Pierre Menard: autor del Quijote


In the grand tradition of Emily forgetting to announce things ahead of time, I've forgotten to announce that my non-structured book group is doing a little extra project this month: based on posts by me and Frances, interest from Claire and Sarah, and organizational go-to-it-iveness of Richard, for the next three weeks we'll be reading short stories by Jorge Luis Borges and posting about them on Fridays. (I apologize for being so godawful at posting these announcements—I guess I'm just busy reading!) Our schedule is as follows:

  • Friday, May 7: "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quijote"
  • Friday, May 14: "The Library of Babel"
  • Friday, May 21: "The South"

Richard and I will be reading these in Spanish (oh, my creaky Spanish! but I've been surprised how good my comprehension remains), everyone else in English. They can all be found in Ficciones and in Penguin's Collected Stories. On the 28th we'll be posting on Sarah's monthly pick, Margo Lanagan's novel Tender Morsels. All of which is to say: it's already time for our first story! Please do join us for any or all of the above dates.


As soon as I re-acclimatized to Spanish and got into the swing of "Pierre Menard," I knew that I've waited far too long to start reading Borges; this story is absolutely delightful. Told from the perspective of a petty, possibly-unreliable academic (the voice strongly reminded me of Nabokov's Charles Kinbote from Pale Fire; I'm assuming Borges was a strong influence), it takes the form of a faux journal article singing the praises of fellow academic Pierre Menard, an early twentieth-century Frenchman whose "visible" work consists of a few sonnets and articles on French Symbolist poets. The narrator argues that Menard's real contribution to literature, however, is that he has produced several chapters of Don Quijote, line-by-line identical with the original work, yet not copied—originating with Menard despite coinciding exactly with the analogous chapters of Cervantes.

The conceit is hilarious and, of course, ridiculous, but Borges uses it to bring up so many interesting questions of context and perspective, especially considering the story's brevity. The narrator argues, for example, that Menard's Quijote fragments are richer, more nuanced than Cervantes', despite being identical to them: Cervantes, he says, was simply writing in the style of his own time, whereas Menard makes a conscious decision to compose in an archaic Spanish which is even more alien to him because of his French origin. Not only that, but Menard's passages take on new meanings in light of the myriad advances in psychological and historical thought in the intervening centuries. (Please forgive my rough translation abilities.)

"Atribuer a Louis Ferdinand Céline o a James Joyce la Imitación de Cristo ¿no es una suficiente renovación de esos tenues avisos espirituales?"

[Isn't the act of attributing the Imitation of Christ to Louis Ferdinand Céline or James Joyce, a sufficient renewal of those faded spiritual warnings?]

One must admit he has a point. I now wish I had thought to consider Céline as a possible author when I was reading fragments of The Imitation of Christ last year. It would definitely have made things more interesting.

"Pierre Menard" is full of clever riffs Borges plays on his main theme. I loved the moment when the narrator admits that Menard's supposed aesthetic and "voice," so different from those of Cervantes, now influences the way he reads the ENTIRETY of Cervantes's novel, even the chapters that Menard never re-wrote.

¿Confesaré que suelo imaginar que la terminó y que leo el Quijote—todo el Quijote—como si lo hubiera pensado Menard? Noches pasadas, al hojear el capítulo XXVI—no ensayado nunca por él—reconocí el estilo de nuestro amigo y como su voz en esta frase exceptional: las ninfas de las ríos, la dolorosa y húmida Eco.

[Shall I admit I am in the habit of imagining that he finished it? And that I read Quijote—all of Quijote—as if Menard had thought of it? In nights past, leafing through Chapter XXVI—not attempted by him at all—I recognized our friend's style and his voice in this exceptional phrase: the nymphs of the rivers, the melancholy and humid (?) Eco.]

The idea that one could detect Menard's authorial voice in a text word-by-word identical to Cervantes's: how ridiculous is it? Certainly something of the man is detectable simply in his decision to re-write Quijote word for word, not to mention his inexplicable ABILITY to do so. But in the words themselves? Why not, if he did not copy from Cervantes's text but worked toward a replication of it through his own efforts? Another of my favorite moments was when the narrator claims to find in Menard's Quijote a palimpsest through which he sees, not Cervantes's work as one might expect, but the PREVIOUS works of Menard himself!

