“Life is absurd,” William Egginton tells us in his new book about Miguel de Cervantes and Don Quixote, “so laugh—but also feel, because life’s travails hurt others as much as they hurt you.”
Egginton, an accomplished scholar of Romance literatures, is not solely to blame for this kind of silly TED Talk. We don’t really want to read Cervantes, or any other classics for that matter. Instead, we want to read memoirs about other people reading them. Rather than Middlemarch, these days we read Rebecca Mead’s memoir of reading Middlemarch; Maryanne Wolf and Alain de Botton on Proust; Stephen Marche on Shakespeare; A.J. Jacobs on the Bible; Sarah Bakewell on Montaigne; Christopher Beha on the Harvard Classics; and now, coinciding with the 400th anniversary of Cervantes’s death, William Egginton on Don Quixote. Unlike the demure reading guides of years past—Harry Blamires’s New Bloomsday Book for Ulysses comes to mind, and also B.C. Southam’s A Student’s Guide to the Selected Poems of T.S. Eliot for The Waste Land—these newer efforts are assuredly self-focused, offering first-person arguments for why these books continue to matter, not in and of themselves, but to us, for us.
The biblio-concierges of our selfie-helping age sincerely want us to read the books they are writing about, not their own—or at least, not exclusively their own. The problem, which is fatally evident in Egginton’s adoring and learned book-length ode to Don Quixote, is that the very effort to make this case obscures both the vitality and the irreducible difficulties of its subject in a haze of reverential appreciation and hotted up over-claiming. In the preface to The Man Who Invented Fiction, Egginton tells us that Don Quixote is “widely acknowledged as the first modern novel and one of the most important and influential works of literature of all time”; that “Adrift in a time of tumultuous change, Cervantes invented fiction to help him digest and understand his world; and that fiction in turn helped give birth to ours”; that “Not only would it become the template for all novels to come, but it also became a keystone of Western intellectual culture”; and finally—take note, Silicon Valley book clubs—that the novel stands as “one of the greatest innovations in human history.” Thereafter, Egginton devotes himself to answering a dutifully gob-smacked question: “How did he do it?”
For Egginton, this question has everything to do with Cervantes’s writing a book of such outsized and permanent importance, given his plainly un-elite status in 16th- and 17th-century imperial Spain as “a soldier, an adventurer, a prisoner, and a debtor who, after countless attempts and as many failures, toward the end of his life penned the book that would”—here we go again, still just in the preface—“provide the model for all fiction to come.”
Living in Valladolid, a principal city of the Castile region of Spain, Cervantes was in his 50s and not doing great when he began working on the novel. He was missing some teeth and a usable left hand, lost “when he was hit by a harquebus shot while boarding a Turkish galleon at the Battle of Lepanto.” Not only a wounded veteran, Cervantes was also a onetime prisoner of Barbary pirates and a writer of modestly successful plays and poems who was struggling to support an extended household with even lower prospects than his own, which is saying a lot, as Egginton makes clear in his assorted re-creations of the writer’s situation, all of which he calibrates as either physical or psychological inspirations for the novel itself.
In fact, goes the appealing legend, Cervantes came up with the idea for Quixote in 1597, while serving time in a Seville debtors’ prison. Thereafter, he created the first part of the novel, originally published in 1605, and in so doing, Egginton notes (last one, I promise), “Cervantes opened the door to a vast and undiscovered country for all those who followed him to explore.”
The variety of language and national traditions alone that feature when it comes to the beginnings of modern fiction challenge this view that Cervantes’s book is the singular origin point for the Novel’s Big Bang, but nevertheless, many have duly paid their respects. Thomas Mann: Don Quixote is “a unique monument”; Carlos Fuentes: it’s “perhaps the most eternal novel ever written”; Vladimir Nabokov (admiringly, I think): “one of the most bitter and barbarous books ever penned”; and finally, from Harold Bloom, quite simply, it’s “the best of all novels.” And that’s just to crib from the blurbs and preface that embroider the 2003 English edition translated by Edith Grossman. Meanwhile, speaking for the opposition, Martin Amis acidly allows that while the novel is “clearly an impregnable masterpiece,” it “suffers from one serious flaw, that of outright unreadability.”
