the quiet little island of Elafonisos, with a great wild beach at Simos. Unfortunately, we did not have time to explore the shore.

The next day we sailed by the amazing Monemvasia, a massive island plateau with a fortified village. It is reminiscent of the Israeli Masada fortress! But our destination was the island of Spetses. We arrived at the lovely cove of Zogeria, with its obligatory chapel and beach restaurant (what in Spain is called a chiringuito). A short motorboat jump away is the main town of Dapia with its old and new harbor. The village sits -like most Greek island villages- on the slope of the hill. Fortunately, only residents can have cars on the island, but still everybody moves around on dusty old scooters and quads with the occasional golf cart or electric runabouts.

Due to the relative proximity to Athens (there are a few high-speed passenger ferries from Piraeus), Spetses is one of the popular getaway islands for Athenians to weekend. Think Martha’s Vineyard or Nantucket for Bostonians. This influx of well to do Athenians leads to nice restaurants and shops, with the downside being higher prices and some crowding.

The village is well distributed and has all the requirements of a nice Greek town -and then some:

  • A cute shopping street
  • A grand, old-school hotel: the Poseidonion
  • Great fish restaurants on the harbor
  • Coffee shops
  • Old churches
  • A fantastic bar with the biggest collection of Scotch I have ever seen, and old Rock and Roll!
  • It even has a couple of museums, the Spetses museum which chronicles the history of the town and the small but rich Bouboulina museum. This museum in housed in Bouboulina’s grand 19th C house downtown. She was the first woman ever to have been named Admiral for her continued fight for the independence of Greece. If you are in Spetses it is worth the short visit.

On my last day, my dear friend Matthieu came to lunch on his lovely Boston Whaler motorboat and we went to his house on the mainland village of Tolo. The next day, after a nice dinner by the sea, it was time for me to return to Madrid. Just like that, my short visit was over. But I cannot wait to return to my spiritual home.

Sailing

My stints at sailing have been admittedly few and far between. I loved learning to sail during Summer Camp on Lake Geneva. That feeling of freedom, of you and the wind. After that I remember taking out a Hobbie Cat during my honey-moon, going out on my father in law’s lovely motorboat on Lake Winnipesaukee, and going out on friend’s boats once in a while after that. But when a dear friend invited me to crew his sailing boat from Valencia to a Greek island, I jumped at the opportunity.

The boat

The boat

Spain was still easing out of the Coronavirus quarantine restrictions when I took the train to Valencia. The boat was not ready yet, so I spent a week in Valencia, visiting old friends -even an old student, who I was able to see at her Opera recital!, walking about and helping to get the boat ready for sailing. (See previous post)

Skippering

Skippering

Finally, the boat was ready, Manolo our third man jumped abroad, and we sailed out. The crew was super nice Captain Jose, and Manuel, a good friend of his and a solid sailor, which left me as the lowest on the boat’s hierarchy. But those of you who know me know that I am a sucker for a challenge and always open to learning, specially if it is something as fascinating as sailing.

Full moon during night watch

Full moon during night watch

The boat is a 2006 20 mt German built Hanse that the owner has extensively tricked out. It is a beautiful combination of high-tech and old-world. Each of us gets our own en-suite berth. There is an island kitchen, big, flat screen TV, full bar, etc, etc, etc., oh and super-important: a state-of-the-art Nespresso machine!

Taking a break in Mallorca

Taking a break in Mallorca

We sailed out of Valencia on motor power since there was not enough wind to fill the sails. I was surprised to see Ibiza only a few ours out of Valencia. We sailed on, I got the 1:30 to 4:00 am watch, unexpectedly it passed by in a rush as I explored the gorgeous night sky, meditated, and of course did my watch duties: making sure we didn’t crash with anyone, keeping an eye out for icebergs and making use of that Nespresso machine.

