Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
In 1547, the year when Cervantes was born, the world was no longer a small place, and Spain, under the reign of Charles I, made up half of that world. Alcalá de Henares, a busy, vibrant university town thirty kilometres from Madrid, was where Miguel de Cervantes’ life began. The fourth son of a modest “leecher” –as barber-surgeons were called at that time–, very little is known about Miguel's childhood and adolescence. His father, Rodrigo, always lived in penurious circumstances, beleaguered by debt. His hazardous job took him from Alcalá to Valladolid, and then to Seville, though first to Córdoba, but there is some doubt as to whether his wife, Leonor de Cortinas, and their six children accompanied him on his wanderings.
The only thing that is certain, is that in 1566 Miguel de Cervantes was living in Madrid, together with the rest of his family. In 1568, he penned some poems on the death of Queen Elizabeth of Valois –wife of Philip II–, that were published the following year by Juan López de Hoyos. But before the year was out, he was in Rome. How did he get there and why did he go? Documents exist of an arrest warrant against a certain Miguel de Cervantes who was tried in absentia for having wounded a foreman in a duel. The sentence contained an ironic nod to the future: ten years in exile and the cutting off of his right hand. However, many people maintain that this Cervantes is not Cervantes, or that it is another Cervantes. In the Eternal City he worked in the retinue of the future Cardinal Acquaviva and then entered the army, until one day, as logic would have it –he was a soldier, he was Spanish and it was the 7th of October, 1571– he found himself in the Gulf of Lepanto, history's stage. The sea was calm, the rival fleets roared and crept up on each other, and Miguel de Cervantes was suffering from a fever. He was given permission to take cover, but he wanted to leave his mark on history so he readied himself for combat –“the greatest event seen by past centuries”– in a skiff belonging to the galley La Marquesa. Thirty thousand men died on the Turkish side and twelve thousand on the Christian side, with the latter proclaiming victory. Three arquebus bullets hit Cervantes. Two got him in the chest and a third rendered his left hand useless.
After a few months convalescing in a hospital in Messina, Sicily, he rejoined the army. The Mediterranean had become a huge battleground and Cervantes remained caught up in the whirlwind of history: Navarino, Corfu, Tunisia. He travelled the length and breadth of Italy, living to the fullest –reading extensively and enjoying life even more– and, in 1575, embarked on a ship back to Spain. He had letters of recommendation from Don Juan of Austria and the Duke of Sesto, but these letters, written with the aim of making his existence in Spain easier, ended up complicating his life. In the waters of the Gulf of Roses, the schooner Sol fell into the hands of Barbary pirates who mistook Cervantes for someone important. This delayed his rescue and increased his ransom. Cervantes spent five years in the dungeons of Algiers from which he tried to escape four times until, on the 19th of September 1580, the Trinitarian friar Juan Gil appeared with the ransom. Cervantes returned to Spain to find a country in trouble –caught trapped between grime and luxury, going from one bankruptcy to another as it expanded its boundaries and those of the world– and his family ruined by the cost of his release. In Madrid, he tried to use his achievements as a hero of Lepanto, as well as a former prisoner, to find an administrative post. He was sent to Orán on an obscure, month-long assignment with a hint of espionage, was paid fifty ducats, but that was it. Then he glimpsed America. Cervantes wrote to the Council of the Indies, asking to be sent there and given an administrative job. Nothing. The American dream –what might have been– faded on the horizon and became blurred in an ocean of unanswered prayers. “I am content with little, although I desire much” he wrote in Journey to Parnassus.
So he remained in Spain, he still had Spain, and worked on La Galatea, a pastoral novel. He frequented a tavern on Tudescos Street owned by an Asturian, and he also frequented the tavern owner’s wife, Ana Franca, with whom he had a daughter. In December 1584, he travelled to Esquivias, Toledo, to intercede on the publication of the songbook of a deceased friend, and suddenly –in other words, for no clear reason– he married Catalina Palacios Salazar, a woman half his age. He spent two years in Esquivias, publishing La Galatea in 1585. Finally, in 1587, he got a job as Commissioner of Supplies in Seville. He wrote miscellaneous poems to be placed in bouquets of flowers and songbooks, sold comedies, earned poetic justice and as a prize was given silver spoons. He traversed Andalusia from end to end, requisitioning grain and oil for the Invincible Armada. The gloomy hero inhaled the dust from the roads and got used to the discomfort of the inns. He fixed the landscape in his mind's eye and, in addition, ended up in prison (in Castro del Río, in the province of Córdoba, and in Seville) accused of collecting what he should not have, or taking too long to give the tax office the taxes he had collected. Furthermore, he was excommunicated for seizing church property.