Egginton’s white-gloved approach means he name-checks most every famous writer, philosopher, and politician who has ever praised the novel, but he tellingly sidesteps Amis, who has a point. Don Quixote is a sprawling, decadent mess of a book, written in purposely puffed up, self-satirizing prose. It’s also full of assorted digressions, false plot turns, random asides, authorial self-deprecations, writer-on-writer sniping, and extended plot diversions, including novella-sized interpolations of other chivalric tales that are themselves chockablock with more of all this same stuff. In other words, in its very scale and range, Don Quixote does not exclusively amuse, endear, awe, and beguile, which is what we have come to expect from a 400-year-old classic. The novel also annoys, confuses, offends, exhausts, and frustrates. Were Egginton more confident of the book’s goods, he could have admitted as much.
In fact, if we are not romantic about it, I think the novel offers as direct a correlative as any book can to the imaginative life that fiction makes possible. Half the time I am reading the novel, I frankly forget what’s going on and, footnotes aside, lose track of what’s supposed to matter, whether in terms of the storyline or its higher-order meanings. I am frequently kind of bored but also diverted from other boring things, whether by the book’s genuinely funny moments or by the prospect of reaching moments of sublime transport and profound insight. And whether or not I find these, I congratulate myself for trying, which offers consolation for how restless I can be while reading Cervantes.
This impatience owes to more than my wanting always desperately to put the book aside and check my phone. It also comes from knowing that I only need to read the first eight chapters “to get it.” After all, it’s in those opening chapters that Cervantes establishes the crazy-making nature of his protagonist’s addiction to 16th-century Spanish novels of chivalry. In fact, the Don, a poorer member of Spain’s rural gentry from “somewhere in La Mancha,” as the book begins, gives up everything else to read throat-clearing epics treating of the brave and noble exploits of the noble and brave Amadís of Gaul, et al.: “Our gentleman became so caught up in reading that he spent his nights reading from dusk till dawn and his days reading from sunrise to sunset … and he became so convinced in his imagination of the truth of all the countless grandiloquent and false inventions he read that for him no history in the world was truer.”
So convinced, the novel’s author—not Cervantes, but his fictional stand-in, presented a century on from the Reconquista as one Cide Hamete Benengeli, an “Arab Historian” whose name roughly translates as Sir Praiser of Eggplant—explains,
he had the strangest thought any lunatic in the world ever had, which was that it seemed reasonable and necessary to him, both for the sake of his honor and as a service to the nation, to become a knight errant and travel the world … righting all manner of wrongs and, by seizing the opportunity and placing himself in danger and ending those wrongs, winning eternal renown and everlasting fame.
Should we admire Quixote or laugh at him for thinking it “reasonable and necessary” to pursue a life of honor and service and for risking his life for justice and fame? The idea has a deep appeal, and it’s also endearing to observe someone other than a small child who has such a fully immersive, indeed binding relationship to the books he reads. At the same time, the ornate and redundancy-riddled writing encourages outright dismissal, never mind the pattern this self-undermining combination sets up: a 900-page-long interplay of the Knight’s thoughts, words, and deeds, amidst various other matters that are all easy enough to disdain as “a bizarrely shameless spectacle” (Amis again).
But I think Cervantes’s effort produces something that’s harder to reckon with than Amis allows. The novel’s difficulty lies not just in its size and form and style, the usual terms for latter-day readers finding fault with the book. In fact, Don Quixote’s difficulty actually owes to the reasonableness of Egginton’s proposition that we can find ourselves reflected in this book’s creation-cum-revelation of the modern mind in all of its advanced self-awareness. But if that’s the case, this means also finding evidence in the novel of all our most troublesome, even destructive capacities as moderns.
It all seems harmless and pointless enough in Don Quixote’s most famous sequence, from chapter eight, when the Knight comes up against “thirty or more enormous giants” with whom, he declares to his squire (a squat and stoic bumpkin), “I intend to do battle and whose lives I intend to take, and with the spoils we shall begin to grow rich, for this is righteous warfare, and it is a great service to God to remove so evil a breed from the face of the earth.” “‘What giants?’ said Sancho Panza.” Dismissing Sancho’s impaired vision, Quixote invokes the honor of his lady Dulcinea (a loud, husky village wench), spurs on his steed Rocinante (a rickety old workhorse), and charges straight at the giants (windmills). The windmill’s turning blades indifferently shatter his lance and send him hard to the ground. He rallies, ready to go again at what he describes, a day and a page later, as “plung[ing] our hands all the way up to the elbows into this thing they call adventures.”
