Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Manuscript Found in Saragossa as Gothic Fiction

When people try to fit The Manuscript Found in Saragossa into a category of literature, they usually turn first to the Gothic. The spooky, creepy parts of ’s book—the recurring motif of two corpses hanging from a gallows, the mysterious transformations, the numerous accounts of hauntings, seductions, and souls drifting toward damnation—certainly seem to fit the bill. But what about all the other stuff, the philosophical debates, the slapstick, the satire, the love stories? How accurate is it to call The Manuscript Found in Saragossa a work of gothic fiction?

The end of the Enlightenment, the birth of Romanticism

Author Jan Potocki was born in Poland in 1761. He grew up and received a nobleman’s education in the Europe of the Enlightenment, which emphasized reason, analysis, science, and individualism, and rejected superstition and trust in traditional authorities like the Catholic Church and hereditary rulers.

Yet beneath the mainstream culture of rationalism ran an ongoing public interest in the supernatural. In The History of Polish Literature, Czesław Miłosz writes

It would be unjust to bypass other aspects of the eighteenth century, as it was not only a century of rationalism … there was also a pronounced inclination toward the pietistic and mystical. Some Poles played a prominent role in the French “mystical” lodges which proliferated during the last decades before the Revolution. Europe was extremely cosmopolitan, owing to the new universal language, French, which replaced Latin; and ideas were transmitted from one country to another with great rapidity. Thus the mysterious, the bizarre, the supernatural fascinated all the European capitals, as the incredible international career of Cagliostro testifies. The demonic also captured imaginations, and the Marquis de Sade was not the only representative of that current. In view of this, the figure of the Polish writer Jan Potocki, author of the Saragossa Manuscripts (Rękopis znaleziony w Saragossie), is less incomprehensible.
The cover of the current Penguin Classics edition of the English translation of The Manuscript Found in Saragossa features an etching called The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, created by the Spanish artist Francisco Goya in 1799. In the image, an artist (possibly Goya himself) has fallen asleep at his drawing table. Creatures of the darkness—bats, owls, a lynx—threaten him in his unconscious state.

Cover of the Penguin Classics edition of The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, featuring the etching The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters by Francisco Goya
The title of the etching, written in Spanish on the artist’s desk, can be interpreted as expressing Enlightenment values: Reason must stay awake and in control, for the nightmares of the past, like ignorance and superstition, are always ready to return.

Yet Goya wrote a more ambiguous caption under the print: “Imagination abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters; united with her, she is the mother of the arts and source of their wonders.”

Today many art historians consider Goya a transitional figure between the optimistic rationalism of the Enlightenment and the wild imagination and exaggerated emotions of Gothic Romanticism. I believe it makes sense to look at Jan Potocki's novel as a playful examination of these two movements, setting them against each other and then revealing how intertwined they are.

Horace Walpole and The Castle of Otranto

In 1764, when Jan Potocki was about three years old, a book was published in London under the lengthy title The Castle of Otranto, A Story. Translated by William Marshal, Gent. From the Original Italian of Onuphrio Muralto, Canon of the Church of St. Nicholas at Otranto. It was purported to be a translation of a manuscript that had been printed in Naples in 1529, relating a story that was even older. The strange tale involved an ancient castle, a mysterious death, obsessions and forbidden desires, and an unwholesome, possibly incestuous family.

The Castle of Otranto received mixed reviews in England but it sold very well. When the second edition was published, Horace Walpole, the Earl of Orford, revealed himself, not as the book’s translator, but as its author. At least one literary reviewer retracted his earlier praise, rejecting the book as work of barbarism:
When we considered it as such [an old Italian story], we could readily excuse its preposterous phenomena, and consider them as sacrifices to a gross and unenlightened age.  But when, as in this edition, The Castle of Otranto is declared to be a modern performance, that indulgence we afforded to the foibles of a supposed antiquity, we can by no means extend to the singularity of a false taste in a cultivated period of learning. It is, indeed, more than strange, that an Author, of a refined and polished genius, should be an advocate for re-establishing the barbarous superstitions of Gothic devilism!
—From a 1765 issue of The Monthly Review, reproduced in the appendices of The Castle of Otranto and The Mysterious Mother

In his Introduction to the 2003 Broadview Press edition of The Castle of Otranto and The Mysterious Mother, Frederick S. Frank explains:
The bogus authorship of the first edition was a favorite game of eighteenth-century writers, but in Walpole’s case, the double pseudonym was protective as well as diverting. By giving free vent to the Gothic impulse in the composition of his novel, Walpole had risked his reputation as a man of taste, refinement, and social standing. Reassured by the success of the hoaxing first edition, Walpole emerged from behind the medieval and modern pen-names to announce his authorship and take his bows.
Another change was that Walpole added to the second edition the label “A Gothic Story,” describing its medieval setting. The Castle of Otranto is widely considered the first gothic novel.

Ann Radcliffe and the “explained supernatural”

We don’t know whether Jan Potocki ever read The Castle of Otranto; it’s fairly certain that he did read some of the works of Gothic fiction by Ann Radcliffe.  Ian MacLean, in the Introduction to his translation of The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, states that Jan Potocki described his book as a Gothic novel “à la Radcliffe” in a letter to a friend.

