The Literature of the Spanish People: From Roman Times to the Present Day

By Gerald Brenan | Go to book overview

CHAPTER VIII
CERVANTES

A CURIOUS thing about Spanish literature is that it travels badly. Whatever the reason may be, few Spanish books have gained general currency beyond their language frontiers. The one exception to this is Cervantes, who has been translated into more than fifty different languages and into English alone some eight or nine times. So well known is his great book in this country that I shall take a certain familiarity for granted and confine myself to aspects that seem less obvious than others. Otherwise I should merely be repeating what other writers with far greater authority than myself have already said.

Let us begin by seeing what sort of a man Miguel de Cervantes was. Born 1547 near Madrid, the son of an apothecary surgeon with seven children, he had an early introduction to poverty with its harsh routine of pawnshop, money-lender and prison. In spite of this, however, he was able to obtain a fair education--first, it is thought, at Seville and then at the city school of Madrid. Here his master was one of the last of the old humanists and followers of Erasmus; we hear of the young man, just twenty-one, writing a poem which this master singled out for praise and have reason for thinking that his influence was an important one.

A desire to see the world now took him to Italy. At Naples he joined a Spanish regiment as a private soldier and fought in the great sea battle of Lepanto, where he lost the use of his left hand. Other engagements followed. Then, on his way back to Spain with letters recommending his promotion, he was captured by the Moors and taken to Algiers. Here he spent five years as a slave. When at length he was ransomed, his daring in planning escapes and in taking the blame for them when they failed had given him the sort of reputation reserved in our day for the heroes of the Resistance.

Back in Spain at the age of thirty-three, he suffered the common

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