Literary Treasures: The Man Who Invented Fiction: Cervantes & the Modern World (2016)

Miguel de Cervantes, full-length portrait.

This past fall, the Library’s Hispanic Division presented a series of events to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the death of Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1547-1616), the author of Don Quixote—considered one of the most influential works of literature ever published.

On December 2, the Poetry and Literature Center co-sponsored one of these events, which welcomed scholar and Johns Hopkins professor William Egginton to give a talk centered on his new book, The Man Who Invented Fiction: How Cervantes Ushered in the Modern World. Egginton’s book contextualizes and argues for Don Quixote as the first modern novel: In stark contrast to the popular, one-dimensional chivalric novels of the time, Don Quixote creates full interior lives for its characters while also giving the reader a chance to see the world through the characters’ relationships. And not only did Cervantes write about society’s outcasts; he created stories “about the fictional framework that made them outcasts in the first place.”

As I sat in the audience, listening to Egginton chronicle the historical and literary significance of Don Quixote in such beautiful, articulate detail, I couldn’t help but feel moved to finally take on the novel. I picked up a copy of Don Quixote a few weeks after the event, and I happily carried the 900-something-page behemoth home with me. Over the next several months, I spent evenings and Metro rides alternately laughing, cringing, gasping, and mourning as I burrowed myself into the frequently accursed tales of The Knight of the Sorrowful Face and his squire, Sancho Panza.

Cervantes’ narrative structure is extraordinarily compelling, and at times I had to remind myself that I was reading a novel published in 1605. The book retains a parodic self-awareness of its place in time and history as the narrative moves forward—in the second volume, for instance, Cervantes meta-fictionally weaves into the story an imitated sequel to Don Quixote’s adventures that had been published in 1614 (Second Volume of the Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, by Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda). Cervantes not only writes this real author into the second volume of the novel, but sets up his narrator and characters to pointedly disparage this account:

For me alone was Don Quixote born, and I for him; it was his to act, mine to write; we two together make but one, notwithstanding and in spite of that pretended Tordesillesque writer [Avellaneda] who has ventured or would venture with his great, coarse, ill-trimmed ostrich quill to write the achievements of my valiant knight;—no burden for his shoulders, nor subject for his frozen wit: whom, if perchance thou shouldst come to know him, thou shalt warn to leave at rest where they lie the weary mouldering bones of Don Quixote.

“Coarse, ill-trimmed ostrich quill”—ouch.

Title page of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra’s El Ingenioso Hidalgo don Qvuixote de la Mancha, 1605

I could, of course, go on and on about Cervantes’ incredibly contemporary narrative inventions, and how the complex and unparalleled bond between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza unfolds throughout the novel, but I have to stop somewhere.

I felt a great sense of loss when I finished Don Quixote just a few weeks ago—as if I was forced to sever ties with a trusted friend. Many trusted, complicated friends.

Luckily, I don’t have to say goodbye to the knight, his squire, or the entire cast of characters I grew to know over the past several months. These characters live on in our cultural memory. Moreover, the experience of reading Don Quixote for the first time really buoyed in me the power of cultural exchange—that, through an institution like the Library of Congress, curiosity can truly spark at the intersections of history, culture, and literature. When the Poetry and Literature Center partners with the Library’s Hispanic Division to celebrate the life and literature of Miguel de Cervantes, for instance, there’s a visceral curiosity that can lead to wanting more, more, more.

When I finished Don Quixote, my colleague Catalina Gómez in the Hispanic Division said to me, “Now you should see the first edition of Don Quixote that the Library has in its collections!” In fact, the Library of Congress houses more than 600 editions of Don Quixote—including the first Spanish edition, as well as volumes in English, French, German, Portuguese, Danish, Dutch, Italian, Quechua, and conceivably every other written language.

Indeed, my friends, Don Quixote lives on.

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