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 is part of English literature. The eventual result of this new approach was the publication, in 1989, of a “complete” version of the Manuscript by René Radrizzani, put together from all the available Polish sources, including the parts surviving only in Polish, translated back into French. This is a massive, scrupulously edited text, a great deal longer than the previously known fragments, and it reveals for the first time the overall structure of the work. The present translation, by an Oxford French specialist, gives the English-speaking reader a chance to appraise the Manuscript in a new light. It is certainly a fascinating curio, whether or not one can agree with Caillois that it is a masterpiece, or with Radrizzani that it is a great example of literary architecture.

The first surprising thing about the original text is that, had it appeared anonymously, no one could have guessed it to be the work of a Pole. Apart from one or two tiny linguistic particularities, which may be archaic Swissisms (Potocki and his brother were partly educated in Lausanne and Geneva), the French is quite native and has a sprightly, elegant rhythm. The tone is typically French throughout, with discreet lyrical touches and rapid, throwaway jokes in the Voltairean manner. Presumably, some eighteenth-century Polish aristocrats, like many of their Russian counterparts, were taught French in infancy and grew up speaking it as their first language, in preference to the national tongue. This seems to have been the case with Potocki. He was well-schooled in the classical languages, but accounts vary about his knowledge of modern languages other than French. According to some sources, his Polish was limited and he didn’t know much Russian, in spite of living a good deal in St. Petersburg and even being for a time in the service of the tsar. He must have been that rather unusual phenomenon, a patriot who didn’t feel that the spirit of the nation is enshrined in the language of the people, which must be defended as the primary vehicle of national identity. Perhaps he was too much of an aristocrat, and too steeped in the universalist assumptions of eighteenth-century French culture, to be concerned about this point.


His Frenchness was not simply a matter of language. The Manuscript, which contains not a single reference to Poland or Eastern Europe, is a sort of compendium of the conventions and devices of eighteenth-century French literature, and anyone familiar with the background can have a happy time spotting influences or parallels. The novel starts, like Marivaux’s La Vie de Marianne, with the pretense of being a personal memoir, accidentally discovered by a third person who has thought it worth publishing. The text is made up of sixty-six Journées, or daily installments, a device which goes back to Boccaccio’s Decameron and was much imitated later, notably with sinister effect in the Marquis de Sade’s Cent-vingt journées de Sodome. Potocki sets the action chiefly in Spain, thus following the practice of Lesage in Gil Blas and Beaumarchais in Le Barbier de Séville and Le Mariage de Figaro. There are numerous erotic episodes, which are dealt with in the suave, circumlocutory style of Crébillon fils and other eighteenth-century exponents of what is now called “soft porn.”

Most importantly, the basic movement of the text is picaresque, that is, the protagonists move from place to place, experience multiple adventures and changes of fortune—from rags to riches and from riches to rags—and constantly philosophize about the moral or amoral lessons that life has taught them. Hence, there are frequent reminiscences of the famous French picaresque texts—Voltaire’s Candide, Gil Blas again, Diderot’s Le Neveu de Rameau, and, of course, Rousseau’s Confessions.

The profusion of echoes might seem to make the book no more than a clever pastiche, but this is not so. It has a vitality of its own, and some peculiarities of structure not found in the native French examples of the roman philosophique in the picaresque mode. For instance, the suspense element is very strong. Mysterious, half-realistic, half-fantastic events keep recurring in slightly different forms to various characters, and some of these characters themselves are ambiguously poised between reality and ghostliness, so that the reader is left wondering, until the concluding Journées, what all the uncertainty is going to add up to. Also, Potocki further enhances the suspense by deliberately exaggerating the old device of the story within a story. At a given moment, two, three, or more stories may be in progress at once, each being broken off suddenly with a cliffhanger, so that the reader is waiting simultaneously for several resolutions. And, as might happen in some modern experimental novel, the characters within the book may comment on this feature, as if they were as impatient as the reader to know what happens next.

In this respect, of course, Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy was already like a modern experimental novel, and its inconsequentiality was imitated by Diderot in Jacques le fataliste. Potocki may well have read both books and have decided to take the device still further; some readers will no doubt feel that, with jokey perversity, he carried it rather too far.

There is also a third aspect to the suspense element. Just as Potocki juggles with the stories, keeping several balls in the air at once, as it were, so he plays with the identities of some of the characters, who undergo surprising metamorphoses and may turn up in one another’s narratives, thus further puzzling the reader. To make this point clear, I have to attempt a summary of the book.