Portrait of Gothic novelist Ann Radcliffe
Ann Radcliffe
If Horace Walpole invented Gothic literature, Ann Radcliffe made it into an art form that was both critically acceptable and insanely popular. Her 1794 book The Mysteries of Udolpho tells the story of Emily St. Aubert , a young French woman who is orphaned and becomes imprisoned in a remote castle by an Italian brigand who has married her aunt.

Udolpho Castle appears to be haunted—Emily hears unexplained music and strange noises, and she sees something hidden beneath a black veil that appears to be a woman’s corpse. Yet by the end of the story, the character of Emily and readers of the book have been given natural explanations for all the seemingly supernatural events.

This technique of the “explained supernatural” may have made Radcliffe’s novel more palatable for English readers at the tail end of the Enlightenment. It probably also helped that it was set in 16th-century France and Italy, not in contemporary England. More importantly, The Mysteries of Udolpho and Radcliffe’s later book The Italian (1797) were considered much more well written than The Castle of Otranto and other works that had been inspired by its Gothic themes.

The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Italian made Radcliffe—a middle-class woman married to a journalist and editor—the most popular and highly paid novelist in England in the 1790s. Her stories inspired scenes painted by Romantic artists; illustrated chapbooks with titles like The Southern Tower: or, Conjugal Sacrifice and Retribution; and stage productions in London. Sir Walter Scott called her “the first poetess of romantic fiction” and credited her with founding a new school of literature.
As the Gentleman’s Magazine proudly noted, not only were Radcliffe’s romances among the best ever to appear in the English language, they were translated into every ‘European tongue’ to the ‘honour of the country.’ She was a huge, Europe-wide success. The experienced publisher Thomas Cadell found the reputed sums paid for her novels (£500 for Udolpho and £800 for The Italian) so incredible he wagered £10 that the stories were false. He lost.
Ann Radcliffe: The Great Enchantress

Elements of Gothic literature in The Manuscript Found in Saragossa

When, in the last 50 pages of The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, the Great Sheikh of the Gomelez explains away all the apparently supernatural events that Alphonse van Worden has experienced during his 66 days in the Sierra Morena, author Jan Potocki seems to be borrowing Ann Radcliffe’s technique of “the supernatural explained.”

Many other Gothic motifs can be seen as evidence of Radcliffe’s influence on Potocki’s writing:

  • Ghost stories—By my count, at least eight ghost stories are told or read during the course of The Manuscript Found in Saragossa.
  • Strange settings—While medieval castles (the ultimate Gothic setting) play a minimal role in The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, other exotic, remote, or unfamiliar places are central. The labyrinthine caves of the Gomelez, the purportedly haunted Venta Quemada, and the gallows of Los Hermanos are all located in the threatening, untamed landscape of Spain’s Sierra Morena mountains. 
  • Sexual danger and temptation—In Radcliffe’s stories, vulnerable heroines are abducted, threatened with forced or false marriages, and in danger of being raped or murdered; the villains are typically greedy, lustful, or jealous men. A few vulnerable, innocent maidens, like Maria de Torres’s sister Elvira, appear in The Manuscript Found in Saragossa. A more common motif, however, is men being drawn into unconventional sexual situations by women. Much of Alphonse van Worden’s confusion is caused by his uncertainty about how to respond to the seductive sisters Emina and Zubeida; he worries that they seek to convert him away from Christianity into Islam, or may even be evil spirits trying to lure him to his damnation. 
  • The Inquisition—A central plot point of Radcliffe’s novel The Italian, or the Confessional of the Black Penitents is that the heroic Vincentio di Vivaldi, on the verge on marrying his beloved Ellena, is arrested and taken to the prisons of the Inquisition in Rome. Alphonse van Worden, on Day 3, is captured and threatened with torture by people who appear to be agents of the Inquisition.  Also, on Day 26, Pandesowna relates how, as a child, he ran afoul of the Inquisition and ended up imprisoned, only to escape into a graveyard. 
  • Uncertainty about the supernatural—In The Mysteries of Udolpho, Emily St. Aubert fluctuates between clinging to a modern, scientific worldview and fearing that the strange events she experiences really have supernatural causes. Similarly, Alphonse van Worden struggles to determine whether he is interacting with magicians, spirits, vampires, and reanimated corpses or if he is being manipulated by his fellow human beings. 
Personally, I don’t usually associate gothic fiction with comedy. I was surprised to discover that even Jan Potocki’s use of humor has precedents in both Walpole and Radcliffe. In The Castle of Otranto, two servants named Diego and Jaquez break the tension of the story with random comments and foolish arguments; the naïve maidservant Bianca is an entertaining gossip. The Mysteries of Udolpho includes the talkative servant Theresa and the superstitious Annette, while Vivaldi in The Italian has a bumbling servant named Paulo.

