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Miguel De Cervantes
Harper Perennial, 2005
992 pp., $16.99
The Exasperated Knight of the Sorrowful Face
Edith Grossman's new translation of Don Quixote is a pleasure to read, not a chore. Easy, vernacular, high-conversational in tone, written in the long sentences of an expansive spirit, this English version let me truly enter the greatest of all dialogues, literary or otherwise.
What kind of proprietary relationship exists between the writer and his character? Hamlet, Falstaff, Lear, and company are always Shakespeare's. They are giants of the stage, along with their mysterious creator. Deeply as they speak to the human heart, they don't leave the boards, walk out through the audience, and exit to the street. What writer could name a character "Hamlet" and think even for a moment that it would not conjure Shakespeare's?
Doctor Johnson, a historical personage, may live by dint of James Boswell's journalizing, but the author of The Dictionary had a larger-than-life existence of his own. Thanks to the heap of minute particulars amassed by Boswell, there is little chance of anyone "being" or invoking "another" Samuel Johnson. The obverse of a character imagined so vividly that he seems real, like the mural painted by Appelles that birds tried to light on, Boswell's subject is an actuality meticulously documented by an imagination in love with another man's life.
Don Quixote presents itself as a personal history, framed in the conventions of a courtly romance. Miguel de Cervantes, the author of record, was perhaps descended from Spanish Jews on his mother's side. As a young man, he fought with the Spanish navy alongside the vessels of Venice and the Papal States in the Battle of Lepanto and was wounded in that victory over the Ottoman fleet. Sailing home four years later, Cervantes was captured by Barbary pirates, and endured five years of slavery in Algiers before his family finally ransomed him. Back in Spain and dirt-poor, he worked for a time as a collector of taxes beginning around the defeat of the Spanish Armada, only to be imprisoned for peculation, or incompetence, ...