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Miguel de Cervantes, Pioneering Novelist

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Miguel de Cervantes

Miguel de Cervantes

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No name is more associated with Spanish literature — and perhaps with classic literature in general — than that of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. He was the author of El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha, which is sometimes referred to as the first European novel and which has been translated into nearly every major language, making it one of the most widely distributed books after the Bible.

Although few people in the English-speaking world have read Don Quijote in its original Spanish, it nevertheless has had its impact on the English language, giving us expressions such as "the pot calling the kettle black," "tilting at windmills," "a wild-goose chase" and "the sky's the limit." Also, our word "quixotic" comes from the name of the title character. (Quijote is often spelled as Quixote.)

Despite his immense contributions to world literature, Cervantes never became wealthy as a result of his work, and not much is known about the early parts of his life. He was born in 1547 as the son of surgeon Rodrigo de Cervantes in Alcalá de Henares, a small town near Madrid; it is believed that his mother, Leonor de Cortinas, was the descendant of Jews who had converted to Christianity.

As a young boy he moved from town to town as his father sought work; later he would study in Madrid under Juan López de Hoyos, a well-known humanist, and in 1570 he went to Rome to study.

Ever loyal to Spain, Cervantes joined a Spanish regiment in Naples and received a wound in a battle at Lepanco that permanently injured his left hand. As a result, he picked up the nickname of el manco de Lepanto (the cripple of Lepanco).

His battle injury was only the first of Cervantes' troubles. He and his brother Rodrigo were on a ship that was captured by pirates in 1575. It wasn't until five years later that Cervantes was released — but only after four unsuccessful escape attempts and after his family and friends raised 500 escudos, an enormous sum of money that would drain the family financially, as ransom. Cervantes' first play, Los tratos de Argel ("The Treatments of Algiers"), was based on his experiences as a captive, as was the later "Los baños de Argel" ("The Baths of Algiers").

In 1584 Cervantes married the much younger Catalina de Salazar y Palacios; they had no children, although he had a daughter from an affair with an actress.

A few years later, Cervantes left his wife, faced severe financial difficulties, and was jailed at least three times (once as a murder suspect, although there was insufficient evidence to try him). He eventually settled in Madrid in 1606, shortly after the first part of "Don Quijote" was published.

Although publication of the novel didn't make Cervantes rich, it eased his financial burden and gave him recognition and the ability to devote more time to writing. He published the second part of Don Quijote in 1615 and wrote dozens of other plays, short stories, novels and poems (although many critics have little good to say about his poetry).

Cervantes' final novel was Los trabajos de Persiles y Sigismunda ("The Exploits of Persiles and Sigismunda"), published three days before his death on April 23, 1616. Coincidentally, Cervantes' date of death is the same as William Shakespeare's, although in reality Cervantes' death came 10 days sooner because Spain and England used different calendars at the time.

"Don Quijote" Online in Spanish
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