Magazine | February 6, 2017, Issue

True Inventions

The Man Who Invented Fiction: How Cervantes Ushered In the Modern World, by William Egginton (Bloomsbury, 272 pp., $27)

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.

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.

Richard Brookhiser — Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

In This Issue

Articles

Features

Books, Arts & Manners

Sections

Politics & Policy

Letters

Against Big-Government Conservatism Samuel R. Staley argues for a permanent revolving-loan bank (“The Infrastructure Bank We Need,” December 31). Staley conditions his proposal on the bank’s being “properly designed and constrained,” ...
Politics & Policy

The Week

‐ So there were no left-wing Puerto Rican transsexual terrorists in federal prison? ‐ Representative John Lewis (D., Ga.) announced that he would skip Donald Trump’s inauguration: “I don’t see this ...
Politics & Policy

Poetry

AT THE CHAPEL OF THE PINK SISTERS The crosses on the convent roofs Gleam sharply as the sun comes up. — Wallace Stevens, “Botanist on Alp (No. 2)” The March wind blows past the ...

Most Popular

Politics & Policy

Students’ Anti-Gun Views

Are children innocents or are they leaders? Are teenagers fully autonomous decision-makers, or are they lumps of mental clay, still being molded by unfolding brain development? The Left seems to have a particularly hard time deciding these days. Take, for example, the high-school students from Parkland, ... Read More
PC Culture

Kill Chic

We live in a society in which gratuitous violence is the trademark of video games, movies, and popular music. Kill this, shoot that in repugnant detail becomes a race to the visual and spoken bottom. We have gone from Sam Peckinpah’s realistic portrayal of violent death to a gory ritual of metal ripping ... Read More
Elections

Romney Is a Misfit for America

Mitt’s back. The former governor of Massachusetts and occasional native son of Michigan has a new persona: Mr. Utah. He’s going to bring Utah conservatism to the whole Republican party and to the country at large. Wholesome, efficient, industrious, faithful. “Utah has a lot to teach the politicians in ... Read More
Law & the Courts

What the Second Amendment Means Today

The horrifying school massacre in Parkland, Fla., has prompted another national debate about guns. Unfortunately, it seems that these conversations are never terribly constructive — they are too often dominated by screeching extremists on both sides of the aisle and armchair pundits who offer sweeping opinions ... Read More
U.S.

Fire the FBI Chief

American government is supposed to look and sound like George Washington. What it actually looks and sounds like is Henry Hill from Goodfellas: bad suit, hand out, intoning the eternal mantra: “F*** you, pay me.” American government mostly works by interposition, standing between us, the free people at ... Read More
Film & TV

Black Panther’s Circle of Hype

The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) first infantilizes its audience, then banalizes it, and, finally, controls it through marketing. This commercial strategy, geared toward adolescents of all ages, resembles the Democratic party’s political manipulation of black Americans, targeting that audience through its ... Read More