The supposed narrator is a certain Alphonse van Worden, and he is recording, in later life when he is governor of Saragossa, events which happened to him as a young man in the early years of the eighteenth century. In spite of his Flemish-sounding name, he originates from the Ardennes, a predominantly Walloon, or French-speaking, part of what is now Belgium, and was then, so he says, included in the Duchy of Burgundy. Like his father before him, he has been commissioned in the Walloon Guards of the King of Spain, the whole of that North European region being at the time a Spanish possession. It is perhaps worth noting that, as regards national status and language, he is in a complicated situation, comparable to that of Potocki himself. His country of origin is overshadowed by a foreign power, his mother tongue, whether French or Flemish, is not specified, and we are told that he wrote his memoir in Spanish, Spanish not French being, in his case, the language of the dominant culture.


When the story opens, young Alphonse, newly arrived in Spain, is hurrying from Cadiz to join his royal master in Madrid. Having been taught by his father that courage is the essential virtue, and going against all local advice, he takes a short cut through the Sierra Morena, an area reputedly infested with bandits, gypsies, and ghosts. His two servants promptly abandon him and he spends the first night in a deserted inn where, at the fateful hour of twelve, two beautiful Moorish girls magically appear to provide him with supper and tantalizingly amorous blandishments. They tell him that they belong to the Muslim family of the Gomelez which rules in Tunis, that he himself is their distant cousin through his mother, a Gomelez of the Spanish Catholic branch, that they have come to visit Muslim relatives living clandestinely in Spain, and that he must swear never to reveal their secret. He swears, falls asleep, and wakes up next morning not in the inn but under a gibbet with the rotting bodies of two bandits swaying above him.

Uncertain whether the girls were human or the mischievous ghosts of the dead bandits, he nevertheless carries on, because it would be cowardly to turn back. But he doesn’t make much progress, as if he were trapped in the Sierra Morena through his meetings with other characters, including an old hermit and a madman. Then, suddenly, as in a nightmare, he is arrested by officers of the Inquisition, who confront him with the Moorish girls, and accuse them of being demons. The officers are about to torture Alphonse to make him reveal the secret of the girls’ identity, when a group of bandits, led by a certain Zoto of Italian origin, rushes in and frees him.

This introduction takes us up to Day Four, after which Alphonse travels for a while with Zoto and his merry cutthroats and is regaled with various Italian stories. On Day Twelve, through another dreamlike transition, he finds himself with a company of gypsy smugglers, whose commander is a certain Avadoro, and moves on with them until Day Sixty-One, that is, for most of the book. The company gathers new recruits as it goes along, and eventually includes, in addition to a Jewish cabbalist and his sister, Rebecca, the Wandering Jew, whom the cabbalist invokes by his spells, a Reprobate Pilgrim, an absent-minded geometer called Velásquez, the two Moorish girls who keep appearing and disappearing, and a group of Spanish grandees from the New World also on their way to Madrid, whom the Gypsy Chief temporarily kidnaps in order to satisfy the company’s curiosity about their adventures.

The Gypsy Chief himself, who has had a very colorful past, has a long tale to tell, and every time he pauses, one or another of the characters present steps into the breach for a while with a different story. The competing narratives jostle against each other with increasing intensity, in a manner that René Radrizzani compares to a fugue; the simile is not quite exact, however, because in a fugue all the voices, are woven together in counterpoint, whereas in le roman à tiroirs, only one voice can be heard and held in the mind at a given time, and therefore the aesthetic effect of the device is not as cogent as that of a complex musical composition.

The last five Days, plus an Epilogue, provide a sort of denouement. Alphonse is finally let into the secret of the Gomelez, whose clandestine stronghold is a system of underground caves in the Sierra Morena, and whose wealth comes from a vein of gold deep in the earth. Their ambition has been to use their wealth to further the cause of Islam. The old hermit, whom Alphonse encountered at the outset, is really the head of the Spanish Muslim branch and has been hoping that Alphonse would be his worthy successor. The journey through the mountain range has been a deliberately organized test of his courage, an initiation rite, reminiscent of the ordeal imposed on Tamino by Sarastro in the last act of Mozart’s Magic Flute. Several of the characters in the story have been Gomelez in disguise, thus participating in the deception. Given all this, and given the fact that Alphonse has shown no weakness, one might now expect him to take over, provided the little matter of a Catholic accepting a Muslim inheritance can somehow be arranged.

