Miguel de Cervantes died on the eve of Saint George’s, William Shakespeare on the day itself, in both cases precisely four hundred years ago. Curiously enough, if gentle reader will consult his perpetual calendar he will find that was also a Friday and a Saturday; and thanks to the Muslims (with their lunar calendars) I see it was at the full moon, too. Altogether, a very bad start to the weekend, back there in 1616.
We will consider Mr Shakespeare, not for the first time, on his fatal day tomorrow. Today, the obituary must be for that Spanish gentleman.
In a parallel existence, I have been teaching “Catholic novels” to brilliant young seminarians more familiar with Aristotle, perhaps, and the sacrae Scripturae. These are all modern works, and Cervantes has been called the author of “the first modern novel.” This assertion could be challenged. (Go ahead.) In fact the man was writing, more than a century after modernity began, in the form of a late mediaeval romance. But he was having fun with it, as all should be aware, and turning it against itself as satire.
His novel sometimes brings tears to my eyes, because it is noble. This is the paradox of satire, morally the purest literary genre, and thus to be found embedded within all the great works. One cannot write satire without an awareness of what the virtues are, to which the vices correspond. One dare not write it hypocritically. I always feel safe in the company of the satirical, so far as they are genuinely droll, and not merely cynical parodists.
The first thing to know about Don Quixote is that it is two books. Indeed, a decade passed between them. The second depends on a reading of the first, and follows another quixotic campaign, but with the protagonist now aware that he is a celebrity, whose fame was established in the earlier novel and many illicit and mediocre sequels (which Cervantes gleefully owns). The author has in fact performed a joke on his public, putting them in the same position as his knight errant, having himself created the new legends to which they are now addicted. His Quixote will end this second novel sane; his readers now under a confused enchantment.
Incidents throughout are famous; there are awkward summaries to be found on the Internet, which spoil everything, but hey, that is what the Internet is for. Most, as we know, end with the mad knight and his sidekick getting beaten up. In this sense, both novels can be classed as “picaresques.” In every story, however, the ludicrous denouement is the consequence of our hero’s having tried to do the right thing, in circumstances that had been, unfortunately, completely mistaken.
The earthy Sancho Panza sees through many of his lord’s hallucinations, but is nevertheless along for the ride, expecting it will somehow turn out to his advantage. He is the prole in all ages, and I do not think his author had so high an opinion of his “common sense” as English readers assume.
The trick beneath the satire is that Don Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, who himself lived in many ways an heroic and quixotic life (present at Lepanto for three gunshot wounds; took his lumps at Corfu, and at Navarino, too; and at Tunis, and at La Goulette; captured by pirates and held at Algiers, &c), himself believed there are noble things. Various declarations of his, including one memorable after Lepanto, made clear his attachment to the Christian Faith. The world, to his eyes, might be a farce, and the ambitions of men might all be foolish, and yet strange to say, we are rising.
His genius, for the fullest appreciation of which I would guess a reader must master Golden Age Spanish, is to convey this without seeming to try. Alonso Quixano, the minor hidalgo who has dressed himself up as Don Quixote de la Mancha, is a good man. Were he not mad, he would be an ornament to any society. One comes to love him in the way God might, for all the knight’s little foibles, and the catastrophes that result from them.
For there are noble standards, transcending this world. And one has to be somewhat mad to perceive them. Alas, humans that we are, we tend to get the wrong end of each stick as it is passed to us.
And this is because we are all idiot romantics.
Don Quixote has of course many other dimensions — nothing stands up to more than four centuries of reading without the kaleidoscopic quality — but I think all Cervantes’ work follows from this premiss: the backlight of Heaven in this fallen world. (Yes, I omitted the verb.)
The author, too, of the pastoral Galatea, of the sublime Exemplary Novels, and of the Persiles just completed at his death (which haunted our English Jacobean drama, but has failed to be engaged with since), Cervantes invented the modern novel (if he did) entirely by accident. In this writer we encounter a rich and untwisted philosophical mind, nurtured alike in battle and in the forced leisure of confinement.
English-speaking people sometimes like Don Quixote, but seem culturally unable to take it seriously. Which is why, I think, they miss much of the humour. If they could take it seriously they might find it a key to a Spanish civilization much higher than ours, which flourished once not only in Castilla, but in the viceroyalties of New Spain, New Granada, and Peru, centuries before our prim-browed puritans made their best efforts at Harvard and Yale. It is a key worth turning.