I’ve written before about Melveena McKendrick’s exceptional biography, Cervantes. I just want to finish it off by providing a few quotations that I thought were very good.
Probably the most important thing I learned about Cervantes in this book is that the portrait of him (seen on the left), is not him.
This picture is the Juan Martínez de Jáuregui y Aguilar (Jáuregui) portrait of Miguel de Cervantes. Or so it is said. There are three major problems with the painting. First, Jáuregui would have only been 17 when he supposedly painted it. Second, he spells his name in a way he never spelled it. And third, he spells Cervantes name as it was never spelled.
The whole thing comes from the fact that in the Preface of Novelas Ejemplares (Exemplary Novels), Cervantes wrote:
The fault lies with a friend of mine… This friend might well have caused my portrait, which the famous Don Juan de Jáuregui would have given him, to be engraved and put in the first page of this book, according to custom.
According to McKendrick (p. 278):
This innocent remark, which could be taken to mean either that Cervantes had been painted by Jáuregui or that the painter could, if asked, produce such a portrait, predictably sent posterity haring off on a wild goosechase in an effort to discover the authentic likeness of the great man. But alas, there is none, and the portrait most often reproduced as being that of Cervantes, dated 1600, bearing the name Jáuregui and entitled Don Miguel de Cervantes, is not genuine… The painting is almost certainly a nineteenth-century fraud.
We do have some idea of what Cervantes looked like, from Cervantes himself in the same Preface:
This person whom you see here, with an oval visage, chestnut hair, smooth open forehead, lively eyes, a hooked but well-proportioned nose, & silvery beard that twenty years ago was golden, large moustaches, a small mouth, teeth not much to speak of, for he has but six, in bad condition and worse placed, no two of them corresponding to each other, a figure midway between the two extremes, neither tall nor short, a vivid complexion, rather fair than dark, somewhat stooped in the shoulders, and not very lightfooted…
In discussing Cervantes’ writing, I was struck by this passage about a writer’s need to balance expression and privacy (p. 102):
It also reveals [Cervantes] to be alive to the painful dichotomy that every true artist knows to exist between self-expression and self-exposure, between the need to communicate and the desire to do himself justice.
The Prologue to Part One of Don Quixote is very funny. In it, Cervantes makes fun of his own lack of erudition. It turns out, his actual target was Lope de Vega (p. 199):
But his animosity to Lope in the work does not end there. In the Prologue, which would have been written shortly before publication, he makes surreptitious fun of Lope’s attempts to hide his limited education under an inappropriate display of pedantry and ostentatious erudition, his habit of prefixing to his works a whole series of complimentary poems from famous people.
The book is also very useful in providing a look at how Don Quixote was viewed in Cervantes’ time (p. 223):
Lucid intervals or not, for Cervantes and his contemporaries, Don Quixote, whose “deeds”—that is, interference in the lives of others—do more harm than good, remained a ridiculous lunatic.
Finally, McKendrick provides a good view of Cervantes at the end of his life when he was famous and respected, but poor (p. 252):
The couple were but two among the many at court without any very visible means of support—the magistrate’s description, it will be remembered, of the female tenants of the house in Valladolid—yet there is a sad poignancy about the wretched situation of this man whose fame was already spreading in two hemispheres and whose book was giving pleasure to thousands of readers, yet who lived in poverty back home in the most lavish court in the world, ignored by Crown and noble patrons alike. And it was a poignancy that Cervantes himself did not miss, for his later writings are scattered with references to his poverty and neglect, and to the puny rewards received by writers for their labors.
I highly recommend Cervantes. It is a very lively read about a colorful man. And unlike English writers of that time, we actually know quite a lot about him.