How Potocki Rebels Against the Gothic Genre

In her excellent essay "From Fantastic to Familiar: Jan Potocki's Manuscript Found in Saragossa," Katarzyna Bartoszyńska identifies several ways in which the novel subverts the expectations of gothic fiction that existed in the early 19th century:

  • When gothic fiction first became popular in England and throughout Europe, cultural commentators feared that the novels would be dangerous to readers, causing them to confuse fiction and reality. Potocki parodies this idea throughout the novel: as young girls Emina and Zubeida become obsessed with ideas of passionate love after reading forbidden books, and Lope Soarez reads so many romance novels on his long journey from Cadiz to Madrid that upon arrival he's ready to fall in love at the drop of a hat ... or a locket. 
  • In a typical gothic scenario, an innocent, civilized character becomes lost in a wild, exotic, barbaric situation; the story resolves happily when the character returns to safety in a more modern world, with supernatural threats defeated or debunked. Protagonist Alphonse van Worden would seem like a man of the Enlightenment venturing into dangerous, primitive territory, but instead of escaping it, he eventually settles down there, finding a new home and family. What's more, he's revealed to carry his own outdated baggage in the form of a strict honor code built on fearlessness and fighting duels—which many characters in the Spanish wilderness advise him to outgrow. 
  • Some of the classic threats in gothic scenarios are sexual corruption, loss of religious faith, and damnation. Alphonse van Worden resists the advances of Emina and Zubeida because he fears their power as spiritual and sexual tempters. In the course of the story, however, he gives in to his attraction to them, and the consequences are almost entirely positive: he becomes wealthy and has a wonderful family, with a Christian daughter he loves and plans to make his heir. He lives happily ever after, basically. 

In later blog entries, I plan to explore two other likely sources of inspiration for Potocki: The Arabian Nights (first translated into French between 1704 and 1717, and hugely popular and influential throughout the 18th century) and the picaresque novels of France and Spain.


Sunday, August 30, 2015

Top 10 Funny Characters in The Manuscript Found in Saragossa

Well, it's only taken seven months (!) but I've accomplished my first goal for this blog: writing posts about the ten best characters in The Manuscript Found in Saragossa.

Looking at my list has made it clear that by "best" characters, I mean those that make me laugh. Apparently no other criteria really matters. Okay. I can live with that.

Here's the countdown:

#10  Diego Hervas, the unfortunate polymath

#9  Frasqueta Salero, the most brazen of them all

#8  Don Roque Busqueros, the detestable ferret

#7  Don Felipe of the Large Inkpot

#6  Pandesowna the Gypsy Chief

#5  Zoto's father, the reluctant bandit

#4  Don Juan van Worden, the obsessive duelist

#3  Don Enrique de Velásquez, the absent-minded mathematician

#2  Rebecca de Uzeda, a woman both witty and wise

#1  Don Pedro de Velásquez, a geometer without equal


Next on my blog: Discussion of how was playing with and/or parodying the popular literary genres of his time. Is The Manuscript Found in Saragossa a work of gothic fiction? Is it a picaresque novel? Or maybe some kind of precursor to the post-modern novel?





Saturday, August 22, 2015

Characters in The Manuscript Found in Saragossa: Diego Hervas


" ... of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh."
— Ecclesiastes 12:12 (King James Version)
Of all the characters in The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, the virtuous, the villainous, and everyone in-between, I think it's Diego Hervas who inspires the deepest sympathy in me. I find this disconcerting because the whole purpose he serves in the book is as an example of someone who fails in all his endeavors, surrenders to despair, falls into heresy, commits suicide, and is damned.

Diego Hervas starts out, though, as a brilliant scholar and mathematician with ambitions of academic glory. He brings together discoveries by Enlightenment luminaries René Descartes, Thomas Harriot, Pierre de Fermat, and Gilles Personne de Roberval, integrating them and refining them into a single volume that takes him a year to write. He titles it The Secrets of Analysis Revealed, together with the Science of Infinite Dimensions, and he spends his whole inheritance printing a thousand copies, which he assumes he will have no trouble selling (a classic mistake that self-publishers make to this day). Then he packs all the books onto mules and heads to Madrid, where he leaves all one thousand copies at Moreno's bookshop (which also plays a key role in the life of Don Felipe Avadoro).

Three weeks later, Hervas returns to the bookstore and is mortified to learn that not a single person has purchased his book. Soon after, local law enforcement arrives to arrest him, because his book has inspired a popular joke mocking the minister of finance.

   The two or three copies put on sale by Moreno soon fell into the hands of curious people who frequented the shop. One of them read the title, The Secrets of Analysis Revealed, and said that it might well be an anti-government pamphlet. Another, scrutinizing the same title-page, said with a sly smile that the satire must be directed towards Don Pedro Alanyes, the minister of finance, because analysis was the anagram of Alanyes; and the second part of the title, Infinities of All Dimensions, was also directed at the minister, who was physically infinitely small and infinitely fat, and mentally infinitely low and infinitely high....
   It wasn't long, either, before the minister Alanyes was called Señor Analysis, Infinite in Every Dimension. This financier was quite inured to the people's criticisms and paid them no attention. But when the same nickname came to his ears more than once he asked his secretary to explain why. He in turn replied that the origin of the joke was an alleged book of geometry on sale at Moreno's shop. Without making further inquiries, the minister first had the author arrested and then confiscated the whole edition.
The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, Day 48

Poor Hervas. After six weeks in prison, he is released, to discover that every copy of his book in existence has been destroyed. But the upside is that during his imprisonment, he's conceived of an even more ambitious book project, "a work in a hundred volumes, which was to contain all that men knew in his time."