He reflexionado que es lícito ver en el Quijote «final» una especie de palimpsesto, en el que deben traslucirse los rastros—tenues pero no indescifrables—de la «previa» escritura de nuestro amigo. Desgraciadamente, sólo un segundo Pierre Menard, invirtiendo el trabajo del anterior, podría exhumar y resucitar esas Troyas...

[I have reflected that it is possible to see in the "final" Quijote a type of palimpsest, in which the traces of our friend's earlier writings—faint but not indecipherable—still show through. Unfortunately, only a second Pierre Menard, reversing the work of the former, could exhume and resuscitate these Troys...]

Aaaand, my brain just broke. But in a way I really like. I'm very much looking forward to "The Library of Babel" a week from today; thanks, friends!


  • Excellent (and hysterical) write-up, Emily! Although I've read "Pierre Menard" a handful of times over the years, I'm always astonished to find something new that calls my attention. This time out, and obviously influenced by my recent reading, I was tickled to see how good a companion piece it is to Perec's Life A User's Manual and Bolaño's Nazi Literature in the Americas in terms of the fake footnotes and bibliographies and the humorous brazenness of the conceit. In addition, it sort of reminds me of a poem since there are just so many goodies packed into what's a really short story that it's almost impossible to know where to begin with it. I don't have very reliable memories of either of the upcoming two Borges stories, so it will be interesting to see which one I like best out of the three and which (if any) becomes the consensus group favorite or reject. In the meantime, glad you liked this and props to you for reading it in Spanish as well. ¡Bien hecho!

  • Oh Emily, you will love Tender Morsels. i am almost 100% sure of it.

  • Anecdote: Many years ago, I was in an English class (all short stories) in which "Pierre Menard" was assigned. The class hated it. I mean, they didn't just hate it - they refused to read it. The poor professor was stymied. I've never seen such open hostility to a piece of fiction. This story was a threat, although to what, I'm not sure.

    Personal: For me, this story is the greatest piece of literary criticism of the 20th century, and a touchstone. It affects the way I read everything.

    Pedantry: I strongly doubt that Nabokov knew Borges until after Pale Fire. That novel and the English version of Ficciones were both published in 1962. Borges and Robbe-Grillet were virtually the only writers VN would praise in public, but those interviews (see Strong Opinions) are all post-Pale Fire.

    Actual response: I don't see how finding X's voice in Y's work is ridiculous. The reader is free to imagine what he wants. "Pierre Menard" simply points out the radical imaginative freedom of the reader.

    None of this proves anything. Maybe VN had read Borges earlier, maybe in French. He loudly denied claims of influence, but we know how little that means. In the skew world of the novel Ada, the hit novel Lolita is written by "Osberg."

  • LOL @ Amateur Reader's anecdote. I've had my difficulties with Borges too, but what in the world could have inspired such hostility?

    Between Emily's post and Richard's post, I think I need to reread this one. Hopefully this side project will break the anti-Borges spell that has impeded me for so long.

  • Ah, so I am not the only one to have needed the word "ridiculous" multiple times about this wonderful short story. Great post!

  • Richard: "Humorous braznness" - love it. Yes, I really think your/our timing on transitioning right from Perec to Borges was a stroke of genius; it's so fun to trace the "palimpsests" of influence! Interesting that this isn't your fave Borges - I was thinking while reading that it was odd you'd love this & not like Paul Auster, although Borges definitely does seem more joyful than Auster to me, which counts for a lot.

    Aimee: I am super-intrigued by Tender Morsels - recommendations from such a wide range of people! It's out of my normal comfort zone, which is always good. Looking forward to it!

  • Amateur Reader: OK, so much in this comment to reply to but WHAT? Your class refused to read the story?? That's just bizarre. I have hated much assigned reading in my time, but I must say it has never occurred to me to engage in civil disobedience about it. That's interesting about Nabokov - for some reason I had put Borges a good 20 years before it seems he was actually writing. Hmm, seems clever metafiction was in the air; didn't Hopscotch come out in 63? And yes, I see the claim that the reader's imagination runs unfettered...still working out my thoughts on that. It's exhilarating and brazen, and induces giddiness.

