Thursday, March 13, 2014

A Not-So-Quixotic Search for Cervantes, New York Times, by Raphael Minder, March 10, 2014

MADRID — He may be one of Spain’s literary heroes, but during his life four centuries ago, Miguel de Cervantes could have been considered something of “a loser,” said Fernando de Prado, a Spanish historian. 

Yes, here's an article worth a peek.  Wounded in battle, in the chest and the hand, Cervantes was referred to by a contemporary as "the handless Spaniard."  Some accounts picture the hand as split somehow, if I remember correctly, or a gap within its palm.  The account here regards the injured hand as "paralyzed."  

He was, earlier in his career as a writer, a kind of conventional playwright, with pleasing verse for a patron.  The subversive work about the old knight whose head has gone soft from reading too much of the chivalric tradition comes later on, after he'd already been through a lot, some of which the above article catches, some of which it misses.  Of course.  Imprisonment for not being the best tax collector ever… something like that, on top of naval battle wounds and being kidnapped and held hostage for a good amount of time in the prime of his life.  On top of success, as the article points out, coming too late to do him much good.

So yes, 'loser' is one of those things about his life he could have genially shrugged at, indeed one of the great sources of strength behind his great work, the loser old delusional 'knight' whose noble bearing is laughable, something which permeates the entirety of the story of Don Quixote, every page, every element.  What more could a writer expect?

An extra ticket comes up for a concert event, a benefit for The Duke Ellington School of Performance, Sting, Paul Simon.  The off-duty bartender dutifully gets on the Metro, picks up ticket and VIP pass, wearing his new charcoal Brooks Brothers suit purchased in a January sale.  But does he fit in, have anyone to talk to, even as he recognizes a few people, staff from the school nearby his place of employment…  The powerful of the DC area, lawyers, doctors, lobbyists, gathered to support the coming fancy renovation of the old bring building…  He stands around with a glass of wine, greets an old friend who's in the construction business.  And then is sort of asked to remember that really, at the end of the day, he's just a bartender, wearing a suit borrowed from some picture of a normal life.

Life music is always great.  One way or another, it comes from the soul, and so it's fantastic to see Sting there, fingers bumping away on an old Fender bass guitar with finish worn off, twenty yards away down on the stage, playing hits from college days.  Yes, music, a kind of great leveler…  We're all here to celebrate the kids who sing and play beautifully, even the tight corporate males who have a ways to go before they can dance in the aisles with hands clapping up in the air.  This is not a standing crowd like at the 9:30 Club.  Peggy Cooper Cafritz opens the night with gratitude for foundations and sponsors and all those who've bought tickets to raise a good amount of money.  Paul Simon comes out later.  Sting remembers driving across the country with bandmates back in the Eighties, then sings "gone for to look for America…"  The night ends with everyone joining in for "Every breath you take…" and I am reminded of a crush I had as a high school senior on Betsy Sawyer, how I'd take her swimming at the college pool after school, the song playing over the reverberating water.  Another mucky crush that would go nowhere for a young Don Quixote, my brother once telling me, after observing me on the phone with her, "shit or get off the pot."  Still, it's a touching song, with gospel back up kids singing, as was "Bridge Over Troubled Water," Paul Simon at the mike.  A song to get under your skin somehow.

I leave on the metro.  The temperature has dropped.  Stops to go before mine drag on.  I walk home in the cold, pulling a construction sign out of the street as the wind tugs it.  "What have I done with my life…"  I take off my suit, ha ha, and find something to heat up.  There's a certain point in life where there is no turning back from being 'something of a loser.'  Whether a writer is any position to care, is another question (this 'finding religion,' an art form of its own, as a crutch to lean on, like those dusty old tomes of chivalry in whose pages life follows certain ideals, less touched by the crunch and broken bones and mocking laugher of reality.)

Philip Roth, I remember the pleasure of reading him the night before, skimming one of his famous ones.  The secret to him being his openness, his quality of being able to admit bravely, the specifics really not mattering all that much in the long run, though maybe masturbation speaks somehow of the writer's general ways.  At least, you keep in the habit of writing, even it seems utterly pointless, outside of society, outside of any industry of worth.

"Yes, but there are people who do actually do things in real life, who are active, who make a difference.   Maybe you should try that sometime.  Instead of sitting around writing."

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