Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote
|"Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote"|
|Author||Jorge Luis Borges|
|Genre(s)||Fantasy, short story|
|Publication date||May 1939|
|Published in English||1962|
It originally appeared in Spanish in the Argentine journal Sur in May 1939. The Spanish-language original was first published in book form in Borges's 1941 collection El Jardín de senderos que se bifurcan (The Garden of Forking Paths), which was included in his much-reprinted Ficciones (1944).
"Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote" is written in the form of a review or literary critical piece about Pierre Menard, a fictional 20th-century French writer. It begins with a brief introduction and a listing of Menard's work.
Borges' "review" describes Menard's efforts to go beyond a mere "translation" of Don Quixote by immersing himself so thoroughly in the work as to be able to actually "re-create" it, line for line, in the original 17th-century Spanish. Thus, Pierre Menard is often used to raise questions and discussion about the nature of authorship, appropriation, and interpretation.
"Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote" is a form of literary criticism, but through the medium of fantasy, irony, and humor. His narrator/reviewer considers Menard's fragmentary Quixote (which is line-for-line identical to the original) to be much richer in allusion than Cervantes's "original" work because Menard's must be considered in light of world events since 1602. Cervantes, the reviewer claims, "indulges in a rather coarse opposition between tales of knighthood and the meager, provincial reality of his country". While Menard writes of the distant past ("the land of Carmen during the century of Lepanto and Lope”), in Cervantes “there are neither bands of Gypsies, conquistadors... nor autos de fé". In "The Library of Babel", Borges contemplates the opposite effect: impoverishment of a text through the means of its reproduction. In a pattern analogous to the infinite monkey theorem, all texts are reproduced in a vast library only because complete randomness eventually reproduces all possible combinations of letters.
Both stories deal with the difficulty of creating meaning or perhaps finding or determining meaning. In the case of Quixote the meaning depends on reader-response and/or context of the work. In the case of The Library of Babel meaning is hard to find as any coherent works are rare. By implication the library contains all possible works. However any work with meaning is random and not the product of human action and therefore drained of meaning. In the case of Quixote the human action of writing and reading the work affect meaning.
Borges wrote the story while recovering from a head injury. It was intended as a test to discover whether his creativity had survived the severe septicaemia that had set in after his head wound became infected. Following its completion, Borges was satisfied that his creativity remained and thus proceeded to write the rest of the stories that later made up the book "El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan". As so often in his writings, the story abounds in clever references and subtle jokes. His narrator/reviewer is an arch-Catholic who remarks of the readers of a rival journal that they are "few and Calvinist, if not Masonic and circumcised". According to Emir Rodríguez Monegal and Alastair Reid, Menard is in part "a caricature of Stéphane Mallarmé and Paul Valéry ... or Miguel de Unamuno and Enrique Larreta".
Two English-language translations were published more or less simultaneously in 1962: one by James E. Irby in a diverse collection of Borges works entitled Labyrinths; the other by Anthony Bonner as part of a collaborative translation of the entirety of Ficciones (1962). The Bonner translation is reprinted in Borges, A Reader.
Possible sources of the name
- Pierre Menard, the first Lieutenant Governor of Illinois.
- Pierre Ménard, a minor 18th-century French writer.
- Colombian poet Juan Gustavo Cobo Borda has argued that there existed a minor symbolist poet by this name whose story Borges embroidered rather than created out of whole cloth: "I read the biography of Rodríguez Monegal and Menard actually existed as a minor symbolist poet who had written a book, a thesis on time, and Borges had found that book. Then people went to look for Pierre Menard and they found a Pierre Menard, but a doubled Pierre Menard, the one that Borges had invented."
In his foreword to P. G. Wodehouse's Sunset at Blandings, Douglas Adams recommended the story: "You should read Jorge Luis Borges’s short story ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’. It’s only six pages long, and you’ll be wanting to drop me a postcard to thank me for pointing it out to you." The foreword was reprinted in Adams's posthumously published collection of writings, The Salmon of Doubt.
In Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler (1979) the character Silas Flannery tries to copy a "famous novel" to gain the energy from that text for his own writing, and finally he feels tempted to copy the entire novel Crime and Punishment. This technique was actually attempted by Hunter S. Thompson, who retyped the entirety of The Great Gatsby when he studied at Columbia University, prior to the writing of any of his major works.
John Hodgman claims to have made a "controversial shot-by-shot remake" of "Pierre Menard" in the "page-a-day calendar" portion of his book More Information Than You Require, on the date 4 December 1998. The joke references not only the recreation nature of the original short story, but also Gus Van Sant's shot-for-shot remake of Psycho, which was released on the same date.
The story is also referenced in the introduction to Roberto Bolaño's novel Distant Star, and along with "An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain" has a noticeable influence on his other works, particularly Nazi Literature in the Americas.
In the novel House of Leaves, a footnote by Zampanó references Pierre Menard and his "variation" on the passage beginning "... la verdad, cuya madre es la historia [etc]".
References in pop culture
The story is referenced in the episode "The Balance" on the cartoon program Justice League Unlimited. The episode originally aired on May 28, 2005. In the episode, members of the Justice League visit the Library of Tartarus where the fictional Menard's story is said to reside.
It was additionally referenced in House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski, where Pierre Menard was made out to be a real person and an example of "exquisite variation".
- Monegal, Emir R., Alastair Reid (ed). (1981) Borges, A Reader. New York: E. P. Dutton, 346. ISBN 0-525-47654-7
- Monegal and Reid (ed.), page reference req'd
- Borda, Juan Gustavo Cobo (1999). Borges enamorado. Ensayos críticos. Diálogos con Borges. Rescate y glosa de textos de Borges y sobre Borges. Bogotá: Instituto Caro y Cuervo.  Accessed 24 August 2016.
- "Pierre Menard, autor del Quixote" Complete Spanish text
- Commentary on "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote" by Beatriz Sarlo
- "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote" English translation by James E. Irby
- "Towards a Borgean Theory of Constitutional Interpretation" A legal take on Pierre Menard rewriting the United States Constitution, by Marco Jimenez
- "Atrapados en la galería de los espejos: Hacia una poética de la lectura en Pierre Menard de Jorge Luis Borges" by Santiago Juan-Navarro.