Lead book review

Cervantes the seer

18 June 2016

9:00 AM

18 June 2016

9:00 AM

William Egginton opens his book with a novelistic reimagining: here’s Miguel de Cervantes, a toothless old geezer of nearly 60, on his way to the printers with his new manuscript.

On a hot August day in 1604, a man walked through the dusty streets of Valladolid, Spain, clutching in his right hand a heavy package. In the absence of any authentic portraits, we must trust his own words to know that he was brown-haired and silver-bearded, with an aquiline (but well-proportioned, he adds) nose and cheerful eyes partly hidden behind a pair of smeared spectacles resembling, in the words of one of his literary rivals, badly fried eggs.

By the time Cervantes published Don Quixote, he’d done a lot of living. A raddled figure on the down-at-heel fringes of the gentry, he had lost the use of his left hand when it was hit by a harquebus at the Battle of Lepanto. He’d spent a decade on the run after wounding someone in a duel. He’d spent five years as a prisoner in the court of the Ottoman ruler of Algiers. He’d done hard time in a stinking jail in Seville. He’d been excommunicated twice in a row for doing the honourable thing and — as a commissary agent tasked with raising grain for the Armada — taking from the church rather than the peasantry. He now presided over a household of precarious finances and disappointed women (‘his wife, two sisters, a niece and his illegitimate daughter by another woman’). He was, in Egginton’s words, ‘soldier, adventurer, gambler, captive and all-round failure’.

At the end of his poem ‘This Last Pain’, William Empson asked the poem’s addressee to ‘Imagine… What could not possibly be there,/ And learn a style from a despair.’ It could stand, in William Egginton’s account of it, as an apt description of Cervantes’s process. This is a book about how Cervantes learned a style from a despair, and what that style meant to the people who came after. Here is a literary-theoretical argument clothed in historical and biographical detail.

Egginton’s claim for Don Quixote is twofold. Here is a book in which the organising principle is delusion — which is as much as to say, a book that burlesques the way in which each of us sees reality differently. And here is a book in which that delusion is sustained by books themselves. Its hero has been driven mad by his own obsession with chivalric romances; and it’s presented as a true history — ascribed to a fictitious author. It’s a hall of mirrors.

So it’s a book about books — and it’s a book about subjectivity. We all ‘read’ the world, and perform ideas of ourselves in it: ‘This creation of depth by delving into the space between tale-tellers and the tales they are telling is the technique that animates all of Don Quixote.’

Egginton locates this literary technique persuasively in its historical moment. Across Europe, a holistic medieval world view was giving way — in everything from natural philosophy to the plastic arts — to a recognition of perspective: the idea that our relationship with an external reality might be mediated and subjective. (The word ‘reality’ itself, Egginton tells us, first appeared in Spanish only two years after Don Quixote was published.)

But the Spain in which Cervantes lived was paddling hard in the opposite direction. The ideas of the Dutch Enlightenment were available — but they were in retreat. Charles V and, later, his heir Philip II presided over ‘the regrouping of a regime around orthodoxy and fear’. In 1547 the first ‘blood purity’ statute was passed. In 1599 the first Index Librorum Prohibitorum — list of banned books — was published. The Inquisition investigated ‘converso’ and ‘morisco’ families (those with Jewish or Moorish Muslim ancestry) ruthlessly. A fetish was made of ‘honour’, which, as Egginton writes, ‘was available to all men as long as they were free of even the slightest stain of suspicion concerning the religious purity of their ancestry or the sexual purity of their women’.

So in sending up ideas of honour in Don Quixote, Cervantes wasn’t just mocking a literary convention. He was creating a space in which power could be questioned. And he was also dramatising his own history of disappointment — the pratfalls to which his idealism had led. ‘Life is absurd, so laugh —’, writes Egginton, ‘but also feel, because life’s travails hurt others as much as they hurt you.’

Some readers will be put off by the title, and I don’t much blame them. It carries a whiff of Harold Bloom’s batty notion that people didn’t have inner lives until Shakespeare invented them for us. Genres don’t arrive ex nihilo, and it would surely be more modest, and more intellectually productive, to see Don Quixote as a giant leap forward rather than a completely different category of thing. And, in fact, Egginton is acute when it comes to it on the way that Don Quixote compasses and repurposes not only the conventions of chivalric romance, but of the drama, picaresque and pastoral.

Here is a smart, thoughtful book that lucidly expounds a big idea. Yet it’s marred by those overclaims, and by its habits of sloppy speculation. Considering how delicately Egginton teases out the nested ironies of Cervantes’s authorial positions, and how constantly he insists on the unknowability of others, for instance, he’s oddly blasé about telling us what Cervantes himself thought and felt at any given time. He has a free hand, too, with empty intensifiers: defeats are ‘devastating’, rebukes ‘stinging’, labour ‘ceaseless’. Cervantes benefits ‘enormously’ from one thing and is ‘deeply’ discouraged by another.

And there are some seriously overripe sentences: ‘The beauty of those aqua waters bely the treacherous currents beneath, which have struck fear into the hearts of generations of sailors, giving birth to the legend of the cliff-dwelling monster Scylla and the permanent whirlpool Charybdis that conspired with so many other travails to keep the valiant Odysseus from returning home for ten long years after the epic and tragic losses Homer sang of in The Iliad.’

But these are forgivable defects — and many of them would have been put right by a more punctilious editor. The greatest virtue of Egginton’s book is not the grandeur of its claims, nor the precision or otherwise of its scholarship, but its imaginative sympathy.

That is in keeping with its subject. Cervantes anticipated and, Egginton argues, underpinned every major development in philosophy and literature since — from Descartes (Egginton suggests that the ‘demon’ of Descartes’s thought experiment may have been inspired by the ‘enchanters’ that Don Quixote blames for muddling his perceptions) through Hegel and on to Marx.

But his was not an arid technical insight into epistemological uncertainty. It was the basis for human sympathy — the ironic counterpoint between the crocked idealism of Don Quixote and the amiable realism of Sancho Panza, giving rise to the loving friendship between them. Don Quixote isn’t a philosophical treatise: it is a wonderful, warm, humane, rollicking joke.

The post Cervantes the seer appeared first on The Spectator.

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