Though it passed with scant fanfare in the US, last year was the 400th anniversary of the completed publication of Miguel de Cervantes’Don Quixote. Aside from a beautiful edition published by Restless Books, and a couple of reissues, it came and went mostly unnoticed, possibly because of our diminishing capacity to care about classic novels beyond their adaptation to television, a fate that Quixote often avoids because it is brutally and unrelentingly violent; commentators as disparate as Miguel de Unamuno and Vladimir Nabokov have pitched its title character as a whipping boy for Cervantes’ comedy of cruelty. The latter called it a “symphony of mental and physical pain.”
Why is Don Quixote so violent? Even a casual reader of Miguel de Cervantes’ biography will note that Cervantes’ life was filled with war and enslavement, disability and death. Perhaps last year, too, he suffered the final indignity, when forensic anthropologists exhumed his remains (and the remains of his family) from The Convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians, where he once prayed among the nuns in the years after his long captivity at the hands of Algerian pirates. “Nor is it true that he whose fame lives on really and truly dies,” Unamuno wrote in a famous piece about the novel (“Glosses on Don Quixote”). Somehow I don’t think this is what he had in mind.
Given that Cervantes is understood to be the starting pistol of the modern novel, with Quixote being the shot that rang through centuries of our best fiction, perhaps the more salient question is: what does it have to do with our idea of fiction today? If “thinkers” like Steven Pinker now (probably wrongly) argue that we no longer live in a world of unremitting violence and cruelty, is it fair to say that Quixote’s influence isn’t what it used to be?
The answer is a resounding “no,” at least if we are to take William Egginton, author of The Man Who Invented Fiction: How Cervantes Ushered in the Modern World, at his word. The title of Egginton’s book pretty much gives it away: in the pressure cooker of his hellish life, Cervantes heated up his Quixote, which he then served to the hankering masses — it was a huge bestseller at the time, perhaps the first in the West. And Cervantes’ contemporaries in Europe, where literacy was exploding, understood Quixote to be little more than particularly zany comedy, a send-up, a dainty (if longish) snack. But as Cervantes hinted more than once, both within Quixote and elsewhere, he was playing at something new in fiction — he was, if anything, reinventing it. Egginton’s argument then turns on two things: Cervantes knew what he was doing, and he actually did it.
But what did Cervantes do, exactly? Like Shakespeare, who was more or less his contemporary (they died on the same day), in drama and Velázquez in painting, Cervantes reoriented his art away from the broad and flat perspective that dominated his time, toward the follies (and fineries) of individual perception. Instead of thinking of fiction as an art of telling untrue stories, he layered it with the dueling delusions of his characters. In other words, Quixote became more than just Nabokov’s “symphony of pain”; instead, it became a symphony of its characters’ ways of seeing the world:
Both Cervantes in his writings and Velázquez on his canvases play out the drama of a world that was discovering the distinction between How I see the world and how that world really is, how it is for God or for some other human being. The world had been uprooted, put into a box for each individual, but this uprooting entailed a far more complex and consequential experience as well. Once the world has been made portable, once media such as print, theater, or painting are conceived of as offering a distinct perspective on the entirety of the world, they also inevitably turn back on themselves. By incorporating the world into their frame they necessarily incorporate that frame, too, as well as the person informing the framing.
On this point, Egginton’s study, which combines biography, history, literary criticism, and even aesthetic philosophy, is robust, detailed, and impressive; not only does he incorporate the prevailing tropes of the day — for example, the oft-thought “Shakespearean” play-within-a-play move was fairly widespread — he also shows, early and often, that Cervantes was aware of these tropes, used them in Quixote and elsewhere, and aimed at transgression. Writing about his own Novellas, to name just one of many examples, Cervantes explained that he opened “the path through which the Castilian tongue can show with naturalness a piece of fantasy.” Within this natural fantasy, Egginton cleverly locates Cervantes’ movement past “Aristotle’s more general truth” — the notion of fiction as mere lies that dominated then and sometimes prevails today — toward a “subjective truth, a truth so internal, so specific to how individuals inhabit their world, that it would pass forever unnoticed by a history confined to grasping human actions from the outside.”
I would not be the first to argue that our greatest novels are premised on Cervantes’ ideal of fiction; the work of Melville and Eliot would be impossible without this privileging of self-mythology, faulty self-perception, and interiority. Still, Egginton’s book falters a little when he grab-bags contemporary fiction to prove his point. Weirdly, to name one instance, he psychologizes Cervantes in order to hitch him to Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, a recent collection of novels in which its author claims to have “dissolved” his self. “What I discovered when I began to write my first novel was that I could disappear in my writing,” Knausgaard explains, “The self, and all the difficulties and pain associated with it, vanished.”
It’s tempting here to suggest that Cervantes’ pouring of his personal history of misfortune into his novels acted like a palliative, but can we say for sure? (I’m thinking, for example, of Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain, which argues that violence against the body makes it more difficult to make worlds.) And isn’t Knausgaard’s project rather more like Quixote in the sense that it’s one person’s delusion of self-perception? Instead of dissolving his self, in other words, instead of “breaking boundaries,” as he claims his (and all) fiction does, isn’t Knausgaard erecting new boundaries? Specifically, I would argue, he has trapped his self between two new boundaries: the opening and closing covers of his volumes.
This move, I think, would render Knausgaard more as a character in the lineage of Quixote (as well as a novelist writing in the wake of Quixote), and it would strengthen Egginton’s thesis. Still, as far as The Man Who Invented Fiction is concerned, this is a minor, even miniature complaint. We need books like this: not-purely-academic studies that could reinvigorate contemporary fiction — the idea of what contemporary fiction is or could be — by intervening in the past. And after reading this book, a book about a writer who struggled to create a character — a character who read bad books and became a better one — are we ready to say we’ve left him behind?