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Free Barron's Booknotes-Don Quixote by Migel de Cervantes-Free Book Notes
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THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES - BIOGRAPHY (continued)

After returning to Spain, Cervantes tried to establish himself as a poet, an occupation that was no more profitable then than it is today. He was continually in debt, and his financial problems worsened after his marriage, in 1584, to an eighteen-year-old bride, Catalina. After some time he got a job as an agent of the government commissary, collecting grain to feed the army. The position was a tricky one because the government was often slow in paying suppliers for the grain it took. Cervantes' attempts to be fair got him into trouble more than once. Reasoning that the churches had more than enough grain in storage for their needs, he requisitioned a large share from them. As a result he was excommunicated-ejected from the church.

Throughout all these difficulties, Cervantes had been writing poetry. As it turned out, however, his poems were never quite first rate. He also tried writing plays, but these suffered by comparison to the work of the great Lope de Vega, who was just then introducing a more modern and popular style of dramatic writing. Cervantes did not make his reputation as a writer of the first rank until he turned to prose fiction-a form of literature still not considered entirely respectable by many well-educated people of the time. Cervantes' La Galatea (1585), a pastoral romance, was well received. More importantly, the first part of Don Quixote, which appeared in early 1605, was an instant success.

Cervantes' triumph did not mean the end of his troubles. He made no royalties from Don Quixote, having sold the book outright to the printer for a rather small fee. He also continued to attract trouble through no fault of his own. One such incident, in mid-1605, began when one of his sisters gave shelter to a courtier who had been wounded in a streetfight near the Cervantes' apartment. The man died while under Cervantes' roof and, somehow, the magistrate got the idea that the Cervantes family knew more about the attack than it was telling. Once again, Cervantes was arrested and thrown in jail, where he stayed for some days until the matter was straightened out.


Cervantes was now in his late fifties and suffering from an illness that was probably diabetes. He continued working, however, and in 1613 published a collection of short fiction under the title Novelas ejemplares ("Exemplary Novels"). However, the project of writing a sequel to Don Quixote-what we now know as Part II of the novel-was taking longer than expected. Cervantes delayed so long that an anonymous writer beat him to the punch by publishing, in 1614, a bogus version of Part II. Writing unauthorized sequels to other people's works was a common practice at the time. The author of this sequel, however, compounded the insult by including belittling comments about Cervantes and about the literary qualities of Part I!

Scholars have speculated a good deal about the identity of the author of this bogus sequel. Some have even suggested that the author was none other than Lope de Vega-Cervantes' literary rival. There is no genuine evidence to support this idea, intriguing as it may be. Whoever he was, perhaps the anonymous author did the world a favor after all. The appearance of the bogus sequel made Cervantes so angry that he was inspired to finish his own version of Part II.

Cervantes had little opportunity to enjoy the acclaim that greeted the appearance of the authentic Don Quixote, Part II. Already in bad health, he completed just one more work and died a year later in April 1616- in the same month as his great contemporary, William Shakespeare.

On the closing page of Part II of his great novel, Cervantes had written "For me alone was Don Quixote born, and I for him. He knew how to act, and I knew how to write." These lines were primarily intended as a rebuke to the author of the bogus sequel to his work. However, they were soon to take on a deeper significance. Although Cervantes' active life had never brought him wealth or worldly success, the adventures of his best-known character, Don Quixote, have gained him immortality.

The character of the Don is known all over the world, and millions who have never read the novel have a vivid mental picture of the would-be knight who sets out to do great deeds and ends up tilting at windmills. The story of Don Quixote has been the subject of at least sixteen operas, including works by the nineteenth-century Italian composer Gaetano Donizetti and the French composer Jules Massenet. There have been ballet versions of Don Quixote, a hit Broadway musical (Man of La Mancha), and any number of artists' and sculptors' "portraits" of the imaginary Don.

Ironically, because many of Cervantes' contemporaries on the Spanish literary scene considered Don Quixote a popular but basically frivolous book, Cervantes' most ardent fans have been other writers. The list of novelists who have admired and been influenced by Cervantes' masterpiece is practically endless. It begins with the seventeenth-and eighteenth-century English writers Daniel Defoe, Laurence Sterne, and Henry Fielding and continues on through the nineteenth-century Russian novelists Turgenev and Gogol. Among the noted present-day writers said to have been influenced by Cervantes are the American authors Saul Bellow and Walker Percy; the English author Graham Greene, popularly known for his spy thrillers, has even written his own version of the Quixote story. Cervantes' popularity with other writers-and with those who aspire to become writers-is related to his many technical innovations. He was one of the first novelists to succeed in creating fully developed characters, in writing lively dialogue that sounded convincingly like the speech of real people, and in mixing characters from all classes of society and many ways of life in a single work. However, for writers and artists, as well as for the average reader, the greatest attraction of Cervantes' masterpiece is the character of Don Quixote himself. Cervantes was one of the first to treat in depth the theme of a hero who sets out to reinvent his own identity by sheer force of will. And the theme of the search for identity, in one form or another, has continued to fascinate novelists and their readers ever since.

Given the subsequent popularity of his best-known character, Cervantes' words "For me alone was Don Quixote born" seem especially moving. You might expect, considering Cervantes' own history of bad luck, that he would have filled the pages of his writings with bitterness and gloom. On the contrary, for all its serious overtones, Don Quixote is also a funny book. Cervantes, who by his own admission did not "know how to act" in order to succeed in life, did know how to turn the experiences of his own life into the material for a masterpiece that would entertain, and often inspire, millions.

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