At the Bus Stop with Gustave Doré

Gustave Doré. At first I thought he was Da Vinci, then Tolstoy, and then there was this guy I remember at the university who never bathed, sort of a Rasputin-looking character with long yellow teeth and bags under his eyes that were large enough and loose enough to hide a quarter. The first thing he said to me — Doré, not Rasputin — was that he could feel energy surging in the landscape, and that in the unfortunate absence of food, this energy was enough to sustain him for as long as a month, after which time the body in its profound wisdom set aside the petty contradictions of the universe and sought gainful employment. This meant setting up a small table on a street corner, or in a park under a nice shady tree if the weather was too warm, and offering his services as a portrait artist. Being such a prodigious talent, work was easy to come by. Word of his accomplishments rapidly spread, and it was soon discovered that Doré was great fun at parties. The women swooned, the men listened to him boast, journalists wrote about him, royalty courted him, he devoured enormous quantities of food and champagne, and then he awakened with a throbbing headache several days later in a ditch.

Now, in a strange way, this brings us to one Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, who immortalized the great Don Quixote by preserving his deeds in print. Contrary to what most people believe, Don Quixote really did exist, and was not a figment of the author’s imagination. The two met under a cork tree when Don Quixote was nearly two hundred years old and contemplating suicide because he felt his life lacked direction. The men got to talking. Clearly, Don Quixote was insane, but he was so blissfully unaware of the fact that Cervantes, who was between stints in jail and also down on his luck, sensed an opportunity. While Don Quixote rattled on about his “adventures,” the author made copious notes on the knight’s appearance and recorded his tale word for word. Later, when he cast the tale into the form of a novel, he added the wise and sarcastic character of Sancho Panza to strike some sort of balance, and also to poke fun at the Inquisition, a risky but worthwhile business.

Doré was fascinated by this. But when I told him that Don Quixote is still alive, and in fact occupies a small apartment near the edge of town, he burst out laughing in a way that startled the other passengers and made them reach for their cell phones. Two snapped pictures, while the others pretended they were holding guns. The bus driver smiled. When Doré reached his stop, he invited me to his studio above a piano shop on Rue Ballu, where we had several drinks and an animated discussion about The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, which Doré was in the process of illustrating. While we were talking, my friend let it slip that Coleridge, a wonderful conversationalist addicted to the sound of his voice, was due by at any moment. Naturally, I didn’t believe him.

“Be that as it may,” Doré said, “I want you to know that you have given me an idea,” and he quickly set about making a preliminary sketch of Don Quixote, Sancho Panza, and the fair Dulcinea del Toboso sitting side-saddle on an ass. The background was haunted by looming crags, the sky was a spider web, and the earth beneath their feet was rocky and forbidding. His Majesty Don Quixote, astride a wild-eyed bony horse, gripped a spear longer than a circus tent pole. “I can fix that later,” Doré said. “What I want you to notice now is the manner in which Sancho is standing.” I looked. In his haste, the artist had given Sancho a twenty-two-inch inseam and a belly an acre wide. There was no doubt Sancho desperately needed to use the bathroom. Doré was like that. He had a barbaric sense of humor. He loved drawing people in desperate situations with no means of escape. In Sancho’s case, there wasn’t even a tree to hide behind, only a small juniper the size of an ant mound.

By and by, we ran out of liquor. But this was hardly an obstacle for Doré, who had friends in every circle, high and low, desperate, profligate, and ill at ease, artistic and revolutionary, morbid, religious, and insane. At least that was the way he described it. After traipsing through several alleys, climbing perhaps three dozen sets of stairs, breaking into twice as many garrets, and running from the police, we finally found someone who was at home. He was dead and his pockets had been rifled, but on careful examination of his lodgings we discovered a warm bottle of beer. Doré, always on the job, took out a small sketchbook and made note of the surroundings with a piece of charcoal rescued from the dead man’s stove. I drank the beer.

May 5, 2005

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Don Quixote
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