The description of Hervas's 100-volume encyclopedia, which takes him 15 years to write, is a lovely bit of absurdity. Jan Potocki describes the contents of each volume in order, in a passage 15 paragraphs long. If you manage to wade through it, you find a wonderful nugget of satire buried in the middle:

Then, in the seventy-fourth [volume] came exegesis, which is the exposition of Holy Writ; in the seventy-fifth, hermeneutics, which is its interpretation; in the seventy-sixth, scholastics, that is, the art of conducting a proof completely independently of common sense; and in the seventy-seventh, the theology of mysticism or the pantheism of spiritualism.
— The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, Day 49

This grandiose undertaking, of course, implodes in an appropriately absurd manner. I won't go into detail, but it does involve an empty house and some hungry rats. The fate of the one hundred volumes is so perfect and so sad that whenever I come to this part of the novel, I feel like laughing and crying simultaneously. I understand the desire to systematize and organize all aspects of life, just as I recognize the futility of trying to do it.

Laura Miller, in her review of The Manuscript Found in Saragossa for the San Francisco Examiner, notes that "Potocki, himself a scholar of wide-ranging interests, treats intellectual ambition with a fond but often cruel irony." P. N. Furbank's review "Nesting Time" in the London Review of Books mentions that Potocki's own ethnological treatises and tables of 'universal chronology' were "roughly handled by scholars."  

Hervas spends eight years repairing and recreating the destroyed volumes, only to find that advancements in science and mathematics have rendered his encyclopedia out of date. Updating the great work takes four more years; the total of 12 years spent without leaving his house destroys his health, but at least he can finally take the one hundred volumes to Moreno's bookshop and beg him to publish them, thereby bringing honor to Spain.

   Moreno opened all the volumes, examined them carefully and then said, 'Señor, I will undertake the work, but you must bring yourself to reduce it to twenty-five volumes.'
   'Go away, go away!' replied Hervas in the deepest indignation. 'Go back to your shop and print the romantic or pedantic rubbish which are the shame of Spain! Leave me, Señor, with my kidney stones and my genius, which if it had been better known would have won general esteem. I have nothing left to ask of mankind and still less of booksellers. Go away!'
— The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, Day 50

At this point Hervas gives in completely to despair. He becomes obsessed with the existence of evil and the question of whether God created evil. Then he develops his own theory of how the cosmos and all living things might have come into existence independently of God.

Of course, through his various storytellers—Pandesowna is relating the story that Busqueros recounted that Cornádez says the man claiming to be the "Reprobate Pilgrim" (Blas Hervas) told him—Potocki expresses shock and dismay at such a theory being developed. However, he goes into enough detail about it that I suspect this may have been a cautious way of putting forward a controversial scientific theory of his own. Some of the precursors to evolutionary theory had already been published. Erasmus Darwin's Zoonomia (written 1794–1796) proposed that all warm-blooded animals could have descended from a single micro-organism; Jean-Baptiste Lamarck's 1809 book Philosophie zoologique articulated one of the first fleshed-out theories of evolution.

But within the context of The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, Hervas's heretical theory of how the creation could exist without a Creator is portrayed as part of his ongoing descent and degeneration. He eventually commits suicide, wrapped in a bed sheet like a shroud and drinking poison from a goblet. Before he dies, he says a humble prayer: "Oh God, if there is one, have pity on my soul, if I have one" (Day 50).

Two final notes on Diego Hervas:

  • Other characters in the novel speak of him as if he were a notorious figure. Rebecca de Uzeda comments that "Everyone knows the story of the atheist Hervas, which the Jesuit Granada recorded in the notes to his work" (Day 49). Yet in a footnote in his English translation of the novel, Ian MacLean states that "It is not clear to whom Potocki is here referring." I interpret that as meaning that MacLean hasn't been able to find historical evidence of either an "atheist Hervas" or a "Jesuit Granada." So was Potocki referring to actual cultural figures known in the Enlightenment, who have since been lost to history? Or were these two characters, the infamous atheist and the respected Jesuit scholar, just fictions Potocki invented himself? Like so many questions about The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, this one may prove difficult to answer.
  • Also, in my copy of Ian MacLean's translation, Diego Hervas is described twice as a polygraph. I believe this is a translation error. I'd guess the intention was to describe him as a polymath, defined by Merriam-Webster as "a person of encyclopedic learning."  A polygraph is a lie detector, and those weren't invented until more than a hundred years after Jan Potocki's death. 




Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Characters in The Manuscript Found in Saragossa: Frasqueta Salero

The Knight of Toledo sat down and told us that he envied the Duke of Arcos a mistress like Frasqueta, that he had always loved brazen women and that she was the most brazen of them all.
The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, Day 48
Sometimes in fiction you come across a character you know you shouldn't like, but secretly, guiltily, you like them anyway. That's how I feel about Frasqueta Salero. She's selfish, duplicitous, scheming, and unfaithful. In The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, when jealous husbands (the Conde de Rovellas, the Marqués de Val Florida) falsely accuse their virtuous wives of deceit and infidelity, they're afraid they're being cuckolded by someone like Frasqueta. She's awful, really, but she's such an exaggerated, farcical character, I can't help but find her funny.

