[Jan Potocki: The Manuscript Found in Saragossa. 1989.
Trans. Ian Maclean. 1995 (Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 1996)]
Yesterday I went into town to return a few library books and meet up with some literary cronies. The bus was a bit late, though, so I had time to duck into the local Opportunity Shop. If you've read the post below, you'll understand how surprised I was to find this book, which cost me all of two dollars.
Yes, there it is, Goya's Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (though I notice that the translation on the back cover gives it as the "dream" of reason - an equally valid translation).
But there was something else waiting for me in that op shop - this:
I know I've made rather a song and dance in the past about doubles and doppelgängers and other such appurtenances of the Gothic (in fact, you may not have noticed, but in the sidebar to this blog I've got a little collection of "Jack Rosses": the Aboriginal Artist, the Alabama Treasurer, the Bearded Muser, the Brooklyn Copperhead, the Chartered Accountant, the Footballer, the Spoonerist, the Thriller Writer, and the Australian WW1 Veteran ...). This one was the Scottish thriller-writer.
So far so good. That's not the end of it, though. You see, I have a bit of a history with this Manuscript found at Saragossa novel. The reason I didn't already have a copy of this - very handsome - Penguin edition was that I bought the book in French when it first appeared in 1989, on the strength of a long and laudatory review in the TLS, which made it sound like the literary discovery of the decade.
It's hard to separate fact from legend where this bizarre book is concerned, but it appears to have been written in French by the Polish Nobleman Count Jan Potocki sometime between the years 1805 and 1815 (when he committed suicide, allegedly with a silver bullet which he'd had blessed by his parish priest in advance). He published a few extracts from it in his lifetime - first in Saint Petersburg, in Russian, and then in Paris, in the original French. The complete manuscript is, however, lost, and while four-fifths of the text survives in something approaching Potocki's final text, the other portions had to be retranslated into French from a Polish translation made in 1847). This is probably what delayed the first complete edition of his book until 1989.
I bought my copy in Brussels, hot off the press, and promptly started to read it (I guess what attracted me was the pattern of nested stories within a complex frame, so like the Oulipo-ian fictions of Georges Perec, whose Life, A User's Manual (1978) I'd also recently discovered). There was, however, an error in my copy - a missing line (or lines) on p.403.
I had to wait till the second edition of the French text, in 1991, before I was able to fill it in. It turned out to consist of just one word: "parts".
The passage (spoken by the Wandering Jew, one of the innumerable storytellers in the book) translates more or less as follows:
At this time, the Essenes had already formed their bizarre association. They had no wives, and their goods were held in common: on all sides, one could see nothing but new religions, mixtures of Judaism and Zoroastrianism, mixtures of Sabianism and Platonism, and above all lots of astrology. The ancient religions built themselves up with pieces from everywhere.
The missing word comes on p.403 of a book written almost two centuries before the appearance of its first edition. Four and three make seven (just that weekend I'd been discussing the mystic associations of the number seven with a group of students, à propos of the seven gates of the Underworld traversed by the goddess Ishtar).
The passage comes from the 36th day of a story which extends over 66 days (allegedly written down by its narrator, Alphonse van Worden, in 1769, thirty years after the events described, and then sealed in an iron box form which it is extracted by a French soldier at the siege of Saragossa in 1809). 3 and 6 make nine, another number of mystic efficacy (three trinities, etc. etc.)
Hard to say what it all means (if anything), but suffice it to say that mysteries are all around us ... I hope all these omens promise good fortune and not bad. Not for nothing did I put down my religion as "irrational superstition" in the last census!