From: Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America 8.1 (1988): 47-53.
Copyright © 1988, The Cervantes Society of America


Cervantine Echoes in Early Pynchon


THE RECENTLY PUBLISHED collection Slow Learner: Early Stories1 has renewed interest in Thomas Pynchon's earliest fiction. “Low-lands,” written while the novelist was an undergraduate at Cornell University2 and first published in New World Writing 16 (1960), is “an explicit parody”3 of T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, according to Joseph W. Slade. There is, however, another possible important influence: the writings of Cervantes, in particular Don Quixote de la Mancha. Pynchon studied with Vladimir Nabokov at Cornell; in the second semester of the academic year 1951-1952, Nabokov delivered his famous Don Quixote lectures at Harvard. Although Fredson Bowers states that “No evidence is preserved to show that the Cervantes lectures were given later at Cornell on Nabokov's return,”4 the Russian novelist and critic might

     1 Thomas Pynchon (Boston-Toronto: Little, Brown and Company, 1984). It is an amusing detail that a very minor character among the hundreds of characters in Pynchon's huge novel Gravity's Rainbow (1973) is named Howard (“Slow”) Lerner (New York: Bantam, 1976: 747).
     2 Mathew Winston, “The Quest for Pynchon,” Mindful Pleasures: Essays on Thomas Pynchon, ed. George Levine and David Levernez (Boston-Toronto: Little, Brown and Company, 1976) 258.
     3 Joseph W. Slade, “‘Entropy’ and Other Calamities,” Pynchon: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Edward Mendelson (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1978) 73.
     4 Fredson Bowers, Editor's Preface, Lectures on Don Quixote by Vladimir Nabokov, viii.



well have included references to the Spanish masterpiece in his Cornell courses. In any case, Pynchon, whose writings reveal his voracious reading, has shown an interest in Hispanic literature throughout his stories and his novels.5
     In this study, I shall discuss the possibility of the influence, in Nabokov's words the “spiritual irrigation,”6 of Cervantes upon the haunting story written by the twenty-two-year-old Pynchon. The Waste Land, of course, remains a primary influence.
     In his extremely interesting Introduction to Slow Learner, the mature Pynchon (born in 1937) writes as follows: “In a way this is more of a character sketch than a story . . .  Oddly enough, I had not intended this to be Dennis's story at all —he was supposed to have been a straight man for Pig Bodine” (9-10). Dennis Flange, Pynchon's protagonist, is an unhappily married former “competent [naval] communications officer” (“Low-lands” 62), who is quite unceremoniously thrown out of his house by his practical wife Cindy because of his poor choice of friends and lack of interest in his job. Dennis then stays overnight at the town dump with some of his unsavory friends; there he meets the beautiful gypsy midget Nerissa, with whom he decides to stay “for a while, at least” (77). As is the case with Don Quixote, the character of Flange dominates the loose plot; as Pynchon comments, “his fantasies become increasingly vivid, that's about all that happens” (Introduction 10). Slade considers Flange “The traveler of the waste land, a mockery of the protagonist of Eliot's poem . . .” (74). He is also a most quixotic character.
     Don Quixote, of course, was a bearded man around fifty years old (“Frisaba la edad de nuestro hidalgo con los cincuenta años . . .”7), tall in contrast to his plump squire, Sancho Panza. Flange is a tall (72) man showing “the current signs of incipient middle age” (60); as he

     5 Pynchon's interest in Hispanic literature has been studied previously —e.g. Peter L. Hays and Robert Redfield, “Pynchon's Spanish Source for ‘Entropy,’” Studies in Short Fiction 16 (1979) 327-334. I am currently working on a book-length study of Pynchon's “Hispanic Connection,” an interest of mine reflected in my article “Fateful Labyrinths: La vida es sueño and The Crying of Lot 49” (The Comparatist 7 [1983]: 57-74).
     6 Vladimir Nabokov uses the expression “spiritual irrigation” to refer to the tremendous influence of Don Quixote upon later writers (Lectures on Don Quixote [San Diego-New York-London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers, 1983] 8).
     7 Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quijote de la Mancha, ed. Martín de Riquer (Barcelona: Editorial Juventud, 1966) I, 1, 36.