As readers, we meet Frasqueta through the rascal Don Roque Busqueros. He's recounting to Lope Soarez how he continued a childhood taste for voyeurism into his adulthood in Madrid by finding some disreputable friends and a tall ladder. On poking his head through the open second-story window of a house, Busqueros saw a man awake in bed—and the man saw him. Shrieking in fear at what appeared to him to be a disembodied head, the man fled his bedroom.

Then the man's wife emerged from the bed. She calmly bolted the door through which her terrified husband had just exited and invited Busqueros to come in—only seeming surprised that he wasn't the man she expected to appear at her bedroom window. Busqueros explained that he meant no harm; he was just spying on her and her husband in their bedroom in the middle of the night.

Any decent person would have been appalled at such behavior, so of course Frasqueta took it completely in stride. Busqueros relates the conversation that followed:

   The lady seemed to pay close attention to what I said. Then she said, 'Señor, what you have just told me restores you completely to my esteem. You are quite right; there is nothing nicer in the world than to know what others are up to, and I have always shared your view of this. I cannot keep you here longer, but we will meet again.'
   'Señora,' I said, 'before you woke up, your husband did me the honour of taking my face for a ghastly head that had come to reproach him for an involuntary crime. Please do me the honour of informing me of the circumstances of all this.'
   'I approve of your curiousity,' said the lady. 'Come tomorrow at five o'clock in the evening to the public garden and you will find me there with one of my friends. But for this evening, farewell.'
The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, Day 35

Clearly these two people were made for each other.

When they meet later, Frasqueta tells how she first attracted the attention of the wealthy young Duke of Arcos, who was not at liberty to marry her, and the less desirable Señor Cornádez, who was. On her mother's advice, she married the financially stable Cornádez, while still holding open the possibility of a future relationship with the Duke of Arcos.

So the stage is set for a tale of cuckoldry. The humorous story about a clever wife cheating on a clueless husband was a classic comedic trope by Jan Potocki's time. "The Miller's Tale" in Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (written sometime in the 1380s or 1390s) is all about a wife and her lover plotting against her husband, and cuckoldry is a major theme in many of the 100 stories told in The Decameron, written by 14th-century Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio.

Professor David P. LaGuardia, in the introduction to his book Intertextual Masculinity in French Renaissance Literature, asks the question of why the cuckold was "so popular, and considered to be so funny by even the most erudite readers and writers of both the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, in the most varied of European cultural contexts?" He describes how much French vernacular literature was populated by characters transgressing sexual norms:

... husbands who try to seduce their chambermaids, who covet and possess their neighbors' wives, and who sneak into the beds of any woman who happens to be at hand; wayward wives who rush their husbands off to work, trap them in closets and clothing trunks, lock them out of the house, or simply run away, so that they can be with their lovers; priests, monks, and nuns who are not only gluttons and profligates, but who also indulge their prodigious sexual appetites whenever they have the chance, which often means that they have to run away from irate husbands and wives. 

Even within the context of a whole genre of cuckoldry stories, though, Potocki's story of Frasqueta, her husband Cornádez, and the Duke of Arcos is over the top. In a nutshell, Cornádez is convinced, first, that a passionate nobleman called the Conde de Peña Flor is trying to seduce his wife; then that he himself is an accidental accomplice in the murder of the Conde de Peña Flor; next, that the ghost of the Conde de Peña Flor is haunting him; and finally, that his soul is in danger of damnation because of the role he played in the murder.

In a moment of remarkable candor, Frasqueta explains to Busqueros her motivation for carrying out this elaborate plot, putting her husband through months of worry, terror, and remorse:

Once I became the wife of Señor Cornádez, I devoted all my time to making him happy. I succeeded rather too well. At the end of three months, I found him to be happier than I hoped, and what was worse, he believed that he made me perfectly happy. His smug expression did not suit his face. Moreover, it displeased and annoyed me. Happily, however, this state of beatitude did not last long.
The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, Day 35

That's when she put her plan into motion to make his life a living hell. So, yeah, she's basically a sociopath.

Here's the other way in which Potocki takes the cuckoldry story to a new level: Frasqueta reveals to Busqueros that her friend who's with them in the public garden—her "devout and quite exemplary neighbor," whom Cornádez has trusted to act as his young wife's protector and chaperone—has been the Duke of Arcos all the time, dressed up in women's clothing.

...this neighbor was the duke himself, and here he is with us in women's clothing, which really suits him very well. I am still a faithful wife but I cannot bring myself to send away my dear Arcos, for I am not sure that I may not one day abandon my virtue, and if I decide to take a step down that road, I would like to have Arcos by me.
The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, Day 35

In other words, she has the Duke of Arcos at her beck and call, running around disguised as a woman, and she's employing members of his household in her sadistic scheme against her husband, and she's not even having sex with him. She's just holding the Duke of Arcos in reserve, in case she decides she wants to have sex with him at some point.

That's what she tells Busqueros, anyway—in the Duke of Arco's presence. Whether we as readers believe her is another matter. But it appears she's been perfectly open and frank with Busqueros about all her other egomaniacal behavior, so I'm not sure why she would lie about this detail.