Only, these adventures are not always so easy to skim over, whether out of laughter or fatigue. One of the Knight’s earliest good deeds, for instance, concerns a servant boy he finds tied to an oak tree, being whipped by his master. Quixote intervenes, reprimands the farmer, and orders the boy released and compensated for his suffering. The farmer agrees and asks that the boy come back to the house with him to get, you know, paid. The boy refuses to go, regardless of Quixote’s assurance that the farmer will comply not just out of fear that the Knight will punish him if he does not but also in natural deference to his authority and reputation: “And if you wish to know who commands you to do this, so that you have an even greater obligation to comply, know that I am the valiant Don Quixote of La Mancha, the righter of wrongs and injustices, and now go with God, and do not even think of deviating from what you have promised and sworn, under penalty of the penalty I have indicated to you.”
The boy gives way, the Knight rides off, and then the farmer grabs the boy and gives him “so many lashes that he left him half-dead.” Cervantes closes this episode: “In this way the valiant Don Quixote righted a wrong.” As far as the Knight is concerned, he has in fact done a good and noble deed, in keeping with his quest to bring justice and win fame. And as far as we can tell, he has just compounded a powerless young boy’s suffering. I think therefore I am, and you are what I say you are.
Egginton himself argues for a meaningful coincidence between Cervantes and Descartes, related to the crowning importance of perception to the security and integrity of one’s identity, but he does so only in support of celebrating the Knight as an exemplar of someone “secure in the identity of the self who perceives,” regardless of what anyone else thinks, says, and does to him. But what happens when the Knight acts out this very contemporary apology for self-definition upon others? Should we identify with Quixote and admire Cervantes for anticipating us here, too, in this particular sequence? In other words, this is a perfectly dark modern moment: Quixote’s abstract sense of himself and of how the world should be generates a perfect match in reality as far as he can perceive, which is all that matters to him, and damn everyone else.
Contemporary affinities aside, this line of thinking would be in keeping with the contingent and constructed features of Quixote’s general trajectory: one that’s book-inspired, and intellectually and imaginatively self-enclosing, self-dictating, self-affirming. Such is the capaciousness of the book, however, that for all the many times that the Knight is either himself harmed or harms others according to the terms of his questing, now and then it actually works out. Early in the novel’s Second Part, for instance, Cervantes delivers a little typical broad humor, in this case involving the barber’s bowl that the Knight sports as a helmet. After kibitzing with some local shepherds, Quixote notices approaching strangers. He rams on his helmet, not knowing that hungry Sancho has just filled it with fresh sheep curds. The dribbles dribbling down his face lead Quixote to worry that his very brain is melting, though obviously not enough to stop him from confronting two men transporting a pair of lions. These are a gift from a Spanish general to the King, he’s told, but Quixote immediately interprets the lions as scarifying agents sent by evil enchanters, meant for him. He calls for them to be set free so he can do battle.
As happens every time Quixote demands his delusions be taken seriously, the people around him go back and forth between amusement and annoyance and alarm. Meanwhile, Sancho once more laments his own bad luck for getting involved with this crazy guy and then loyally pleads the rationalist-empiricist’s case. “‘Look, Señor,’ said Sancho, ‘there’s no enchantment here or anything like it; I’ve seen through the gratings and cracks in the cage the claws of a real lion.’” His arguments are useless, as usual, but this time, instead of muttering and waiting to deal with the inevitable mess his master will make, Sancho retreats to weep over his certain death before an actual mortal foe.
After the vexed and quaking keeper opens the cage, “The first thing the lion did was to turn around … and unsheathe his claws and stretch his entire body; then he opened his mouth, and yawned very slowly, and extended a tongue almost two spans long, and cleaned the dust from his eyes and washed his face.”
The animal looks the battle-ready, curd-dripping Quixote up and down, does the leonine equivalent of a meh, and proceeds to lounge about in his open crate. He’s just a big old pussycat! A few minutes later, the keeper recounts an exceedingly tall tale of the Knight’s courage and fearsomeness to Sancho and the others and promises to tell the King himself of how Quixote had intimidated the lion so much, the ferocious beast verily cowered in his cage. Dedicated or deluded enough to take on a real lion, he undeniably risks his life, and it works out, he justly earns a little fame, if only because a big male cat is actually sort of a lazy bones. Meanwhile, its keeper is keen to insist otherwise because this makes for a much better story that he himself gets to tell.
