A Verray Parfit Gentle Knight

How Miguel de Cervantes, an aging veteran of Spain’s wars, created the blueprint for modern literature

Books
Cervantes: Fiction’s father? (Illustration by Holly Ovenden at Bloomsbury Publishing)

Amid the celebratory hullaballoo marking the quadricentennial of Shakespeare’s death, it is worth remembering that 400 years ago another writer died, one whose greatest work also transformed literature and created a new way of seeing the world.

On publication in 1605, El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha became an international bestseller and brought Miguel de Cervantes, an aging, crippled veteran of Spain’s wars, fame and fortune after years of moderate artistic success, financial loss, imprisonment and disillusionment. Readers delighted in the picaresque scrapes and adventures of Cervantes’ comic double-act: Don Quixote, a humble nobleman whose obsession with chivalric romances has deluded him into thinking he is a knight errant; and Sancho Panza, his dumpy, trusty squire who is “a little short of salt in the brain-pan”. The book was such a hit that Cervantes sent his characters out on fresh sallies in a sequel ten years later. Both volumes became one classic, an imperishable cornerstone of Western culture, and a source of pleasure and inspiration for generations of readers and writers.

Chiming with the anniversary of Cervantes’ death comes a book on him and his famous creation. The Man Who Invented Fiction is not a traditional biography of Cervantes. In his introduction, William Egginton, a professor of literature at Johns Hopkins University, explains that his book explores Cervantes’ life in order to demonstrate how the author achieved his “innovation”. “I hope to cast a new light on what fiction is,” Egginton writes, “and to show how it was that Miguel de Cervantes came to invent it.” 

Much of Cervantes’ life consisted of encountering and surmounting hard knocks, and weathering the debilitating fug of desengaño, or disappointment, which plagued late-16th-century Spain. His father was hounded by creditors and eventually jailed, which resulted in a childhood spent largely on the move and blighted by poverty and dishonour. Egginton’s early chapters depict an adolescent Cervantes seeking solace by writing poetry.

However, the book truly takes off when he trades his native Spain and relative peace for Italy and war. He participates in great battles, makes treacherous voyages and suffers many injuries, including the permanent loss of feeling in his left hand. Egginton argues that Cervantes’ later fiction is shot through with ambivalence towards war: a deft seesawing whereby a character is seen lauding or enacting individual deeds of valour while in the same breath condemning the practice of warfare and skewering the state for its merciless treatment of soldiers.

Cervantes was held captive for five years in Algiers (during which time he made four unsuccessful escape attempts) and later wound up in jail in Seville. According to Egginton, both internments provided valuable first-hand material to draw on for Don Quixote. Cervantes’ stinking cell in Seville exposed him to the wild stories and perspectives of numerous rogues and outcasts. Algiers engendered the intercalated “Captive’s Tale”. Egginton goes on to make the convincing claim that while capitalising on the traumatic memory of his captivity to create fiction, Cervantes was in turn using fiction as a means of helping himself overcome that trauma. What’s more, in writing invented stories to deal with his personal pain, “Cervantes was inaugurating a particularly modern use of literature.”

Just as insightful as the passages describing how Cervantes’ art imitated his life are the sections on that blueprint for modern literature, Don Quixote — what Egginton calls “the world’s first full-blown work of fiction”. We hear how Cervantes honed, subverted and repurposed what went before: refining Rabelais’ comic-timing and range, eschewing the fantastic worlds of More and Erasmus for familiar terrain, and fleshing out characters into three-dimensional figures (“Boccaccio’s characters end at the limits of what they can see; Cervantes’ characters begin there”). Don Quixote set a template for satire by parodying previous literary styles and bucking contemporary Spanish Golden Age conventions. In addition, its stories-within-stories, sly authorial intervention and other self-referential nods and winks single it out as not only the first case of fiction but also metafiction.

But Egginton’s main claim — or at least the point he returns to most — in support of Don Quixote as the first modern novel concerns the book’s clash between ideals and reality — a clash, he believes, which is “now sewn into the fabric of everything we recognise as fiction”.

If there is fault to be found in this otherwise illuminating and engaging study it is in Egginton’s blanket praise for his subject. He is firmly in the Harold Bloom camp, quoting the American critic’s gushing admiration (Don Quixote is a novel that “contains within itself all the novels that have followed in its sublime wake”) and joining him, and all fans of the book, in referring to it as “the Quixote”. He lists its other cheerleaders — Goethe, Flaubert, Faulkner, the Nobel Institute — but mentions only one naysayer, Cervantes’  contemporary rival, Lope de Vega.

Nabokov is banished to the notes at the end of the book to seethe his discontent in small print, which is a shame as his objections are valid. For him, Don Quixote is a “very patchy haphazard tale”. It certainly can be. But then few 1,000-page tomes are blemish-free. The narrative is punctuated with wearisome longueurs, scrappy episodes and pointless tangents, and in places we get a distinct impression that Cervantes is making everything up as he goes along. Many readers are daunted by the book’s age, length and style and don’t touch it. Others, like Martin Amis, get to the end but highlight its “one fairly serious flaw: that of outright unreadability.”

The same cannot be said for The Man Who Invented Fiction. Though lacking critical balance, it remains neatly poised between rigorous analysis and breezy accessibility (at one juncture Egginton compares pastoral verse with Barry Manilow). Egginton reminds us that Don Quixote is a seminal book, one that simultaneously laid the foundations for the novel and tore up the rulebook. With luck, he will encourage those who haven’t made the journey to embark on it and those that have to set out again. By doing so, we may come to agree with the book’s endearing and enduring hero: “He who reads and travels sees and learns.”