(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Cervantes has had many biographers, but only a few have directed their work toward a general readership. In English, the most recent are R. L. Predmore and Manuel Durán. This new book is an exhaustive biography in which William Byron organizes all the facts that are known about Cervantes into a manageable adventure story. As he states clearly, it contains no new facts, for all extant documentary evidence about the life of Spain’s greatest novelist has already been published in some form. Rather, this is a work of revision which puts everything in the perspective of the historical circumstance in which Cervantes lived. Predmore and Durán write for an educated general audience, and they assume a certain amount of sophistication in the area of literature and literary criticism. Byron does not. He addresses the average reader who knows little and cares even less about what literature is, or what the proper approach to literature should be. Predmore’s biography (1973) and Durán’s (1974) are clearly the work of scholars of Hispanic culture with specialized training in literary criticism. Byron’s book indicates that his interest lies more in the field of history and that he does not have experience in literary analysis. His biography of Cervantes tries to be all things at once: biography, cultural history, literary history, and literary criticism. As it synthesizes all the previous work on Cervantes’ life and works, it is sometimes successful, sometimes disappointing, and occasionally irresponsible.

For the first 150 years after the publication of Don Quixote, there was no interest in the life of its author. Then, in 1737, Gregorio Mayans y Siscar published his Life of Cervantes, which in 1738 received wider exposure as a preface to an edition of Don Quixote. From that point on, Cervantes’ life received a great deal of attention as various scholars unearthed new documents related to the facts of the author’s life. The culmination of this trend was the massive seven-volume work by Luis Astrana Marín, published from 1947 to 1958, the Vida ejemplar y heroica de Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, con mil documentos hasta ahora inéditos y numerosas ilustraciones y grabados de época (Exemplary and Heroic Life of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, With One Thousand Previously Unpublished Documents and Numerous Illustrations and Engravings of the Period). After Astrana Marín’s research, it is almost inconceivable that anything new could be added, but his title—Exemplary and Heroic Life—betrays his lack of objectivity in the evaluation of all these facts. Byron’s task has been to transform all this material into a narrative accessible to the general reader in English, and provide a new evaluation of the documented facts.

The biographer is always faced with difficult decisions in writing about a person who lived centuries ago, particularly if he does not have access to contemporary accounts. There are no contemporary biographies of Cervantes, only numerous documents that provide rather scanty knowledge of his involvement in the events of his time. In such a case, the biographer may write a kind of historical novel, in which he presents his central character doing things which he probably did, given the evidence. Or he may limit himself to telling only what the person definitely did, according to the specific documents or reliable eyewitness accounts of his contemporaries. In either case, the biographer has an obligation to present that person’s life in the context of his times. This is usually the least difficult of the tasks, for the historical milieu can be reconstructed from a wide variety of sources. Byron does a very capable job of creating that historical ambience. He does not do so well in choosing an approach to Cervantes’ actual participation in the events of his time. In fact, he never quite decides what his approach will be. The result is a strange combination of fact and speculation. Byron is entirely honest about his blending of truth and fiction, but his constant vascillation between what Cervantes did and what Cervantes must have done turns out to be very irritating. The problem lies mainly in the style of Byron’s writing.

This passage from his examination of some fragmentary evidence of a duel between Cervantes and one Antonio de Sigura is a good example of the flaws in this book.A fight could nevertheless have started in the arcaded palace courtyard. . . . Cervantes might have encountered Sigura there. But why cross swords with him? . . . Did a Cervantes too impressed with his new friendships tease Sigura for his illiteracy? . . . Or...

(The entire section is 1898 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Booklist. LXXV, November 1, 1978, p. 448.

Kirkus Reviews. XLVI, August 15, 1978, p. 914.

Library Journal. CIII, September, 15, 1978, p. 1748.

Publisher’s Weekly. CCXIV, August 14, 1978, p. 56.