Bibliophiles extraordinaire, and purveyors of fine rare, antiquarian, and generally serendipitous literary items – Adrian Harrington Rare Books valiantly returns to the Blogosphere, recently burst from its chrysalis of relocation. We will be sharing pearls of wisdom and curiosities from our collection, alongside general literary news and comment, and stories from the mysterious world of book-selling.
This week seems as auspicious as any to begin, being the anniversary of the death of both William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, author of Don Quixote.
Harold Bloom in an article from 2003 identified these two authors as the stand-out literary titans of modern European literature, but claims the top spot for Cervantes, popularly credited as the father of the modern novel, though much less widely read today. As a reader not graced with the ability to appreciate Cervantes’ work in the original language, I cannot help but agree with much of Bloom’s praise for this extraordinary author, as well as the scope and originality of his work.
For me, Don Quixote is visceral, often uncomfortably so, in its depiction of the prosaic realities of life in early seventeenth-century Spain. More significantly, it is also intensely Christian in its portrayal of the central eponymous character. Quixote is a martyr to the causes of errantry, courtly love, loyalty, and chastity; combining elements from popular Mediaeval stories such as Abelard and Heloise, the Song of Roland, the Arthurian Romances, and the Life of Gerald d’Aurillac.
Yet, set in the ‘real world’, the causes for which Quixote loses his teeth and ruins his health turn out to be elaborate absurd fantasies. He seems ridiculous to most of the people he meets on his travels, though of course, as the distressing little episodes which make up the story progress, it becomes ever more clear that Quixote is better than any of them. Whereas in The Idiot, by Fyodor Dostoevsky, a gentle invalid is destroyed by the relentless egoism of the world around him, the awkward and ageing Quixote is energetic enough to fight back and occasionally gain some minor victories. Indeed, it is this element of the story which explains the timeless appeal of Cervantes’ literary creation – its playful ambiguity. As Bloom has so deftly noted, the authorial voice never influences the reader in their interpretation of Quixote’s actions. He is both the romantic fool and a paragon of virtue – an anomalous curiosity capable of great wisdom as well as incredible stupidity. Holding the treacherous mutability of the physical universe to account until the very last, Quixote briefly regains his former identity and repents of his career as knight-errant before he dies. For me, this is simply the final indignity piled upon noble Quixote. Was he perhaps not a man, but the embodiment of an idea; living more authentically in print than in real life?
Perhaps Cervantes wrote Don Quixote precisely because he knew through bitter experience that such a man could never have lived. As the high-tide of Ottoman conquest continued to sweep over Eastern Christendom, courtesy of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent and his immediate successors, the naval battle of Lepanto (1571), in which Cervantes himself fought with distinction, was the one united victory a divided Europe could claim. Yet for all this desperate virtue and heroism, no lasting advantage was gained. As Bloom surmises, ‘The knight [Quixote] is Cervantes’s subtle critique of a realm that had given him only harsh measures in return for his own patriotic heroism.’ Cervantes, it seems, was writing primarily as a disappointed man; and yet, through all of the thick irony of his novel, it is clear to me that he saw something of the divine in Quixote’s madness.
It seems particularly ridiculous, then, that Cervantes’ profile has risen recently on account of the purported discovery of his final resting place at a convent in Madrid which had helped ransom him from Moorish pirates in 1580, after five years of slavery in Algiers. Anyone who is interested in the physical remains of such an author has surely missed the point, especially when a definitive identification is currently impossible. Comparisons have obviously been made with the recent discovery and re-burial of Richard III, subject of the historical play of the same name by Shakespeare. This was also a bizarre series of events, but it did at least allow historians to dispel once and for all the myth that the King was seriously physically disfigured by his spinal condition. In my opinion, this was actually good for Shakespeare, in the sense that it will allow audiences to appreciate the themes in the play, without having to worry about its relation to historical reality. It is more clear than ever now that there is little or nothing of the real King Richard in Shakespeare’s dramatisation – first and foremost the character is a vehicle for the playwright’s critique of raw ambition. Lying behind modern cultural phenomena such as Game of Thrones, Shakespeare’s creation is now more than ever his own glorious achievement.
James Murray, 20/04/15