Quiet waters

Quiet waters

I awoke as we approached my beloved and very familiar Mallorca. My heart filled with memories of my youth and family. (See previous posts about Mallorca). I waved bye-bye to my favorite island only to face a rough head wind on the crossing to Sardinia. We were under full sail, but we were slamming 3 mt waves with no prospect of stopping any time soon, so we did a 180 and headed back to the shelter of Mallorca. Our resourceful Captain wisely picked a cove right on the South-East corner of the island so we would be ready to head to Sardinia as soon as the wind changed direction. A little down-time from the buffeting wind was welcome, as was a first swim and a quiet dinner.

On course for the Messina Straight

On course for the Messina Straight

The forecast did not change, so we stayed put another day. We hit the beach on an inflatable kayak which would rip a valve as we arrived on the beach. We stayed for a gorgeous local seafood stew lunch “Caldereta” plus a few cocktails to celebrate Manuel’s 50th birthday. The punctured kayak barely got us back to the boat!

Smoking Mount Etna

Smoking Mount Etna

As beautiful as that cove was, we had to get moving. Instead of risking the continued headwinds on the crossing to Sardinia, we decided to go around the North of Sardinia where the winds were much friendlier.

We had nasty headwinds all the way to Sardinia so before crossing the treacherous -but beautiful north shore we stopped for the night in another gorgeous cove. We arrived too late for a swim, but we did enjoy a nice plate of spaghetti al pesto.

Lighthouse through binoculars

Lighthouse through binoculars

The next day we were running low on fuel, so we stopped to refuel and to rest before the long haul to Sicily. During the way I was allowed to steer for the first time. While re-fueling I managed to run ashore to throw out the trash and to the supermarket where I purchased some overpriced ice, bananas, oranges, and strawberries.

The ice was critical for our sunset chill-out sessions where the crew (not the captain) would enjoy a gin-tonic listening to some nice tunes while enjoying the sunset.

Every sunset is beautiful

Every sunset is beautiful

From there we continued sailing for a couple of days to the narrow straight of Messina that separates mainland Italy from Sicily. Coming out of that channel we were welcomed by a great aft wind that pushed us nicely to Riposto, right under smoking Etna volcano! The nice marina folks allowed us to park for a couple of hours after refueling so we could do some grocery shopping. We passed by the pretty and well-balanced town square with its church and town hall, we did our grocery shopping and still had time for a quick cup of espresso before boarding. I had not been to Italy since 2004, so that brief stop was wonderful, and the cup of coffee one of the best I can remember (see previous post).

The full coffee experience in Sicily

The full coffee experience in Sicily

From there it was a straight shot to Greece, where our first stop was Methoni with its Medieval, then Venetian, then Ottoman, then on and on octagonal tower. My dear friend Miguel de Cervantes was held captive there after being captured after the Battle of Lepanto and before being taken to Algiers where he would spend a total of five years.

The Venetian-Ottoman tower in Methoni

The Venetian-Ottoman tower in Methoni

From there we sailed around the Peloponnese stopping again at the amazing isthmus at Simos beach on Elafonisos. Our final day was an easy sail to the charming island of Spetses.

Isola Molara off the coast of Cerdegna

Isola Molara off the coast of Cerdegna

Although I started this adventure quite worried about my lack of “real” sailing skills, my colleagues were patient and amazing, teaching me everything they could about this beautiful craft and art that is sailing. So by journey’s end I was participating actively on all maneuvers!

The crew

The crew

During my pilgrimages on the Camino de Santiago (see previous posts) I have learnt that spending over ten days outdoors in nature naturally resents your mind and soul. This was no different, if anything it was even better as there are fewer distractions on the ocean: just the sound of the wind, the horizon, the stars at night, even dolphins came to swim with us for a while! It was an experience like no other I have ever had, and I hope to do it again soon. Now that it is over, I miss the camaraderie of the boat, the constant reading of the wind, even the night watches!