But no. The chief of the Gomelez announces that the vein of gold is exhausted and that he has decided to divide up the existing wealth between the various members of the family, leaving them to do what they will. Alphonse gets his share, buys himself an estate, and, after distinguished service under the Spanish Crown, ends his career as governor of Saragossa. In the dreamlike Epilogue, he discovers that during one of his later, less chaste, encounters with the Moorish girls, he has made them both pregnant; his son is now the young Bey of Tunis, and his daughter, preferring Catholicism, comes to join him in Spain.

What are we to make of this rich olla podrida? Unlike most picaresque narratives, it is not an adventure story depicting an apprenticeship to life. Although Alphonse has undergone various experiences and heard innumerable cautionary tales, he doesn’t evolve as a character. Nor is he a symbolic hero like Voltaire’s Candide, who, after a vigorous buffeting by the Absurd world, arrives at the modest, humanistic conclusion: “We must cultivate our garden.” Throughout, Alphonse remains a listener rather than a speaker or a doer, and, in the end, Potocki gives him the conventional career of a royal servant, as if the Gomelez connection and the initiation rite had been of no account. The great buildup of suspense has led to a most disappointing anticlimax.

Nor is the book a really successful oneiric work like, say, Alice in Wonderland, where the various episodes, although not immediately explicable in rational terms, have a convincing coherence for the imagination. Potocki mixes up realistic sequences and supernatural or oneiric ones indiscriminately, as if he were accepting the “ghost story” as a form of gothic entertainment, to be introduced from time to time for the sake of variety, but with no organic function within the whole. He differs in this respect from his French predecessors; when the supernatural is used by Voltaire in Zadig, or by Lesage in Le Diable boiteux, or by Diderot in Les Bijoux indiscrets, it is a transparent literary device, an effective, shorthand way of making a philosophical or psychological point. Potocki, with his ghosts, the shifting identities of his characters, and the impossible time-relationships within his sixty-six Days, may be approximating to what is now called magic realism, a mixed genre which is difficult to manage, because the “magic” tends to be a too facile way of putting a poetic gloss on the supposedly prosaic reality of life.

I would conclude, then, against Radrizzani, that, as a structure, the Manuscript leaves much to be desired, either because Potocki had a quirky rather than an organizing mind, or because his indisposition prevented him from producing a finally coherent text. The elaborate-seeming composition fails to coalesce as an architectural whole. In the last resort, the various episodes remain separate, like beads on a string, and, to my mind, the realistic ones are by far the more amusing and significant.

Nevertheless, the book has many incidental virtues. Not the least is its slyly humorous, eighteenth-century narrative style. It tells, with zest, dozens of gossipy stories about love affairs, duels, court intrigues, murder plots, parental tyrannies, sibling rivalries, transvestite frolics, practical jokes, and so on. If Potocki didn’t borrow these tales from the traditional European and Oriental stock, he must have had an exceptionally rich imagination or a remarkably eventful past. As a collection of ironical comments on human nature, the Manuscript is very comparable to Lesage’s Gil Blas or Le Diable boiteux; since the expression le diable boiteux occurs more than once in Potocki’s text, we can probably assume that Lesage was definitely a model.

At the same time, Potocki was more of an intellectual than Lesage, and certain characters in the book, whether themselves narrators or figures who appear in the tales told by the narrators, reflect different aspects of his encyclopedic interests. To give some idea of the way his mind works, I quote only four instances out of many.

One of the more endearing characters is the geometer, Velásquez, who is chronically absent-minded because he thinks all the time in mathematical terms. He is constantly at odds with everyday reality as he tries to reduce all phenomena, even love, to numerical formulae. Rebecca, the cabbalist’s sister, sets her cap at him and eventually ensnares him by a non-mathematical approach. On the one hand, he is a figure of fun, satirizing the excessive systematizers of the eighteenth century; on the other hand, he is a reflection of Isaac Newton, who is referred to incidentally as the supreme intellect of the modern age, and his calculation mania is not as ridiculous as all that. At any given moment, there is the everyday, human way of looking at things and also the analytical, scientific, apparently unemotional, view, and both are true on their different levels, even if they sometimes seem at odds. Besides, since the Enlightenment, a major phenomenon has been the mathematical definition and exploitation of the world in ways which would formerly have seemed inconceivable. Even love is now discussed in percentages of testosterone.