Frasqueta's behavior is just as self-centered and amoral as Busqueros's, but she doesn't evolve into a real villain like he does, mostly because she doesn't get as much time or character development in The Manuscript Found in Saragossa as her male counterpart. Instead she remains an outrageous two-dimensional character. While I can't sympathize with the Knight of Toledo's attraction to her, I do agree with him that she's "the most brazen of them all."


This character is introduced in Day 35.



Source: Introduction to Intertextual Masculinity in French Renaissance Literature: Rabelais, Brantôme, and the Cent nouvelles nouvelles, by David P. LaGuardia (Ashgate Publishing, 2008), 1–2.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Characters in The Manuscript Found in Saragossa: Don Roque Busqueros

Up to this point, I've written about some of the most likable characters in The Manuscript Found in Saragossa. Even Juan van Worden, who fights often-fatal duels over the most insignificant issues of honor, doesn't seem to actually mean anyone any harm.

That changes when we get to Don Roque Busqueros, although when we first meet him, he seems harmless enough. He's introduced as part of the story of Lopez Soarez, who himself forms part of Pandesowna's rambling life story.

Soarez is a straight man, the son of a wealthy Cadiz merchant, sent to Madrid to oversee his father's business interests. Soarez recounts how, within hours of his arriving at the capital and settling into a room at an inn, he heard the handle of the door move. He crossed the room and opened the door suddenly, hitting someone in the nose.

That someone, Don Roque Busqueros, showed no shame or even embarrassment at being caught spying on a stranger.

   'Señor,' I said, 'if you had simply intended to come in, I would have given you a bump on the forehead with the door. But as you have got a grazed nose I think that you perhaps had your eye to the keyhole.'
   'Bravo!' said the stranger. 'Your intelligence is remarkably sharp. It is true that, wishing to make your acquaintance, I wanted in advance to get some idea of the sort of person you were. And I have been charmed by your noble way of walking round your room and putting away your belongings.'
The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, Day 33

That's Busqueros in a nutshell: a blatant boot-licker, kissing up to anyone with influence, wealth, or power; an unrepentant snoop, nosing around to find any information that might give him an advantage; and completely incompetent at both ingratiating himself and spying.


Once Busqueros attached himself, barnacle-like, to Suarez, no effort would dislodge him. At first Soarez didn't mind so much, because he knew almost no one in the city, and he found Busqueros amusing. Then he fell in love with an elegant, refined young lady named Inés, whom he met strolling through the Buen Retiro (Madrid's version of Central Park). Soarez had just begun a very tentative, courtly conversation with her when suddenly Busqueros appeared, interrupting them.

   'I compliment you, Señora,' he said, 'on getting to know the famous son of the richest merchant of Cadiz.'
— The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, Day 33

Insulted at the suggestion that she was pursuing Soarez for his riches, Inés left abruptly. Soarez managed to make contact with her again, first in church and then in the park, but he went to great lengths to ditch Busqueros whenever he wanted to see her. Soarez once considered climbing a tree to hide from him.

At one point, Busqueros prattled on and on with an endless story, refusing to stop when Soarez was late for a critical rendezvous with Inés. When Soarez insisted on leaving, Busqueros felt insulted and challenged Soarez to a duel, in which he severely wounded him in the shoulder. Then Busqueros expressed his delight at having a new opportunity to demonstrate his devotion to Soarez, by nursing him back to health.

Busqueros's bumbling attempts to help Soarez almost derailed the courtship of Inés again and again, but eventually the two did get married. Busqueros pestered the young newlyweds until they paid him a purse of gold "for services he claimed to have rendered."

Around this point in The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, the slippery Busqueros escapes the confines of the story that Lope Suarez is telling to the young Juan Avadoro (who later becomes Pandesowna, the Gypsy King) and gets himself entangled in Juan's own life. In this role he becomes a more sinister figure, a real threat to others' happiness. Does he become more ambitious and ruthless, or does he simply become more competent at the traps and manipulations he always aspired to? It's unclear.

Busqueros certainly separates Don Felipe Avadoro from his money without too much difficulty. When Juan becomes involved in highly sensitive matters in the Spanish court—intrigues that seem to connect the Duchess of Avila to a secret child of the royal bloodline—Busqueros always seems to be nosing around, ready to foul things up.

A little clique of ne'er-do-wells gains favor at court: Busqueros; the former Gita Cimiento, who conspired in the downfall of Juan's father Don Felipe and is now married to Busqueros himself; the amoral Duke of Arcos; and the duke's lover, the brazen, flirtatious Frasqueta Salero, now called Señora Uscariz. Juan Avadoro has been honored with the Cross of Calatrava for his faithful service to his country, and he is enraged to discover that Busqueros has obtained the same honor through scheming and flattery. Busqueros gains even more power as the informant of Cardinal Manuel Fernandez de Portocarrero, an influential statesman.

Much later, when Juan is in political exile after fighting on the losing side of the War of the Spanish Succession and has assumed the identity of a Sardinian gentleman serving Archduke Charles of Austria, he again encounters Busqueros.

While walking one evening with members of the archduke's household in the main square, I saw a man whose gait—now crawling, now scuttling—reminded me of Don Busqueros. I had him watched, and was told that he wore a false nose and was known as Dr. Robusti. I didn't doubt an instant that it was Busqueros, and that the wretch had slipped into the town with the intention of spying on us.
— The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, Day 59

This time Juan has the upper hand, though, through his connection with the archduke. He has Busqueros imprisoned and arranges things so that his only means of escape is to run between two lines of soldiers, who beat him with birch switches as he races past to a boat at the dock. The last we are told of Busqueros is that he falls on hard times and loses the loss of his legs, hanging around in Madrid's Plaza del Sol "and there he carried on his singular activities by stopping passers-by and meddling if possible in their affairs."

So what should we make of Busqueros's shifting nature? It's possible author Jan Potocki was simply lazy in the characterization of Busqueros, changing him from fool to dangerous spy and back again depending on whether the narrative called more for comic relief or dramatic tension. In a variety of situations, Busqueros helps move the story forward, but I'd like to think Potocki was doing more than that.

In Day 45Velásquez the Geometer graphs the life of the Marqués de Torres Rovella as a curve along an elipse, its rise mirroring its descent. The lives of Juan Avadoro and Don Roque Busqueros seem to follow similar curves, with their rise to greatness and their descent into obscurity mirroring each other. Perhaps Potocki is reflecting that public life in eighteenth-century Europe is not a meritocracy; just because you are lauded by the nobility doesn't mean you are truly noble—a rascal may achieve the same success.

In one of my favorite pieces of literary criticism about the novel, titled "Potocki's Gothic Arabesque: Embedded Narrative and the Treatment of Boundaries in The Manuscript Found in Saragossa (1797–1815)," Ahlam Alaki ties the image of the scuttling Busqueros to life in Spain during the Inquisition. She cites historical sources describing the impact of the threat of interrogation: "The Inquisition threw Spanish society into consternation, and introduced the idea of spies being everywhere. ... The records of the Inquisition are full of instances where neighbours, friends and family members denounce each other" (Alaki, page 199).

Yet Busqueros is not an agent of the Inquisition; he is an independent entity, motivated only by his own ambition, greed, and personal grudges. Maybe Potocki is taking the Gothic bugaboo of the Inquisition and making it universal, portraying it as common behavior in Enlightenment Europe.

One of the striking things about The Manuscript Found in Saragossa is its strange atmosphere of secrets and deception, ambiguity and uncertainty. During the Enlightenment, philosophers and politicians alike tried to create systems through which logic and science would make everything clear, rational, fair, and balanced. Writers of Gothic literature rebelled against these ideals, exploring amorphous areas of superstition and the supernatural, extreme emotions and forbidden sexuality.

Bulgarian-French scholar Tzvetan Todorov puts The Manuscript Found in Saragossa in a category he calls the fantastic: literature in which the main character (and the reader as well) experiences uncertainty about whether things being experienced are real (supernatural) events or some kind of illusion, dream, or deception. Alphonse van Worden struggles to figure out whether he is encountering ghosts and magical events on his journey or if he is being tricked, and we, as readers, are uncertain about what type of story we are being told.

The character of Busqueros definitely contributes to the novel's dreamlike sense of mutability and uncertainty. What could be more nightmarish that an shadowy figure who inexplicably follows you, watching, wherever you go ... a person who might be a harmless fool, jumping out from behind bushes and wearing a fake nose, or could be a dangerous informant, eager to cause a scandal or report your loved ones to the government?


This character is introduced in Day 33. 

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Characters in The Manuscript Found in Saragossa: Don Felipe Avadoro

I realize the inherent foolishness of diagnosing someone who a) lived approximately 300 years ago, and b) never actually lived because he's a fictional character. Still, it's hard for me to read the parts of The Manuscript Found in Saragossa about Don Felipe Avadoro in 2015 without imaging him as someone on the autism spectrum.

The symptoms of autism typically become apparent in early childhood, however, and we are told nothing about the early life of Don Felipe Avadoro. Juan Avadoro (a.k.a. Pandesowna, the Gypsy Chief) describes his father's eccentricities as developing in adulthood, possibly in response to the shock of losing his wife.

He had the reputation of being the most serious and methodical man of his age. He was so methodical, in fact, that if I told you the story of one of his days you would at once know his whole life's history, or at least the history of the time between his two marriages, the first to which I owe my existence and the second which caused his death by the irregularity it introduced into his style of life.
The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, Day 12

Juan Avadoro's mother died giving birth to him, and the child is raised by an aunt while Don Felipe retreats into his house in inconsolable grief. Eventually he emerges, at least in a limited capacity — from that point on, he orders every minute of his life through precisely regimented routines. The structure allows him to enjoy life's simple pleasures while limiting the amount of human contact and human chaos he experiences.

Several pages in The Manuscript Found in Saragossa are devoted to Don Felipe's daily routine:

The first task of the morning for my father would be to open the door of the balcony which looked out over the Calle de Toledo. There he would breathe in the fresh air for a quarter of an hour; then he would open the window which looked out on to the side-street. If there was anyone at the window opposite, he would great them courteously, saying 'Agour,' then close the window. 'Agour' was sometimes the only word he would utter all day, for although he was passionately interested in the fate of all the plays performed at the Teatro de la Cruz he would only manifest this interest by clapping, never by speaking. If no one was at the window opposite he would wait patiently for someone to appear so that he could perform his courteous greeting.
— The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, Day 12

As the day (every day) progresses, he attends Mass, meticulously checks how well his maid has cleaned his Madrid apartment, and rolls 24 perfectly uniform cigarettes, which he smokes at specific times throughout the afternoon and evening. When possible, he attends plays at his preferred theater, the Teatro de la Cruz. When there's no performance there, he walks to Moreno's Bookshop to listen to the conversation of the educated gentlemen who gather there, but he never joins in.