In 1601 the court moved to Valladolid and, three years later, Cervantes settled down by the River Pisuerga, surrounded by women: his wife, sisters, daughter and niece. Without warning, they experienced trouble, distress and unwanted dealings with the law. An important gentleman died –in what today we would call “mysterious circumstances”– at the door, or perhaps even within, the rented house where the Cervantes family lived. The investigation did not solve the death of the gentleman, but it did conclude that all the women of the household led a licentious life that bordered on prostitution. And then, in 1605, something happened; the printing presses of Juan de la Cuesta published the first part of Don Quixote. It was an extraordinary success, was reprinted five times that year and was soon translated into English and French.
The century progressed; the court returned to Madrid in 1606, and Cervantes returned with it. The Count of Lemos became a protector, but Cervantes suffered another disappointment when his famous patron left for Naples to serve as viceroy but did not include him in his entourage. Cervantes was a man on the cusp of two centuries and a writer of the present who looked to the future. With regard to that future, he was particularly concerned about the salvation of his soul, so he increased his presence in orders and congregations and devoted himself to pious works which he alternated with writing. In 1613 his Exemplary Novels were published. A year later, Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda –a pseudonym that has never been explained– published a second, spurious sequel to Don Quixote. As his twilight approached, Cervantes’s activity became frenzied: he wrote Journey to Parnassus, Eight Comedies and Eight New Interludes, Never before Performed and, in 1615, a sequel to Don Quixote, where fiction and reality shone to offer a refined version of the modern novel.
In 1616, as spring advanced, Cervantes, bed-ridden due to illness –diabetes, perhaps liver failure–, awaited death at his home in Madrid on León Street. His agony is reflected in the dedication and prologue of The Trials of Persiles and Sigismunda. “Goodbye, thank you; goodbye, witticisms; goodbye, rejoicing friends; I am dying, and looking forward to seeing you soon, happy in the hereafter.” He withstood the pain of the illness and began fading until, on the 22nd of April, when after so much living, the moment to die arrived.
The Treaty of Algiers / 1582
The century of Cervantes, or rather, the centuries, were centuries of theatre and Cervantes; he was a man of his century or his centuries, and also a man of the theatre. The Treaty of Algiers, which attests to Cervantes's first theatrical phase, is also hugely important biographically and is of great documentary value, blending his story with history. It was not long before the soldier who fought at Lepanto, the former captive, was reunited with freedom; in the meanwhile, Miguel de Cervantes, the man, searched for his place in Spain, but did not find it; and at the same time, the author sought his chance on the stages of the comedy theatres of the day.
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The Siege of Numantia (Numancia) / 1582
In the years before the “comedic monarchy” of Lope de Vega, Cervantes premièred, in his own words “up to twenty or thirty comedies” at Madrid’s comedy theatres. It cannot be said that his work was extraordinarily successful, and the author himself, years later, limited his words to saying that “all of them were performed without an offering of cucumbers nor was any other object thrown.” In The Destruction of Numancia, Cervantes relates the story of the stubborn resistance of the Numantines against the Romans, turning it into a celebration of freedom, a key issue in his literary oeuvre and in the events of his own life.
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La Galatea / 1585
Cervantes put aside his experience as a soldier and captive and immersed himself into the idealised, improbable and symbolic world of the pastoral novel. The tale, sprinkled with verses, followed the successful style of La Diana by Jorge de Montemayor, and tells the story of two shepherds, Elicio and Erastro, on the banks of the Tagus, who are in love with the same modest and beautiful shepherdess, Galatea. Intertwined in it are many other stories of shepherds whose main concern is to love and, just sometimes, to be loved. In the sonnets and songs, the characters lament and, in the background, their flocks graze and streams gurgle. In addition to being a novel, it is an unfinished love treaty. Cervantes always promised he would finish it, even in the prologue of The Trials of Persiles and Sigismunda, which he wrote three days before he died.
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Don Quixote / 1605
In La Mancha, in a nondescript village, there is a gentleman who dreams. He is a man of a certain age and his obsessive, repeated reading of books on chivalry has shrivelled his brain. Suddenly, he feels a call to action. Understanding that his place is on the road, he goes out into the world, suits himself up as a knight and calls himself Don Quixote of La Mancha. He accepts the services of a labourer called Sancho Panza who becomes his squire: the novel is expanded, or multiplied, with reality conversing with fantasy, madness with sanity, and idealism with interests. The book enjoyed immediate success in Spain and was soon translated, whole and in parts, into English and French. Conceived as a satire of the romances about knights in shining armour, the work has, over the centuries, been the subject of new readings that have transcended the original idea, making its humorous slant a tragic story and, in the end, into a metaphysical matter.
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Exemplary Novels / 1613
Novela del casamiento engañoso. La gitanilla. El amante liberal. Riconete y Cortadillo. Licenciado Vidriera. La fuerza de la sangre. El celoso extremeño. La ilustre fregona. La de los perros Cipón y Berganza. Novela de la señora Cornelia. Novela de las doncellas.