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leaves his house for the dump, his last words to his wife are that he will now “grow a beard” (60). Like Don Quixote, Flange is dominated by a romantic obsession, not indeed books of chivalry but the sea, which he transforms into his Dulcinea: “He had read or heard somewhere in his pre-adolescence that the sea was a woman, and the metaphor had enslaved him and largely determined what he became from that moment” (58-59). Like Don Quixote, Flange takes refuge in a world of fantasy, fleeing from the “relentless rationality” (58) of his wife as Alonso Quijano had fled from the “curate's and the housekeeper's so-called common sense” (Nabokov 43). Don Quixote loved the old Spanish ballads and the books of chivalry; Flange loves Noel Coward songs and sea-ballads, such as the ballad sung during his navy days by the Filipino steward Delgado which contains the lines: “Oh, I fear she will be taken by a Spanish Gal-la-lee / As she sails by the Low-lands low” (65). Both men learn through bitter experience that there is a difference between art and reality. On his deathbed Don Quixote recants and repudiates his beloved books: “Ya soy enemigo de Amadís de Gaula . . . ya me son odiosas todas las historias profanas del andante caballería . . .” (II, 74, 1064); Dennis once sang Noel Coward songs to his new wife, but “Noel Coward songs often bear little relevance to reality —if Flange hadn't known this before, he soon found it out . . .” (57 ).
     One of the most interesting similarities between the renowned knight of La Mancha and Flange is their experiencing a mid-life crisis reminiscent of adolescence. The Knight, for Carroll B. Johnson, suffers from a “drastically stunted psychosexual development.”8 Unable to form a normal relationship with a woman, he creates his Dulcinea: “píntola en mi imaginación como la deseo . . .” (I, 25, 246). In his Introduction, Pynchon writes: “It is no secret nowadays . . . that many American males, even those of middle-aged appearance, . . . are in fact, incredible as it sounds, still small boys inside. Flange is this type of character . . .” (10 ). Like Don Quixote, Flange is incapable of “developing any real life shared with an adult woman. His solution is Nerissa . . . .  It looks like I wanted some ambiguity here about whether or not she was only a creature of his fantasies” (ibid.). Nerissa, like Dulcinea, is most beautiful, but she is a midget, a perfect incarnation of Flange's “drastically stunted psychosexual development”: “She was a dream, this girl, an angel. She was also roughly three and a half feet tall” (74).

     8 Carroll B. Johnson, Madness and Lust: A Psychoanalytical Approach to Don Quijote (Berkeley-Los Angeles-Toronto: U of California P, 1983) 196.


     Like Don Quixote in the Cave of Montesinos episode (II, 22-23), Flange descends the dump's ravine to act out his fantasies. The scene in which Nerissa calls the sleeping Dennis from the dump's shack into her private underworld has curious resonances of an episode of Don Quixote (II, 44) which was a favorite of Nabokov. The Knight, during his stay at the ducal hunting palace, leaves his bed one warm evening to listen to young Altisidora's feigned love-songs: “. . . the grated window, now shut, and the warm Spanish night that henceforth for three centuries is to become the breeding place of romantic prose-and-verse in all languages, and fifty-year-old Quixote fighting one delusion by means of another delusion —melancholy, miserable, tempted, excited by little Altisidora's musical moans” (Nabokov 70). This episode is followed shortly by the unpleasant episode of the cats which the mocking Duke and Duchess cause to be released in their deluded guest's bedchamber (II, 46); it is particularly interesting, therefore, that Pynchon describes as follows the moment in which Nerissa calls to Flange: “. . . a desolate hour somehow not intended for human perception, but rather belonging to cats [my italics], owls and peepers and whatever else make noises in the night . . .  For a full minute there was nothing, then at last it came. A girl's voice, riding on the wind” (72). Nerissa calls to the “tall Anglo with the gold hair and shining teeth”; this description first causes Flange to exclaim, “That's me, ain't it”; he then ruefully reflects that such a description fits his younger self much better than it fits his current self (72-73); in like manner, Don Quixote's niece Antonia at one point reminds her uncle that he cannot be “valiente, siendo viejo . . . estando por la edad agobiado” (II, 6, 579-580).
     As “Low-lands” ends, Flange —watching Nerissa crooning to her pet rat Hyacinth (76)— decides to remain with her, to ignore for a time the real world and its responsibilities: “let the world shrink to a boccie ball” (ibid.). He prefers the tiny gypsy who looks like a child playing with a doll to his fierce “small blond terrier” (60) of a wife, prefers to play at having a child. According to Guy Davenport, “Both Cervantes and Nabokov recognize that playing can extend beyond childhood not as its natural transformation into daydreaming . . . or creativity of all sorts, but as play itself. That's what Don Quixote is doing: playing knight-errant.”9 When Don Quixote makes a new helmet out of cardboard, he carefully refrains from testing it: “sin

