Some books engross you immediately, that’s certainly true of William Egginton’s The Man Who Invented Fiction: How Cervantes Ushered in the Modern World (Bloomsbury, 2016).
I was, like many, familiar with Cervantes’s place at the beginning of a literary tradition called the “novel,” but I started the book somewhat suspicious of the subtitle’s claim, “How Cervantes Ushered in the Modern World.” After a few chapters, Eddington won me over with his combination of perfect prose, good humor, vast research, and, most of all, vivid insight.
No doubt Cervantes was not alone in the creation of the self-consciousness and concern for “subjective truth” we associate with modernity, but Eddington convinced me that Cervantes is as major a figure in the regard as was Francis Bacon, Descartes, Hobbes, Pascal, and Spinoza, all of whom were born a generation later.
Don’t get overwrought by the mention of “subjective truth.” By that, Eddington does not mean truth is subjective and relativistic. He is talking about the the way Cervantes, as a writer, is primarily interested in depicting what’s going inside his characters, particularly how his characters regard themselves, others, and the world around them.
In other words, for Eddington, subjective truth is merely the truth about a subject, a person or character, spoken of from that character’s perspective. Don Quixote may think he is being attacked by giants, when they are actually windmills, but the subjective truth is that this “knight errant” sees giants and acts accordingly.
Depicting a delusional character, however, is not what makes Cervantes so unique. Eddington argues it was the addition of the character Sancho Panza that made The Ingenious Nobleman Sir Quixote of La Mancha the first of its kind in world literature. Eddington explains why Sancho Panza “changes everything”:
“Until Don Quixote seeks out Sancho Panza, he is but a foil, a rube–a brilliantly crafted one, for sure, but nonetheless an object of derision…. In the space of a few pages, what started as an exercise in comic ridicule and, as the narrator insists on several occasions, a satirical send-up of the tales of chivalry, has taken on an entirely different dimension: it has begun to transform into the story of a relationship between two characters whose incompatible takes on the world are bridged by friendship, loyalty, and eventually love.”
This relationship, for Eddington, puts the reader into a different space, one where ridicule and satire is replaced suddenly by a, “new language. Today we call that language fiction.” We are drawn into a story that is no longer one dimensional, about the humorous misadventures of an old man driven by dreams of an older, chivalric age. As we watch Sancho Panza, who is fully aware of all his master’s folly, treat the Don with respect, defend him, support him, and love him, we are given the, “ability to experience different and at times even contradictory realities without rejecting one or the other….”
Eddington argues we are “drawn to fiction,” precisely for this reason, and I fully agree. As we read a novel, we can explore our human life from points of view vastly different from our own and enjoy watching the characters deal with the same clash of perspectives we are experiencing as we read.
Reading Eddington’s short book on Cervantes not only prepares you for a deeper understanding of Don Quixote but also of all the other fiction awaiting you in the future.