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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Dreams and Discourses

Francisco de Quevedo

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To purchase Dreams and Discourses

Title: Dreams and Discourses
Author: Francisco de Quevedo
Genre: Fiction
Written: 1627
Length: 323 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: Dreams and Discourses - US
Sueños y discursos - US
Dreams and Discourses - UK
  • Spanish title: Sueños y discursos (also known as Los Sueños)
  • Translated, and with an Introduction and Notes by R.K. Britton (1989)
  • The Aris & Phillips edition (trans. R.K. Britton) under review here is bilingual -- i.e. includes the original Spanish text
  • There have been other translations of Los Sueños, including Roger L'Estrange's The Visions (1667)

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Our Assessment:

A- : quite fantastic fun

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Quevedo's five dream-visions, published as Los Sueños, are remarkable satires, amusing hellish imaginings that have endured remarkably well.
       The R.K.Britton translation is billed as the "first full English translation of the Sueños since 1688" (presumably Roger L'Estrange's rendition, written in "racy Restoration prose" (so Britton)), and though there are other versions available this one has the great advantages of also providing the Spanish text, as well as being extensively annotated.
       Quevedo relies a great deal on word-play; much of this is untranslatable, but in his notes Britton generally makes readers aware of what they are missing, and having the Spanish text facing the English one allows even the non-Spanish speaker some insight into what Quevedo is doing. (It also allows readers to get a sense for Britton's approach to translation -- which includes a bit of embellishment, starting with the many (generally welcome) variations on Quevedo's dijo/dije etc. (I/he said, etc.).)
       The Dreams are five visions of unvarnished truth, generally describing hell (or the road to perdition) and why people have wound up there. Much of it is topical satire, but much is also general enough that it still serves to amuse (often greatly).
       The first and shortest is "The Dream of the Last Judgement" (changed in the tamed-down 1631 edition to "The Dream of the Skulls"). Here Quevedo finds himself witnessing the Day of Judgement, and, predictably, a great many folk wind up hell-bound. A parade of the famous, the infamous, and commoners -- whole professional groupings, from innkeepers to poets -- get judged, each approaching it in their own fashion (what a sight the philosophers made, "chopping logic to fashion their syllogisms about salvation"). It's a quick roll-call, but almost each line delivers the targets: "There followed three or four rich Genoese, seeking salvation along with banking concessions." And their fates are also all appropriate -- so the whole gaggle of poets that is sent along with Orpheus back down into the Underworld, "to try whether, as an experiment, they could all emerge again." A nice scene has Judas, Mahommed, and Martin Luther together, each claiming to be the true Christ-betrayer Judas, much to the real one's chagrin.
       The first dream closes with a glimpse of hell itself -- "a doctor suffering the punishment of being stuffed down a urinal, while an apothecary was sealed up in a medicine jar" -- which Quevedo expands on in the third dream, "The Vision of Hell" (re-titled in the later edition as "Pluto's Pig-sties"). Before that, however, comes another briefer dream, of "The Bedevilled Constable". Here a constable is possessed by an evil spirit -- causing much complaint from the evil spirit, who begs to be exorcised: the constable he's stuck in "is the more diabolical of the two". Stuck as he is, he regales Quevedo with stories of damnation.
       He tells of the punishments loosed upon poets: "some are tormented by being forced to listen to praise being heaped upon the work of other poets", and notes that dramatists (more accurately here "poetas de comedias") are an altogether different breed:

However, it must be remarked that playwrights are not lodged with the other poets, but, as a result of their propensities for hatching tangled plots and intrigues, are to be found with the lawyers and solicitors who deal exclusively with such things.
       Supposed upholders of the law are welcome guests as well, the evil spirit noting:
Do we have judges ? Why they are our game birds, our mot sumptuous dishes, the seed corn that brings in our biggest harvest ! For every judge we sow, we reap six magistrates, two clerks of court, four scriveners, five lawyers and five thousand businessmen; and that, let it be said, is our daily tally. With each scrivener we catch twenty actuaries, and from each of these in turn thirty constables who yield us ten watchmen apiece. And if it is a good year for chicanery and malpractice there aren't enough store houses in the whole of Hell to hold what we garner from one corrupt minister !
       And, of course: "Merchants and businessmen flock in in their thousands, damning themselves in Castillian and accountancy."
       The long "Vision of Hell" then provides an even closer insider's look. It begins promisingly enough, with "A prologue addressed to the nameless and ungrateful reader". It's not your usual fawning plea; no, Quevedo knows: "So perverse a fellow are you that I place you under no obligation by addressing you as pious, benevolent or kind as other books do".
       In his vision, Quevedo finds himself before two pathways. The right one is "full of rough and impassable places", and only a few struggle along it -- people who "left upon the way their skin or an arm, or even, in some cases, a foot or a head". It's the path of the good and righteous, of course, but Quevedo sensibly finds they're an "unwelcoming crowd" and decides "this isn't at all my style".
       So instead he goes merrily the lefthand way, where he finds "the kind of retinue that commanded instant respect". Of course, he finds out soon enough that everyone here is well on their way to hell.
       A first glimpse of the dreaded place then finds some surprisingly cold caverns -- the explanation being:
This part of Hell is cold, my good sir, because it is here that the clowns, jugglers and mountebanks are lodged, of whom there are more than enough in the world, and who are set apart because, were they allowed to wander at will through Hell, their insipid witlessness would be enough to damp down the pains inflicted by the infernal fires.
       Quevedo offers a wonderful hellish tour, again poking good (if very sharp) fun at various professions, classes, and types. Few are spared. There are also a few historic figures -- though not too many to overly tax the reader -- and many are recognizable even to modern readers.
       Various Catholics do get some rough treatment, but it's nothing compared to the non-Catholics, including such large targets as Mahommed and Luther. Mahommed, in particular, isn't treated with much respect, defending his faith with explanations such as:
Let it simply be said that I wished my disciples sufficient ill to deprive them of glory in the life hereafter, and pork and wine skins while on Earth. And in the end I decreed that my doctrines should not be defended by reason (for there is none to be found in either obeying or advocating them) so committing them instead into the hands of armed night I set my followers off upon lives of unending din and clamour.
       The fourth vision looks at "The World from the Inside", a slightly different attempt at looking at the unvarnished truths. Some of the observations sound terribly modern:
Take, for instance, the names we use for things nowadays. Are they not the most blatant examples of pretence the world ever saw ? Your traditional shoemaker now flaunts himself as a footwear impresario, while the wine-skin maker is styled a vintage tailor (.....) The executioner is now known as the arm of justice and the constable hailed as the servant of the law. (...) Lies are greeted as wit, malice is looked upon as elegant conversation while cunning roguery is dismissed as thoughtlessness, and shamelessness is regarded as courage. (...) In short, not only are things not what they seem, they are not even what they are called !
       The inescapable conclusion: "Everything about man is deception and falsehood". And here, and in the final vision, "The Dream of Death" (retitled in the newer edition "The Visit of the Witticisms"), Quevedo again offers a fill of examples of man's dishonest ways and deserving destinies, again played out in some longer episodes.

       The pace of the satires varies, from the rapid-fire first to the more deliberate last. Some of the pun-heavy bits can be a bit laboured (especially in translation), but overall the Dreams make for a very sprightly read (and Britton's lively translation reads well).
       This is fun and clever satire, a book that's readily enjoyed in small bits or as a story-collection. The Hieronymus Bosch-like hells described are vivid, and fascinating in their details, and Quevedo offers many remarkable and very witty turns -- i.e. his satire isn't simplistic and simply blunt, but rather adds unexpected twist that make his points all the more effectively (and, often amusingly). Certainly recommended.

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Dreams and Discourses: Francisco de Quevedo: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Spanish literature under review

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About the Author:

       Spanish author Francisco de Quevedo y Villegas (1580-1645) was a leading poet and satirist of his time.

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© 2003-2022 the complete review

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