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The Case of the False Quixote

Title page of the False Quixote, written by Alonso Fernandez de Avellaneda in 1614 and translated into English in 1705
Title page of a curious Quixote. General Research Division.

On April 23, be sure to doff your cap to passersby and wish them a happy World Book Day. This literary holiday commemorates the deaths of William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra—with some calendrical caveats that I won’t go into here. Since I’ve already written a bit about Mr. Shakespeare, I will turn to Cervantes and a tale of hidden identity and authorial feuding that I will call the Case of the False Quixote.

I recently came across a curious item from the Library’s General Research Division: a third volume of Don Quixote. Cervantistas among you know that this novel, the full title of which is El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha, consists of two parts only. What’s more, the author listed is not Cervantes, but “the Licentiate Alonzo Fernandez de Avellaneda.” So what exactly is going on here?

Don Quixote was first printed in Madrid in 1605. It was an immediate success—the first edition quickly sold out, and new ones were printed both in Spain and throughout Europe. I can’t neglect mentioning that the Rare Book Division holds one of these scarce early printings, in a contemporary and typically Spanish binding of limp vellum, labelled by hand on its spine.

Binding of Don Quixote, Part I, printed in 1605
Binding of Don Quixote, Part I, printed in 1605. Rare Book Division.
Title page of Don Quixote, Part I, printed in 1605
Title page of Don Quixote, Part I, printed in 1605. Rare Book Division.

When Cervantes wrote the 1605 Don Quixote, it was not at all clear that it would be the first of a two-volume set. At the end of the frame story—a pseudo-historical, metafictional narrative of how this “true” tale came to light—a scholar has uncovered documents concerning Quixote’s continued adventures and hopes to eventually publish them. However, Cervantes’s final words are forse altro cantera con miglior plettro, or, “perhaps someone else will sing with a better plectrum [pick for a musical instrument].” This could be interpreted as an invitation for another author to continue Quixote’s story.

Title page of Don Quixote, Part II, printed in 1930 by the Nonesuch Press
Title page of Cervantes's Don Quixote, Part II, printed in 1930 by the Nonesuch Press. Rare Book Division. Probably also the expression on Avellaneda's face when he read Cervantes's Part II.

Nine years later, someone did: Segundo Tomo del Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha was released in 1614, authored by an Alonso Fernandez de Avellaneda—a nom de plume whose identity remains a mystery to this day. Given the ambiguity of the novel’s conclusion, the passage of several years with no sequel, and the lucrative endeavor that a second Quixote book was sure to be, it’s understandable that another writer would throw his hat into the ring. However, the book’s unauthorized nature and its preface’s personal attacks on Cervantes earned the ire of Don Quixote’s creator and eventually the disparaging label of “the False Quixote.”

Now, you might be asking yourself, Isn’t it a bad idea to insult someone known for his wit and dexterity with a pen? And the answer to your question is a resounding yes.

Unbeknownst to Avellaneda, Cervantes was writing his own Quixote continuation, which he finished the following year. His Part II contains several references to Avellaneda, none of them kind. Wasting no time, Cervantes opens the preface with these words: “[G]entle...reader, how eagerly must thou be looking forward to this preface, expecting to find there retaliation, scolding, and abuse against the author of the second Don Quixote.” With some rhetorical apophasis, Cervantes vents his anger in the guise of taking the high road. “Thou wouldst have me call him ass, fool, and malapert,” he says, “but I have no such intention; let his offence be his punishment, with his bread let him eat it, and there’s an end of it.”

Illustration by Gustave Doré to Don Quixote, Part II, printed in 1863
Illustration by Gustave Doré to Cervantes's Don Quixote, Part II, printed in 1863. General Research Division. Quixote stands between Cervantes and his companion Sancho Panza and holds a spear piercing Avellaneda's False Quixote.

But that was not the end of it. Cervantes did not stop with extra-textual criticism, but wove his irritation into the fabric of the novel itself. I’ll leave a thorough cataloging of each reference to the pros, but my favorite comes from Chapter 70. In this scene, the character Altisidora recounts her journey to the gates of hell, where she observed a group of devils playing tennis, but with books instead of balls. One book in particular caught her attention:

Title page of Don Quixote, Part II, printed in 1615
Title page of Cervantes's Don Quixote, Part II, printed in 1615. Rare Book Division.

