Appreciating Cervantes’s Innovations, 400 Years after His Death

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza statues at the Miguel de Cervantes monument in Madrid. (Photo: Vvp/Dreamstime)
From the February 6, 2017, issue of NR

Harold Bloom once wrote that Montaigne created one character (himself), Cervantes created two (Don Quixote and Sancho Panza), and Shakespeare created dozens and dozens. That looks like putting Shakespeare way out in front, but Cervantes’s two are remarkably vital and durable. Dr. Johnson said Don Quixote was one of only three books he ever wished were longer.

William Egginton, a professor at Johns Hopkins, has written a book on Cervantes and his creation, timed to mark the 400th anniversary of the author’s death, that is easy reading and unsatisfying. I mean both as terms of praise. The Man Who Invented Fiction is short, lively, and jargon-free. Egginton’s argument, broadly speaking, is that Don Quixote represented something new in literature and therefore in human consciousness, which seems absolutely right. When he explains why, I don’t accept all his reasons, but even his overshoots and his dead ends are stimulating.

Egginton weaves his book around Cervantes’s life. Miguel de Cervantes was born in 1547 in Alcalá, a city in southern Castile. His father’s ability to stitch wounds and set bones entitled him to call himself a surgeon. The family had claims to gentility, set off against several black marks: daughters who lost their virginity to dishonest fiancés, a suspicion of converso (ex-Jewish) blood. Cervantes himself was obliged to go into exile on the eve of his 22nd birthday, for the crime of dueling. He went to Italy, where he enlisted in a crusade against the Turks, who were sweeping through the eastern Mediterranean, and fought them at the great Catholic victory of Lepanto. On his way back to Spain, he was captured by Muslim pirates based in Algiers. Poor Christian captives worked themselves to death as galley slaves; richer ones were held for ransom. After five years and four unsuccessful escape attempts, Cervantes’s family managed to buy his freedom. He spent the rest of his days in Spain laboring to support himself, his sisters, his wife, and an illegitimate daughter on his earnings as a writer of plays, romances, and stories, and as a tax collector and commissary agent for the government. None of these occupations earned him much, and his official jobs brought him two excommunications (reversed on appeal) for daring to tax church land, and a prison sentence after he unwisely deposited his returns with a crooked banker. It was in the royal prison in Seville that he began his story of a country gentleman obsessed with books of chivalry.

How many writers have had such a CV? Imagine Henry James fighting at Gettysburg, living among the Sioux, and doing time in the Tombs. For similar vicissitudes you have to look beyond the literary warriors — Xenophon, Churchill — to the literary rascals — Cellini, Casanova. And who among the rascals was also heroic?

What we now call Part One of Don Quixote appeared in January 1605 and was an instant hit. A month later copies were being shipped to Spain’s vast dominions in the New World. By Good Friday, the Don and Sancho were being impersonated in festivities (as trick-or-treaters now dress as Spider-Man or the Little Mermaid). New printings, pirated editions, translations, and an imitator’s bogus sequel followed. Cervantes produced an authentic sequel, Part Two, in which his characters note their own fame, in 1615, a year before his death.

Like many innovators, Cervantes threw everything on the wall to see what stuck. Don Quixote features several interpolated stories, and a shift of narrator when we are suddenly told that a new chronicler, a Spanish Arab historian, has taken up the tale. Don’t make mountains of these (sometimes delightful) molehills. The engines of Don Quixote are its two main characters, and their interaction. They talk to, at, and past each other, like an old couple, which, as the days and pages pass, they become. Their pratfalls take them on a tour of Spain, and of their views of the world: the knight, brave, besotted, generous, paranoid; the squire, shrugging, accepting. Egginton gives us frequent helpings of their own words, mostly from Edith Grossman’s 2003 translation; we could listen all day.

Spending hundreds of pages in the company of people who act, talk, and think as we do (even though one of them is cracked) was a new experience.

Egginton credits Cervantes with inventing fiction, by which he means a new kind of bifocal narrative, in which we are simultaneously inside and outside the characters, seeing the world through their eyes as we watch them move through it. “At every step of the way a fictional narrative seems to know both more and less than it is telling us. It speaks always with at least two voices, at times representing the limited perspective of its characters, at times revealing to the reader elements of the story unknown to some of or all those characters.” Egginton contrasts Cervantes’s methods with those of Boccaccio, whose collection of stories, the Decameron, was 250 years older. “Boccaccio’s characters remain objects in the world, no matter how rich the pictorial realism of their actions, environments, and behaviors. In contrast, Cervantes’s narratives function by constantly leading us to . . . internal feeling and emotions.”

The new world of fiction was not as unprecedented as Egginton says — one can easily think of flashes of inner and outer life in ancient and medieval poems, plays, and histories. But spending hundreds of pages in the company of people who act, talk, and think as we do (even though one of them is cracked) was a new experience. There, or there but for the grace of God, go I. Isn’t this fascinating?

Egginton overplays his hand when he argues that the world of fiction is indeterminate, all judgments and choices being left to the reader. “The space [Cervantes] opened, while ostensibly offering moral truths, in fact taught its readers to suspend judgments of truth or falsity, since they simply could not apply to the complex structure [he] had developed.” Egginton’s indeterminacy model can be made to fit Cervantes’s masterpiece: There is nobility in the Don’s delusions, and they lead him into entertaining misadventures; why should he and we forsake them? But this hardly fits all, or even most, later fiction. It would be an odd reader who finished Persuasion or In Search of Lost Time thinking that Sir Walter Elliot and Mme. Verdurin had made the right choices, or that Anne Elliot and Marcel had (finally) made the wrong ones.

Better explanations for Cervantes’s continuous push-pull of vision and hard knocks are the circumstances of his country and of his own life. In the half century before Cervantes’s birth, Spain had discovered and conquered millions of souls and mountains of silver. God had been served, and Mammon was the reward. But during his lifetime, Holland revolted, England and storms smashed the Armada, and the Spanish state suffered multiple bankruptcies. Meanwhile the gallant warrior and resolute captive scrambled for employment and squabbled with the authorities. G. K. Chesterton got it right in the best lines of his poem “Lepanto”:

He sees across a weary land a straggling

    road in Spain,

Up which a lean and foolish knight

    forever rides in vain,

And he smiles . . .

He smiled at the world, at himself, and at humanity. And we, with our own problems, smile along.


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