During the first weeks of April in 1605, an impoverished and addled Spanish nobleman set out on horseback in pursuit of the kinds of adventures he had read about in chivalric romances.
In the intervening 400 years, generations of readers have encountered the poor fellow and his faithful companion, Sancho Panza, be it in the pages of “Don Quixote” or on the stage or screen.
In honor of Quixote’s enduring appeal, in April UCLA is hosting a monthlong celebration of Miguel de Cer-vantes’ self-styled knight who teaches each new generation to dream the impossible dream.
UCLA is a natural place to hold such a celebration, given that its Department of Spanish and Portuguese has for more than 50 years required Spanish majors to read the novel, which is an unusually rigorous requirement for undergraduates, department officials said.
But the enduring appeal of “Don Quixote,” said to be the second most popular book ever published (behind the Bible), remains something of a mystery.
After all, the two-part, 126-chapter behemoth is written in the Spanish equivalent of Elizabethan English.
Of course, it helps to have been first, points out John Dagenais, department chair.
“‘Don Quixote is the beginning of the modern novel,’” Dagenais said. “The great European writers of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, major U.S. authors like Haw-thorne, Melville, as well as Latin American novelists like García Márquez all learned to write by reading ‘Don Quix-ote.’”
To this day, such contemporary writers as Philip Roth, John Irving, Kurt Vonnegut, and Larry McMurtry profess a debt to “Quixote,” said Carroll Johnson, a Spanish professor and leading Cer-vantes expert.
“Quixote” also marks the beginning of a beloved genre: the buddy-road story, Johnson said. Literary theorists see variants on the relationship between the touched but inspired Quixote and simple but grounded Panza in fictional friendships in “Huckleberry Finn,” “Last of the Mohicans” and even “Midnight Cowboy.”
Because Cervantes was writing during the time of Spain’s draconian Inquisition, his masterpiece also blazed a path for satirical novels and other works of fiction read more for their subtext than their face value, said Johnson, who is organizing the April 7-9 scholarly conference and delivering the April 26 public lecture.
The story’s resulting ambiguity has undoubtedly promoted a tendency for every generation to find new meaning in the book. In the last 50 years alone, existentialists, Marxists, psychoanalysts, Kabbalists, Sufis and scholars in multicultural studies number among the many who have seen their reflection in “Don Quixote.”
“I think there are only a few books that lend themselves to so many interpretations,” Johnson said. “People talk about Cervantes in the same breath as Shakespeare because both had incredibly powerful intuitions about humanity.”
The novel has even cast a long shadow over the arts. Enrique Rodriguez Cepeda, another UCLA Spanish professor and Cervantes scholar, contends that Quixote is the most frequently depicted literary character.
“He’s a major international icon,” Cepeda said.
Cepeda should know. He has spent the past 35 years collecting Quixote memorabilia, which graces exhibits being mounted at Powell Library and Young Research Library in connection with Month of La Mancha.
But if “Quixote” has served as a muse, the novel has also turned into a blind alley for more than one obsessed fan. Filmmakers Orson Welles and Terry Gilliam famously devoted years to unsuccessful attempts to bring the novel to the screen, as a film event planned for April 29 will explore.
“It does suck you in after a while,” Johnson said.
For a complete list of month long events vist the UCLA Quixote web page at: http://www.college.ucla.edu/lamancha.