Dreaming an Impossible Novel, Then Writing It
THE DEATH AND LIFE OF MIGUEL DE CERVANTES
By Stephen Marlowe
495 pp., $25.95
Cervantes - the creator of Don Quixote, a man of la Mancha - is one of those writers about whom we know little. His life history provides few details.
Born in Spain in 1547, he was wounded in 1571 at the Battle of Lepanto, held captive in Algiers, worked for the Spanish government, was married, imprisoned, wrote "Don Quixote" (the all-time best-seller after the Bible), sat for his portrait, and died in 1616.
Enter stage left the speculative biographer who litters his text with such phrases as "in spring of 1594, the playwright may have been in Suffolk or he might have traveled abroad...." (Translated into the vernacular, they mean "I don't have a clue.")
The shelves of our libraries groan under the weight of such biographies. Stephen Marlowe's "The Death and Life of Miguel de Cervantes" does not belong to this genre of glorified guesswork. Marlowe fuses the art of storytelling, metaphysical colloquy, slapstick humor, and satire into a bedizened, gaudy, and rollicking work of fiction, unashamedly extolling "the what might have been," "the what probably wasn't, but wouldn't it have been grand if" of the life of this unparalleled Spanish writer.
In doing so, he lampoons the pretensions of history, as opposed to his alternate vision of reality. He creates a meandering and comic fantasy of spies, writers, and cross-purposes.
The book opens amid that so-called moment of truth, when, facing death, all of one's life is said to pass before one's eyes. From there Cervantes springs into his story, describing his peripatetic childhood and less-than-heroic adulthood. He wanders throughout Spain, to Italy, to Lepanto, and suffers captivity and slavery in Algiers. And that's only the first 100 pages. He goes on to save lives by storytelling, to rescue maidens, spy for the "Nameless Service," travel through time to read his own biographies (and comment on their inaccuracies), meet William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe, and write "Don Quixote."
Marlowe's Cervantes is a romantic, a less-than-confident man from a mismatched family, with a domineering mother, an inadequate shrinking father, and a ravishingly beautiful sister whom he adores. He is honest and insecure, a failure in his attempts to write popular plays like his rival Lope de Vega, beset by family ties, caught in the conundrum of life, hope, and "if only."
Occasionally, the work rambles, as if Marlowe lacked the discernment to know when he'd got his point across. Equally, some may find the earthiness and the casual cruelty of life under the Ottoman Turks disturbing. The work is a celebration of the preposterous and the mundane.
Marlowe's Cervantes illuminates: " 'If every writer wrote about what he knew best, books would be filled with writers crossing out lines, crumpling pages in disgust, staring bleakly at empty paper, hurling inkhorns in frustration...." Superb, if unorthodox, advice. Happily, Marlowe followed it.
* Melissa Bennetts reviews historical fiction for the Monitor.