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 His grandfather, a specialist in fiscal law for the Inquisition, had amassed a fortune by shady means and then withdrawn to another city with a former mistress, leaving his children, to whom he had given no proper education, to fend for themselves.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.

Such, in brief, are the facts about the author of Don Quixote. Like most men and women before the 17th century, he has left us no letters, no diaries, none of that wealth of material which makes the life of a Keats or a Kafka so enthralling. The biographer only has the dry documents to go on: court records, petitions, bills. Sometimes, it is true, the documents are not so dry. In 1590, for example, Cervantes’s sister submitted a petition to the Council of the Indies which is a little biography in itself:

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra says he has served Your Majesty many years in the campaigns on sea and land which have occurred in the past twenty-two years, especially in the Naval Battle, in which he received many wounds, including the loss of a hand from a harquebus ball. And the following year he was at Navarino and late in action at Tunis and La Goleta. And en route to this Court with letters from my lord Don Juan and from the Duke of Sessa so that Your Majesty might show him favour he was captured in the galley Sol, he and his brother, who also served Your Majesty in the same campaigns, and they were taken to Algiers, where they spent such heritage as they had in ransoming themselves, along with their parents’ whole estate and the dowries of two maiden sisters, who were impoverished through ransoming their brothers. And after their liberation, they served Your Majesty in the Kingdom of Portugal and in the Terceiras [Azores] with the Marquis of Santa Cruz … And in all that time no favour has been granted him. He requests and beseeches as humbly as he can that Your Majesty be pleased to favour him with a post in the Indies … for he will fulfil any of those offices Your Majesty might grant him because he is an able and competent man and deserving of Your Majesty’s favour and because his wish is to continue to serve Your Majesty always and to end his life as his forbears have, for in it he will receive great favour and reward.

Scribbled above Cervantes’s signature is a notation by a Council member: ‘Let him look closer to home for such favour as may be granted him.’

This is chilling. But most often, of course, the records are not only dull but difficult to interpret. ‘Do the two documents refer to the same Miguel de Cervantes?’ asks Byron at one point. ‘Probably they do,’ he replies, but we are left to wonder. Elsewhere he remarks disarmingly: ‘What was Cervantes up to while plague, famine, corruption and literary gloom swirled round him? It depends on which biographer you read. The documentary gaps are wide enough to drive armies of theories through.’

In such a situation the would-be biographer is driven back on that favourite device, ‘filling in the background’. With a writer separated from us by four centuries and who is the product of a culture few readers of Don Quixote are likely to be familiar with, this is no bad thing. Byron is quite good at sketching in the social, political and intellectual scene. He rightly stresses the crucial importance of the Reconquest, completed in 1492, when the Moors were finally driven from Granada, where they had been living for eight centuries. For Spain in the Middle Ages had accommodated Jews, Moors and Christians in extraordinary harmony. But by the end of the 15th century a new spirit of intransigence had set in. Spain was now a militantly Christian country, and Moors and Jews had been forced to flee or to convert. The consequences of this were enormous. Not only are some of the greatest figures of the 16th century (most probably including Cervantes himself) conversos, but the atmosphere of chauvinism and xenophobia had a profound effect on intellectual life. As the triumphs of the early years gave way to the agonies of the war with Holland and then the ignominious defeat of the Armada, there was a growing rift between the complex and confused social realities and the oversimplified ideals of honour that continued, more and more obsessively, to be voiced. It is not surprising that, by the turn of the century, the Spaniard was regularly appearing in other European literatures as a figure of fun, an absurd posturing ninny. Yet this was also the Golden Age of Spanish literature, the century of St John of the Cross, Lope, Quevedo, Góngora.

Byron has read widely in the secondary literature and he deftly captures the multiple contradictions. He is also good at the set-pieces, such as the Battle of Lepanto or the horrors of an Algerian jail. As one reads on, however, one begins to wonder whether this kind of narrative history really advances our understanding. One longs for the timeless history of a Braudel or the sharp focus on a single year, a single event, of a Le Roy Ladurie. Instead, Byron goes once more over ground covered in countless traditional history books. He also has some of the vices of the popular biographer and historical novelist:

Well, the golden halls were there; so were the marble libraries and the paintings. He could see them, perhaps, as he trotted in his master’s velvet-sheathed shadow at the Vatican, or wandered the city alone in those few hours when Acquaviva had no need of him. There were plenty of people in Rome he might have liked to meet. El Greco was there then …

By the end of the book we are not merely uneasy with this particular enterprise, but with the whole nature of the genre Byron has chosen. Ours, it is true, is an age of biography. The two-volume Lives pour off the presses, snatch up the leading reviews and no doubt sell in their thousands. My feelings about this phenomenon are mixed. It is true that the more information one has about an artist one admires the better. Deirdre Bair’s biography of Beckett was a case in point: one was glad of the information, the quotations from the letters, even if the writing was not very distinguished. On the other hand, the hunger for biographical facts about writers who have just died or are even still alive goes hand in hand with an indifference to what is genuine and valuable in the art of today which is profoundly depressing.

