From: Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America 14.1 (1994): 98-102.
Copyright © 1994, The Cervantes Society of America

Spadaccini, Nicholas, and Jenaro Talens. Through the Shattering Glass: Cervantes and the Self-Made World. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993. xvi + 210 pages.


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     In this volume of four chapters (two of them published before in Spanish), Spadaccini and Talens consolidate and present for English-speaking readers those conclusions about Cervantes's art that they have published since 1980. Here they undertake “a transversal analysis [of various works] that cuts synchronically across generic lines” to perceive the historical and social commentary that these works contain, “to focus on questions of poetics and discourse” (xi), and to reveal how Cervantes, by the end of his life, saw the relationship between literature and the world in which authors and readers lived. Texts treated at length are: Viaje del Parnaso (Chapter 1), the entremeses (Chapter 2), Pedro de Urdemalas and El rufián dichoso (Chapter 3), El coloquio de los perros, Don Quixote, and, more briefly, Persiles (Chapter 4). Quotations from texts in Spanish are translated into English especially for this volume (except for Don Quixote and the Novelas ejemplares, for which published translations are cited). The original Spanish is cited throughout.
     The title's metaphor refers to the shattering mirror in the mature Cervantes's “perspectivistic” textual universe of the classical world-view in which texts mirrored a supposedly perfect world of Cervantes's youth (xiv-xv). Unity and modernity, Spadaccini and Talens argue, arise from “Cervantes's continuous [sic] transgression of the limits of traditional genres . . .  If the world acts as a text, then the relation between reality and literature has to be grounded in this textual character” (171). Consequently, they contend, the role of the individual reader or the spectator/reader of dramatic works not performed in their own day was intended by Cervantes himself to be far more critical and active than commercial success allowed. Spadaccini and Talens propose, then, in the tradition of reader-response theory, the semiotics of drama and post-structuralist narratology (many of whose theorists they cite), that Cervantes held a view eccentric in his time, not only of authors and texts, but of readers and spectators. For him, the latter were a highly differentiated collection of individuals, rather than a mass market open to manipulation. The text exists less as an artefact for commercial consumption than as an event, a delightful and useful dialogue between the imagination of the individual writer and that of the individual recipient.
     The strengths of this book are many. It is concise, inexpensive and readily available, characteristics that benefit underfunded libraries and impecunious academics. Thus, in it students of other literatures can discover readily some of the most recent and innovative analysis of Cervantes's lesser-known works by specialists (e.g., Jean Canavaggio and Edward Friedman in the theatre, Diana de Armas Wilson in the prose romance). It applies consistently its hypothesis that Cervantes's texts in one genre illuminate the characteristics of others (e.g., 11-16, 70-78, 107-8, 138-142, 168-171). It thereby undercuts previous assertions that Cervantes's poetic and dramatic texts in the ironic or realistic mode are inferior to his prose fiction. Spadaccini's and Talens's study outlines Golden Age theories of poetic, novelistic and dramatic composition (notably the Neoplatonic and Neo-Aristotelian schools and the followers of Lope de Vega) while it

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incorporates those theories of semioticians and post-structuralist theorists (especially in the drama and in the prose fiction) important to those students of modern literatures testing the validity of Cervantes's conventional status as the progenitor of modern prose fiction. It convincingly situates Cervantes's work within its historical and political context, postulating that Cervantes's art subverts in his own time, not only literary canons, but also the political structures which he repeatedly criticized and which in turn drastically limited his options for publication and, especially, performance. Thus, the scope of the authors' project is admirable for very breadth; they are to be complimented for the length of their reach.
     Nevertheless, flaws exist in the organization and execution of their analysis. Because all his works except La Galatea and Don Quixote Part I were published between 1613 and 1617, Spadaccini and Talens suggest strongly that Cervantes wrote most of them shortly before he published them (xi, 27), thereby justifying chronologically the restriction of analysis in depth to a sample based on the supposed preponderance of late works in the corpus. The most representative microcosm of this limited sample, in turn, is argued to be precisely those works whose composition, at least in part, can be dated to 1613-1616. This shaky equivalence is used to justify their rather tautological selection as examples of Cervantes's artistic consistency throughout his working life precisely those works that most clearly display the characteristics they find most modern: “the so-called realism that guides Cervantes's writing is not a way of representing the world, but a manner of showing the systems of relationships that constitute it” (xiv); and “the presence of a sustained reflection on the world as a text rather than as a source of objective truths (xv).” This is the basis for the authors' innovative, provocative analysis of the continuing appeal to postmodern taste of Cervantes's experiments in the ironic, realistic mode. Indeed, the reader can be left with the impression that Cervantes wrote almost exclusively ironic, experimental, self-referential fiction. But if the works were written shortly before publication, why not study also La española inglesa, Los baños de Argel (both based on historical reality and comparatively late in their dates of composition), or any of the other works contained in the volumes published during those years? Given the thorny problems of dating Cervantine composition studied by Milton Buchanan, Geoffrey Stagg, Daniel Eisenberg and Stephen Harrison (who are not cited in the bibliography), equating the date of publication with the date of composition drastically oversimplifies a complex problem and overlooks the question of how Cervantes's art developed. Spadaccini's and Talens's selection not only implicitly downgrades, but silences a large and important portion of Cervantes's extant texts (those which resemble less the ironic style of the novel than the idealism and fantasy of the romance). These include half the Novelas ejemplares and three of his comedias, works in which Cervantes himself expressed the greatest confidence in the prologues to both collections, and therefore texts which could provide richer evidence for the very points the authors wish to make. For reasons different from Rodríguez Marín's preference