PS: If you are a sailing aficionado our trip from Valencia to Spetses was about 1300 Nautical miles, about 1500 land miles and about 2400 km…

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

The_Man_Who_Killed_Don_Quixote_poster

One good thing about the Covid-19 lock down is being able to catch up on things you were meaning to do. I will not come up with Differential Calculus like Newton did during the Black Death plague of 1665, but not because I am horrible at math, but because Newton already invented Differential Calculus!

At any rate, I had been wanting to write about a film I saw last year at the Círculo de Bellas Artes, the artsy film theater in Madrid, and I finally found the ticket stub to remind me. If you consider that the film took 29 years to make, a year to write about it is not so bad!

The film is The Man Who Killed Don Quixote by Terry Gilliam. If the name sounds familiar it is because he used to be in Monty Python, remember them? At any rate, the film started filming in 1999, but the lead had a herniated disk on his first day of filming, then the set flooded… So, Gilliam had to duke it out with the insurance, then try to find new financing, then casting, etc. It finally premiered in 2018.

The film is not an adaptation of Don Quixote, it takes the characters and the story and riffs on them to create a brilliant Byzantine, Postmodern, surreal, Baroque work, drenched in Chiaroscuro.

But the plot is not the only asset of the film, the shifting narratives and narrators are accompanied at all times by a great cast led by Adam Driver, Jonathan Pryce, Stellan Skarsgård, and a numerous international cast and crew. The set and locations are straight out of the novel, there is no denying you are in La Mancha, and you can feel it, and smell it, and taste it.

I do recommend the film, with the caveat that it is not for everyone. If you are looking for a logical, linear story, this is not for you, otherwise: enjoy!

Books, books, books

Some of the books I had lying around

Some of the books I had lying around

Locked up at home during the Coronavirus quarantine, I get to read a lot, which got me thinking of books This blog exists because of books. You see, I started this blog to report my Harley-Davidson trip visiting universities across the South for my PhD in Spanish Literature, that is: books. Yes, I am addicted to books. Having said that, I am a slow reader. So, while I enjoy books, I do not devour books like some folks do. Anyway let’s start at the beginning:

My first blurry memories of reading are of Enid Blyton, I guess like millions of children. Fortunately in high school, I had the privilege of being taught by Mrs. Soledad Sprackling. And my mind exploded with what she had me read: Borges, Neruda, Lorca, et al. That was it, I was hooked. In college my super cultured friend Silvia Velez introduced me to Gabriel García Márquez and my mind exploded again! It has been a series of explosions since.

Luckily I can read in Spanish, English and French and find it very frustrating when I cannot read every book in the original language it was written in. In fact, when I was twirling about with the idea of getting my PhD, I wanted to study comparative lit Spanish / Russian, but there was no way I was going to learn that level of Russian in a hurry, so that was the end of that thought. Miguel de Unamuno, one of my literary heroes actually learnt Danish so he could read Kierkegaard, bastard.

Here is a list of some of my favorite books with only number 1 in a clear position – all the rest vary according to the day you ask me:

  1. Miguel de Cervantes – Don Quixote. I have only read it three times, once with the amazing Prof. Louise Cohen. She shared with me her passion for this book, which I have written about in previous posts.
  2. Alexandre Dumas – The Count of Montecristo. Love, adventure, revenge, massive wealth, what’s not to like?
  3. Leo Tolstoy – Anna Karenina / War and Peace / Death of Ivan Ilyich. Tough call on this one…
  4. Ernest Hemingway – For Whom the Bell Tolls or The Old Man and the Sea. It takes a foreigner to describe Spain with such precision. High School is also where I got hooked on Hemingway.
  5. Gabriel García Marquez – Cien Años de Soledad (But really any by him). Of course, nowadays, I keep thinking of Love in the Times of Cholera
  6. Voltaire – Candide. Possibly the best satire ever written?
  7. Miguel de Unamuno – San Manuel Bueno, mártir. Proto-existentialism at its best!
  8. Mikhail Bulgakov – Master and Margarita. Or as the Rollings Stones interpreted it: Sympathy for the Devil
  9. Francisco de Isla – His early works. After all, I am the leading authority on the subject…

Of course, there are many, many more, but I don’t want to bore you, dear reader, any more.

