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.

The work made a certain impression when it first appeared (Pushkin wrote some fifty lines of a Russian verse translation), but then for some decades was largely forgotten. Its chief interest, so far as it retained any, was to plagiarists. In 1822, Charles Nodier filched a story from it, without acknowledgment, for his collection of ghost stories, Infernaliana. Later, Washington Irving borrowed a story from it, ‘The Grand Prior of Malta’, for his Wolfert’ s Roost and Other Stories (1855); and in the 1830s a certain ‘Comte de Courchamps’ began pillaging Potocki’s book on a large scale, passing it off as the work of Cagliostro. ‘Courchamps’ was finally exposed, and in 1847 Charles-Edmond Chojecki, a Polish émigré in Paris, published a complete translation of the work into Polish, finally establishing its reputation in the author’s own country.

For the rest of the world, however, the book slept in obscurity, till, in 1958, Roger Caillois published a new edition of the first fourteen or so days. It created a considerable stir. The hunt for a complete text was renewed; and, this failing, René Radrizzani produced a reconstruction of it, drawing on various newly-found partial manuscripts, and translating back the missing portions (about a ninth) from Chojecki’s Polish. It is from Radrizzani’s text, first published in 1989, that the present translation – in general a most easy, idiomatic and resourceful one – has been made.

Potocki’s brief Foreword relates how an officer in Napoleon’s army, searching an empty house after the siege of Saragossa, comes across some mysterious handwritten notebooks. They were in Spanish, a language he knew very little of, but seemed to be ‘all about brigands, ghosts and cabbalists’. The French officer then fell into the hands of the enemy, but begged to be allowed to hold onto his find; and at his persuasion, his kindly captor translated it for him into French.

The notebooks, it turns out, are the diary of the young Alphonse de Worden, who in the year 1739 has arrived in Cadiz to take up a commission in the King of Spain’s Walloon guards. He is deeply ignorant of the world but believes, as he has been instructed by his father, that most problems can be referred to Honour, which contains all the virtues. (His father could perceive a point of honour where no one else could and was in perfect misery till satisfaction had been obtained, volunteering with the utmost cheerfulness, if no one else would, to fight someone about the matter himself. At his wedding he thought it fitting to invite all the men with whom he had fought a duel, apart of course from those he had killed.)

Alphonse feels honour-bound to reach Madrid with all possible speed. This means crossing the desolate Sierra Morena, though he receives grave warnings against this: not only is it inhabited by bandits and murderous gypsies, he is told, but travellers there face supernatural terrors, sufficient to make the stoutest heart tremble. Undeterred, he sets out on horseback for the valley of Los Hermanos (‘The Brothers’), being deserted by his servant and muleteer along the way. In the valley he passes a gallows where two robbers (brothers of the famous brigand Zoto) are swinging; and, as night falls, he takes refuge in a deserted inn, attempting, though ravenously hungry, to forget his troubles in sleep.

As midnight chimes, however, his room is invaded by two enchanting young Tunisian women. They invite him to a meal, have their servants dance for him and dance for him themselves, and reveal that they have been awaiting his arrival. They are, they explain, princesses of the ancient Islamic family of the Gomelez, the survivors of the Moorish conquerors of Spain, some of whose number still remain in the country in hiding. On his mother’s side, as they remind Alphonse, he is a Gomelez himself; and he begins to gather, from their hints, that some important role has been reserved for him. Had he not been a Christian, they tell him, they would even have wished to be his little wives, but at least he can consort with them in his dreams. The bemused Alphonse returns to his bed, only to discover before long that he is sharing it, not altogether in dream fashion, with his two beautiful new acquaintances. He does not wake up till the sun is already high, and when he does so he finds himself under the gibbet of Los Hermanos, with the corpses of Zoto’s two brothers lying beside him.

The now entirely bewildered, but still resolute, Alphonse resumes his journey and is given hospitality by a kindly hermit, in whose cell he meets an appalling-looking young man, with blood oozing from his empty eye-socket. He is Pacheco, whose evil demon the hermit is attempting to exorcise, and, commanded to tell his life-story, Pacheco reveals that he, too, has slept in the deserted inn, has been seduced into sharing his bed with two enchanting women (his own stepmother and her sister) and has woken to find himself under the gallows, between the foul corpses of Zoto’s brothers. The hermit implores Alphonse to admit that his two Tunisian bedfellows were evil spirits, but a man of honour he refuses, having been sworn by them to silence. We shall recall this much later in the novel, for the hermit is not what he seems ... He is, as you may have guessed, the great Sheikh of the Gomelez himself, who hopes to have found in Alphonse the mahdi who will lead an Islamic world conquest.

