Norman Thomas di Giovanni

Pierre Menard, the Author of Don Quixote

To Silvina Ocampo


The visible body of work left by the novelist Pierre Menard is easily and briefly listed. Inexcusable, therefore, are the omissions and additions perpetrated by Madame Henri Bachelier in a misleading checklist which a certain newspaper that makes no secret of its Protestant leanings has had the insensitivity to thrust upon its unfortunate readers - few and Calvinist though these be, when not Freemason or circumcised. Menard's true friends looked on this checklist with alarm and even a certain sadness. Only yesterday, in a manner of speaking, did we gather among the mournful cypresses at his final resting place, and already Error creeps in to blur his Memory. Unquestionably, some small rectification is in order.

It is all too easy, I realize, to challenge my meagre credentials. Nevertheless, I trust that I shall not be disallowed from citing the names of two eminent patrons. The Baroness of Bacourt (at whose unforgettable vendredis it was my privilege to come to know the late-lamented poet) has been kind enough to grant approval to the pages that follow. The Countess of Bagnoreggio, one of the most refined minds of the Principality of Monaco (now of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, following her recent marriage to the international philanthropist Simon Kautzsch, a man much vilified, alas, by the victims of his disinterested activities), has sacrificed 'to truth and to the death' (her own words) the aristocratic reserve that so distinguishes her, and in an open letter published in the review Luxe she too grants me her approbation. These patents, I believe, should suffice.

I have said that Menard's visible work is readily listed. After careful examination of his private papers, I find that they contain the following items:

a) A Symbolist sonnet which appeared twice (the second time with variants) in the review La Conque (March and October, 1899).

b) A study of the feasibility of constructing a poetic vocabulary of concepts that are neither synonyms for nor circumlocutions of those that shape our everyday speech 'but ideal objects created by consensus and intended essentially for poetic needs' (Nîmes, 1901).

c) A study of 'certain connections or affinities' in the thinking of Descartes, Leibniz, and John Wilkins (Nîmes, 1903).

d) A study of Leibniz's Characteristica Universalis (Nîmes, 1904).

e) A technical article on the possibility of enriching the game of chess by removing one of the rook's pawns. Menard sets forth his case, elaborates, argues, and in the end rejects his own innovation.

f) A study of Ramon Lull's Ars Magna Generalis (Nîmes, 1906).

g) A translation, with a foreword and notes, of The Book of the Free Invention and Art of the Game of Chess by Ruy López de Segura (Paris, 1907).

h) The draft pages of a monograph on George Boole's symbolic logic.

i) An examination of the basic metrical laws of French prose, illustrated with examples from Saint-Simon (Revue des langues romanes, Montpellier, October, 1909).

j) A reply to Luc Durtain (who had denied the existence of such laws), illustrated with examples from Luc Durtain (Revue des langues romanes, Montpellier, December, 1909).

k) A manuscript translation of Quevedo's Aguja de navegar cultos, entitled La boussole des précieux.

l) A foreword to the catalogue of an exhibition of lithographs by Carolus Hourcade (Nîmes, 1914).

m) Problems with a Problem (Paris, 1917), a book discussing in chronological order the solutions to the well-known paradox of Achilles and the tortoise. To date, two editions of this book have appeared; the second bears in an epigraph Leibniz's advice, 'Have not the slightest fear, Mr Tortoise', and amends the chapters on Russell and Descartes.

n) A dogged analysis of Toulet's 'syntactic usage' (Nouvelle revue française, March, 1921). Menard, I recall, held that censure and praise are sentimental activities which have little or nothing to do with criticism.

o) A transposition into alexandrines of Paul Valéry's 'Cimitière marin' (N.R.F., January, 1928).

p) An invective against Paul Valéry in Jacques Reboul's Pages Towards the Suppression of Reality. (This denunciation, if I may digress, is the exact reverse of his true opinion of Valéry. Valéry knew this, and the old friendship between the two men was not imperilled.)

