Felipe Fernandez-Armesto

Novel Arguments

The Man Who Invented Fiction: How Cervantes Ushered in the Modern World

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I did not expect it to be like King Kong vs Godzilla, but I thought the simultaneous Shakespeare and Cervantes quatercentenaries would inspire silly features in which celebrities – Stephen Fry, perhaps, or Penélope Cruz, or the current frontrunner in Britain’s Got Talent – would say which dead white male they preferred. Or surely there would be a debate about the relative merits of Shakespeare and Cervantes involving literature mavens or rival advocates of English and Spanish culture. If nothing else, I hoped the commemorations would provoke new studies of the question of why Shakespeare’s plays and Cervantes’s fiction endure in a world no longer fully equipped to appreciate them – why Don Quixote has outsold every other book save the Bible and Shakespeare is the world’s most often and widely performed playwright.

Though William Egginton mentions the Bard only in passing, he does offer an explanation for Cervantes’s durability: the Spaniard ‘invented fiction’. No one should make this assertion without considering major works of purported fiction from Gilgamesh onwards, including the many stories in the Old Testament, such as those of Ruth and Job, the Iliad and Odyssey and surviving ancient Greek and Hellenistic romances, especially the True History of Lucian of Samosata, which anticipates many features Egginton thinks original to Don Quixote (he does admit in a footnote that ‘Cervantes may have had Lucian in mind’). Equally necessary is knowledge of ancient Chinese stories, Byzantine novels, the numerous storytellers of medieval Europe (including Chaucer), Latin novels of the Renaissance, such as Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (and their vernacular counterparts), and, above all, Japanese fiction of the tenth century onwards, sublimely represented by The Tale of Genji, which reads as if it might have been written yesterday. Egginton, however, takes none of this work into account.

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