From: Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America
12.1 (1992): 119-24.
Copyright © 1992, The Cervantes Society of America
Jean Canavaggio. Cervantes. Translated by J. R. Jones. New York: W. W. Norton, 1991. 348 pp.
The biographer of Cervantes has no easy task. There is no shortage of source material, but it is hard to deal with. Interpretation of the numerous notarial documents requires knowledge of contemporary commercial, legal, and administrative practice. The illumination they offer of Cervantes' personality is at best indirect. The information contained within Cervantes' literary works is indispensable but, because they are literature and not autobiography, of treacherous application to his life. His prologues and dedications are full of indispensable facts, but are often slanted and self-serving. Once one has used these materials there remain great gaps and unanswered questions. Finally, one must master an immense secondary literature, including, of course, the mammoth, unbalanced, and poorly-organized documentary biography of Astrana Marín. In the process, the biographer must take positions on many controversial issues, such as Cervantes' religious background and views.
This is, no doubt, why there have been so few serious biographers of Cervantes. Indeed, until Canavaggio, there has been no major contributor since Astrana Marín, and he was the first since Fitzmaurice-Kelly. It is a pleasure to report that Canavaggio has joined this small but illustrious club. He has gone through the documents, to my knowledge the first to do so since Astrana Marín.1 It is among the many pleasures of this book to have a fresh reading of two important episodes known only through legal
1 He does
not mention, though they are found in Astrana, two documents which contain
clues about Cervantes' personality. The first is the letter to him from his
superior, Antonio de Guevara, October 20, 1588, directing Cervantes to be
less diligent in collecting wheat: vuestra merced procure juntar toda
la cantidad [de trigo] que pudiere sin rigor y sin tratar de querer sacarlo
de quien no tuviere trigo, porque esto no es justo, de manera que se haga
sin ningún ruido ni queja, aunque no se junte toda la cantidad.
The document of the sale to Francisco de Robles of the privilegio
for the Novelas ejemplares contains an unusual clause in which Cervantes
admitted that this was su justo y verdadero prescio y que no ha hallado
quien más ni otro tanto por ello le dé.
documents: the Ezpeleta affair (pp. 223-26), and the obscure Juan de Urbina-Luis
de Molina-Isabel Saavedra relationship (pp. 232-34). Canavaggio has also
read Cervantes' complete works, assimilated Astrana, and studied the subsequent
contributions, in English as well as French and Spanish, up to about 1984.
(The French original of this biography appeared in 1986.) Canavaggio has
also dared to speculate, always intelligently, on the gaps that remain. The
result is a biography that fully deserves the honors already bestowed on
His grounding in Spanish Golden Age culture and literature with its foundation a knowledge not only of Don Quixote but of the theater is unsurpassed, and a definite contrast with his predecessor William Byron. As a result, the biography is also full of fontecicas of historical context that will be of provecho to the most seasoned scholar. Some examples of these fascinating tidbits: D. Juan de Austria wanted to be king of Tunis, a city which Cervantes visited (p. 64). Cervantes' maestro poético Pedro Laínez was also a chamberlain of Felipe II (p. 43); his widow, who shared Cervantes' house in Valladolid, was a morisca (p. 131). Cervantes visited Lisbon (p. 101). Tomás Gutiérrez, Cervantes' friend in Seville, was a former actor who kept a luxurious boardinghouse greatly esteemed by noble travelers (p. 144); we thus have Cervantes living, at least temporarily, in luxury. Cervantes' excommunication was not very significant, because in sixteenth-century Spain, excommunication was frequent because it was the only arm at the Church's disposal in conflicts that periodically set it against civil powers (p. 146). Góngora wrote a poem on Gaspar de Ezpeleta, the nobleman murdered in front of Cervantes' residence in Valladolid (p. 223). Lope's Arte nuevo de hacer comedias may be an answer to the canon from Toledo (p. 266). The Parnaso was dedicated to the son of a dishonest magistrate of the Royal Council, a fifteen-year-old adolescent named Rodrigo de Tapia (p. 263), though one wishes Canavaggio had helped us understand why Cervantes dedicated his book to a fifteen-year-old adolescent. Fernando de Lodeña, who wrote a prefatory sonnet to the Novelas ejemplares, was the illegitimate son of his deceased sister Magdalena (p. 241). A cervantes was a deceived husband (p. 282).