q) A 'definition' of the Countess of Bagnoreggio, included in the 'triumphant tome' - the words of another contributor, Gabriele D'Annunzio - published annually by this lady for the purpose of correcting the inevitable falsehoods of the gutter press and of presenting 'to the world and to Italy' a true portrait of her person, so often exposed (by reason of her beauty and conduct) to over-hasty misinterpretation.

r) An admirable crown of sonnets for the Baroness of Bacourt (1934).

s) A handwritten list of verses whose effect derives from their punctuation.*

The above, then, is a summary in chronological order (omitting only a few woolly occasional sonnets inscribed in Madame Henri Bachelier's hospitable, or greedy, album) of Menard's visible work. I shall now move on to his other work - the underground, the infinitely heroic, the singular, and (oh, the scope of the man!) the unfinished. This oeuvre, possibly the most significant of our time, consists of chapters nine and thirty-eight of the first part of Don Quixote and of a fragment of chapter twenty-two. I am aware that my claim will seem an absurdity, but to vindicate this 'absurdity' is the principle object of the present essay.**

Two texts of differing value inspired Menard's undertaking. One was that philological fragment (number 2005 in the Dresden edition) in which Novalis outlines the notion of total identification with a particular author. The other was one of those derivative books that place Christ on a boulevard, Hamlet in the Cannebière, or don Quixote on Wall Street. Like any man of good taste, Menard loathed such pointless masquerades, since all they were fit for, he said, was to amuse the man in the street with anachronisms or, worse still, to bewitch us with the infantile idea that every historical period is the same or is different. What seemed to Menard more interesting - albeit superficial and inconsistent in execution - was Daudet's famous attempt to combine in one character, Tartarin, both the Ingenious Knight and his squire. Anyone who suggests that Menard dedicated his life to writing a modern-day Don Quixote defiles Menard's living memory.

Pierre Menard was not out to write another Don Quixote - which would have been easy - but Don Quixote itself. Needless to add, he never envisaged a mindless transcription of the original; it was not his intention to copy it. His ambition, an admirable one, was to produce a handful of pages that matched word for word and line for line those of Miguel de Cervantes.

'Only my aim is astonishing,' he wrote to me from Bayonne on the thirtieth of September, 1934. 'The final term, the conclusion, of a theological or metaphysical proof - about, say, the objective world, God, causation, platonic forms - is just as foregone and familiar as my well-known novel. The one difference is that the philosopher gives us in pretty volumes the intermediary stages of his work, while I have chosen to destroy mine.' In fact, not a single draft page remains to bear witness to Menard's many years of toil.

The first method he devised was relatively simple. To learn Spanish well, to return to the Catholic faith, to fight the Moor and Turk, to forget European history from 1602 to 1918, to be Miguel de Cervantes. This was the course Pierre Menard embarked upon (I know he gained a fair command of seventeenth-century Spanish), but he rejected the method as too easy. Too impossible, rather! the reader will say. Granted, but the scheme was impossible from the start, and of all the impossible ways of achieving his aim this was the least interesting. To be in the twentieth century a popular novelist of the seventeenth century seemed to him a belittlement. To be, however possible, Cervantes and to come to Don Quixote seemed less exacting - therefore less interesting - than to stay Pierre Menard and come to Don Quixote through the experience of Pierre Menard. (This conviction, let me add, made him leave out the autobiographical prologue to the second part of Don Quixote. To have retained this prologue would have been to create another character - Cervantes - and would also have meant presenting Don Quixote through this character and not through Menard. Naturally, Menard denied himself this easy way out.) 'In essence, my scheme is not difficult,' I read in another part of his letter. 'To carry it through all I need is to be immortal.' Should I confess that I often find myself thinking that he finished the book and that I read Don Quixote - all of Don Quixote - as if it had been Menard's brainchild? A few nights ago, leafing through chapter twenty-six, which he never tried his hand at, I recognized our friend's style and voice in this fine phrase: 'the nymphs of the streams, the damp and doleful Echo....' This effective coupling of a moral and a physical adjective brought back to me a line of Shakespeare's that Menard and I talked about one evening:

Where a malignant and a turbaned Turk ...

