Posted by: tuulenhaiven | May 8, 2010

Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote

Collected Fictionsfrom the collection The Garden of Forking Paths
contained within Collected Fictions
by Jorge Luis Borges
translated by Andrew Hurley

This is an absurd story. It is about a man who wanted to compose the Quixote – not another version of it, and not a copy of it. His intent was to ‘produce a number of pages which coincided – word for word and line for line – with those of Miguel de Cervantes.’

The story is told in the form of an article written by an admirer of Menard soon after his death. The unnamed author of the piece begins by listing the visible works left by Menard (a list that brought Perec’s lists to my mind, of course!) and then goes on to say that the most important work that Menard produced is invisible, incomplete, and consisted of several chapters of part I of Don Quixote and a fragment of Chapter XXII, all evidence of which was destroyed before Menard’s death.

How this really worked and what this piece of writing really consisted of was unclear to me on my first perusal of the story, even after reading a comparison of a paragraph from the two texts – Cervantes’ and Menard’s – which proved to be identical. I finished the story, laughing a little, but quite puzzled. “Wow! Wait…what??”

I of course read the story through a second time, and things became slightly clearer.

There are two stories here really – Menard’s task and how he went about it, and the author of the article’s response to the work. The seeming impossibility and even pointlessness of Menard’s work reminded me of Perec’s Bartlebooth. While both characters offer explanations as to why they attempt what they do, from where I sit it is still something of a mystery.

Menard, who gave up trying to become Cervantes through learning Spanish, returning to Catholicism, and fighting against the Moor or Turk, and instead sought to approach the Quixote by the more challenge route of his own experience, wrote:

“The task I have undertaken is not in essence difficult. … If I could just be immortal, I could do it.”

His admirer seems to be equally bizarre, especially when he examines those two passages I mentioned, and finds a completely different tone and meaning in each. He even goes so far as to say that he can imagine he recognizes Menard’s voice and style in parts of Cervantes’ Quixote that Menard never touched!

There’s certainly a playful exploration here of what we, as readers, bring to a work. That seems to be a topic that Borges was interested in. For all the goofiness in this story, there were many things worth pondering once I had a marginal understanding of what it was about.

Having read a few more of Borges’ stories now, I am becoming more familiar with his style, and am really liking his simple but profound, and quite humorous writing. He has a wonderful way of turning a sentence, using a word I wasn’t expecting, and saying things in new and lovely ways. I really liked this bit, which is something Menard wrote in a letter to the narrator of the piece:

“Thinking, meditating, imagining…are not anomalous acts – they are the normal respiration of the intelligence.”

I’m definitely a fan of Borges at this point, and have to thank Richard for his brilliant idea to follow up Perec with these stories. Follow the link to his post for more thouhts on this story from him as well as other members of the non-structured reading group. Next week (Friday, or some day around it!) we will be discussing The Library of Babel, but meanwhile I will be making my way through the rest of the collection. It would be somewhat amusing if I read over 500 pages of Borges short stories this month, after swearing off long books, but I’m kind of in the mood to do so! 🙂


Responses

  1. Menard reminded me of Barlebooth too. That must be some of the Borges influence on Perec I’ve heard so much about.

    “There’s certainly a playful exploration here of what we, as readers, bring to a work.”

    Yes! I think that Borges’s biggest question he wants us to consider: how we read an older work in the context of our knowledge and experiences.

    • I just finished reading your post, and I found it THRILLING! You’ve said exactly what I was trying to get at, in regards to Borges and his interest in the roll of the reader. Such a cool way of thinking about it.

      And this story reminded me of Perec in SO many ways. 🙂

  2. “If I could just be immortal…” was one of my favorite “Pierre Menard” lines given its context, Sarah! Love the way Borges uses the whimsical and/or the seemingly absurd as launch pads for meditations that then touch on literary criticism, cosmology and “many things worth pondering” in general. And thank God for a real mastery of brevity after Proust last month, ha ha!

    • I’m loving the brevity! 🙂 That’s actually a really funny comparison – Borges v. Proust. They both have such profound things to say, but go about it so differently.

  3. “Having read a few more of Borges’ stories now, I am becoming more familiar with his style, and am really liking his simple but profound, and quite humorous writing.”

    Yes, I also think that reading more Borges is key to understanding him. One gets more acquainted, and more perplexed, with his universe and a bit more comfortable with his puzzle games.

    I regret I discovered the group reading of Perec so late in the day. I would have joined too. But ending up with Borges makes up for it. I can always check out all your Perec posts whenever I decide to tackle Life.

    • Looking forward to more perplexity! I’m really on a roll with Borges now. I hope you’ll join us for the discussion of the other two stories this month. 🙂

  4. Sarah, I love your new header! And, I’m off to the library today to pick up Tender Morsels. I sure hope it’s still available! Happy last day of the weekend.

    • Hope you enjoyed your weekend, and that your library had Tender Morsels! Looking forward to the discussion. 🙂

  5. It would be somewhat amusing if I read over 500 pages of Borges short stories this month, after swearing off long books, but I’m kind of in the mood to do so!

    Haha, would you be surprised if I told you I was thinking the same thing? I had actually picked up this volume a few weeks back, planning to make my way through it over the summer, and thought this nonstructured group read would be a great way to start. Borges is one of those writers I feel like I need to read a lot of to start to understand what he’s up to. But I don’t mind, because even when I don’t quite get it, he does have such a “wonderful way of turning a sentence, using a word I wasn’t expecting, and saying things in new and lovely ways.”

    • Yes, there’s a little something in even the most incomprehensible Borges story that sings out to me. Love it.

  6. Forgive me for coming late to the party, but this is a great entry on “Pierre Menard,” Sarah! And that quote you included, about the normal respiration of the intelligence, made me want to stand up and cheer! Too often imagination & creative thought are treated as bizarre anomalies in our culture, which is a damn shame. In any case, I thoroughly enjoyed this story & am looking forward to this Friday’s selection. 🙂

    • Yes, it’s a brilliant line! 🙂

      The conversation so far has been awesome on just this story, so I imagine the overall Borges conversation this month will be well worth it.


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