The Hard Life and Poor Best of Cervantes

Gabriel Josipovici

Not much is known about Cervantes. He was born in 1547 in Alcalá de Henares, not far from Madrid. His grandfather, a specialist in fiscal law for the Inquisition, had amassed a fortune by shady means and then withdrawn to another city with a former mistress, leaving his children, to whom he had given no proper education, to fend for themselves. The burden of looking after the family fell on Rodrigo, Cervantes’s father, who had the unfortunate idea of becoming a surgeon to support his dependents. At the time it was doctors, with their university degrees, who achieved fame and wealth, leaving to ill-paid and ill-trained surgeons the mundane tasks of splinting broken limbs, administering purges and bleeding for the fever. To avoid the constant threat of having their goods confiscated or being thrown into prison for debt, the family was always on the move: Valladolid (the Court city), Córdoba, Seville, finally Madrid.

In such an atmosphere, naturally enough, Cervantes received little formal schooling, though in Madrid he seems to have come under the influence of an Erasmian schoolmaster, who encouraged his first efforts at writing poetry. A sonnet he wrote at the age of 20 to celebrate the birth of the Queen’s second daughter has come down to us: it is not a good poem. By 1569, however, Cervantes was in Italy, in the household of a wealthy patron, and the following year he and his brother enlisted, both of them taking part in the Battle of Lepanto in 1571 – Cervantes was wounded three times and even had his left hand shot off. In 1575, while still a soldier with the fleet, he was captured by a Corsair ship and taken as a slave to Algiers. After four abortive escape attempts he was finally ransomed in 1580.

By this time he was writing (unsuccessful) plays, as well as poems, and in 1585 published a pastoral novel, La Galatea. The previous year he had fathered a daughter and married not the mother but a small-town girl 18 years his junior. No sooner was he married, however, than he was off on his travels again, and for the next 20 years we find him trying to scrape a living, first commandeering provisions for the Armada, then as tax collector. In both jobs he seems to have been ground between the nether millstone of wily peasants and the upper millstone of crooked bureaucrats, and we hear of him in constant trouble and even in jail for a crime he almost certainly did not commit. He must, however, have been writing, for Don Quixote, Part I was published in 1605 and was an immediate success. By this time, Cervantes was back with his wife, sisters and their dependents, living in Valladolid. The fame of his novel brought him little financial reward, but now he was writing in earnest, and in 1613 published the Exemplary Tales, followed by the Voyage to Parnassus in 1614, Don Quixote, Part II in 1615, and Persiles and Sigismunda, the unreadable epic romance he was sure would seal his reputation, in 1617. He was not alive when it was published: he died on the same day as Shakespeare in 1616.

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