A study of the life of Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote. It traces his life as a soldier, as a tax collector, his time as a prisoner of war of the Turks, and finally the publication of Don Quixote in 1605.
In this splendid biography, which won the Prix Goncourt in 1987, Canavaggio (Univ. of Caen) has achieved an unusual balance between meticulous scholarship and creative presentation in a style personable, lucid, and coherent. Along the way, Canavaggio offers insightful histories of the history of Cervantes - those fantasies that, for lack of genuine information, successive ages and diverse cultures have projected on him just as they did on Shakespeare, his contemporary, who died only a week before him in 1616. Born in 1547, the son of a deaf, itinerant barber-surgeon, Cervantes spent much of his life either wandering or imprisoned, an elusive figure for whom the peripheries of society held immense appeal and inspired his literary works. But he did not begin as a writer: to avoid exile and mutilation for wounding a civil servant in a duel, Cervantes went to Rome, then, as a soldier, fought the Turks at Lepanto, ironically losing the use of his left hand, the very mutilation he had tried to escape from. On his way home, he was captured by Barbary pirates, imprisoned for five-and-a-half years, and ransomed in 1581, when he began writing poetry, narratives, and dramas - which contradicts the popular belief that he began writing while in prison. To support himself, his young wife during their brief marriage, his many affairs, literary quarrels, and imprisonments, he became an itinerant tax-collector of sorts until, at age 57, he began writing Don Quixote, published three years later to universal acclaim. In place of the heroic vision of Cervantes as inspired genius writing in his dungeon, Canavaggio offers an evenhanded, enlightened, and provocative discussion of a very talented writer appearing at a crucial point in history who unself-consciously produced one of the great cultural icons. His discussion of Don Quixote is a model of literary analysis-sensitive, clear, informed, moving from the creative circumstances to the aesthetic achievement of the novel, from the political contexts to their representation in fiction. The translation, however, is so faithful to the original that it is often awkward, unidiomatic, even silly: did Cervantes really "give up the ghost" when he died? The great strength of this book is in the substance and to some degree in the concentration: the last biography of Cervantes filled seven volumes. (Kirkus Reviews)