THE literary career of Spain's most illustrious writer, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1547-1616), got off to a slow start, and did not catch fire until the publication of his masterpiece, ``Don Quixote.'' The first part, published to instant acclaim in 1605, was followed 10 years later by the equally successful second part. Although Cervantes never really managed to make a living from his writings, he did come to enjoy the kind of fame that is exemplified in this anecdote, widely known at the time. It was said that king Philip III, ``when he saw a student laughing boisterously, declared to his retinue, `That student is either out of his mind or he is reading the story of Don Quixote.'''
Although he began writing as a young man, Cervantes earned his living - or tried to - in various other ways. Serving as a soldier, he fought bravely at the famous battle of Lepanto in 1571, where he lost the use of his left hand. He continued to serve in campaigns against the Turks under the leadership of Don Juan of Austria. In 1575, en route from Naples to his native Spain, he was captured by Barbary pirates - a common hazard at the time. He spent the next five years in prison in Algiers, making four unsuccessful attempts to escape before being ransomed in 1580.
Later, he was involved in the awkward and difficult task of collecting supplies - wheat, barley, olive oil - to provision the ships that the king - Philip II - was sending to England to teach his northern rivals a lesson: This, of course, was the Spanish Armada, a lesson which backfired.
Cervantes's problems in obtaining and paying for provisions were echoed in darker tones some years later, when he worked as a tax collector and found himself unjustly accused in a financial matter. As a result of the misunderstanding, he was jailed in Seville, where it is possible that he began work on what turned out to be the first modern novel.
``Don Quixote'' is not only a strong candidate for the honor of being the first modern novel. It also has that special quality of literary self-reflexiveness so dear to deconstructionists and other postmodernists. As Professor Canavaggio reminds us, ``Don Quixote'' is a work that each new century reinterprets according to its own values and concerns.''
It was the comic aspect that most struck Cervantes's contemporaries, as the story of the king and laughing student would indicate. By the 18th century, the Don came to typify the decline of Spain, still clinging to anachronistic ideals in the face of a changing reality. The German Romantics went further still, finding in the Don a ``hero of modern times,'' a supreme individualist on a mythic metaphysical odyssey.
Canavaggio admits that such readings are departures from the author's avowed intentions, but he is equally certain that they are not merely misreadings grafted on ex post facto: ``If these readers saw Don Quixote with different eyes, ... it is not only because they wanted to see him that way; it is also because his relationship to the world predisposed him to show himself in that light.''
Canavaggio demonstrates similar poise in discussing Cervantes's other works, including his play ``Life in Algiers'' (loosely based on his experience of captivity), his tragedy ``Numancia,'' his well-regarded pastoral ``Galatea,'' his ``Exemplary Novellas,'' which the 17th century preferred to ``Don Quixote,'' and his late romance ``Persiles.'' The biographer shows his sophistication as a literary critic without showing off in ways that can alienate the general reader. His literary criticism is cogent and succinct.
In reconstructing Cervantes's life, Canavaggio faces some of the same difficulties that plague biographers of Cervantes's English contemporary William Shakespeare (who died little more than a week before Cervantes). Facts are relatively few. The temptation to indulge in speculation is strong.
Although the publisher's blurb compares Canavaggio's technique to a Borges-like pursuit of the subject ``through a hall of mirrors,'' his method is actually quite straightforward, carefully distinguishing certainty from probability and confronting the unknown through a series of questions, such as ``When did Cervantes make up his mind to leave Italy? We do not know. ... The fact remains that during the early part of September ... [he] embarks at Naples on the galley El Sol.'' This technique allows the biographer to be open to speculation while remaining cool to fanciful theorizing and cleaving close to established facts.
An expert on Spain's Golden Age, Canavaggio also draws upon historical detail to supplement what must remain a sketch rather than a portrait. Within the limits of what is known, he has written a lively and reliable book (winner of the 1987 Prix Goncourt for biography in France) that should rekindle in readers the delight and excitement they felt upon first making their acquaintance with the Knight of the Woeful Countenance and his redoubtable sidekick, Sancho Panza.