The literary genius of Cervantes

Don Quixote statue in Belgium. Photo by Dennis JarvisDon Quixote statue in Belgium. Photo by Dennis Jarvis

The early years of the 17th century were tumultuous ones for Spain. The nation was still in shock after the staggering defeat given to its Catholic armada off the coast of England; entire sectors of the population had been expelled under the guise of blood purity; cities fell victim to plague and economic ruin; even the royal court would uproot itself in a move from Madrid to Valladolid and back again to Madrid. Meanwhile, political authority in the Iberian Peninsula and Spanish territories throughout Europe began to crumble just as quickly as it had been established.

 

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The Man Who Invented Fiction by William Egginton

Bloomsbury. 272p, $12

Yet these are the years that cultivated Spain’s Golden Age of literary production, the events that gave shape to literary genius, the soil that nurtured what would come to be known as the first modern novel: El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha. The impact Miguel de Cervantes and his most famous novel have had over four centuries and the historical moment in which it happened are precisely what William Egginton captures so well in The Man Who Invented Fiction. He begins by stating how “something strange happened in the winter of 1605,” as Cervantes was handing the manuscript to the man who would print it. That “something strange” refers to the birth of what we now understand to be fiction, but it also seizes the paradox by portraying how it happened—at the hand of a spent man—in the “world’s most powerful empire” that was beginning to wallow in the landscape of its own decadence and disillusionment.

In a note to his readers, Egginton is careful to mention that his book makes “no claim to revealing anything new” about who Cervantes was. In this sense, it is not a biography but an account of how Cervantes came to be the one who created fiction as we know it today. Rightfully, readers might still question if there is anything new to say about the impact of Don Quixote. Where Egginton succeeds, however, is in the way he weaves definitive biographical accounts with the scholarship of historians, literary critics, Hispanists and, more specifically, Cervantistas into a compelling and fresh take on the author and his novel. Published in 2016, The Man Who Invented Fiction commemorates the fourth centenary of the death of Cervantes, dovetailing with the year that celebrated the fourth centenary of Part Two of Don Quixote, in 2015—the same year the lost remains of the author were identified in the Trinitarias convent in Madrid.

Where Egginton succeeds, however, is in the way he weaves definitive biographical accounts with the scholarship of historians, literary critics, Hispanists and, more specifically, Cervantistas into a compelling and fresh take on the author and his novel.

In eight well-researched chapters, Egginton maps the life of Cervantes and shows how it was just as tumultuous as the political, economic, social and religious climate in which he lived. Egginton explains how throughout his life Cervantes moved from one city to another in Spain—from Alcalá to Valladolid and on to Madrid, with stays in Córdoba, Sevilla, Granada and Valencia, and how as a soldier he was based in Naples, fought at Lepanto, was held captive in Algiers and also considered sailing to the Americas. But as he maps the landscape of Cervantes’s life, Egginton pairs it with that of another, the literary landscape of 17th-century Spain, highlighting both the failures and successes Cervantes had in poetry, drama and prose. By pulling together the scarce facts known about Cervantes, Egginton brings them to life in the literary culture of early modern Spain and makes sense of his contribution to it.

By pulling together the scarce facts known about Cervantes, Egginton brings them to life in the literary culture of early modern Spain and makes sense of his contribution to it.

Chapter Five, “All the World’s a Stage,” portrays the importance theater held in Spanish culture and how Cervantes strove to participate in it with his own works of drama. At the same time, he sheds light on how Cervantes and other playwrights aimed to create believable characters with whom their audiences were meant to relate. But Egginton also portrays how Cervantes went further than his contemporaries, how he “pushed the technique to another level, using the very idea of theater to explore the complexity of social role playing and its effects on the perception of reality.” Chapter Six, “Of Shepherds, Knights, and Ladies,” sets both Cervantes and Don Quixote in the wider context of early modern prose and the idealistic characters portrayed in the pastoral romance, but also tells how Cervantes again pushed the limits with his own novel of this type: “No longer the standard cutouts of pastoral convention, the poets in La Galatea become characters precisely to the extent that they become aware of their conventional trappings.” Chapter Seven, “A Rogue’s Gallery,” compares the prose of Cervantes to the newly popular genre of the picaresque novel, which portrays the societal roles people were meant to represent in public and the disillusionment that comes along with the understanding one has of being part of a farce. Here, too, Egginton shows how Cervantes gave a deeper dimension to his characters, “whose startling realism, ironic awareness, and vivid emotion burst forth.”

Portrait of Miguel de Cervantes y Saavedra (1547-1615) by Juan de Jauregui y Aguilar
Portrait of Miguel de Cervantes y Saavedra (1547-1615) by Juan de Jauregui y Aguilar

The autobiographical connections Egginton makes between Cervantes the author and Cervantes the role player, the idealist and even the imprisoned rogue in his works are well founded. By placing emphasis on Cervantes’s literary innovation across several genres, and how it contributed to the fiction he would create in Don Quixote, he lays a solid foundation for his main point, that with his uncannily human characters Cervantes was able to engage readers at a whole new level. Egginton’s strong suit is his ability to pull all the sources together and show how Cervantes’s other works relate to Don Quixote. According to Egginton, fiction is “a picture of how we, and others, picture the world; the truths it tells are not the factual ones of history, or the more philosophical ones of poetry, but the subjective truths that can be revealed only when we suspend our disbelief and imagine ourselves as someone completely different.” He concludes by underscoring how innovative Cervantes was, because his fiction “helped its readers formulate the modern idea of reality (what happens independent of what we think),” which was to become “central to all modern thought, and to all fiction written in his wake.”

Egginton’s strong suit is his ability to pull all the sources together and show how Cervantes’s other works relate to Don Quixote.

Since relatively little hard data is known about the life of Cervantes, especially surrounding his education, Egginton faces the challenge of creating a healthy tension between fact and conjecture garnered from historical circumstances and the passages Cervantes included in his works. For example, while it is not known for certain that Cervantes was a student in a colegio of the Society of Jesus, Egginton makes light of how “likely” or “plausible” it was, given the time he spent in Córdoba and Sevilla as a boy, and his mention of Jesuit teachers in the “Exemplary Novel” Rinconete y Cortadillo. Attention is also given to the influence family members may have had on the development of his characters. Regarding the plight of jilted women, he suggests that “Cervantes may well have had his own sisters in mind.” While at times we must remember that it was Cervantes who invented fiction, that so much of what he wrote was a product of imaginative genius, Egginton convincingly weaves together the biographical and literary landscapes of Miguel de Cervantes and the Spanish Golden Age to say just that.

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