This fresco of stories is an embodiment of the entire world, of society as a whole, and also encompasses the Spanish language thanks to the words of rogues, peasants, students, soldiers and leading ladies. Even dogs speak on one occasion. Although the book was published in 1613, we know that some of these stories were written a few years earlier, at the start of the century. There are eleven novels, but there is one, The Deceitful Marriage, which contains what we could call the twelfth, and is known as The Dialogue of the Dogs. Even in the prologue, Cervantes expressed his vocation to entertain while setting “a good example” and, in fact, they all contain a moral contest with good always triumphing over evil.
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Journey to Parnassus / 1614
At first it was poetry, then came everything else, including disappointment. Although it was written late in his life, or maybe because of it, it is essential for understanding the young poet that once was, as well as the man. Reality, or the umpteenth fiasco of a poet who hoped for something else, comes through in this narrative poem written in triplets, in which Cervantes himself travels to Mount Parnassus, after crossing Spain and sailing the Mediterranean. It had not been long since Cervantes had unsuccessfully nominated himself to accompany his patron, the Count of Lemos, to his new post as viceroy of Naples. The poet Lupercio Leonardo de Argensola, who organised the retinue, closed the doors on the man from Alcalá and ended his dream of enjoying, against the backdrop of Italy, a second youth. In the poem, in the fiction, before and after introducing himself to Apollo, the author talks about an endless number of poets, mistreating many of them – including Argensola and his brother – and, in particular, says many interesting things about his own work and his own life. He nostalgically evokes his days in Italy, from which a new sensitivity emerged, claims to be a “strange inventor” and engages in earnest conversation in the poem: “Grace that heaven did not care to give me.”
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Eight Comedies and Eight New Interludes, Never before Performed / 1615
Comedies: El gallardo español. Los baños de Argel. La gran sultana doña Catalina de Oviedo. La casa de los celos. El laberinto de amor. La entretenida. El rufián dichoso. Pedro de Urdemales.
Interludes: El juez de los divorcios. El rufián viudo llamado Trampagos. La elección de los alcaldes Daganzo. La guarda cuidadosa. El vizcaíno fingido. El retablo de las maravillas. La cueva de Salamanca. El viejo celoso.
In 1615, the end was near and Cervantes, spurred on by the possibility of making some money from an old profession, as was that of playwright of comedies, he decided to pen his latest play to paper. The title itself oozes irony. Plays of his exist that were never performed for the very simple reason that Cervantes never found an impresario – in those days they were called authors – who was willing to stage them. Of the entire work, the interludes are what shine: small glimpses portraying customs, where the storyline matters less than the liveliness, the condensed wit and wisdom of the way the characters are presented.
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Don Quixote, Part II / 1615
Before laying the groundwork in which today's modern novel finds its roots, Cervantes had experienced much misfortune and a number of disappointments, as well as a bewildering incident. We must recognise the invaluable merit of the spurious Don Quixote by Avellaneda (1614) as it impelled Cervantes to finish the second part of Don Quixote, which he had, at that time, pretty much abandoned. But it was not the fraud or the economic exploitation that offended Cervantes, but the invective and the taunting. The forger, hidden behind a pseudonym, and never discovered, indulged in joking about the wounds that Cervantes sustained in Lepanto and which were his badge of glory. The truth is that this second spurious part ended up becoming material for a novel and was, like the first real one, a key element in the development of fiction. After a hiatus of selective sanity, Don Quixote returned to the world with his squire Sancho. Now they were two odd celebrities, characters of a book within the novel itself. In the course of their new adventures, that would take them via Aragon to Barcelona and then back to their village, the identity of the protagonists increases in depth – they are, more and more, themselves –, and the story soars on the wings of matters such as friendship, justice and freedom.
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The Trials of Persiles and Sigismunda / 1617
Today's reader, whose idea of what constitutes a novel is greatly due to Cervantes, will find it difficult to recognise that structure in this Byzantine-style work, written in the manner of the Greek writer Heliodorus, and published a year after the author's death. It tells the story of a pilgrimage to Rome by two lovers, Persiles and Sigismunda, who use the names Periandro and Auristela as a disguise, and who travel from faraway lands – the subtitle of the novel is A Northern Story. They pass themselves off as siblings to avoid any incidents and this adds an element of chastity. The very complicated plot involves calamities, prisons, recognition and failure, fate and mischief. Some believe that Cervantes completely ignored realism, thus undermining the credibility and effectiveness of the work, while others argue that he makes the most of what is extraordinarily possible – establishing a relationship with what is an elusive realism for today's readers – in a swan song that was also a massive effort on his part.
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Everywhere and all the time, Cervantes was also a poet. He wrote poetry during the golden years of his youth in Madrid and never stopped – we still have, for example, the verses he wrote in 1568 on the death of Elizabeth of Valois. All his oeuvre is sprinkled with the “sweet art of pleasant poetry”, even his moving and revealing prologues. Cervantes the poet was judged harshly by his contemporaries, and his significance as a novelist has meant that history views him with the same severity. But, in any case, and with regard to many other things, Cervantes was a poet when he wrote prose, and prose was often the best means he had to create an outlet for beauty and poetic truth.
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