But why Don Quixote? our reader will ask. For a Spaniard such a choice would have been understandable; not, however, for a Symbolist poet from Nîmes, an ardent follower of Poe, who begat Baudelaire, who begat Valéry, who begat Edmond Teste. The letter quoted above sheds light on the point. 'Don Quixote', explains Menard, 'interests me deeply but does not seem to me - how can I put it? - inevitable. While I find it hard to imagine a world without Edgar Allan Poe's interjection,

Ah, bear in mind this garden was enchanted!

or without the “Bateau ivre” or the “Ancient Mariner”, I am quite able to imagine it without Don Quixote. (Of course, I am talking about my own ability and not about the historical resonance of these works.) Don Quixote is an incidental book; Don Quixote is not necessary. I can therefore plan the writing of it - I can write it - without the risk of tautology. I read it from cover to cover when I was about twelve or thirteen. Since then, I have carefully reread certain chapters - those that for the moment I shall not try my hand at. I have also delved into Cervantes's one-act farces, his comedies, Galatea, the exemplary novels, the all-too laboured Travails of Persiles and Segismunda, and the Voyage to Parnassus. My overall recollection of Don Quixote, simplified by forgetfulness and lack of interest, is much like the hazy outline of a book one has before writing it. Given this outline (which can hardly be denied me), it goes without saying that my problem is somewhat more difficult than the one Cervantes faced. My obliging forerunner, far from eschewing the collaboration of chance, went about writing his immortal work in something of a devil-may-care spirit, carried along by the inertial force of language and invention. I have taken upon myself the mysterious duty of reconstructing his spontaneous novel word for word. My solitary game is governed by two contradictory rules. The first allows me to try out variations of a formal or psychological nature; the second makes me sacrifice these variations to the “original” text while finding solid reasons for doing so. To these assumed obstacles we must add another - an inbuilt one. To compose Don Quixote at the beginning of the seventeenth century was reasonable, necessary, and perhaps even predestined; at the beginning of the twentieth century, however, it is well-nigh impossible. Three centuries, packed with complex events, have not passed without effect. One of these events was Don Quixote itself.'

In spite of this trio of obstacles, Menard's fragmentary Don Quixote is subtler than that of Cervantes. Cervantes sets up a crude contrast between the fantasy of the chivalric tale and the tawdry reality of the rural Spain he knew, whereas Menard chooses as his reality the land of Carmen during the century of Lepanto and Lope de Vega. What picturesque touches would this not have suggested to a Maurice Barrès or a Dr Rodríguez Larreta! Menard, with complete unselfconsciousness, avoids the least hint of exoticism. We find in his work no gypsydom, no conquistadores, no mystics, no Philip II, no burnings at the stake. He does away with local colour. This disdain hints at a new treatment of the historical novel. This disdain is an outright condemnation of Salammbô.

If we examine isolated chapters we are equally astonished. Let us, for example, look into chapter thirty-eight of part one, 'in which don Quixote gives a strange discourse on arms and letters.' We all know that don Quixote (like Quevedo in an analogous later passage from his Hora de todos) finds for arms over letters. Cervantes was an old soldier; his finding is understandable. But that the don Quixote of Pierre Menard, a contemporary of La trahison des clercs and of Bertrand Russell, should relapse into such fuzzy sophistry! Madame Bachelier sees this as the author subordinating himself in an admirable and characteristic way to the mentality of his hero; others, showing not the slightest perceptiveness, see only a transcription of Don Quixote; the Baroness of Bacourt sees the influence of Nietzsche. To this third view (which I consider beyond dispute) I wonder if I dare add a fourth, which accords quite well with Pierre Menard's all but divine modesty - his self-effacing or ironic habit of propagating ideas that were the exact reverse of those he himself held. (Let us once more remember his diatribe against Paul Valéry in Jacques Reboul's short-lived super-realist pages.) Cervantes's text and Menard's are identical as to their words, but the second is almost infinitely richer. (More ambiguous, his detractors will claim, but the ambiguity is itself a richness.)

