The Author as Character: Representing Historical Writers in Western Literature

By Paul Franssen; Ton Hoenselaars | Go to book overview

The Truthful Fiction of the Death and Life
of the Author: Cervantes and Marlowe

HARM DEN BOER

To the best of my knowledge, The Death and Life of Miguel de Cervantes by Stephen Marlowe is the first novel in which the master of Spanish literature appears as the protagonist.1 This may seem somewhat strange, for the great number of biographies written about Cervantes shows that the author's life is not lacking in interest, that it constantly invites romanticization, and is interpreted in very different ways.2 There are some short fictionalized evocations of the author, of which those by Azorín deserve to be mentioned.3 Both provide an explanation for the limited fictional exploitation of the writer: he is constantly compared to his greatest creation, the spirited Knight of La Mancha. Yet Cervantes's life would make a fertile subject for many a novel, even without Don Quixote.

Cervantes belonged to a complicated family, which constantly found itself in economic trouble and was constantly on the move. In the Spanish climate of his lifetime, poisoned by notions of “purity of blood,” he was thought to be descended from recent converts. Intriguingly, this issue is still a topic for discussion, as when attempts are made to find an explanation for Cervantes's “tolerant,” mildly ironical view of reality.

Through his exploits both in literature and on the battlefield, Cervantes embodied the ideal of the Renaissance man. Before acquiring fame as a writer, he had distinguished himself by his heroism as a soldier in the Battle of Lepanto (1571), the finest hour of Philip II's Spain. Having spent five years in the service of the Spanish empire, he spent another five as a captive of the Barbary pirates in Algiers, where he earned the admiration of his fellow prisoners for his exemplary attitude in the face of so much adversity, and because of his three, albeit unsuccessful, attempts to escape. However, there was also a completely unheroic side to his life; on his return to Spain, Cervantes was forced by lack of money to accept an obscure, frustrating job as a commissary and tax

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