Interestingly, my last read was. The Grace in Dying by Kathleen Dowling Singh which was recommended to me (like so many more) by my dear friend Patxi. It is about the spiritual journey of death, and how the best approach to death is meditation. I started reading it before the massive Covid outbreak and it has helped me digest the numbers in the news. I loved it. My next read, to celebrate the centenary of Benito Perez Galdos’ death will be Trafalgar, about the battle of the same name, not the square in London.

There you have it, some thoughts on reading and my some of my favorite books. Which are yours? What do you recommend? Tell me in the comments!!

That is not one of the editions of Quijote that I have read

That is not one of the editions of Quijote that I have read

Teaching philosophy

Over the fourteen plus years I have been teaching I have been defining my teaching philosophy. Of course, this is always a work in progress as one always takes something from every lesson taught. For now, these are the main brushstrokes of my approach to teaching:

The most important things I know about being a good teacher I learned from being an average pupil. I was never a straight “A” student (until grad school), so effective teachers were particularly important in my schooldays. Going back to school as an adult for my Master’s and PhD piqued my interest in teaching technique, reaffirmed my passion for literature, and inspired me to revisit Cervantes, Tolstoy, Woolf, Dickens, Castellanos, Dante, and so many others with new, more critical eyes.

It took me twenty years in the business world to realize that my true calling in life was teaching. That was over fourteen years ago, and I have not looked back since. Although I recognized my enthusiasm for literature when I read Hemingway and Borges in high school, it took me twenty-two years to learn what I wanted to do for the rest of my life: to return to the classroom as a teacher and to devote myself to work in a field about which I feel so strongly. I am a giver and a communicator; teaching gives meaning to my life.

My life has been marked by a peripatetic lifestyle, moving to New York when I was ten and then to London, Boston, Paris, Bordeaux, Geneva, Lausanne, and so forth to over eleven cities. Cities became my friends. I loved discovering what made each one unique ̶ how they got their personality. I spent my time in museums, cafés, the theater, concerts, operas, ballets, all of which unavoidably infused me with a love for the arts. Sharing my love and knowledge of cities and their cultures soon became a venue to express myself. As a teenager I gave tours of Madrid and London to friends and family, something I continue to do and enjoy, which has led me to show Madrid to British rock bands and even the Monaco Olympic Sailing Team. From there, embracing literature and language and sharing it was an organic next step and one that I pursue and savor on a daily basis. My experience radiates out in class: studying the menu of the Tour d’Argent in Paris, having students learn and perform scenes from the plays we read, watching videos of tango dancers on the streets of Buenos Aires, and of course sharing my love for Don Quixote that led me to name my Harley-Davidson “Rocinante.”

I received my undergraduate degree in business. I specialized in management, the human part; what motivates people? What makes them tick? I used these skills in my first jobs in finance, photography and management before using them to run my own business for ten years, importing and selling industrial machinery in Spain and consulting for European companies wanting to expand into Latin America. But my underlying passion crystallized when I started teaching full-time in 2005. Although I was making a fraction of the money I used to make, I felt much happier and more fulfilled. I had found my true vocation. I was able to apply my many skills developed and honed over the years in and out of the business world.

I had taught English at the Colegio de Huérfanos de la Guardia Civil in Madrid, but that was a part-time volunteering job. My first full-time teaching experience in Boston was in a budget-challenged district where I confronted underperformance and violence. I was assaulted by one of my students, dining room fights were routine, and one of my best students was stabbed to death by her brother. Although I did not realize it at the time, these challenges made me grow and mature –and learn about classroom management. It was a baptism by fire and I was happy to pay my dues and earn my stripes. From there I went to Walnut Hill, an independent upper school in suburban Boston where for five years I cultivated my craft, winning the E.E Ford Award for Exceptional Teaching, and eventually leading the Spanish Department. Seeking a challenge, before pursuing my PhD, I moved to Buckingham, Browne and Nichols, an elite independent school in Cambridge with a rigorous curriculum. Besides teaching at a variety of levels, including a Senior Seminar on Spanish film, I had the privilege of coaching soccer, fencing, and tennis, as well as the opportunity to participate in community service.