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for low mimetic narrative fiction, Spadaccini's and Talens's criteria for inclusion in their study produce a cross-section of works which resembles the earlier scholar's. For their canon is an extension to poetry and drama of the preference for a mode of writing exalted since the second half of the nineteenth century: the so-called realistic text.
     The authors should be commended for translating quotations in Spanish into English; this practice will be appreciated by English-speaking readers of Don Quixote or the Novelas ejemplares who wish to know more about their author's other texts or about the intellectual context in which he worked. The inclusion of the originals is helpful as a point of comparison to readers of Spanish. Unfortunately, both readers' greatest barriers to appreciating that courtesy are the unhappy literalism of many renderings (especially of verse), the inaccuracy or carelessness of others, and the inconsistent placement of the original Spanish in the text. These characteristics not infrequently vitiate the argument they illustrate. An example of the first is an illustration of Cervantes's “well-made . . . villancicos” (9). The authors offer the following version of Cervantes's amusing refrain, “Derramaste el agua, niña / y no dijiste ‘Agua va’”: “Child, you spilled the waste water / and did not say: “There it goes'” (175, n. 14). Even if they can deduce that this verse depicts a maidservant hurling without warning slops through a window onto hapless passers-by below, English-speaking readers may well find it difficult to imagine from this example why Cervantes's contemporaries could have lauded this humorless prose as poetic language. An example of the second type of error is an inaccurate transcription of one letter in a quotation from El rufián dichoso, precisely that pivotal speech of the protagonist in the second act which leads to his canonization: “el [sic, rather than the original “al” in all editions, including the authors' own] alma de doña Ana de Treviño / que está presente, / doy de buena gana todas las buenas obras que yo he hecho . . .” (185, n. 48). It is rendered: “the soul of Doña Ana de Treviño, / who is present, I give gladly / all the good deeds that I have performed . . .” (95). Unfortunately, a mistaken letter in the original and the consequent lack of the preposition “to” in the translation change utterly the meaning of the speech. The spiritual contract of superhuman charity on which the spectator must judge the protagonist's change of heart and subsequent saintliness becomes in the text (and not in the reader's choice of interpretation) monstrous egotism. As the possibility of an ironic deconstruction of saintly self-abnegation has been precisely the point at issue in recent readings of this play by William Stapp (unmentioned in the bibliography) and by Spadaccini and Talens themselves, this error negates the subtlety of Cervantes's theological argument incarnate in the psychology of this character. Finally, no discernible criteria of language, style or intellectual importance exist for the placement of the Spanish originals of the English translations. Where the latter always appear in the text, the former sometimes appear in the body of the text and sometimes in an end-note. Neither the English-speaker nor the bilingual reader is able to proceed consistently and expeditiously to the argument.

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     However much any reader may disagree with individual conclusions in this book, or disagree with the stylistic decisions the authors have made in their translation of Cervantes, the value of their pioneering effort is undeniable. It forces scholars and critics of Cervantes to begin evaluating his works according to their author's own stated goals and methods as the consciously willed product of an artist who continued to believe in the value of works that were commercial failures. The volume opens new areas for debate: for example, is genre truly a limiting category for Cervantes or is it a point of departure? What has Don Quixote in common with, for example, Rodán, gone mad for love in La casa de los celos? How can it be ascertained whether a work ostensibly written for one medium (performance) was adapted for publication? Last but not least, the authors' overture to non-Spanish speaking readers should inspire a long-overdue effort to translate Cervantes's plays into verse so that they are available to a wider public to appreciate as carefully and as critically as Spadaccini and Talens have argued was Cervantes's intention.

York University

Prepared with the help of Sue Dirrim
Fred Jehle Publications of the CSA HCervantes