If and when a new edition of my novel Journal of a UFO Investigator comes out, I want Amelia Richards to do the illustrations.
I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting this young woman face to face, even though two weeks ago I was a visitor to the campus of Northern Michigan University in Marquette, where she’s now a senior in the NMU Honors Program. I first saw her work in the office of Professor Michael Joy, who teaches in NMU’s Department of Modern Languages and Literatures and serves as Assistant Director of Honors. He’s an expert on the literature of Golden Age Spain–first and foremost, Cervantes’ Don Quixote.
What I saw by his desk nearly knocked me over.
It was an illustration, done partly in ink and partly in pencil, of the Quixote. On the left, an ogre-ish giant looms behind a windmill. Opposite him a grand castle towers over–yet also is–a prosaic inn. In between stand the central characters of Cervantes’s classic, four of them (including Sancho Panza’s donkey and Don Quixote’s horse) real as most people understand reality. The fifth is not real. Or is she?
Lady Dulcinea, willowy and seductive in her out-of-date medieval finery, stands beside her Knight of the Woeful Countenance. Affectionately she rests her hand on his shoulder. His haggard face, impassively woeful, doesn’t register her presence. Of course she isn’t really there. Yet she obsesses Quixote, as real to him as–well, the giant and the castle.
Like the giant and the castle, she’s drawn in pencil rather than ink. In a paper, “Ink and Graphite,” submitted to Michael two years ago with the Quixote drawing as a project for his seminar class, Amelia explains why she did this:
“I defined the ‘real’ characters from the ‘imaginary’ using ink and pencil. This creates the illusion of invisibility, conveying the notion that the characters drawn in pencil are merely a figment of the hero’s imagination.” This is easy to see in the giant and the castle. “Dulcinea, however, was more of a complex character,” becoming as the novel progresses “more and more omnipresent and less of an associated delusion. … She develops as her own character, as an ideal of the perfect woman, and because of this I drew her more integrated into the line of characters as if she were real.”
Dulcinea is drawn in pencil, indeed. But the careful shading of her figure “conveys a sense of reality the giant and castle lack. She also has a hand placed on Quixote’s shoulder showing that she is always with Quixote as his lady and his motivation.”
Merely a figment of the imagination? Cervantes puts a question mark beside that “merely,” which is why his novel–the ripe fruit of the author’s final years–has echoed down the centuries. What is reality? Don’t the cherished products of our minds have reality of their own?
When I was done admiring how Amelia had managed to convey this with her art, Michael said: “Now take a look at the other one.”
Indeed there was a second drawing behind the Quixote picture, done in the same ink and graphite–illustrating my novel Journal of a UFO Investigator.
Every fall semester for the past few years, Michael has given an Honors seminar on the literary influence of Cervantes. Each year he reads with his students the Quixote, as well as more recent literature drawing on Quixote‘s themes. Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther. Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. My Journal of a UFO Investigator.
It’s fine company to be in, and I’m honored to be there. I’m honored when I visit Michael’s class, as I have for the past few years–by Skype in 2013 and 2014, in person this year–and hear these wonderful students’ insights into the story I wrote. These are often insights that I myself hadn’t picked up on, but when they’re pointed out to me I realize, hmmm, they’re right. (Just as I hadn’t realized my debt to Cervantes’s meditation on reality vs. imagination, until Michael made me aware of it.)
And I’m honored when a talented artist like Amelia undertakes a visual representation of the characters that once popped out of my head.
“I chose to draw all the main characters,” Amelia writes in her paper, “and once again, I tried my best to capture the image I had in my mind of them. … Once again, I used pencil for the imaginary characters and ink for the real ones. Starting from the left, Julian, Rochelle and the baby [figures from the imagination of Danny Shapiro, the novel’s “real-life” protagonist] are drawn in pencil. Both are meant to resemble older teens, Julian in his formal attire and Rochelle with the baby in her arms. Next to them are Jeff and Rosa [“real” characters in the book]. They are dressed as more normal teens because they were real people in his life, even if their relationship with him wasn’t quite what he initially told the reader. These four characters are on the same side of Danny because I think they paralleled each other. Both boys were Danny’s friends and Julian, the UFO enthusiast/partner-in-crime, became the friend that Jeff never was. Rochelle and Rosa both acted as Danny’s love interest and Rochelle served as the growing adult-like relationship Danny never got the chance to have with Rosa.
“In the middle is Danny. He is all spiffed up in his suit coat and glasses. Around his neck I gave him the Star of David necklace that Rochelle gives him and that he wears until the end. That represents his attachment and significance of his religion throughout the novel. In his hand he is carrying the UFO book meant to represent his journal, the annotated book he recovered [central to the plot], and any other UFO books that may have influenced him in the earlier chapters. …
“His mother was drawn to look old and sickly, but I made her smiling because even though she had many troubles with her health and husband, she always seemed to try to be a good mother to Danny and it seemed like she loved him a lot. Danny’s father was drawn to look like the stress of life was starting to wear on him, a little overweight, with graying hairs and an aging face. Danny’s father seemed to be struggling with life throughout the book with his dying wife, mistress from college, and anti-social son. He didn’t handle any of it well and it had taken a toll on him over the years.
“Lastly, the sci-fi characters reside on the far left. Sketched in pencil, the three men in black, flying saucer, a large moon and a lake creature capture the peak of Danny’s imagination. … These characters were placed on the same side as his parents because I think this is how he dealt with his mother’s illness and father’s abuse. Danny retreated into a world that he still didn’t quite understand, but not understanding this strange moon world was a much better alternative to not being able to cope with the unknown in his real world.”
I think so too.
“Many years ago,” poet Reagan Upshaw wrote in the January-February 2013 issue of Poets & Writers, “an older friend told me that a handful of good readers was all any writer needed.” Among Michael Joy’s students, I’ve been blessed with more than a handful. It’s a plenitude to give thanks for, in this season and always.
by David Halperin
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