Even though we’ve already had our birthday post, the day cannot go by without mentioning that Miguel de Cervantes was born on or around this day in 1547. I often find myself reminding people that I’m a bit of a Cervantes fan, even though all they have to do is look at the header of this website. The site has had three headers since it was started almost five years ago. The first was the René Magritte header, which was super cool but took up too much of the page. Then we had the phrenology header, which was interesting but I never felt comfortable with it. That’s when we came up with the current “Lego” Don Quixote header. Or rather I should say that Andrea did. She’s done all the art and all the thinking.
But the header does give one incorrect impression. Although I think the two Don Quixote novels are amazingly awesome works, it isn’t just that. Cervantes himself was a really interesting guy. He’s a lot more than those two books. He did quite a lot of great work in his later years. I think it is because he really started showing who he was on the page. It’s clear that he was a very funny guy. He had a wry outlook on life. And especially at this point in my life, I need that.
Life and Times
Cervantes is also my kind of guy. He always wanted to be a poet, but he wasn’t from a rich family and he wasn’t a very good poet. So he joined the army and went off to war. This was at a time when soldiers had to be hunter-gatherers to get fed. They often waited years to get paid. Spain was at war with the Ottoman Empire, and Cervantes fought bravely — even heroically. In the process, he lost one of his hands. It has never been clear to me whether it was amputated or simply useless. Regardless, on his way back to Spain, he was captured by Algerian pirates. Because of some mix-ups in communication, his captors became convinced that he was well connected and thus would bring a high ransom. He wasn’t and didn’t. He spent five years in captivity, during which time he tried escaping four times — a couple of them quite involved schemes. Eventually, his family was able to provide a small ransom and get him released.
On his return, he tried to get a military commission, but the government wasn’t interested. He continued to write plays, but no one was really interested in them either. This is about the time that he and Lope de Vega became literary enemies. Cervantes was a traditionalist, as far as theater was concerned. And de Vega was revolutionizing the theater. It’s an interesting irony that when Cervantes finally found success by revolutionizing the novel, de Vega was disparaging.
Regardless, without any other way to make ends meet, Cervantes became a tax collector. This does not mean what you probably think. He would go into townships and negotiate with the entire town to pay what it owed. These negotiations could go on for months and Cervantes didn’t have a great deal of leverage. What was worse was that like being in the military, the government only paid him afterwards — often long afterwards. And they provided no stipend for him to get by on while working in the field.
Because of this work, he was twice thrown in prison because of irregularities in his accounting. One time it was simply a matter that he deposited government money in a bank that went bankrupt. So you can see, life for people like Cervantes was not easy and it was extremely unfair. He had constant financial problems throughout his life, although things did seem to get a bit better at the end.
The way publishing was done at that time was a writer sold a work to a publisher. That was all the money the writer got. The publisher owned it. (It is technically different now, but as any writer will tell you, don’t expect to make much more than your advance.) So when Don Quixote Part 1 was a huge hit, it didn’t make Cervantes rich. But it did make it much easier for him to publish things — and for more money. And this is when he wrote his greatest works such as Exemplary Stories, Eight Comedies and Eight New Interludes, Never Before Acted, and his masterpiece, Don Quixote Part 2.
A couple of years ago, I wrote an article, This is Not Cervantes. It is about that image at top of this article. Everyone uses it because it is the only thing we have that might be considered an image of him. In his preface to Exemplary Stories, Cervantes talks about how a young artist could have painted a portrait of him to go into the book. As Cervantes’ scholar Melveena McKendrick noted:
We have the same problem with Shakespeare. There is no painting or etching of him from when he was alive. The closest we come is a sculpture on his tomb, where he looks rather bloated, that was doubtless done from his corpse. Better than nothing, but forget all those images you’ve seen. Regardless, it doesn’t really matter what either man looked like. At least Cervantes was good enough to provide us with a self mocking description of his appearance in Exemplary Stories:
Cervantes wrote at least eight full length plays. They are generally not well regarded. But I wouldn’t know. I’ve never read them. Just recently, his two best regarded plays The Bagnios of Algiers and The Great Sultana have been translated by Barbara Fuchs and Aaron Ilika in, Two Plays of Captivity. More important to me, no one has ever translated Eight Comedies and Eight New Interludes, Never Before Acted. There are individual plays translated here or there. Some day I may do it myself.