At Seacrest Country Day I  continued to hone my craft by collaborating with the Lower School so level IV juniors would teach the Kindergarten students. I continued teaching French, and re-built the Upper School Spanish program from a disarrayed state. I have also coached Girls Varsity Soccer, improving their record of wins per season. In the Spring I also coached Girls Varsity Tennis, with our Third Singles player winning the District Championship.

Besides winning the E.E Ford Award for exceptional teaching at Walnut Hill, at UNC I consistently received superior reviews, even for teaching French. My teaching steadily placed in the highest percentiles for the department. I averaged an 8.47% overall difference over the departmental teaching averages.

Real learning happens from a place of wanting to learn, a place of openness, and vulnerability. Getting the students to that place requires a relationship of trust, understanding and fairness. That is what I build from day one in the classroom. On the first day of class, having memorized all students’ names from the roster photos, I stand by the door and shake hands and greet every student by name. Then we go over the expectations for the class with a fine tooth comb. An old cell phone “planted” with the first student who walks in will fly out the window, thus ensuring that I will not see a phone all semester. After that comes a fine balance of hard work and fun. I show up early to the classroom to chat and play Spanish music videos for the students as they walk into the room and settle down. From coaching I learned the importance of constant drilling of basics. We always go over grammar, driving at it from as many angles as possible to cater to all learning styles. And talking  ̶ everybody talks about what they are going to do over the weekend, and on Mondays everybody talks about what they did. The students are encouraged to make announcements and to keep us posted of important developments in their lives. We talk and talk, about food, restaurants, sports, music. While this paints a “fun and games” picture of my classes, it is used to offset the stiff payload of work packed into the course. My passionate sharing builds an intangible bond between the students and the culture. Being multicultural, I have had to cultivate a strong, effective bridge that conveys my enthusiasm for cultural differences.

As much as we want to implement scientific approaches to language learning and teaching, and to a certain extent we can, the basis of teaching has to come from an organic desire to learn ̶ from curiosity. Our jobs as teachers revolve around making that need happen. The motivated student must be kept motivated, while the unmotivated student has to be inspired to want to learn. That is best done through building a rapport. It will rarely come from a book, or from a lecture, or from technology; it will happen from a relationship.

Homecoming

And so, fourteen years after leaving Spain, I return home to my beloved Madrid. My exile is over. There are two main reasons to explain my homecoming: a personal and a professional:

The first is family. My mom is 85 years old and not getting any younger, health issues start popping up with more and more frequency, her hearing is diminishing. So I decided to be with her. She lives in a big old apartment downtown and it is wonderful to have breakfast with her, help her with the cleaning and maintenance of the apartment and hang out with her throughout the day. My sister lives nearby with her three great kids who are growing up so fast (13, 11 and 7). Last week I went to my nephew’s soccer game and it was marvelous to see him score two goals. My oldest niece and god-daughter is just starting her teenage years and I am happy to be here to support her. As for the little one, the other day she was dropped off at home with an eye infection that kept her away from school, so I took her with me for my coffee and errands and we had a blast!

Just like family there are friends, old friends, real friends, friends that I have missed, friends that listen, that help you, that make you laugh, friends that are not afraid to call you out. And last, but not least, as the great late Robin Williams as psychologist Sean says to Will (Matt Damon) in the awesome Good Will Hunting: “I gotta see about a girl.”

