Friday, September 29, 2006

Happy Birthday Miguel

I think I have blogged about Cervantes before. Reading Don Quixote was a highlight of my sabbatical a few years ago. It was a bear...I appreciate well-edited writing, and such was not the fashion then. The book could have used a good copyeditor, but still, it just stays with you and repays the effort many times. From Garrison Keillor's Writer's Almanac this morning, and is good to read when one even thinks of becoming depressed if one's puny little article gets sent back rejected or with a revise and resubmit:

Literary and Historical Notes:
Today is believed to be the birthday of the man who's generally credited with inventing the modern novel,
Miguel de Cervantes, (books by this author) born near Madrid (1547). He was one of the unluckiest authors in the history of Western literature. In 1570 he enlisted in the army in order to help fight back the invasion of the Ottoman-Turkish Empire. He fought bravely in a battle off the coast of Greece, even though he was shot twice in the chest and once in his left hand. The battle was a victory, and he became a war hero, receiving special recognition from the king.

Unfortunately, he and a group of other military men were captured by Algerian pirates on the way home from the war. They were held for ransom in North Africa for five years. Cervantes led four escape attempts and all four attempts failed. As punishment for his escape attempts, he was chained to a wall for months at a time.

When he was finally ransomed and returned to Spain, Cervantes assumed that since he was a famous war hero, he would have no trouble getting government work when he got back to Spain. But nobody even remembered the battle he had fought in. The Spanish economy was in terrible shape, and it was nearly impossible to find a decent job. So he began writing plays. He knew he had to work quickly in order to make his name, and so in the course of just a few years, he managed to produce more than 30 plays.

But not one of Cervantes's plays was a success. As a desperate measure, he took a terrible job as a kind of a tax collector. He had to travel around the countryside in all kinds of weather, arguing with shopkeepers and farmers, enduring accusations of corruption everywhere he went. Even priests hated him. He was excommunicated by half a dozen churches. He was in his 50s, barely supporting his family, unhappy in his marriage, and failing to achieve success as a playwright or poet.

Then in 1595, he got caught up in a financial scandal. He was charged with embezzlement, even though historians believe that he was probably one of the only honest employees working for the government at the time. Having escaped five years of captivity in Africa, Cervantes now found himself imprisoned in his own country for a crime he didn't commit.


Cervantes later wrote that it was during that time in the Royal Prison of Sevilla that he first had the idea for his masterpiece, Don Quixote (1605). He conceived of it as a parody of the chivalric romance genre, which was popular at the time. And so Cervantes invented the character of Don Quixote, a middle-aged man who has read so many romances that he comes to believe they are true. He embarks upon a career as a knight, fighting for righteousness and for the love of his lady, Dulcinea del Toboso, who is actually a peasant wench. He takes as his squire a farmer he knows named Sancho Panza, and the two go off to engage in jousts with windmills.

The first volume of the novel was a best-seller, but unlucky as always, Cervantes didn't make much money from it. There was no copyright at the time, and pirated editions were published all over Europe.
Miguel de Cervantes said, "Too much sanity may be madness, and the maddest of all, to see life as it is and not as it should be."

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