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Editor’s choice: ‘The man who invented fiction’

The Man Who Invented Fiction: How Cervantes Ushered in the Modern World by William Egginton, Bloomsbury, 239 pages, $27. A browser wanting a shortcut to the seriousness and exaltation of this hugely readable book about Miguel DeCervantes couldn’t do any better than to search for two obvious names in the index: Jorge Luis Borges and Vladimir Nabokov.

Yes, of course, you will find a mention in passing of Borges’ story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” usually considered a cornerstone work in post-modernism. But after three paragraphs of explication, that’s it. Nabokov’s notorious opinion that “Don Quixote” was a cruel, crude old book” in one of his extraordinary lectures at Harvard is referred to even more fleetingly in a long footnote on Page 203 where William Egginton points out that Cervantes himself, typically, prefigured the view of posterity and, with his genius, anticipated that there would later geniuses of Nabokovian sort who’d find it “a patchy haphazard tale.”

What John Hopkins professor Egginton has accomplished here is a full explication of our seminal wonderment at Cervantes, whose 400th death anniversary falls on April 22, 2016. Whether Cervantes’ affect on fiction after him was greater than Shakespeare’s affect on literature in general is an open question for scholars of good will. (Another contemporary of Shakespeare and Cervantes was Montaigne. If it seems as if everything Western literature would become began four centuries ago, it’s because it did.)

It’s Egginton’s contention that “the essence of fiction – in which we experience different worlds and perspectives and the emotions they generate as if they were our own without ever giving up the knowledge that we are, in fact, elsewhere – assumed its present form, roughly four hundred years ago.” Miguel DeCervantes, “a soldier, adventurer, a prisoner and a debtor who, after countless attempts and many failures toward the end of his life, penned the book that would provide the model for all fiction to come.” The tale of Cervantes himself is told with impressive acuity, thoroughness and exactitude by Egginton in his uncommonly full and readable book about genius. – Jeff Simon