The second and also important reason is a professional one, a pedagogical one. Over the years I have gotten tired of the narrow American definition of success, and of teaching in schools that thrive and endorse this way of life implicitly and explicitly. I have been fortunate to teach at schools like Seacrest and Walnut Hill, where the emphasis was much more on the humanistic development of the child. Even “pressure cooker” schools like Buckingham Browne and Nichols in Boston had a solid notion of a quality of life not necessarily related to money or the rat race. I believe that everybody in a school, (and in any community for that matter) students and teachers, benefit from playing, from hanging out, from conversation. Maybe as I get older I value quiet, and time, I believe in the beauty of conversation, of enjoying a chat and a coffee. We have the scientific evidence that happiness is not based on your SAT scores.

So I grabbed my bag and came home.

 

 

Don Quixote’s influence on Existentialist philosophy

This has taken me a couple of years to bring to the Interweb. The idea of publishing my thoughts in an academic journal kept me from using my own blog as a platform. Now that I have some distance from the ivory tower that is academia, I feel liberated enough to use this humble vehicle to say my thoughts.

The idea is quite simple: The Danish philosopher Kierkegaard (1813-1855), who comes up with the idea of existentialism, even if not in those words – he is known as the grandfather of existentialism –, was a fan of Cervantes’ Don Quixote, writing extensively about him. Kierkegaard influenced many of the philosophers who came after him: Friedrich Nietzsche, Miguel de Unamuno, Martin Heidegger, José Ortega y Gasset, and eventually Jean Paul Sartre (although it would be fairer to say Simone de Beauvoir) who finally came up with a formal theory of existentialism. Unamuno relied heavily on Kierkegaard and on Don Quixote to form his theories.

In 1605 Cervantes creates a man who decides to live life by his own rules. Bored with his bourgeois life, he becomes a knight in somewhat shining armor. Don Quixote is a celebration of free will with all the beauty and issues that that carries. Therefore Don Quixote is the great-grandfather of existentialism. As you will be able to see from the bibliography, remarkably little, if anything has been written about this topic.

This is my Master’s thesis which I wrote in 2008 at Simmons College in Boston, for the great professor Louise Cohen. It has not been peer-reviewed, which is not to say that this paper is any good, it is not. If you have read any of my work on this blog before, you know I write like a horse’s ass. So read at your own discretion. Oh, haha, FYI it’s in Spanish.

el-existencialismo-en-el-quijote

Don Quijote, 400 anniversary of Cervantes’ death, and conference panel time management

April 23rd marked the 400 anniversary of Cervantes’ death. UNC had two great events to celebrate, and as a Cervantes and Quixote fan I am very happy and proud to have participated in both.

The 22nd Annual Carolina Conference for Romance Studies hosted the “I Am Quixote Festival” panel… and I was asked to be the chair! Needless to say, I was thrilled to be asked and I jumped at the opportunity.

Given the importance of this 400 anniversary the conference room was packed, and the panel was filmed. The panelists were Alexandra Veronica Combs from UNC-Wilmington who presented on “The Heroines of the Quixote who Challenged Narrative Structures”, our own Colleen McAlister, who presented on “Violence and Fame in the Quijote: Corporeal Manifestations of the Search for Identity”, and finally, University of Texas at San Antonio professor Santiago Daydí-Tolson, presenting on “The Contrasting Diets of Don Quixote and Sancho”. They were all awesome and great sports to boot. I must confess I was as proud as a schoolboy when my Dissertation Director, Irene, came to the event. In case things got out of hand, I picked up a copy of the Riquer edition of the Quijote.