At least there is a point to the biography of a modern writer. I wonder, though, whether there is any in yet another life of Chaucer or Cervantes when no new facts have come to light to alter the picture. A better idea might be to follow the lead of Hugh Kenner, as Donald Howard is now doing, writing an account not of Chaucer but of the Chaucer era, ‘an X-ray moving picture of how our epoch was created from the medieval’, as he puts it, echoing Kenner on Pound. To do that with Cervantes would be to make a genuine attempt to advance our understanding of a great writer, a great period of Spanish art, and a key moment in Western civilisation.

The first thing a book conceived on these lines would have to do is to distinguish the important from the trivial. For the truth is that Byron, while producing more than 500 large pages of text, blurs the key fact about Cervantes. This is that he wrote his masterpiece almost accidentally, after failing in most of the accepted literary modes of the time, and that he wrote it at an age when most writers of the day would have been thinking of retirement after a lifetime of service to the Muse. Cervantes was 58 when Don Quixote, Part I was published, and he was coming to the end of a hard, sad and pretty unproductive life.

To put it like this is to see that, in some important respects, Cervantes has more in common with Proust than with Shakespeare or Lope or Ronsard. Because his tone in Don Quixote is so cool, so classical, lacking the manic quality of Rabelais or Nashe or the whimsy of Sterne, it is possible to overlook the extraordinary nature of what he is saying. ‘Idle reader,’ his Prologue begins, ‘you can believe without any oath of mine that I would wish this book, as the child of my brain, to be the most beautiful, the liveliest and the cleverest imaginable. But I have been unable to transgress the order of nature by which like gives birth to like … ’ An elegant piece of self-deprecatory rhetoric, no doubt, but much more as well. For what Cervantes is doing here is to cast doubt on the very nature of poetic inspiration. In place of the vatic artist, in touch with a transcendental reality, there is only the human being, doing his poor best: ‘And so, what could my sterile and ill-cultivated genius beget but the story of a lean, shrivelled, whimsical child, full of variegated fancies that no one else has ever imagined … ’ Is not this child the Don as well as the book? Is not the greatest of literary characters so lean, so weak, so little able to impose his vision upon the world, precisely because he is only a fleshing out of Cervantes’ own doubts about his abilities?

Medieval and Renaissance writers had often reflected about their art. But here art itself grows out of its own doubts. ‘Calm,’ the Prologue continues, ‘a quiet place, the pleasantness of the fields, the serenity of the skies, the murmuring of streams and the tranquillity of the spirit play a great part in making the most barren muses bear fruit’: but for Cervantes there is no such pastoral calm, no space free from the pressures of the world, no time sealed off from the ever-passing seconds. The novel is born here, in the ability of prose freed from formal demands to question its own genesis, in the acknowledgment – humorous, unsentimental – of the lie of Art and Imagination upon which all previous literature had been founded.

The extraordinary thing is that this Don Quixote, this lean, shrivelled, whimsical child of Cervantes’s brain, whose name is uncertain and his antecedents even more so, who is constantly in danger of reverting to mere marks on a page (think of the way Cervantes freezes and unfreezes him in the fight with the Basque): this Don Quixote is also one of the great ‘rounded characters’ of world literature. It is as if Cervantes, by letting air into the usually sealed-off space of creation, had enlisted our own imagination on the hero’s behalf. And so it comes about that when, on the very last page, we read of ‘Don Quixote’s weary and mouldering bones’ resting in the grave ‘where he most certainly lies, stretched at full length and powerless to make a third journey’, the final irony of that ‘most certainly’ only reinforces the weight of his long body which we actually sense for ourselves – while Cervantes, his inventor, for all the efforts of biographers, flies away from us, weightless, insubstantial, to rejoin the millions who have lived and died perhaps not quite in vain.