Another entertaining and representative figure is Alphonse’s father, whose one interest in life, apart from his military duties, is dueling and the point of honor. So vigorously had he pursued his specialty that, when he eventually married and thought it “appropriate” to invite all the men with whom he had fought duels, a hundred and twenty-one came to the wedding feast (“I only mean those, of course, whom he had not killed”), and a jolly time was had by all. This is a typically Voltairean ploy. Dueling, a matter of life and death, is treated as if it were a harmless hobby, like our modern tennis or golf. Yet, for generations, it was a barbaric survival among the upper classes, and was eventually suppressed only by law. At the same time, in the days of swordsmanship, it had an aesthetic quality and a refined code of honor that could be endlessly discussed in sporting terms. Perhaps the exaggeration of the point of honor was, to some extent, a compensatory reaction on the part of nobles who, so often, were not fighting to defend their native heath but as mercenaries in the pay of a foreign power (in his late teens, Potocki himself served for a time in the Austrian army). Perhaps these rank-obsessed nobles needed to be exceptionally touchy in their personal relationships in order to preserve their individual dignity in an ambiguous collective situation. Potocki doesn’t say any of this explicitly but, as with Voltaire, his elliptical sentences swell in the reader’s mind, suggesting various fruitful lines of thought.

On the key question of religion, which no eighteenth-century, French-speaking intellectual could avoid, Potocki—if we take him to be speaking through his characters—occasionally veers toward acceptance of belief as a social sedative, preferable to anarchic disbelief, but on the whole he takes a skeptical position, in spite of his final gesture of having the silver bullet blessed by a priest; even that, however, could be a saturnine aristocratic joke, the sacrilegious consecration of the instrument of suicide, an act of free will condemned as a sin by the Catholic Church. The episode of Alphonse’s encounter with the Inquisition is as bitterly satirical as any of Voltaire’s attacks on religious fanaticism, and it is presumably significant that, throughout the Manuscript, Jews, Catholics, and Muslims are dealt with on the same level. In the Epilogue,—but very unconvincingly, it must be said—they all turn out to be interrelated, as if Potocki were implying that all mankind is one, behind the superficial variety of faiths. Moses, Jesus, and Mahomet have, as it were, divided the world unnecessarily.

More specifically, the Wandering Jew (according to tradition, condemned to eternal travel for having insulted Jesus on the way to Calvary) gives an extended lecture on comparative religion, presenting Christianity not as Revelation, but as a partly original amalgam of older beliefs, and one which, moreover, has continued to evolve through the centuries. He thus anticipates, with critical implications, the current debate among believers about the need to adapt the dogma to changing historical conditions, a debate which seems to raise an issue as paradoxical as the squaring of the circle: how can the supposedly immutable be trimmed according to circumstances?

One narrative, which, exceptionally, is more tragic than comic, concerns the general status of knowledge, including religion. The Reprobate Pilgrim describes the life of his father, Diego Hervas, a passionate intellectual who set himself the task of embracing the whole of human knowledge. His life is a series of practical failures. He begins with a mathematical treatise which has difficulty in passing the theological censors; the printer overcharges him; he is thrown into prison because the title of his book is misinterpreted as a skit on a government minister, and, when released, he finds that all the copies have been burned as a precaution. He starts again, produces an encyclopedia in a hundred volumes, and, after it has been printed, goes on holiday, only to discover on return that rats, attracted by the fresh glue, have eaten many of the pages. It takes him years to repair the damage and, in doing so, he is dismayed by the need to revise so many chapters in the light of new discoveries. Again he perseveres, the great work is again ready, but the printer refuses to publish it unless the hundred volumes are boiled down to twenty-five. This final blow makes Hervas doubt the goodness of Creation, and he asks the Job-like question: “Who are you, author of evil?”

Naturally, he no more finds an answer to the question than Candide does in Voltaire’s parallel tale, but whereas Candide goes on doggedly living and makes the best of things as most non-believers do, Hervas drinks a goblet of poison and, lifting his eyes to heaven, utters a last despairing cry: “I have cultivated my mind but rats have devoured it and booksellers have disdained it. Nothing of me will remain…Oh God, if there is one, have pity on my soul, if I have one.” If this scene is a prefiguration of Potocki’s own end—and perhaps it is, because one of the last persons to speak with him records that he was obsessed by the mortality of all earthly things—he was, like Voltaire, an Absurdist. But in spite of all his jokes he had a less robust temperament than the author of Candide. Happily, he was wrong on one point: a hundred and eighty years after his death, something of him still does remain.

This Issue

November 30, 1995