Thursday, August 04, 2016

How Cervantes Became Cervantes
(Hint: It Took Most of a Lifetime)

A quick shoutout for .s delightful for William Egginton's new book about Cervantes.  It's a sort of a biography but it's better described as an account of how Cervantes became Cervantes (hint: it took most of a lifetime) and, more precisely, what is so distinctive about him, why we think of him as the man who invented fiction. The takeaway is that Cervantes shows us characters from the inside and the outside so we can share their inner life while observing it.  Egginton credits the insight in part to the aufhor's work in the theatre and I am thinking (though Cervantes almost certainly did not know of) William Shakespeare's more or less simultaneous career. Example, Rosalind in As You Like it--a girl dressed up as a boy telling a hearer what she would think if she were a girl (closely similar stunt in Twelfth Night, only doubled).

A particularly elegant instance is has handling of Cervantes tradition of the great narrative epics--in particular the work of Tasso and Ariosto.  Egginton recalls the scene where Don Quixote sees a cloud and thinks it is an advancing hostile army.  There are two clouds, remarks his realist companion Sancho.  Oh, goody, says the knight, we are surrounded.  Whereupon the knight describes the armies in lapidary detail--what they wear, what they carry.  Egginton's points out how the descriptions are almost an exact copy of his great narrative predecessors--with a difference.  That is: Tasso and Ariosto are telling us what the armies looked like.  Cervantes is showing us what this half-mad observer thinks they look like.  Appearance and reality, objectivity and subjective consciousness.

I love it, with one minor qualification.  Specifically, Ariosto is the eternal ironist.  He tells you the story as if true but all the time he is nudging you in the ribs as if to say "you don't really believe this, do you?"  But no matter.  Cervantes figures out how to take that unreality and make it part of the story.

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