Few could have written the following synopsis of the literary culture of Seville when Cervantes arrived: Even if there never was, in the true sense of the word, a Sevillian school, the Spanish Athens in the decade that followed Lepanto was home to a constellation of humanists and poets who contributed greatly to its renown. It was Miguel's bad luck that when he arrived in Andalusia, the count of Gelves's salon, which under the guidance of the divine Herrera once set the tone for the rest of the city, had closed its doors eight years earlier. Juan de Mal Lara was dead; Herrera, so admired by Cervantes, was ending his days retired from the world; Juan de la Cueva, like many others, had left for Madrid; Mosquera de Figueroa, whom we glimpsed at Écija in the exercise of his office, was often required by his post as corregidor to be absent. Perhaps it was he who, during one of his stays, introduced the author of Galatea to the estimable Baltasar del Alcázar,
the Sevillian Martial. Perhaps it was Alcázar who brought Cervantes
to the two or three local academies where he would later read some of his
verses; perhaps Alcázar took him to the bookshops of Díaz and
Clemente Hidalgo before introducing him to the celebrated sculptor Martínez
Montañés. But Cervantes, subject to the unpredictability of
an itinerant life, must not have been a regular visitor in this society of
literary men; Francisco Pacheco, though praised by Cervantes in the Song
of Calliope, does not even mention our hero in his gallery of illustrious
Sevillians (pp. 164-65). There is a shorter presentation of the literary
scene in Valladolid in 1605 (pp. 200-01). Strangely Canavaggio does not mention
the Valladolid physician Alonso López Pinciano
Pinciano meant from Valladolid whom Cervantes
could well have known there.
It is a shame that such a thorough biography describes itself as intended for non-specialists (p. 333), and omits documentary references for the points that it discusses. Still, it is going to be the one-volume standard for a generation or more. Precisely because of its excellence, this reviewer feels the need to go through it painstakingly.
A number of Canavaggio's interpretations of the facts are questionable, and tend to accept uncritically Cervantes' self-presentation as the unrecognized and unrewarded sufferer. Cervantes' salary of twelve reales a day is laughable if one thinks of him as the author of the greatest masterpiece of Spanish literature, but it was not unreasonable for a purchasing agent who had yet to write said masterpiece (p. 145). The real question is why Cervantes was working as a purchasing agent: did he prefer it, or was he blocked from more lucrative or prestigious employment? Canavaggio understates Spain's intellectual isolation when he claims there was intellectual exchange with Italy and Flanders (p. 41); imports of books from Italy and Flanders were severely controlled. While Italians or Dutch could study in Spain, if they wished, Spaniards were prohibited from studying in Italy (save the Spanish college in Bologna) and in Flanders. My own research leads me to disagree with Canavaggio's statement of Italian influence on Cervantes (p. 72).2
Cervantes' contacts with the financial world in Valladolid, which led Carroll Johnson to call him an active member of the business and financial community,3 are gratuitously characterized as shady figures (p. 225). Considering these contacts, it would seem contradictory to describe Cervantes in Valladolid as no longer interested in the king's service and entirely preoccupied with the proximate publication of Don Quixote (p. 200). It is similarly forced to attribute his move to Valladolid to a need to publicize Don Quixote (p. 198). Living in a new apartment in what was by far the most expensive city in Spain, his lodgings were not luxurious, but they
Cervantes and Tasso Reexamined, KRQ, 31 (1984), 305-17;
included in Spanish translation in Estudios cervantinos (Barcelona:
3 La española inglesa and the Practice of Literary Production, Viator, 19 (1988), 377-416, at p. 413.
were not miserable either (p. 200).4 It is
incorrect to say that Spain will unanimously, or almost unanimously,
applaud the expulsion of the moriscos (p. 238). Few Valencians,
facing agricultural ruin, favored it. Cervantes is unique not in opposing
the measure not all agree that he did oppose it, but in putting
a morisco viewpoint in print. That Cervantes read and reread
Amadís in his youth (p. 208) might be true, but it seems more
likely that he read and reread it, and other chivalric books, as an adult.
It is incorrect to say that the books of chivalry, other than
Lepolemo, were written by Arab chroniclers like Cide Hamete
It is also incorrect to say that Don Quixote's success was without precedent since Celestina (p. 216). Keith Whinnom has already pointed out that Montemayor's Diana and the Guzmán de Alfarache were much bigger successes, as was Amadís de Gaula. The list would be considerably longer if one went beyond belles lettres and added Pérez de Hita, Antonio de Guevara, Fray Luis de Granada (author of two books each more popular than Don Quijote), Pedro Mexía, the Marqués de Santillana's Proverbios, and translations such as Aesop, Virgil's Aeneid and Ovid's Metamorphoses.5 The six editions in 1617 of the Persiles are perhaps less an indication of its success (p. 307) than of the interest aroused by Cervantes' previous works: not one of the six different publishers who issued the Persiles in 1617 brought out a second edition. Seventeenth-century readers may well have preferred the Novelas ejemplares to Don Quijote, but surely few of them also preferred La Galatea and Persiles (p. 7). Canavaggio has taken Anthony Close too much to heart when he states that the seventeenth century did not have the slightest premonition of ... the conflict between the Ideal and the Real in Don Quixote (p. 216). Certainly Cervantes was aware of it: the conflict between the ideal Dulcinea and the real Aldonza is present in the text, as is that between the self-sacrificing, visionary Don Quijote and the mercenary, no-nonsense Sancho. According to Chapter 3 of Part II, some readers understood what Cervantes put in it: los niños la manosean, los mozos la leen, los hombres la entienden y los viejos la celebran.
