The four-hundredth anniversary of Miguel de Cervantes’s death serves as a good reminder of the influence and importance of his oeuvre, and perhaps too of our strange obsession with the decimal system. After all, Cervantes’s works will be as relevant next year as they were last, minus the fanfare. On the eve of this quatercentennary, William Egginton’s The Man Who Invented Fiction made a timely appearance. Egginton is the author of several well-known and praised academic books, but even for a scholar of his calibre, the bold proposition in the title of his new book makes one approach it with some scepticism.
This is not a biography of Cervantes (it does not claim to be one), but rather a long essay on Egginton’s definition of modern fiction, interwoven, à la Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World (2004) and The Swerve (2011), with the narrative of Cervantes’s life, which functions as its organising structure. Egginton spends most of the book explaining what, precisely, he means by fiction, and how Cervantes created this new ‘space’ of the mind for the modern world. In essence, he argues that fiction is what Cervantes wrote, and proceeds to explain to us why this is so.