The Man Who Invented Fiction

In the early seventeenth century, a crippled, graying, almost toothless veteran of Spain's wars against the Ottoman Empire published a book. It was the story of a poor nobleman, his brain addled from reading too many books of chivalry, who deludes himself that he is a knight errant and sets off on hilarious adventures.

 

That book, Don Quixote, went on to sell more copies than any other book beside the Bible, making its author, Miguel de Cervantes, the single most-read author in human history. Cervantes did more than just publish a bestseller, though. He invented a way of writing. This book is about how Cervantes came to create what we now call fiction, and how fiction changed the world.

The New Fiction of Solitude

 

For an influential group of writers, the purpose of novels is to bear witness to the spectacle of aloneness.

Yet hold the warm tribute to fellow-feeling-through-fiction up to the light, and it reveals as much anxiety as pleasure: the worry that, as Obama expressed it, with “people not reading novels anymore,” empathy itself wanes—and who knows what happens to fiction. The claim that we count on novel-reading to link us as it immerses us is shadowed by a dread that perhaps we are asking too much of an old-fashioned and time-consuming practice. One way to surmount such fears is to write a heroic history of novel-reading itself, which is what William Egginton, a literature professor at Johns Hopkins, has done in The Man Who Invented Fiction: How Cervantes Ushered in the Modern World. It is a literary biography of Miguel de Cervantes with a thesis: Don Quixote, now 400 years old, provided us with the blueprint for a literary form that, above all, teaches readers the cognitive habits of empathetic thinking.

The Man Who Invented Fiction review – what we owe to Cervantes

By Daniel Hahn of The Guardian

Don Quixote brought its author considerable success in his lifetime. With huge sales and multiple reprintings (and piratings), the first part of the novel was widely translated and celebrated across Europe even before the arguably superior second part had been published. Yet Miguel de Cervantes’ life was far from easy one. Self-exiled from his homeland, on the run from the authorities, he was repeatedly jailed, often through no fault of his own, and enslaved; as a soldier he lost the use of his left hand and most of his ideals; he had relentless family struggles, and more often than not was utterly broke. (All those sales never made him wealthy.)

Gustave Dore illustration of Don Quixote.

Photograph: Gustave Dore/Alamy

donquixote.jpg
william-egginton-the-man-who-invented-fi

True Inventions

By Richard Brookhiser of The National Review

Harold Bloom once wrote that Montaigne created one character (himself), Cervantes created two (Don Quixote and Sancho Panza), and Shakespeare created dozens and dozens. That looks like putting Shakespeare way out in front, but Cervantes’s two are remarkably vital and durable. Dr. Johnson said Don Quixote was one of only three books he ever wished were longer.

Photo: Jozef Sedmak/Dreamstime

Get in touch.

egginton@jhu.edu | The Johns Hopkins University |  Baltimore, Maryland

For more.

  • Twitter Logo

© 2020 William Egginton