Cervantics

Robin Chapman

  • Don Quixote by E.C. Riley
    Allen and Unwin, 224 pp, £18.00, February 1986, ISBN 0 04 800009 4
  • Don Quixote – which was a dream by Kathy Acker
    Paladin, 207 pp, £2.95, April 1986, ISBN 0 586 08554 8

According to John Constable, the trouble with self-taught painters was that they had such bad teachers. Creative writing workshops notwithstanding, every novelist is self-taught. An enduring reminder of this is Cervantes’s relationship with his equivocal double masterpiece Don Quixote, and the most persuasive analyst of both book and author remains E.C. Riley, who as long ago as 1962 first alerted us in Cervantes’s Theory of the Novel to what has since become received opinion: that Cervantes was a highly self-conscious literary artist who had to teach himself to write the first modern European novel.

Professor Riley’s latest commentary on Don Quixote is an elegant summary of the work and a masterly introduction to its complexities, ancient and modern, which will instruct while delighting the student, and perhaps encourage any author who regrets his self-taught status and lack of fashionable talent. For, as Riley makes clear, Cervantes’s estimation of himself as a writer remained painfully ambivalent until the very end of his working life – he shows every sign (despite his celebrated Erasmic cool) of an acute literary inferiority complex. If we are to believe his own account, no seat was reserved for him upon Parnassus, and when Apollo suggested he should fold up his cloak for a cushion and sit at the feet of that parliament of poets, Cervantes, understandably, remained standing – though he did allow himself the waspish luxury of pointing out to his immortal host that as a matter of prosaic fact he hadn’t got a cloak. Cervantes’s capacity for irony invariably shoots the lights at the intersection of patronage and poverty. There is another cloak joke in Don Quixote, about St Martin who divided his with a poor man: ‘from which we may conclude that it was a cold day for such was the saint’s charity that had it been a warm one he would doubtless have given the poor man his whole cloak.’

Cervantes was poor for a purely literary reason: he could not write verse. This precluded him from any success in the theatre even if he did lay claim to having invented the three-act play. The parallel careers of Lope de Vega and Shakespeare eloquently demonstrate this bottom line of Golden Age aesthetics: ineffective playwrights turned experimental novelists did not get state funerals or build New Places for early retirement on prime sites in their old home towns. Cervantes’s funeral in 1616 was quiet and his grave left unmarked.

There is no doubt, however, that Don Quixote was well received – the second part could hardly have discussed and elaborated on the first so creatively if the book had not made a huge impression ten years before. The witty knight – as Thomas Shelton, Cervantes’s contemporary and most sinewy English translator, termed Don Quixote – had ridden instantly into the world’s imagination along with his squire. Even so, Cervantes may have had one reason at least to be grateful to the apocryphal Don Quixote which appeared in 1614: it rekindled public interest in his subject ready for the long-delayed sequel. The pirate work appears to have stung Cervantes into finishing his poetic history.

Apart from Cervantes’s own prefatory discussion of Part One, three ‘public’ reactions are incorporated by him in Part Two. They all refer to Quixote himself.

‘As regards your worship’s valour, courtliness, deeds and enterprise,’ Sancho went on, ‘there are different opinions. Some say, “Mad but amusing”; others, “Brave but unfortunate”; others, “Courteous but presumptuous.” ’

Further contemporary criticism is hard to come by, but there are plenty of anecdotal references to the knight and his squire. They were perceived as a durable, even archetypal double act who quickly took their places in the carnival processions from which they may well have been derived in the first place. Such immediate assimilation into popular culture probably pleased their author only up to a point. The eternal ‘caviar to the general’ debate (the vulgo versus discretos) was just as acute in Spain as in England. Unfortunately the new genre essentially defined and established by Cervantes’s success with Don Quixote Part One militated against his acceptance as a serious author by the literary powers. Novels might be popular, but they were not yet officially art. In his sixties, Cervantes became a household name, but critical acclaim eluded him just as surely as financial reward. Ten years later, Don Quixote Part Two’s popular success as a peripatetic sit-com confirmed him in the same mould as those authors he had originally set out to ridicule. It was still the wrong sort of fame: his contemporaries liked what he had written but they couldn’t assess its value. Nor, it seems, could he in any convincingly consistent way.

A saddening illustration of this is his dedication of Part Two to the Count of Lemos. It would seem that his earlier patron, the Duke of Bejar, had not responded to the rather routine flattery which had fronted Part One. But as an exercise in wry self-abasement this second dedication is exemplary. Apart from reminding Lemos that he should have already received his recently published but unperformed one-act plays, and recommending the definitive Part Two, he assures the count that his next major work The Labours of Persiles and Segismunda will be finished within four months. It was, but so was Cervantes. The dedication is dated 31 October 1615. Cervantes died on 22 or 23 April 1616 at the age of 69. But what, the general reader may well ask, was Persiles?? An extensive baroque romance of the kind we now consider thoroughly superseded by the magical realism of Don Quixote. It seems incredible that the author of Part Two could have been at work simultaneously on this inert Late Renaissance adventure series, but he was. Persiles was Cervantes’s last bid for literary respectability – he describes the work as one ‘which makes bold to compete with Heliodorus’: posthumously, it had a fair critical success, although the publisher cheated Cervantes’s widow of the royalties.

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[*] Pandora, 423 pp., £4.95, 22 May, 0 86358 080 7.