Nesting Time

P.N. Furbank

  • The Manuscript Found in Saragossa by Jan Potocki, translated by Ian Maclean
    Viking, 631 pp, £16.00, January 1995, ISBN 0 670 83428 9

Now translated in full from the French for the first time, The Manuscript Found in Saragossa is a great literary, as well as a great bibliographical, curiosity. Its author, Count Jan Potocki, who was born in 1761, belonged to one of the small handful of landowning families – the Potockis, Radziwills, Branickis, Czartoryskis and Sapiehas – who for centuries ran Poland. Frequently intermarrying, they cornered all the hereditary offices of state and accumulated fortunes larger than those of the Crown itself. Jan’s cousin Felix ruled over a hundred and fifty thousand serfs and commanded his own private army.

Jan became a traveller and travel-writer, an Egyptologist, and a pioneering ethnologist, forming theories about the ‘secret unity’ of the Slavs. He was, simply because of his family, always in the public eye, and the high spot of his career was probably when, in 1790, he accompanied the aeronaut Blanchard in a balloon ascent over Warsaw. On returning to earth, the four (Potocki took with him a Turkish servant and his pet dog Loulou) were brought back in a triumphant military procession; the King ordered a medal to be coined, poems were written, and Potocki was the hero of the hour.

As the result of three successive partitions, the last in 1795, Poland was more or less to disappear from the map. Accordingly, and not too surprisingly, Potocki took a very queer route politically. Elected as deputy to the reforming Grand Diet of Poland in 1788, he was reckoned a bit of a radical, and in Paris in 1791 was welcomed to the Jacobin Club as the ‘citizen Count’. Nevertheless, married to a daughter of the Princess Lubomirska, the intimate friend of Marie-Antoinette and the Princesse de Lamballe, he had a foot in extreme anti-Revolution circles. Lubomirska’s palace at Lancut in Galicia was a famous sanctuary for royalist refugees, among them the future Louis XVIII and Charles X, and in August 1792, the month of the massacre at the Tuileries, Jan was entertaining her guests with sketches or parades, among them a satire on Jacobin oratory.

There were Potockis on both sides of the desperate divisions in Poland; and when Jan’s cousin Felix secretly engineered a Russian invasion in 1791, to suppress the liberal constitution recently promulgated by the Polish King, Jan took up arms on the patriotic and anti-Russian side. Within a year or two, however, through family influence, he had actually become a private counsellor to the Russian Tsar seizing the chance to urge on him a ruthless imperialist and expansionist policy. When in 1805 the Russians sent an embassy to China, he was put in charge of the scientific contingent, and on the strength of this proposed himself as ‘Inspector of the Asiatic Frontier’.

He told his brother Severin at this time that, if the Tsar should not want his services, he could console himself with literature, but, though it gave him so much pleasure, literature did not bring him consideration, ‘which one feels the need of at our age’. In fact, literature had also given him a fair amount of pain, for his ethnological treatises and tables of ‘universal chronology’ were roughly handled by scholars.

Soon after the conference of Tilsit, which ended the war between France and Russia, Potocki learned that the Tsar had no further use for him, and retired to his estates in the Ukraine, adopting peasant costume. He was suffering increasingly from neurasthenic ills and lupine delusions, and there were disagreeable rumours about what, after his death, the Biographie Universelle would call his ‘cynical tastes, too reminiscent of those of the Marquis de Sade’. Eventually, in December 1815, he put an end to his life. The story runs (with some variations) that he removed the knob of his silver sugar-bowl, formed it into a bullet, and, having had it blessed by the castle chaplain, used it to blow his brains out.

Fortunately, ‘literature’ had also had another meaning for Potocki. In 1805, just before he left for China, he got a St Petersburg printer to set up a first instalment of The Manuscript Found in Saragossa – an extraordinary work, set in early 18th-century Spain, full of apparitions, succubi and troilistic fantasies and composed in Chinese-box fashion of tales-within-tales-within-tales. The proofs comprised the first ‘decameron’ (or sequence of ten days), plus three more days, the 13th breaking off in mid-sentence, and a slip pasted inside the cover said that the author reserved the option of continuing, should his imagination, ‘to which he has given free rein in this work’, prompt him to do so. These St Petersburg sheets were never published, but Avadoro: A Spanish Tale appeared in Paris in 1813 and included the larger part of days 12-56, and in the following year the same publisher issued Ten Days in the Life of Alphonse van Worden – a slightly revised version of the first ten days.

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