“Pierre Menard, author of the Quixote” by Jorge Luis Borges

I’m going into May’s group reads of Borges stories a bit cold; I’ve read Borges before but only in the loosest, most casual sense of the term. I don’t think I’ve read “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” before, but couldn’t swear to it. Briefly, I loved it, and it has everything I expect in a Borges story: an absurd, somewhat fantastical but mostly bizarre premise, a metafictional element, and an intrusive narrator who seems as much to be writing a nonfictional treatise as a short story. Oh, and me not really knowing at the end exactly what it is I’m supposed to think. Borges kind of bowls me over like that.

Pierre Menard, the subject of the story, is an eccentric academic who has written a wide variety of “visible” work, from poems to monographs on Boolean logic, as well as the “invisible” work of recreating Don Quixote. This is such a strange idea that it takes a while to figure out what that really means, and when it becomes clear it seems sort of brilliant. Crazy, but brilliant. But mostly crazy. And totally absurd and pointless.

That reaches a head when the narrator quotes from Cervantes’s Quixote and Menard’s Quixote the same passage, proceeding to interpret the two passages, which are word-for-word identical, entirely differently. The ideas expressed by the same words are totally different, and:

The contrast in styles is equally striking. The archaic style of Menard—who is, in addition, not a native speaker of the language in which he writes—is somewhat affected. Not so the style of his precursor, who employs the Spanish of his time with complete naturalness.

Ridiculous! Ridiculous things happen when you leave the text behind. But what the narrator says is not untrue. Should we be, as he suggests, “encourage[d] to read the Odyssey as though it came after the Aeneid“? It could enrich our reading, couldn’t it? But legitimately? You can see this is a very question-y post. I do not trust myself to read this correctly, alone with just the text as I am.

I also wanted to note, considering the certain affinity between Borges and Nabokov, two passages that put me in mind of poshlost’. “Like every man of taste, Menard abominated those pointless travesties” that set up a historical character in the present day, as “good for nothing but occasioning a plebeian delight in anachronism of (worse yet) captivating us with the elementary notion that all times and places are the same, or are different.” Later, Menard “ignores, overlooks—or banishes—local color.”

Please visit Richard at Caravana de recuerdos for his post and links to others participating.

10 comments to “Pierre Menard, author of the Quixote” by Jorge Luis Borges

  • YES, that moment when “compares” the two identical passages is hysterical! I wasn’t sure of Borges’s own position either, but in the end I left the story feeling like his “position” was just to glory in the hilarious novelty of it all, exercise his brain in different ways & share that joyful feeling with the readers. Worked on me. :-)

    Oh, and PS – I’m glad it also took you a while to work out what Menard’s chosen task even really means; I was worried my Spanish comprehension was breaking down for a moment there.

  • Love this post, Nicole! I always think of “Pierre Menard” as one of Borges’ signature pieces, but you tap into so much about it (the intrusive narrator, the sometimes bewildering metafictional moments, the unease of the reader who actually enjoys the tale!) that I think many first-time readers of the story will be shaking their heads in agreement with you. And the side-by-side contrasting of the two Quixotes you highlight is just crazy funny stuff. Crazy. Funny. You get the drill. So happy you could join us for the Borges party this month!

  • Great post! Definitely captures my own puzzled delight, although you’ve got a good handle on the tale I think. I’m going to have to read it again before I post about it, as even now my reaction is something like. “Wow! Wait…what?”

  • That way my favorite part two: when the narrator compares, in all seriousness, two completely identical passages and gets two completely different meanings out of each!

    “Should we be, as he suggests, “encourage[d] to read the Odyssey as though it came after the Aeneid“? It could enrich our reading, couldn’t it?”

    Yes, I think that’s the central question Borges is asking: how do we analyze a text that has come to us from the past in light of developments in literature, philosophy, etc that occurred after it and may have been influenced by it? At what point do we arrive at conclusions that the author would never, ever have dreamed of? Are those still legitimate conclusions?

  • E.L. – how do you know the narrator was comparing “in all seriousness”? As opposed to, for example, “playfully”? I think there’s some evidence that the narrator is in on the joke, that he’s having as much fun as Borges.

  • Is he in on the joke? I’ll have to re-read it.

    I think the fact that it was written as an academic article was what had me thinking the narrator was sincere. Plus, I felt that the disparity between his sincerity and the absurdity of what he was actually saying was hilarious and ironic. If he was joking too . . . well, that ruins it a bit for me.

  • Ruins it! I don’t want that to happen. Maybe I should keep my mouth shut.

    A couple of things, though. Academic articles can be playful. And one can be both playful and sincere. One can be in on the joke and mean it. The question is, what is the joke?

    Someone is being playful. Exactly who? I’ll point you to the article about the rook’s pawn, the “invective against Paul Valéry,” the footnote to entry s), and the issue of the authorship of Le jardin de Centaure.

  • nicole

    Emily—but in the end I left the story feeling like his “position” was just to glory in the hilarious novelty of it all, exercise his brain in different ways & share that joyful feeling with the readers. Worked on me.

    Yes, this is exactly how I felt and it worked on me as well. I feel like this is probably “wrong” in some way, but that could just be my desire for harder answers than are appropriate. That’s not quite right…I don’t mind in any way that I feel open about this story; in fact I quite like it. I feel that way about all my favorite works, really. But it does leave me feeling inadequate.

    As to the narrator’s playfulness or lack thereof…without having the story in front of me, I could see it either way, but I would say that at least two someones are being playful: Borges and Menard, and possibly the narrator as well. If the narrator is, and I think there is a good chance, I think Amateur Reader is right that he is “in on the joke and mean[s] it.” Doesn’t ruin it for me at least.

  • The Pedro

    Pierre Menard has been one of the most influential works of Borges. Forgive here my lack of perfect grammar in english. What one has to understand from Borges is not that he is just playing with the idea but that he is laying down a metaphysical question. Is the author the “real” owner of literature and is his understanding of his work “the” meaning of the work.
    He bases his idea on the imprecise idea that Cervantes himself created in the Quijote. In the first chapter of the quijote there are striking things that Cervantes did.
    1) he said he could not “write” a good prologue yet he wrote 10 pages long
    2) The writer could not “remember” the last name “Was it Quijano, Quesada?”
    3) In the Quijote Cervantes is the “writer” that becomes the reader (this is because cervantes claimed Quijotes adventures come from a book he found, the rest (in chapter 1) will come from a vook that he “translated” from Cide Hammete–from arabic. Thus Cervantes has “read” the quijote and is re-telling the story in the same way Menard did–which is why cervantes has an “inprecise” idea of quijote.
    4) Menard is the reader that becomes the writer. He has an “imprecised idea” that could be distorted by time and oblivion and this grants him the right to write anew quijote.

    Also one must see the Quijote was one of the most influencial books for Borges and as such in order to grasp menard better one has to grasp also the quijote.

    I have typed a lot….. i do not know i was able to make some sense, at the end it is the readers the one who “write” and not the writers.

  • Very interesting, and I’m sure your second-to-last line is all too true. I really must read it.