Bringing out the greater meaning of such moments, Egginton observes that throughout the novel, “Cervantes defends his claim on fiction by using fiction to do what fiction does best: put a frame around a picture of reality that suspends the question of whether it is true or not.” In so doing, Egginton argues, Cervantes is effectively responsible for the “creation of depth” in fiction and in our sense of selves such as we discover it in novels. He can be persuasive with such claims, at least when he’s not trying for more grand-slam ontological-cosmological moonshots. The evidence he gets to marshal: Don Quixote’s many evocations of self-consciousness, whether it’s in Cervantes’s autobiographical depreciations or in his riffing on other works of fiction, or in the assorted good/bad short novels that he folds into the main one. There’s even more evidence for Cervantes’s genesis-like relationship to both the novel and modern experience in his characters’ living out their flexible, changeable selves, in their self-controlled management of the dynamism between interior and public identities, and in their encounters with each other, which demand strategic performances and knowing concealments and ironic assents. All of this helped make possible what the Novel, as form, continues to make possible like no other medium: the capturing and revelation of the modern human condition in all of its layers and ambiguities. This absolutely rates admiration, just not so singularly as Egginton would have it.
Likewise, the novel’s hero can be laughed at, dismissed, and even denounced, but also pitied and admired on the exact same terms, all for trying to live his life according to a credo that everyone else around him knows to be false, pointless, risible, even dangerous. In fact, in some eternal order of books and readers, Don Quixote would have probably had its most agile and supple reader in St. Augustine, right around the the time he was writing The Confessions.
Instead, Cervantes has a less viscerally understanding, if more flattering, respondent in Egginton, who—in prose I hope is intentionally bad in homage to its subject—tells us in closing that “Cervantes pushed the envelope of every literary genre, parodying established styles and conventions along the way.” And so, in answer to the question driving this study, that’s “how he did it,” that’s how Cervantes created the book read by more people than any other, save the Bible. But Egginton’s account—like other contemporary memoirs of classics—only satisfies the way apps satisfy: someone else has done the work and provided an attractive shortcut that excuses you from thinking too much about higher and more difficult questions: why, for instance, someone would write such a rambling chaotic book in the first place, one that announces itself as a total joke on itself and all others. And also, why do we keep reading it, or at least, reading about it?
The pressures of Cervantes’s private life offer lots of possible answers to the question of why he wrote it. But beyond the dreamy notion of a jail-cell inspiration, the more vexing possibility—vexing because it’s at once irritating and intimidating to writer and reader alike—that emerges by the end of the novel is that Cervantes wrote this simply because he wanted to, and he could, and so he did. Consider: in the novel’s closing pages, the Don has returned home following a genuine defeat in a brief battle against another knight. Quixote rejects all books of chivalry, comes to his senses, makes a good confession, and dies. His final words are an apology to the author of the novel itself and a request for forgiveness for “the occasion I unwittingly gave him for writing so many and such great absurdities as he wrote therein, because I depart this life with qualms that I have been the reason he wrote them.” In a roundabout way, I think, Cervantes is here suggesting that he wrote this book as a supreme act of free creation that brought forth a world of imperfect, maddening mortals. That explains why he remains so vaguely pervasive but also divisive a presence today, at once taken for granted by most but also uncritically celebrated and viciously denigrated by others, as we continue to seek ourselves and derive some greater meaning (or not) from his aging, confusing, massive creation. Only, we get tired and confused and frustrated with the effort—and also annoyed and embarrassed by the soft sweet righteous efforts others make on our behalf—and all the while with a razor-tongued Englishman ridiculing us for even trying (Martin Amis, not Christopher Hitchens, in this scenario). Where’s the good and honor in any of that? Why keep going? It’s just not worth the time these days. It’s pointless, delusional—yeah, yeah, you already know—it’s Quixotic. So that’s it. Vaya con Dios.
Randy Boyagoda’s most recent book is Richard John Neuhaus: A Life in the Public Square.