A couple of years ago, I wrote about Cervantes’ short comedy, The Cave of Salamanca. It is very funny. Here is the beginning of it from a translation by Edwin Honig:
pancracio: Mistress, dry those tears and stop your sighing. Remember, I’ll be away four days, not centuries. On the fifth day, at the latest, I’ll be back, God preserve me. But if it upsets you so, just say the word and I’ll break my promise and give up the trip altogether. Surely my sister can get married there without me.
leonarda: Pancracio, dear lord and master, I don’t want you to be discourteous because of me. Go now, God speed you, and meet your obligation, since the matter is so pressing. My grief I’ll keep to myself and spend the lonely hours as best I can. Only, I beg you to come back and not stay any longer than you promised. Oh, help me, Cristina, I’ve a pain in my heart!
cristina: Ah, weddings and holidays—such dreadful things! Indeed, sir, if I were you, I’d never go there.
pancracio: Run inside, girl, and get me a glass of water to throw in her face. No, wait, I know a few magic words I’ll whisper in her ear: they can revive people who faint.
[He speaks the words and Leonarda recovers, saying]
leonarda: Enough. It can’t be helped. I must be patient. My dear, the more you linger, the longer you delay my happiness. You friend Leoniso should be waiting for you in the carriage. God be with you and bring you back as quickly and safely as I could wish.
pancracio: If you want me to stay, my angel, I’ll be like a statue and not budge an inch.
leonarda: No, no, sweet comfort. Your wish is my desire, which means you must leave and not stay here, for your honor and mine are one and the same.
cristina: Oh, mirror of matrimony! If all wives cherished their husbands as my mistress loves hers, they’d sing a different tune.
leonarda: Go get my shawl, Cristiana. I must see your master safely off in his carriage.
pancracio: No, I beg you. Kiss me, but stay here, please. Cristina, be sure and cheer up your mistress, and I’ll get you a pair of shoes when I return.
cristina: On your way, sir, and don’t you worry about my mistress. I’ll see to it we both enjoy ourselves so she won’t miss your absence.
leonarda: Enjoy myself? Me? What a fantastic idea! Without my love beside me, I can know no bliss or joy, only grief and sorrow.
pancracio: I cannot bear this any longer. Ah, light of my eyes, farewell; I’ll see nothing to delight me will I gave upon you once again.
leonarda: Good-bye, and good riddance to you! Go, and don’t come back! Vanish, go up like smoke in thin air! Good God, this time all your bluster and squeamishness don’t move me a bit!
cristina: And I was afraid your sweet nothings would keep him here and spoil our fun.
leonarda: Do you think our guest will really come tonight?
cristina: And why not? I’ve been in touch with them, and they’re just dying to come.
Cervantes was a little devil. Eventually the husband’s carriage breaks down and he comes back and it all turns into something like a Marx Brothers movie.
When it comes to Don Quixote I still get asked a lot what translation is the best — or at least which one they should read. The standard answer to that is, “Anything but Peter Motteux.” But in general, I wouldn’t even go that far. I would say you should read any copy you can get your hands on. The standard translation is John Ormsby’s, which is absolutely free and available in a number of formats from the Gutenberg Project. Walter Starkie’s 1957 translation seems to always be available in abundance at book sales for a quarter. Or you could get The Portable Cervantes, that provides Samuel Putnam’s lightly abridged Don Quixote, two stories from Exemplary Stories, and a tiny bit of The Troubles of Persiles and Sigismunda.
I don’t think it is necessary to pay more for one of the recent translations like the one by Edith Grossman. But if you do, I would recommend taking a walk on the wild side and trying one by Burton Raffel or John Rutherford. But like I said, it doesn’t too much matter. Since Cervantes is above all a character-oriented writer, his voice comes through regardless.
The main thing to remember is that both the books are a romp. They are comedies. Cervantes had a keen eye for the absurdity of life and people and it finds its greatest expression in Don Quixote. And given that, it is perfectly all right to skip the poetry, which is, with very few exceptions, mediocre. And that’s when it is well translated. Grossman, for example, doesn’t even pretend to care.
Cervantes is still alive. If you read him.