    EL Fay: I hope you break your anti-Borges rut! I can see not liking him, just like I can understand not liking Auster or Perec. This story hit me just at the right time, though! Loved it.

  • Nicole: I loved the combination of ridiculous and joyful in this story. And I'm glad you brought up the moment of "comparing" the "two" passages - brilliant!

  • What I meant to say by not calling "Pierre Menard" my fave by Borges, Emily, is that I'm not sure what my top of the list tale by Borges would be. More uncertainty on my part rather than anything else. I am down on Auster, but I've only read one novel by him so far so that could be an overreaction. Found him more "clever" than compelling. He also suffers with me because the people he's commonly compared to (Borges and Enrique Vila-Matas are good examples) are so much more interesting to me. Don't know that I'd call him the crap Soundgarden to Borges' Nirvana, but you get the picture!

  • Let's see if I can keep my paragraphs in the right order this time.

    First, you had Ficciones in the right time. It was published in 1944, with some individual stories from an earlier date. But it didn't make the move to English until 1962. Nabokov did not read Spanish. Ergo... Nabokov and Borges were almost exactly the same age, and were (in the 1960s) often paired up in articles, since they were "discovered" by Americans around the same time.

    About that class - it was "Introduction to Fiction Writing." I had taken another class from the same prof ("Innovative Fiction") which included Ficciones, and everyone there ate it up - loved it. But the budding writers balked. That bibliography did them in - perhaps it looked too much like secret knowledge. We were using a Norton anthology, so each page had a dozen footnotes.

    More fundamentally - imagine reading the story and not really quite knowing what Don Quixote is - not to mention Paul Valéry and Novalis and all of the titles in foreigin languages. The first couple of pages, even the title, sent a strong signal to some people - "Not For You." I mean, that they didn't even try was pathetic. But the level of diction and intricacy of reference is demanding. I certainly get more of the jokes now.

  • "Aaaand, my brain just broke. "

    Yeah, that's what happened to me when I read Borges last year. I didn't find this ridiculous. I just disliked it so much because it was smarter than I was and made no sense. It shows my own amateur reading abilities.

    I definitely need to try again! I wish I'd had a group reading along...maybe that would have helped. But maybe just another year of reading a lot has helped me seem a little less scared of the idea of trying again. Maybe in another year I will actually appreciate it!

  • I loved how both the character of Menard and the unnamed author of the article were equally crazy! Too funny. And I love how the amusing aspects made the real insights into perspective and the role of the reader that much more interesting. You were giggling incredulously, while simultaneously going, "Huh, how intriguing"!

  • Not just ridiculous, but crazy!

    Look, when Marcel Duchamp signed a urinal (as "R. Mutt") and submitted it to an art exhibition, was he crazy? When John Cage "composed" a piece that is four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence, was he crazy? Is a critic who writes about what Duchamp or Cage did or not accomplish crazy?

    This is conceptual art. This is how it works. We start with ideas and follow them wherever they go. Borges is unusually adept at following them to infinity, to the event horizon (as in that last paragraph Emily cites - a Borgesian trademark, mirrors reflecting mirrors).

  • Well, I did it. Big thanks to you and Richard! Things are finally improving between Borges and me!

  • Oh this sounds like fun! Sadly I have only ever read a couple Broges stories and always mean to read more but it hasn't panned out yet. Yet. I was impressed that you read Zola is French and now you are reading Borges in Spanish. Will you be reading Tolstoy in Russian next? :)

  • First of all, I'd like to say that your translations are excellent—they sound pretty close to how I remember the text appeared in English.

    I intended to join you guys for this reading, but as soon as I read the first page of Menard, my brain already broke, hehe. I thought to myself: Ok, I haven't read Quixote, and I don't seem to have enough academic knowledge yet to get a good grasp of just how humorous thus absurd-sounding story is :( It was only because of Claire's encouragement that I went back to finish the story. And now, after reading your review (or from my angle, your kindness to explain the story), I can say that I've come to appreciate Borges' imagination even more.


  • June 2012

    Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
              1 2
    3 4 5 6 7 8 9
    10 11 12 13 14 15 16
    17 18 19 20 21 22 23
    24 25 26 27 28 29 30


    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography