09 May 2010

"Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote" (Jorge Luis Borges)

from Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges, edited by Donald A. Yates & James E. Irby, story translated by James E. Irby (New Directions, 1964 augmented edition)

My interest in Borges I pick up from the interest in Borges of my favorite contemporary writers. Roberto Bolaño, in an interview, called him “the center of the Latin American canon.” Borges animates most of Bolaño’s writings, notably in Nazi Literature in the Americas and 2666 (two books I’ve been recently rereading) where Borges’s literary patterns are evident. His influence also makes his way into The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald, through references to The Book of Imaginary Beings and the story “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” I was also surprised to find Borges name-checked by Murakami Haruki (not my favorite writer yet) in Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.

So when I got wind of a weekly reading of three stories of our Argentine writer in Richard’s great blog, Caravana de Recuerdos, I couldn’t let pass the chance. Besides, I have Labyrinths languishing for more than a year now.

This week’s story is the much-anthologized, much-celebrated story of Pierre Menard and how he came to “rewrite” chapters of the epic Don Quixote. I do think that my appreciation of this story will be enhanced by a reading of the epic, but I don’t think I can cram the tome in the span of a few days, unless I get the unrealistic idea from Menard that a reading of a book consists of the “will” to reproduce its ghost in the realm of imagination-illusion-delusion. But Menard does more than will it, he actually suffered for it.

The story starts with a kind of catalog of Menard’s “visible” literary outputs, before turning to the other “unfinished” work—“the subterranean, the interminably heroic, the peerless.” Reading as a form of writing is what I see the story is about. That the readers write their own version of the story as they go along. Menard has this dream of replicating sections of the Quixote verbatim, and so he willed himself to this endeavor and, from the convenient point of view of the fanboy-narrator, Menard succeeded. Does this mean that everyone who reads the Quixote can be a Pierre Menard, just like everyone who reads “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” can be a Jorge Luis Borges? Perhaps we’ll know only if the real Pierre Menard stand up. But what if I say that I can match Borges’s story word for word? :)

If I can borrow Gregory Rabassa’s idea (in his memoir If This Be Treason: Translation and Its Dyscontents) that a good translation is essentially a good reading, then another reading of this story pertains not only to the “reading” of a book, but to “translating” it:

[Menard] did not want to compose another Quixote—which is easy—but the Quixote itself. Needless to say, he never contemplated a mechanical transcription of the original; he did not propose to copy it. His admirable intention was to produce a few pages which would coincide—word for word and line for line—with those of Miguel de Cervantes.

Is that not the same as saying that Menard may be (just may be) translating the Quixote? If so, Borges may really be ahead of his time, as is often declared. When he published the story, there are already several versions of the epic in the English language alone. With the latest developments in Cervantes scholarship, the years saw the appearance of multiple translations of the Spanish novel by, among others, Samuel Putnam and Burton Raffel, and in the past decade alone, by John Rutherford, Edith Grossman, and Tom Lathrop. Do these translators, by their close readings of the text, form a band of Pierre Menards themselves? Do we not regard them as “co-creators” of the Quixote, if not literally (word-for-word, sentence-by-sentence translation) then contextually (context-by-context) through their interpretation of the epic’s Spanish into their own language, the coinciding of one language into another? In the same way that there are always individual (unique) readings of a book from different readers, then the individual efforts of the translators create a new book that is the same book and also not the same book. The only difference with Menard is that they have something, a concrete product, to show for it: the published translations. Menard apparently destroyed the manuscript of his “translation” in a bonfire.

There is no definitive reading; there is no definitive translation. Individual readings will not arrive at the same feeling, the feeling of completeness or incompleteness, of closure or open-endedness. Every reading is a new reading, just as there is no definitive writing. The author himself, Cervantes himself, does not fully know his own work because it created for itself a life of its own the moment he put down pen and paper, and the moment the presses printed the pages and bound the epic between the spine and covers. Writing may have given breath to books, but it is reading through the ages that gives life to books through the ages. That enables for it to survive oblivion, become a classic. The narrator of Borges’s Menard did the reverse: he elevated a translated version of a classic that only exists in oblivion, or in any case, that is consigned to it.


  1. Rise, thanks so much for the kind words and for the excellent post--so glad you could participate in the shared read with the group! I think your comment about "reading as a form of writing" is spot on, of course, but I'm really intrigued by your idea that "Pierre Menard" may be about the act of "translating" as well. So much to think about in this little story! P.S. I read Borges long before I read Bolaño, but I have to admit much of my current interest in Borges stems from wishing to appreciate him through Bolaño's eyes in a way. Have not read much Sebald yet after an abbreviated attempt to read him on my vacation a couple of months back, but he's still on the horizon at least...

  2. Really enjoyed this post! Love this thought: "That the readers write their own version of the story as they go along. ... Does this mean that everyone who reads the Quixote can be a Pierre Menard, just like everyone who reads “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” can be a Jorge Luis Borges? Perhaps we’ll know only if the real Pierre Menard stand up." Your last paragraph is also great. I love the idea of the reader blending into the writer/author, and the shared experience of that.

    Thanks for reading along with us!

  3. I love Bolaño and had no idea about Borges's influence on him. I just purchased Nazi Literature in the Americas and will keep that in mind when I read it.

    Those are some interesting ideas you have regarding translation. That's an angle no one's considered yet in writing about "Pierre Menard." I think all of us except Richard and Emily read the English translation of "Pierre Menard," so we essentially read a copy but not the original. So it's the same text but not the same text! Now there's something to consider.

  4. Richard, it was my pleasure to join the reading. I love reading the posts of all the participants down to the comments. I have previously finished only one nonfic by Borges (Seven Nights) prior to this & now I’m finding myself eager to tackle his stories in a group read setting. Thanks!

    Sarah, really appreciate your comments. This is such a playful story of ideas. Like Menard we grapple with the text in front of us. It’s a memorable read that I’m very happy to be part of.

    E. L. Fay, hope you'll enjoy Nazi Lit as I did. Bolaño is a self-confessed admirer of Borges and his "visible" works tend to exhibit some Borgesian elements.

    It’s great that you point out the fact of reading a translation of "Pierre Menard." That certainly adds another layer of meaning to the translation/reading angle. We, reading the translator (Irby in my version) who was playing the role of Borges when he put down what the narrator is saying about Menard’s reworking of Cervantes’s Quixote (whose authorship by the knight errant is itself problematic). So we’re what, at least five versions removed from the original Quixote?!

  5. Rise, that is a great observation, that Menard is "translating the Quixote."

  6. I would strongly recommend buying the Collected Fictions at some point. Labyrinths is good by and large. But Hurley's translations are better, enough so in general to make it worth switching -- occasionally the differences are just breathtaking.

  7. Amateur Reader, thanks for the link to more books referencing the omnipresent Borges.

    The Modesto Kid, I got the idea of Menard translating Cervantes when I recalled trying to choose which translation of the Quixote to buy. I ended up getting the one by John Rutherford because it was recommended by Margaret Jull Costa, another translator I admire.

    I get your point about the Hurley translations. I have a sampling of seven of his translations in a Pocket Penguin paperback and it’s more accessible to the 'modern ear' than the one by Irby’s. PS. There are some who argue that the best versions are the collaborations between Borges and Norman Thomas di Giovanni.