November 24, 2015
Melville House Book Club discusses Cervantes, satire, and syphilis
by Chad Felix
It rained the evening of November’s meeting of the Melville House Book Club, and I don’t think a single one of us thought to bring along an umbrella. I certainly didn’t. Some of us may have even forgotten to wear shoes. Others, belts.
One club member dropped his copy of the book in a puddle earlier in the day! It’s pretty much dry now, he explained to me, flopping it on the table, splashing my face. Ah, but it didn’t matter.
What we lacked in rain gear we made up for in guts … and interest in 17th century literature! Yes, we were the perfect crowd for Miguel de Cervantes‘s The Dialogue of the Dogs: undeterred by comical hardships such as bad weather and clumsiness, soaked and huddled for the chance to shout about a book with friends. And shout—or should I say bark?—with/at our friends we did.
I should admit that, much like MobyLives’ chief novella correspondent Jonathan Gibbs, I have not read much of Don Quixote, which Martin Amis famously called the “primordial soup of fiction.” Also, like Gibbs, I’m very sorry but not all that ashamed—there are many classics, and many more books, and relatively few days. But this is what makes reading a novella like The Dialogue of the Dogs (and novellas in general) so fantastic. You get a snippet of a master at work, a sniff of the world as the writer saw it.
Our topics, as Cervantes writes in The Dialogue of the Dogs, “were many and varied, more what you’d expect from a pontiff than a mastiff.” Indeed, we spoke with sophistication of syphilis and satire. We shared favorite quotes—“Jawing about our own lives is more fun than poking at anybody else’s” and “Everyone prides himself on his bravery and outlaw flair.”
We discussed translation, storytelling, and the very act of speaking. We remembered fondly, confusedly the introduction of a so-called witch and her beguiling, wonderful poem to Berganza the dog:
They’ll revert to their rightful guise
When they descry with their own eyes
The high and mighty dunked in suet
And the humble lifted to the skies
By a hand with strength enough to do it
It was a fantastic time—and a time which we will attempt to replicate soon. December’s pick is Bartleby, the Scrivener by Herman Melville, whose titular character shocked the world (and gave us a mantra) by being the first Wall Street occupier back in 1853. Do you want to join us? Pick up the book at Brooklyn Roasting Company or wherever good books are sold; brave the elements and appear on December 17th, at 6pm. More details here.
Chad Felix is the Manager of Direct Sales and Library Marketing at Melville House, and a former bookseller.