Through the hermit, Alphonse is introduced to Pedro de Uzeda, a cabbalist, and invited to his castle. Here there is more telling of life-stories, the narrators finding it essential, for purposes of explanation, to report the words in which some other person related his or her life-story, this in turn requiring the report at third-hand of some further, that is to say antecedent, autobiography. Alphonse is interested despite himself and is learning about the world at a great rate. What he is coming to realise, though, is that it is going to be difficult, indeed so far as he can see practically impossible, to get away from these voluble companions. Beginning to be bored by the cabbalist’s soporific lectures on empusae, larvae and lamiae, he slips away to join a band of gypsy robbers and resigns himself to following them in their aimless wanderings. Their leader, named Avadoro or Pandesowna, turns out a more prodigious orchestrator of stories, of life-stories in particular, than any of Alphonse’s previous companions. From the 13th day onward the reader, like Alphonse, is largely in his hands, and Alphonse’s own concerns recede somewhat into the background.

Critics rather thrash about when searching for a source, or even for a genre, for Jan Potocki’s remarkable novel. They invoke Gil Blas and the Thousand and One Nights, Horace Walpole and Anne Radcliffe (Potocki seems to have mentioned doing something ‘à la Radcliffe’), and Cazotte, Beckford, Sade, Charles Nodier and Jules Verne. The blurb to the present translation speaks of an affinity with ‘Stendhal or Fielding, with glances towards Verne or Borges’. My own strong feeling, though, is that the inspiration was most probably Diderot’s Jacques the Fatalist. In his great novel, Diderot celebrated the revolt of the narrator against the reader. His narrator, from his very first words, is made to proclaim himself as no man’s slave. ‘Reader, you treat me like an automaton,’ he complains, ‘it is really not very polite.’ Likewise, the chief duty of its hero, the servant Jacques, is to tell his master stories; and he preserves his independence – indeed, he shows who is really master – by endlessly interrupting the story his master most wants to hear (the history of his amours) with other stories, and stories within stories. The affinity with Potocki’s novel (there are other likenesses) seems very close. The dates, moreover, lend some slight support to my theory. In 1796, Prince Henry of Prussia, in a widely-publicised gesture, presented his own private copy of Jacques the Fatalist to the newly-founded Institut de France, and this was the signal for its first publication, and for a sudden furious revival of interest in Diderot. Potocki was a close friend of Prince Henry, and he is generally believed to have begun The Manuscript Found in Saragossa in 1797.

At all events my theory has the merit of pointing to what is best in Potocki’s work: its very cunning, imaginative and Diderotesque rethinking of the logic of storytelling. The cabbalist Uzeda boasts that, by his magic powers, he can summon the Wandering Jew, and make him repeat his life-story, at will. This the Wandering Jew doggedly disputes. He answers Uzeda’s summonses most reluctantly and in a thoroughly bad temper – though when at last he arrives, he comes walking absolutely straight across country, ignoring set paths. He can never stop walking (this is his curse), and thus can tell his life-story only when the gypsy band is in motion. Also, as the cabbalist sneeringly and uncharitably points out, he always finds an excuse not to reach the painful end of his story (when he insults Christ).

This represents the reader or listener winning in the power-game. In the character of Don Busqueros we have, conversely, the story-teller assuming the upper hand. The young merchant, Lope Soarez, has a most important rendezvous with his mistress, but the pestilential busybody Busqueros is telling him a story, involving of course a story within a story. He has been telling it all afternoon, and makes it a duelling matter when Avadoro suggests they might postpone the dénouement.

Banqueros looked very grave and said, ‘Señor Don Lope Soarez. It is becoming clear to me that it is your intention to insult me. If that is the case, you would do better to tell me plainly that you look on me as an impudent gossip and a bore. But no, Señor Don Lope, I cannot bring myself to believe that that is how you think about me and so I’ll continue with my story.’

