A celebration of a beloved novel and its innovative author.
Commemorating the 400th anniversary of Cervantes’ death, Egginton (German and Romance Languages and Literature/Johns Hopkins Univ.; In Defense of Religious Moderation, 2011, etc.) makes a bold argument for the Spanish author’s importance: that in Don Quixote, he invented fiction, a genre distinct from history or poetry that creates the experience of “different worlds and perspectives” and generates emotions about characters “that feel real.” This novel, writes Egginton, was so new and influential that it changed the way readers viewed themselves and the world. Like Ilan Stavans’ recent Quixote (2015), Egginton asserts that the book was hugely popular in its own time and after, heralded by scores of major writers throughout the past four centuries—e.g., Goethe, Schiller, Flaubert, Faulkner, and Kundera. Thomas Jefferson used it to teach himself Spanish. Nevertheless, evidence that it has been read and praised does not prove how it transformed those readers and served as “the first sign of a truly modern consciousness.” Here, Egginton resorts to speculation, as he does in piecing together biographical details of Cervantes’ life. The book is filled with what the Spaniard “must have” felt or “could have” experienced. Troublesome also is the slippery term “modern.” Modern fiction, the author asserts, “allows for the reader’s identification and sympathies to shift between opposing viewpoints” and to get “a privileged view” into the consciousness and emotions of a character. According to Egginton, Cervantes taught readers “that we can play roles without believing in them” and demonstrated the difference “between what a person seems to be on the outside and what he or she feels or thinks on the inside.”
Despite a lack of evidence proving cause and effect, Egginton’s well-informed history of 16th-century Spanish life, politics, and culture makes for an engrossing read. He need not have insisted on sweeping claims for Cervantes’ mind-changing influence.