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Thursday, June 22, 2017

Best Stories in the World: Pierre Menard

There's a guy, I think he's French but I won't hold it against him...his name's Pierre Menard, and he gets this idea to write the Quixote. The thing of it is, Cervantes already wrote it. Menard doesn't let that stop him, of course, or there would be no story.

And what a story it is. I think. Is it a story?

Menard is, apparently, deceased. He was a novelist and left behind a body of work appreciated by the narrator, who provides us with a list of those works publicly known (for example, a "handwritten list of lines of poetry that owe their excellence to punctuation" [which I absolutely love]). Of more interest to the narrator, however, is Menard's unpublished work; namely, Menard's Quixote.

Not Cervantes. That part's important. Menard didn't set out to recreate or copy Cervantes's work. He intended to write Don Quixote as himself. In other words, it's a story about context. The narrator isn't so much presented in the best light. He's kind of petty. Though, in the end, he declares that "Menard has (perhaps unwittingly) enriched the slow and rudimentary art of reading by means of a new technique--the technique of deliberate anachronism and fallacious attribution...This technique fills the calmest book with adventure. Attributing the Imitatio Christi to Louise Ferdinand Celine or James Joyce--is that not sufficient renovation of those faint spiritual admonitions?"

This summary really doesn't do it justice. 

Is "Pierre Menard" a story? There's no plot, per se. It's a sketch, fiction masquerading as non-fiction in the form of a description of a guy and his work, especially Menard's "Quixote," which Menard saw as not inevitable, like certain other works of Poe or Coleridge. Instead, it was contingent. Menard thinks of his recollection of Quixote not as a memory, but as "the equivalent of the vague foreshadowing of a yet unwritten book."

Here's what led up to this story: On Christmas Eve 1938, Borges was moving quickly up a flight of stairs. At this time his eyesight was already failing, and he hit his head on an open window, shattering the glass and gouging his head. The wound got infected, Borges was diagnosed with septicemia,  subsequently hospitalized, and spent a few weeks convalescing. During this time, he developed a fever and sort of hallucinated. He began to doubt his sanity. Up to this point, Borges had written poetry and reviews of books and movies, for the most part. He'd penned a few short stories, biographies, and a short review of a book that didn't exist ("The Approach to al-Mu'tasim"). He hadn't really become internationally famous yet, and his career wasn't certain.

After recovering from septicemia, Borges wanted to know if he could still sustain concentration enough to write, and during his convalescence, he figured he should write stories. He wanted to try something new and unfamiliar to him so that, should it fail, he could blame his failure on its novelty to him. "Pierre Menard" was his first attempt. It was followed by "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," which takes the form of an entry from an encyclopedia that doesn't exist.

So why is this one of the best stories in the world? You've got to read it to fully understand. 

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