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.