Despite a lifetime of reading, every so often I come across a book that I can’t believe I’ve never heard of much less never read. As I worked my way through The Dedalus Occult Reader: The Garden of Hermetic Dreams (Edited by the estimable Gary Lachman, a.k.a. Gary Valentine from Blondie!, a very talented author, editor and savant who deserves his own shout out some day) I found I’d read, if not the pieces included, at least something from the authors involved, visionary dudes like Nerval, Villers de l’Isle-Adam, Huysmans, Briusov, etc., but the one thang that blew me away was a selection from The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, a work I didn’t know by Jan Potocki, an author I also didn’t know. I quickly remedied that by picking up the handsome Penguin Classic edition and diving in.
The Manuscript Found in Saragossa is indeed a way cool book. Written in the late 18th and early 19th century, it’s a series a interlocked tales told to and by a pompous young army officer as he goes to join his regiment in Madrid. It’s an bridge between classic multi-voiced epics like Tales From the Thousand One Nights and The Decameron and modern incarnations such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s New Arabian Nights and Arthur Machen’s sublime Three Imposters. The beginning is particularly effective as it blends the erotic, the supernatural, the grotesque and the comic delightfully. As with any work like this of over six hundred pages some parts are more successful than others, and although after awhile the story within a story within a story within a story with no end in sight structure can induce a mild headache, it’s an extremely diverting work and very prescient in its depiction of a secret Islamic uprising. The end, too, is kind of a let down, with its pat and unconvincing explanation of everything that’s gone on before, but it’s pretty impossible to end a picaresque like this with complete grace, and, all in all, it’s a unique must read with an intriguing esoteric tint.
There’s a fairly well known Polish movie based on it which I got off e-bay but haven’t had a chance to watch yet. Jan Potocki (1761-1812) is a weird and mysterious figure himself, who supposedly made a bullet out of the knob of a silver sugar bowl, had it blessed by a chaplain and then blew his brains out with it because he was afraid he was becoming a werewolf. I’m glad I didn’t do the same before I read The Manuscript Found in Saragossa.
Maybe because there is no complete manuscript in the original French, and the English version is therefore sometimes a translation of a translation, the prose didn’t really strike me that often, but here are a couple of my favorite passages:
I do not need to tell you that Adonai created the world by the Word and then made himself into a Word. Words strike the air and the mind, they act on the senses and the soul. Although you are not initiates, you can easily grasp that they are the true intermediaries between matter and every order of intelligence.
Sweet Rebecca met us at the gate of the castle. She was the most adorable and engaging blonde. Her golden locks fell naturally down to her shoulders. She was dressed in a simple white dress secured by priceless clasps. Her outward appearance suggested someone who gave no thought to what she wore, but had she thought more about it, it would have been difficult for her to achieve a better effect.