Stuart Kelly: Cervantes, the man who invented fiction

A celebratory study of Cervantes fails to prove its main premise, but it does show how the author set the world on the path to empathy, writes Stuart Kelly

A depiction of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Picture: Apic/Getty Images

The Man Who Invented Fiction by William Egginton | Bloomsbury, £25

As well as this year being the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare, it is the 400th anniversary of the death of an author of equal stature: Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, the author of Don Quixote. It is one of those rare books which has managed to slip the bounds of the page. You do not need to have read Don Quixote (but you should) to know about the old bibliophile who has read so many romances of chivalry that he imposes their vision on to reality; the tragi-comic knight who tilts at windmills thinking them giants. William Egginton’s book is a graceful primer to the work of Cervantes, the title of which makes an unsupportable and hyperbolic claim.

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Don Quixote is a fiction – a novel – in the modern sense, but it evolved from a long tradition of “prose narratives”. Egginton mentions en passant Boccaccio and Rabelais; but one might have also cited Christine de Pizan and Marguerite of Navarre, or Apuleius and Petronius, or Achilles Tatius and Longus. His contention is that Don Quixote puts the reader both within and outside of the narrative – you could say the same for almost all literature – and that fiction, unlike poetry or history, could convey a “subjective truth”. This is exactly what Sir Philip Sidney, the author of another pre-Quixote story, the Arcadia, argued when he said that writers “recount things not true, yet because he telleth them not for true he lieth not”, 22 years before the Man of La Mancha sallied forth.

But The Man Who Invented Fiction sounds far more snazzy than The Man Who Was Very Good At Irony. The great joy of reading Don Quixote is in the parallel perspectives of the deluded Don and his down to earth squire Sancho Panza – and the questions they raise about whether the illusory idealism of Quixote is more noble than the grubby realism of the characters they encounter.

Egginton sketches out Cervantes’ life in all its novelistic improbability. A promising student, he enlisted with the Spanish navy, saw active combat, lost the use of his arm after being wounded by an harquebus, was sold into slavery in Algiers, failed in many escape attempts, returned to Spain and worked as a tax collector, which wound him up in prison just for doing his job – and that’s before we get to his illegitimate child and expedient marriage. Egginton also pays attention to Cervantes’ other works. Although the Exemplary Stories are well known, especially The Glass Graduate, it is refreshing to see Cervantes’ pastoral, Galatea, his poems and his extant plays treated with the same keen critical scrutiny. Cervantes’ final work – The Labours Of Persiles And Sigismunda – is mentioned as having fallen into obscurity although we learn “a new generation of critics” have found it “in some ways even more daring and iconoclastic”. Some proof of this would have been welcome.

Having established his thesis, Egginton tends to reiterate it rather too frequently. There is also an irksome tic of introducing other literary references – Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Cercas – for rather tangential reasons. These flourishes might have been more acceptable if the book had genuinely looked at the influence of Don Quixote. But works such as Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote, Smollett’s Sir Launcelot Greaves, Unamuno’s Our Lord Don Quixote (not coincidentally also the author of The Tragic View Of Life) or Graham Greene’s Monsignor Quixote are not mentioned.

In the last chapter, however, Egginton introduces a radical and ingenious idea. Whenever the Helmet of Mambrino turns out to be a barber’s basin, or the fair Dulcinea bears a remarkable resemblance to a less than pulchritudinous peasant, both the Don and Sancho revert to the idea that Quixote is surrounded by mischievous sorcerers who make things appear to be other than they are. Egginton compares this with the thought experiment in Descartes’ Meditations about the malign genius – what could we know to be true, he asks, even if a malicious spirit could corrupt all our perceptions? It’s a brilliant comparison. The only problem is that there is no evidence Descartes read Don Quixote, and saying his “influence was impossible to avoid” seems like special pleading. But it does ground the novel in the philosophical ideas that were evident in other contemporaries, from Shakespeare to Montaigne.

Where Cervantes might be described as the “man who invented fiction” is in one rather curious aspect of his books. After the success of the first part of Don Quixote, one rival, calling himself Avellaneda, brought out Don Quixote, Part II. In Cervantes’ own Part II, the Don hears tell of the adventures he knows he has not had but Avellaneda has written, particularly in Zaragoza. He insists he will assiduously avoid that town. It seems to me that the second part of Don Quixote has a good claim to be the first novel, as it is – ironically – the first novel in which people read novels. It sets up the mirrors mirrored upon mirrors upon which the novel thrives. If not “the man who invented fiction”, then certainly “the man who invented post-modernism”.

None of such winks to the reader matter much except for one aspect of Cervantes’ work that Egginton brings out beautifully. Don Quixote in particular is a work of immense and moving generosity. Nobody is ever written off as being less than human; everyone is found to have some – if not redeeming – then common feature with our heroes. It set the novel firmly on the path to empathy.