To one of them, a brand-new, well-bound one, they gave such a stroke that they knocked the guts out of it and scattered the leaves about. “Look what book that is,” said one devil to another, and the other replied, “It is ‘Second Part of the History of Don Quixote of La Mancha,’ not by Cid Hamet [the metafictional historian of Don Quixote], the original author, but by an Aragonese who by his own account is of Tordesillas.” “Out of this with it,” said the first, “and into the depths of hell with it out of my sight.” “Is it so bad?” said the other. “So bad is it,” said the first, “that if I had set myself deliberately to make a worse, I could not have done it.”

So that, very briefly, is Cervantes’s opinion of Avellaneda: he had written a book so terrible that the devil himself could do no worse.

Cervantes learned from his 1605 mistake and closed out his Part II with no room for further sequels. Not only does he kill Quixote, he has a notary arrive to corroborate it. As a notary myself, I’m happy my office had the power to ward off any future False Quixotes. The notary “b[ore] witness that Alonso Quixano the Good, commonly called Don Quixote of La Mancha, had passed away from this present life, and died naturally; and said he desired this testimony in order to remove the possibility of any other author save Cid Hamet Benengeli bringing him to life again falsely and making interminable stories out of his achievements.” “Cid Hamet” ends the novel with an invective pointed directly at Avellaneda:

For me alone was Don Quixote born, and I for him; it was his to act, mine to write; we two together make but one, notwithstanding and in spite of that pretended Tordesillesque writer [Avellaneda] who has ventured or would venture with his great, coarse, ill-trimmed ostrich quill to write the achievements of my valiant knight;—no burden for his shoulders, nor subject for his frozen wit: whom, if perchance thou shouldst come to know him, thou shalt warn to leave at rest where they lie the weary mouldering bones of Don Quixote.”

With those words, Cervantes definitively closed the book on the life of Don Quixote.

Which brings us to the image that started this post. Not surprisingly, the demand for Avellaneda’s novel has not held up well over time, though Nabokov, of all people, found it to have some merit, suggesting it was “kinder” and “more humane” than Cervantes’s version, which he deemed brutal and cruel. Cervantes’s two parts were frequently reprinted and were first translated into English in 1612 and 1620, respectively. Avellaneda’s text, on the other hand, was not translated until much later, in 1705, so it received the misleading descriptor “Third Volume.”

The New York Public Library has a robust collection of Cervantes material. Most of the historic texts are described in this article for the Library’s Bulletin, but we continue acquiring new items each year—our online catalog has over 1,000 entries attributed to Cervantes, including e-book versions of Don Quixote and a new edition published just this year. As a globally-recognized literary masterpiece, Don Quixote has inspired many printers and illustrators to craft their own versions. The Nonesuch Press’s 1930 edition is illustrated by artist E. McKnight Kauffer, who also designed iconic book jackets for James Joyce’s Ulysses, Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, to name a few. The Ashendene Press printed its edition in 1927 and 1928. As befits a novel with a 400 year literary history, the book’s design was an homage to printers past—specifically, William Morris and his Kelmscott Press, who in turn referenced the work of Erhard Ratdolt and other 15th century incunabular printers.

First page of Don Quixote, Part I, printed by the Ashendene Press in 1927
First page of Don Quixote, Part I, printed by the Ashendene Press in 1927. Rare Book Division.
First page of Beowulf, printed by the Kelmscott Press in 1895
First page of Beowulf, printed by the Kelmscott Press in 1895. Rare Book Division.
First page of Euclid's Elementa Geometriae, printed by Erhard Ratdolt in 1482
First page of Euclid's Elementa Geometriae, printed by Erhard Ratdolt in 1482. Rare Book Division.

Narrowing down the best edition of Don Quixote is as futile as tilting at windmills, so explore our many titles to find your favorite. And if it turns out to be Avellaneda’s version, don’t be shy—he could use another knight-errant in his corner.

All quotations from Don Quixote are from John Ormsby’s 1885 English translation. Image Credits: New York Public Library. Astor, Lenox, Tilden Foundations.

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