On one truly crucial point Canavaggio's treatment is unsatisfactory: he refuses to take a position on Cervantes' religious class, based on which doors in society were either open or closed. His language suggests, moreover, that Jewish ancestry was a true, rather than merely a social disgrace: we have no decisive proof of a mancha (p. 25). One wonders how decisive proof could today be forthcoming, when the incentives for destroying and denying evidence were so powerful. Documents notwithstanding, most of
my Did Cervantes Have a Library? in Hispanic Studies in Honor
of Alan D. Deyermond: A North American Tribute, ed. John S. Miletich
(Madison: Hispanic Seminary of Medieval Studies, 1986), pp. 93-106; translated
in Estudios cervantinos.
5 Keith Whinnom, The Problem of the Best-seller in Spanish Golden-Age Literature, BHS, 57 (1980), 189-98.
those who worked with money had Jewish ancestry; most in the medical profession,
as were several of Cervantes' relatives, had Jewish ancestry; most Golden
Age writers had Jewish ancestry;6 Cervantes
seems to have had doors closed to him. The circumstantial evidence is
overwhelming. On the religious class of Don Quixote and Sancho
the latter, but not the former, loudly proclaims his cristiano
viejo status Canavaggio is silent.
Finally, I am not sure that most Cervantine scholars would agree that the Tía fingida is spurious (p. 249). My own work on the Cervantine canon has led me to identify Cervantes' allegedly lost Relación por las fiestas del nacimiento del príncipe (p. 222) with the book on this topic published anonymously in 1605.7 The fragment I have (following Schevill and Bonilla) argued to be part of the Semanas del jardín does not support the common notion that it consisted of a collection of novellas (p. 309).8 Unfortunately, Canavaggio missed Geoffrey Stagg's convincing assault on the validity of the Porras manuscript.9
It might seem that this lengthy list of reparos indicates that my judgment about this biography is negative or qualified. Such is not the case. Canavaggio has written the best one-volume biography of Cervantes since that of Fitzmaurice-Kelly, published in 1913, and that one too, like every other, suffered from blind spots and limitations.10 Canavaggio's work is painstaking and original. It is indeed the starting place not just for non-specialists but for cervantistas as well.
The translation by Joseph Jones is a delight, and more accurate than the Spanish translation (an observation for which I am indebted to Jürguen Hahn). Painstaking and sensitive, it will send readers to the dictionary: harquebus (p. 5), the merchants' loggia (p. 162), the crenellated mass of the Tower of Gold (p. 162), boreal (p. 307). Novelas ejemplares is rendered Exemplary Novellas, and the Viaje del Parnaso is Journey to Parnassus. How nice it is that Spanish terms such as comedias, autores, mosqueteros are left. The maps, index, typography, and paper are better than those of the original, although the index unfortunately omits many less important names that come up in the text, among them Ariosto, Boiardo, Tasso, and
6 A. David
Kossoff, Fuentes de El perro del hortelano y una teoría
de la España del Siglo de Oro, Estudios sobre literatura
y arte dedicados al profesor Emilio Orozco Díaz (Granada: Universidad
de Granada, 1979), II, 209-13.
7 Repaso crítico de las atribuciones cervantinas, Nueva Revista de Filología Hispánica, 38 (1990), 477-92; included in Estudios cervantinos.
8 Las Semanas del jardín de Miguel de Cervantes (Salamanca: Diputación, 1988 ).
9 Geoffrey Stagg, The Refracted Image: Porras and Cervantes, Cervantes, 4 (1984), 139-53; the errata sheet should be noted.
10 Fitzmaurice-Kelly was so convinced of the poverty of Cervantes' family that a debt of 800 ducados owed to his father is dismissed as impossible (Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. A Memoir [Oxford: Clarendon, 1913], p. 61, n. 1).
Sannazzaro. Cervantes' religious background is indexed under purity of his blood. Misprints spotted are hidalquía (p. 26), alquacil (p. 49), Boioardo (p. 71), Cristóbel (p. 273), Montesino's cave (p. 288), and apparently a misspelling in the French original zurujano (p. 22). Whereas the French original had the familiar false portrait on the cover, the pseudo-Jáuregui, this version replaces it with an unfamiliar, unidentified one.
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