Walter Starkie and the Greatest Novel of All
Like his godfather — the legendary provost of Trinity College, John Pentland Mahaffy — Walter Starkie (1894–1976) was one of the great Irish conversationalists. When I met him in 1969, he bowled me over. I was then a senior at UCLA, writing a paper on British foreign policy in the Spanish Civil War. I interviewed Starkie, then in his early seventies and teaching in six different departments. He had been head of the British Council in Spain during World War II and was intimately familiar with all the major Spanish and British political figures of the 1930s and ’40s.
Indeed, he seemed to know everybody. I asked him whether he knew President Kennedy. He answered, “Nehru told me in 1961 that Kennedy was the hope of the world, but personally, I can’t stand Irish gangs. I can’t stand Neapolitan gangs either — I used to live with the Mafia in Sicily.” “But did you know Kennedy?” I persisted. “Oh, yes,” he answered, “I remember him in London when he was a little boy. I knew his father, too [United States Ambassador to London Joseph Kennedy].”
Starkie offered a perspective on the 1930s that has much to teach us today. To some extent, his view of that decade resembled Eric Voegelin’s, though the two were not acquainted. Popular accounts of the Spanish Civil War often portray it as a struggle between democracy and fascism, but for Starkie this ideological view radically distorted the facts. The Nationalist leaders, he maintained, were not pawns of Hitler and Mussolini but defenders of Spanish Spain who wished to avert a Communist takeover of their country. The Communist leader Dolores Ibárruri said in response to a fiery talk in the Spanish Parliament by the conservative Calvo Sotelo, “You have given your last speech.” A group of Republican Assault Guards assassinated Sotelo a few days later, and Starkie believed that had the conservatives not risen against the weak Republican regime, they would have been destroyed in a Communist revolution.
For intellectuals who supported the Republic, Starkie had no mercy. He had harsh words for Jacques Maritain, the great Catholic philosopher and onetime ally of the rightist Action Française, who, perhaps under the influence of his wife, opposed the Nationalist rising. Even Georges Bernanos did not escape censure, for what Starkie thought his biased account of Nationalist atrocities in Mallorca. “A nasty bit of stuff,” Starkie remarked.
Like Voegelin, Starkie thought that ideological distortions impeded an effective British foreign policy in the 1930s. Leftist opposition to Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia drove Mussolini into the arms of Hitler, gravely weakening Britain’s position when war broke out in 1939. Mussolini had initially found Hitler an unpleasant person. When they met in Venice in 1934, he turned to Achille Starace, the secretary of the Fascist Party, and said, “Starace, no me piace [I don’t like him].”
But like today’s neoconservatives, leftist British opinion subjected foreign policy to an ideological litmus test. For the neocons, Saddam Hussein was a tyrant who had to be forcibly deposed: never mind whether doing so was in America’s interest. In like fashion, supporters of the League of Nations insisted that Mussolini be punished with sanctions for his invasion of Abyssinia. Naturally, Mussolini then turned against Britain. The leftist campaign against the Italian dictator helped create the Axis Pact and did the Ethiopians no good. Starkie pointed out that after World War II, the Ethiopians had to bring back the Italian administrators, as they were the only ones who could run the country.
Starkie realized that a European war was in the offing when he ran into Dr. Goebbels in March 1939 on the isle of Rhodes. Goebbels told him that there would be war because “you have too much and we do not have enough.” Goebbels also mentioned that he saw himself as an artist, manipulating the crowds at Nazi party rallies through the use of lights. Starkie reported this conversation to the British Foreign Office and also wrote a letter about it to the London Tablet.
For Starkie, the clear-sighted pursuit of foreign policy goals should never be occluded by ideology. Instead of bemoaning that General Franco was a fascist, Starkie worked during World War II to elicit sympathy for Britain through the exhibitions and lectures he arranged as head of the British Council in Spain. His work played an important role in maintaining Spanish neutrality, though he unfortunately aroused the enmity of the British Ambassador Sir Samuel Hoare. (Starkie enjoyed telling the story of how the Lord Mayor of Birmingham once presented Hoare and his wife: “Sir Samuel and Lady W.”) When Starkie complained to Lord Lloyd, who had chosen him for the council, about Hoare’s treatment of him, Lloyd became so angry that he tore his telephone from the wall and threw it across the office.
One of his many stories about that period stands out in my mind. He said that Ortega y Gasset was surprised that Britain did not abandon the war after the German invasion of Russia in June 1941. When a UCLA graduate student who was writing a dissertation on Ortega told Starkie that he had never encountered such a view in Ortega’s works, he replied, “But he told me that himself, when I visited him in Portugal.”
Starkie had a remarkable eye for the telling detail. When I once asked him about Leo Strauss, his response was, “Oh, yes, I met him once. He was a friend of Tawney’s.” The close connection between Strauss and the British socialist historian R. H. Tawney is a key to Strauss’s thought and has only fairly recently attracted scholarly notice.1Strauss accepted Tawney’s view that the rise of capitalism led to a decline in political philosophy that replaced the pursuit of virtue with the mastery of the world.
Starkie had little use for the icons of the Left. When Bertrand Russell died, he said to me, “Father D’Arcy [Martin Cyril D’Arcy, S.J., Master of Campion Hall, Oxford] told me that Russell didn’t do any good work after 1914. I’d write a letter to him, but it would burn up in transit.” Asked about Conor Cruise O’Brien, he said, “I found him a rather self-opinionated young man when he was a student of mine.” Even Martin Luther King did not escape his scorn. “Perhaps he wasn’t as bad as some of the others, but he was still pretty bad.”