     9 Guy Davenport, Foreward, Lectures on Don Quixote by Vladimir Nabokov, xviii.

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querer hacer nueva experiencia della, la diputó y tuvo por celada finísima de encaje” (I, 1, 39). Don Quixote chooses to wander the roads of Spain in the company of his peasant squire to free galley-slaves (I, 12) who have broken their contract with society. Flange is also a basically “sympathetic character” (Introduction 9), but he too chooses to consort with garbagemen, dump-keepers and gypsies; to spend all day drinking cheap wine and listening to Vivaldi on the stereo instead of going off to his law office. Like Don Quixote, Flange seeks to be a “redeemer” (Slade 73), a frequent figure in Pynchon's fiction; unlike Don Quixote, he ends as “a miserable messiah” (Slade 75), because Pynchon leaves him lost in his fantasies. Don Quixote, on the other hand, regains his lucidity as the moment of his death approaches: “‘Yo tengo juicio ya, libre y claro, sin las sombras caliginosas de la ignorancia . . .’” (II, 74, 1063). “We who were living are now dying,” writes Eliot in The Waste Land10; Don Quixote recognizes this truth, while Flange seeks to forget it through his decision to stay and “play” with Nerissa.11
     Although the character of Flange is the element of “Low-lands” most reminiscent of Don Quixote, there are other echoes of the great novel and of other writings of Cervantes as well. Pig Bodine, a favorite Pynchon character, is a sort of grotesque version of Sancho Panza, “squat and leering” (60) in contrast to his tall, well-educated officer friend Flange. Dennis's depressingly rational wife Cindy reacts to Pig's inopportune appearance at her door exactly as did the niece and housekeeper when Sancho calls on Don Quixote near the beginning of Part II: “‘No,’ she wailed, ‘You ugly bastard . . . Oh, no,’ Cindy said, barring the door” (69)— “. . . ellas le defendían la puerta: ¿Qué quiere este mostrenco en esta casa?” (II, 2, 552-553). Don Quixote is not the only madman in Cervantes's works; the Licenciado Vidriera, from the Exemplary Novel of the same name, may be an antecedent of Geronimo Diaz, Flange's “crazed and boozy wetback analyst” (57); the first of several delightfully loony medical men in Pynchon's writings, Diaz suffers from a “wonderful, random sort of

     10 T. S. Eliot, Poems: 1909-1925 (London: Faber & Faber Limited, 1937) 103.
     11 The remote possibility exists that the encounter with Nerissa is the result of Flange's having been knocked unconscious by one of the boobytraps which Bolingbroke had set up for the gypsies. Borges, in such Ficciones stories as “El Sur” and “El fin,” suggests that part of the action comes from the fevered imagination of his characters. I have recently completed a study of the possible influence of “El fin” in particular upon the Martín Fierro episodes of Gravity's Rainbow.


madness which . . . was about all [Flange] had to keep him going” (58); when Vidriera regains his sanity, he is ignored by the courtiers who had gleefully patronized him in his modish lunacy.
     Early in Part I, having just set out on his journey, Don Quixote sees some windmills which to him resemble giants (I, 8); as they turn into the dump, Flange and his friends pass an incinerator “which looked like a Mexican hacienda” (63). When Sancho finally receives his land-locked “island” from the jesting ducal pair, he governs it with surprising discretion (II, 44-54); to Flange, the dump seems like “an island or enclave in the dreary country around it, a discrete kingdom with Bolingroke [the black dump-keeper] as its uncontested ruler” (67). Towards the end of Part II, Don Quixote and Sancho visit Barcelona, where they view the sea for the first time: “vieron el mar, hasta entonces dellos no visto” (II, 61, 986); Pig tells a sea-story “about how he and a sonarman named Feeny had stolen a horsedrawn taxi in Barcelona” (68). Don Quixote attributes emerald-green eyes to his peerless lady Dulcinea: “y a lo que yo creo, los [ojos] de Dulcinea deben ser de verdes esmeraldas” (II, 11, 611). Pynchon gives us a last glimpse of Nerissa: “She looked up gravely. Whitecaps danced across her eyes; sea creatures, he knew, would be cruising about in the submarine green of her heart” (77).
     The emerald-green eyes of Dulcinea call to mind still another green-eyed Cervantes heroine, Preciosa of the Exemplary Novel “La gitanilla.”12 It is tempting to speculate upon the possible influence of Preciosa upon Nerissa, who —at “roughly three and a half feet” (74)— can surely be considered a gitanilla. The dark-haired Nerissa is no highborn maiden abducted as a child by an old gypsy woman, but she does mention an “old woman” who read her fortune “many years ago” (59-60). Like Preciosa and her enamoured don Juan / Andrés, Nerissa is so angelically beautiful that Flange is willing to join the strange nocturnal band of gypsies for awhile. There is, however, a notable difference regarding his planned stay at the dump: while the virginal Preciosa had insisted upon a “brother-sister” arrangement with her ardent suitor during their travels, Nerissa begs Flange to stay with her, even though he tells her that he is married. (76). All in all, the dump as setting, the pet rat, and especially Nerissa's dwarfish stature combined with her amoral nature cause the Pynchon character to emerge as an antitype of

     12 A character of “La gitanilla” exclaims at her first sight of Preciosa, “estos sí que son ojos de esmeralda!” (“La gitanilla,” Novelas ejemplares 1 [Buenos Aires: Biblioteca Clásica y Contemporánea, 1966]: 28).

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Cervantes's chaste, golden-haired heroine. Yet “Low-lands” does share with “La gitanilla” a pronounced fairy tale atmosphere. It is interesting to recall that Nabokov considers Don Quixote also one of the “fairy tales” without which “the world would not be real” (1).
     For Nabokov, Shakespeare and Cervantes are equals in “the matter of influence, of spiritual irrigation” (8). The eternal waters of Cervantes's writings may well have irrigated Thomas Pynchon's early story “Low-lands.”


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