It is a revelation to compare Menard's Don Quixote with Cervantes's. The latter, for example, wrote (part one, chapter nine):

... truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, storehouse of great deeds, witness to the past, example and admonition to the present, warning to the future.

Written in the seventeenth century, written by the 'lay genius' Cervantes, this catalogue is no more than a rhetorical eulogy to history. Menard, on the other hand, writes:

... truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, storehouse of great deeds, witness to the past, example and admonition to the present, warning to the future.

History, the 'mother' of truth; the idea is breathtaking. Menard, the contemporary of William James, does not define history as an enquiry into reality but as its source. To him historic truth is not what actually took place, it is what we think took place. The last two phrases - 'example and admonition to the present, warning to the future' - are shamelessly pragmatic.

As vivid is the contrast in styles. Menard's, deliberately archaic - he was a foreigner, after all - is prone to certain affectations. Not so the style of his forerunner, who uses the everyday Spanish of his time with ease.

There is no intellectual exercise which in the end is not pointless. A philosophical tenet is at the outset a true description of the world; with the passage of time it becomes no more than a chapter - perhaps only a paragraph or a name - in the history of philosophy. In literature this eventual withering away is even plainer. Don Quixote, Menard once told me, was first and foremost an entertaining book; now it has become a pretext for patriotic toasts, grammatical arrogance, and obscene de luxe editions. Fame is a form of incomprehension - perhaps the worst.

There is nothing new in such nihilistic conclusions; what is unusual is the resolve that Pierre Menard derived from them. Determined to rise above the emptiness that awaits all man's endeavours, he embarked upon a task that was extremely complex and, even before it began, futile. He devoted his utmost care and attention to reproducing, in a language not his own, a book that already existed. He wrote draft after draft, revising assiduously and tearing up thousands of manuscript pages.*** He never let anyone see them and took pains to ensure they did not survive him. I have tried without success to reconstruct them.

It seems to me that the 'final' Don Quixote can be looked on as a kind of palimpsest in which traces - faint but still decipherable - of our friend's 'earlier' writing must surely shine through. Unfortunately, only a second Pierre Menard, working his way back over the pages of the first one, would be capable of digging up and restoring to life those lost Troys.

'To think, to analyse, to invent,' Menard also wrote to me, 'far from being exceptional acts are the way the intelligence breathes. To glorify one particular instance of this action, to store as treasure the ancient thoughts of others, to recollect in amazed disbelief what the doctor universalis thought is to admit to our own indolence and crudeness. Every man should be capable of all ideas, and I believe that in the future he will.'

Through a new technique, using deliberate anachronisms and false attributions, Menard (perhaps without trying to) has enriched the static, fledgling art of reading. Infinite in its possibilities, this technique prompts us to reread the Odyssey as if it came after the Aeneid and Madame Henri Bachelier's book The Centaur's Garden as if it were written by Madame Henri Bachelier. The technique fills the mildest of books with adventure. To attribute The Imitation of Christ to Louis Ferdinand Céline or to James Joyce - would this not be a satisfactory renewal of its subtle spiritual lessons?

Nîmes, 1939

*Madame Henri Bachelier also lists a literal translation of Quevedo's literal translation of St Francis of Sales's Introduction à la vie dévote. No trace of this work is to be found in Pierre Menard's library. The ascription must have arisen from something our friend said in jest, which the lady misunderstood.

**I had a secondary purpose as well - to sketch a portrait of Pierre Menard. But dare I compete with the gilded pages that I am told the Baroness of Bacourt is preparing, or with Carolus Hourcade's delicate, precise pencil?

***I remember his notebooks with their square-ruled pages, the heavy black deletions, the personal system of symbols he used for marginal emendations, and his minute handwriting. He liked to stroll through the outskirts of Nîmes at sunset, often taking along a notebook with which he would make a cheerful bonfire.

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