It is puzzling that, in his Introduction, Ian Maclean feels he must apologise for Potocki’s method, saying that ‘it cannot be denied’ that by the middle of the novel several different stories are being related at the same time, and that ‘their enmeshment is such that the characters in the novel themselves are made to complain about its complexity’, but that, ‘this fact apart’, Potocki’s novel has much in common with other entertaining storytelling epics, such as the Decameron. This seems to me slight what is really Potocki’s novel’s greatest glory. It is with elation, and the feeling that we are at the heart of Potocki’s undertaking, that, at the end of the 36th day, we observe Avadoro emerging triumphant from something like an eightfold ‘nesting’ or emboîtement of stories.

Moreover, the episode that Maclean refers to is, and is meant to be, extremely significant. The absent-minded geometer Velasquez begins by imagining he can find the ‘recurrent series’ governing Avadoro’s way of nesting one story within another. (Curiously, Maclean makes Velasquez say that, in Avadoro’s narrations, one story ‘engenders’ another, whereas Potocki’s word is renferme or ‘encloses’.) Velasquez is thinking of something like the Fibonacci series, in which a term is arrived at by adding the numerators and the denominators of the two preceding terms, and a ‘recurrent series’ is a very suggestive analogy for a certain kind of narrative. Finally, however, he grows quite impatient with the gypsy chief’s method. It would be better, he says, it novels were written in several columns, like chronological tables. The cabbalist’s sister agrees with him. ‘Continual surprises,’ she says, ‘remove all the interest of this story; one never knows who one is dealing with.’ (I have slightly amended Maclean’s translation here.) The point they are getting at is that Potocki and his storytellers always begin from the end of a story, that is to say from some ‘surprise’, and then work back, and back again, in order to explain it. But what Potocki wants to show is that this two-way motion – a step, or two steps, back for every step forward – is in strict logic how narrative has to work, and (it is a just rebuke to many 19th-century novels) any narrative that simply goes forward is cheating. He makes much the same point in his Principles of Chronology Anterior to the Olympiades (1810), a work that is arranged in parallel columns, but in which he says that, to be scientific, chronology needs to work backwards in time from the known to the unknown.

There are many other rewards in Potocki’s novel. The Diderotesque paradoxes by which his characters seem doomed to live are most engaging – for instance, the code of honour which compels the young merchant Lope Soarez, at great expense to himself, to go to law with a rival firm for their insulting refusal to be repaid two million piastres which are their legal due. Honour – simple, displaced and inverted – is one of Potocki’s richest seams. Equally, there is intellectual fun of a superior kind in Velasquez’s demonstrations that all human experience can be expressed in equations, or in the terrible vicissitudes of Hervas the atheist’s encyclopedia, which embodies (in a perfect classification, requiring exactly a hundred volumes) all that is known to mankind. (‘Go away, go away!’ he cries in high passion, when his publisher suggests he cuts it down to 25 volumes. ‘Go back to your shop and print the romantic or pedantic rubbish which are the shame of Spain! Leave me, Señor, with my kidney stones and my genius ... I have nothing left to ask of mankind and still less of booksellers!’)

I think, on the other hand, that it is an error, and a category mistake, to persuade oneself, as some critics have done, that Potocki’s book makes a comprehensive philosophical statement. For instance, it would be absurd to regard the Alphonse van Worden section as a Bildungsroman. Alphonse’s experiences do not add up, as do those of the heroes of Wilhelm Meister or Great Expectations; the style, or the genre, precludes it. Potocki’s is a style which encounters no resistance from circumstance and psychology. According to its conventions it is always possible to write: ‘Six years passed in this way,’ or: ‘Three years passed like a flash.’ Connected with this is the fact that French novelists were slow to imitate their British counterparts in giving every character a distinctive speech-style. Potocki’s characters do not, and are not meant to, establish a substantial presence in this way, any more than those in Candide, and this makes it misleading to start comparing him with – say – Fielding.

We owe an enormous debt to Radrizzani for reconstructing the complete Manuscript Found in Saragossa, but we have to pay a price for it. For the concluding days, which we know only from his re-translation back from the Polish, are rather a disaster. He supposes, very reasonably, that Potocki composed them in his last year or two, after the completion of the Paris volume, and by this time he was ill and in steep decline. The last few days, in which he gives prosaic rational explanations for earlier mysteries, certainly seem to show this. The rational explaining-away may have formed part of his original scheme, but the off-hand way in which it is done, and the general lameness of the last few episodes, exhibit a real collapse of wit and invention. As Ian Maclean half suggests, it would be better, in a way, to put these last pages out of one’s mind and go on thinking of the ending as indefinitely deferred.