Extravaganza in Progress

The Manuscript Found in Saragossa

by Jan Potocki, translated by Ian Maclean
Viking, 631 pp., $27.95

This is a new book in the sense that it has never appeared in this form in English before, but it is also an old book with a curious history. The author or presumed author—the attribution has been contested, but no doubt wrongly—belonged to a very famous and wealthy Polish aristocratic family. Count Jan Potocki, born in 1761, was a well-known figure in his day, an indefatigable traveler, a privileged guest in the various capitals of Europe from Madrid to St. Petersburg, and a gentleman-scholar with a keen interest in social history and contemporary politics. Writing in French, he began the Manuscript, his only novel and his major achievement, in 1797, and continued it at intervals until 1815, at which date he committed suicide, apparently for a combination of reasons. He had been suffering from some chronic indisposition, the symptoms of which—alternations of manic excitement and deep depression—sound suspiciously like those of syphilis. Also, as a Polish nationalist, he deplored the post-Napoleonic peace settlement, which had handed over Poland to Russia.

Tradition has it that he fashioned a bullet out of a piece of silver taken from a family heirloom, had it blessed by the local priest, and used it to blow his brains out. This strange episode would not have been out of place in the Manuscript itself, which tells of so many other unusual incidents.

Fragments of Potocki’s work in progress had been published in St. Petersburg in 1805, and again in Paris in 1813 and 1814, but he never tried to see a complete version through the press, or if he did, he failed, and parts of the text were lost or mislaid after his death. One fifth of the book, we are told, survives only in a Polish translation, and the complete text, such as it is, remained unknown in the West until quite recently, and indeed was not published anywhere. However, the fragments aroused interest from time to time and were plagiarized by other writers, including Washington Irving, who filched a whole story without acknowledgement. Eventually, as late as the 1950s, the fragments came to the notice of the French writer Roger Caillois while he was preparing an Anthologie mondiale du fantastique, and he was so impressed by them that he republished them separately, with an introduction hailing the text as “un chef d’oeuvre inconnu.” This incomplete version, translated into English by Elisabeth Abbott, was brought out by the Orion Press in 1960, and again by Cassell’s in 1962, under the title The Saragossa Manuscript, A Collection of Weird Tales, but it does not seem to have aroused any particular enthusiasm among American or English critics and readers.

In France, on the other hand, after Caillois’s discovery, learned interest fastened onto Potocki, because here was a Pole who had written all his works in French, not only the Manuscript but also travel notes, political articles, and short plays for private performance. He could legitimately be considered as much part of French literature as Joseph Conrad…

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