One of the main responsibilities of a panel chair is keeping the panelists from exceeding the time limits. This is always a delicate matter that can – if the panelist ignores the time limits – result in awkward situations. The problem is that it is also difficult for the chair to elegantly interrupt the panelist to let them know that they are running long. Of course part of the problem with this is the culture of these events where the panelists just sit there and read their papers, it would be much more interesting and fun if they just talked about their research! But that is not something I am going to change regardless of how wildly popular my blog is. I thought long and hard about how I was going to deal with my panelists if they ran long. The solution came from football (soccer if you are American). I bought a yellow and a red piece of paper and cut them down to card size. The first warning when the panelist was approaching the time limit I would slide the yellow card under their noses, sorry, eyes. If they still kept going, We would pull the red card, just like in football!! Fortunately, or unfortunately my panelists stayed well within their allotted time and I didn’t have to use my revolutionary new technique.

The second event was a marathon reading of Don Quixote. For this event my whole class signed up to read (ok, I bribed them with a free class period – but it was well worth it – and they all read in Spanish, in front of an audience). You can see them all read on the attached video, my bit is at 5:08:50. For this event I sourced a real suit of armor from a great theater costume shop in Raleigh and wore bits and pieces as Don Quixote, it was a great way to promote the event and it was a lot fun. As luck would have it I read the hilarious bit where Sancho is tossed in a blanket at an inn while his master looks on from outside the inn’s wall. I was – as I always am – reminded of how funny, brilliant, clever and well written this book is, and how fresh it remains at 400 years old.

Now, if you have not done so already, go read Don Quixote, the first modern novel, it makes a great summer read, extra points if you read it in Spanish.

Don Quixote Marathon reading at UNC

The 18th Century as literary hinge

When I “discovered” 18th Century Spanish literature, something that really struck me was what a critical element it was in the history of literature and how little credit it gets. The 18th Century is a literary hinge in the evolution of literature. While it can be argued that every century, or era, is a “hinge” era, a time between times, the 18th Century exercises as a flexing point in what has been called the pendulum of literary movements. Being the philistine that I am, I can only use Spanish literature for my example:

The ilustrados (18th C educated Spaniards), whether they liked it or not, were actually building on the shoulders of the Baroque, with its chiaroscuro and trompe l’oeil, which they hated. This, in turn, was a reaction to the Renaissance which was short lived in Spain in favor of the more mysterious and why not, fun, Baroque, more suited to the Spanish temperament (perpetuating stereotypes, the Spanish are a Baroque people. Disagree? Go watch an Almodovar film). For the Spanish literati, the solution to what they considered centuries of muddle was to build a one way bridge to the classic ancient Greeks and Romans as Luzán proposed in his Poética (1737). As much as the Enlightened writers wanted to, they could not get there without the rich legacy of medieval letters and art and everything that followed. For example, my man, Padre Isla (1703-1781), a precursor to the ilustrados, indeed goes back to the ancients, but he also relies heavily on St. Bonaventure, St. Thomas Aquinas, and especially Cervantes and Quevedo, creating his narrative from a blend of centuries of letters. Consciously or not these are the foundations the 18th Century had to build on.

On the other hand the Enlightenment’s obsession with societal good which even led to the elimination of the novel in Spain due to its reliance on the first person singular, is the launching pad for the Romantic movement where that “I” is all important. Equally, the Enlightened enthusiasm for scientific enumeration led to the naturalists. The reaction to those developments will be realism, modernism and postmodernism.

In big bold brushstrokes there are the Classics, Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque eras leading up to the Enlightenment, and the Romantic, Naturalist, Realist, Modernist and Postmodernism after it. How do I then explain the fact that my sides, arms or rays of my angle are lopsided? Well it must be taken into account that both the Classical and Medieval periods encompass centuries, while the last big three movements occurred within the 20th C. due to the advances in communications and technology, so just counting movements is not the same as considering the influence and repercussion of  those movements. This of course is taking into account all the differences in labeling periods and movements. No style is 100% unique, as one genre blends into another.

Thus, a solid grasp of 18th Century literature opens up an understanding to what happened before and after on the literary continuum. From a teaching standpoint, understanding the enlightenment offers the key to the past as well as to the future of literary history.

P.S.: When I explained this idea to my thesis director during one of our coffees, she liked it so much she took a picture!