Politics, though, was for Starkie but a sideline; he was principally a literary scholar and musician. At Trinity College, Dublin, he taught Spanish and Italian literature. Samuel Beckett was a student in his class on Dante. (By the way, he did not agree with the fashionable view that Beckett was one of the greatest twentieth-century writers; he rated his friend George Bernard Shaw far higher as a playwright.) In his teaching, he drew on his remarkable abilities as a linguist. He knew at least ten languages and was a foreign member of the Royal Spanish Academy, the governing body of the language. “Sanskrit is not so bad,” he once assured me; “Hungarian is much more difficult.” I was happy to take his word for it. When I told him that I had to take language exams in French and Latin, he said that I might as well learn all the Romance languages.
In his course on Dante, he once read some passages from a book by his friend Father Miguel Asín Palacios, the foremost authority on Dante’s Arabic sources. He seemed to be reading slightly more slowly than usual. After class, he said to me, “I couldn’t find the English translation, so I had to do a sight translation from the Spanish.” He sometimes found it hard to remember that his students were not up to his level of knowledge. Once, he asked the class to name the rivers of Hades in Greek mythology. When no one answered, he said in a surprised tone of voice, “There’s a well-known hexameter in Horace that gives them!” In his own oral exams at Trinity College in 1917, someone asked him, “What is the last word in Horace’s Ars Poetica?” Starkie answered the question correctly; when I asked him how he had known it, he answered, “It’s a word of foreign derivation.”2
His most popular course at UCLA, though, was “Cervantes in Translation.” I fear the reason for the course’s popularity does not reflect altogether favorably on the students; Starkie was reputed the easiest teacher in the school. When I took the course, the enrollment was 941, and two extra rooms with televisions were needed as well as the main lecture hall. But those who thought Starkie an easy “A” got their well-deserved comeuppance, in Booth Tarkington’s phrase. A janitor stole a copy of the final exam and sold copies to a number of students. Starkie discovered the plot and changed the exam. When the final was distributed to the class, several students, including a very famous basketball player, walked out: they hadn’t gotten what they purchased.
Starkie was certainly well qualified to teach the course. He translated the complete Don Quixote: after he had issued an abridged translation, his friend Luis Astrana Marín, one of the foremost Spanish authorities on Cervantes, insisted that he do the whole thing. (He also translated a volume of Cervantes’s short stories.) When he read from the novel, he would often look up at the class, sometimes going on for pages. I asked him about this, and he said, “When you have been reading a book for sixty years, you get to know it fairly well.”
As one would expect, he was not very impressed with postmodernist literary critical discussions of the novel or with postmodernism in general. On one occasion, I showed him a copy of Jacques Derrida’s De la grammatologie. He read a page, dozed off, woke up and read another page, and fell asleep again. He handed the book back to me, saying, “not very interesting.”
For him, Don Quixote was the greatest of all novels, and he stressed its influence on later writers. Laurence Sterne is an obvious case in point, and writers as different as Dickens and Dostoyevsky drew heavily from Cervantes. In part 2 of the novel, Cervantes has Don Quixote comment on false continuations of part 1; the device in which a novel refers to itself is a key theme in subsequent literature.
Fundamentally, Starkie maintained, Cervantes was a comic novelist. He was not an enemy of chivalry and the Middle Ages: rather, he poked gentle fun at them. Neither was it correct, as Américo Castro claimed, to view Cervantes as an apostle of the Enlightenment and an enemy of the Church. Castro appealed in support of his view to the famous episode in which Cervantes satirizes book burning; but Starkie noted that the Arabs also engaged in this practice, and the satire might be with equal justice directed against them.
More generally, Starkie preferred to Castro as a historian the more conservative Ramón Menendéz Pidal. He and Menendéz Pidal were friends, and Starkie prepared an English translation of his book debunking Bishop Las Casas. In this book, Menendéz argued that Las Casas’s claims of vast Indian massacres by the Spaniards were the product of mental pathology. Such a politically incorrect view could not be published in English, and Starkie blamed in particular the influential historian Lewis Hanke for blocking the book’s publication. Menendéz Pidal, who had written the book in his nineties, was quite upset by this.
The dominant theme of Don Quixote, in Starkie’s opinion, is that the initially idealistic Quixote becomes more realistic as the novel unfolds, while the realistic Sancho Panza moves in the direction of idealism. Eventually, the two figures converge and indeed can be considered as aspects of a single character. In this interpretation, he was influenced by his friend Miguel de Unamuno, whose book on the novel appeared in English translation as Our Lord Don Quixote. Starkie wrote an introduction to this edition. He also recommended to us the work of Joaquín Casalduero on symbolism in Cervantes, though this, he said, was suitable only for danced work. It is available only in Spanish.
Whether Starkie was right that Don Quixote was the greatest of all novels is a question that each reader must determine for himself. There is no better way for English speakers to do so than to read Starkie’s excellent translation.
Originally published in 2008. Reprinted with permission of the author.
- 1. See S. J.Green, “The Tawney-Strauss Connection: On Historicism and Values in the History of Political Ideas” Journal of Modern History 67, no.2 (June 1995): 255–77.
- 2. In his enjoyable Of Farming and Classics: A Memoir (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), David Grene gives another example of the sort of questions the classics dons at Trinity liked to pose. In a scholarship exam, Professor George Mooney asked him, “What word does Homer use for “worm” in the Odyssey?”