The closest that the passive Don Felipe comes to engaging with this group of "some of the finest minds in Spain" is overhearing them complain about the difficulty of getting good ink. He takes up ink-making, eventually setting up a huge earthenware jar (called a Tobosesca tinaja, or Tobosan jar) over a stove in his apartment, in order to better mix and heat it. Soon all the literary figures in Madrid are coming to his house to respectfully request some of his high-quality ink, and he is dubbed Don Felipe del Tintero Largo (Don Felipe of the Large Inkpot).

It's entertaining to read about all of Don Felipe's eccentricities, but it's also a little sad. The pleasant, safe little life he constructs for himself is revealed to be extremely fragile.

Juan Avadoro recalls that his father was absent from his childhood, whether because he "feared that the sight of me would revive memories of the beloved person whose death I had unwittingly caused or whether he did not want my infant cries to disturb his silent habits." When Don Felipe finally agrees to see the boy in his apartment, the boisterous Juan climbs up on a tall cupboard, slips, and falls into the vat of ink; his aunt smashes the huge jar, saving Juan's life and flooding the room. The promise of a relationship between father and son, as delicate as the large inkpot, is shattered.

Image "Crisis on the desktop" by Alan Cleaver, 2010.

Later, Juan becomes aware that the parasitic meddler, Don Roque Busqueros, has designs on his father and his money. The plot is to get Don Felipe to marry one of Busquero's relatives, but Juan, who has been banished from his father's presence and is supposed to remain in seclusion because of a penance imposed on him by the Inquisition, is unable to do anything to protect his father. Don Felipe is so predictable that he's easy to manipulate.

The relative in question, Señorita Gita Cimiento, is moved into one of the apartments opposite his, so naturally Don Felipe greets her and her mother every morning when he comes out on his balcony. Señorita Cimiento acts quiet and retiring, and can be seen mixing colored inks and preparing sticks of sealing wax, so that Don Felipe feels a kinship with her.

The devious Busqueros employs Don Felipe's passion, ink, as a weapon against him. For years the quiet man has enjoyed receiving the praise and thanks of men of letters who utilize the fine black ink he creates. Now a stranger comes to Don Felipe's apartment with an empty ink bottle, but instead of praising the virtues of ink, he lists all the evils it can be used for:

The stranger was none other than the implacable Busqueros. 'Señor Avadoro,' he said to my father, 'you make up a liquid here which has done much evil in the world. So many plots, so much treachery, so much trickery, so many wicked books — all have flowed from ink, not to speak of love-letters and all those little conspiracies against the happiness of husbands and against their honour. What do you say to that, Señor Avadoro? You say nothing, but it's your habit to say nothing. Never mind, I'll speak for both of us. That's my habit, more or less, Now, Señor Avadoro, sit down on that chair and let me explain my idea to you. I claim that from this bottle of ink there will come out ....'
— The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, Day 54

And the ink does come out, all over Don Felipe's clothes, when Busqueros tips the bottle over. As if to confirm Busqueros's theory, the ink proceeds to make more and more trouble, as Busqueros, after refilling his ink bottle, leaves the tap on the earthenware jar open, so that ink runs all over the floor. Finally, on the pretense of testing how durable the large inkwell really is, Busqueros hits it with a pestle; it breaks, and the room is flooded (again!) with ink. It drips down through the floor into a cloth merchant's shop downstairs, where all the inventory is ruined. Don Felipe is evicted from his apartment and ends up living — where else? — in an unoccupied room owned by Señorita Cimiento's mother.

Nine days later, Busqueros brings in a legal document, unrequested, for publishing the banns of marriage for Don Felipe and Señorita Cimiento. He preys on the older man's shyness and fear of conflict:

'Señor Avadoro,' he said, 'your coming marriage is no longer a secret. All Madrid is informed of it, so if you intend to put it off the relatives of Señorita Cimiento will assemble in my house and you will come there and divulge to them the reasons for the delay. That is a courtesy you cannot dispense with.'
— The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, Day 54

Faced with the threat of such embarrassment, and minutes later with the presence of an inexplicably weeping Señorita Cimiento, Don Felipe caves and signs the document. In the days that follow he is just as easily led to the church to marry the young lady who, he soon discovers, is not a solemn, submissive, silent muse, but rather a "lively, noisy flibbertigibbet." Immediately afterward, Busqueros maneuvers him into signing away, in ink, his power of attorney and all his estate.

Don Felipe briefly hopes that, now that his young wife and Busqueros have control of his money, maybe they'll leave him in peace, but no, Busqueros launches into a description of all the social activities and obligations they intend to drag him into. Don Felipe has some kind of stroke — described as "a state of lethargy" — from which he never recovers. He soon dies. Was this always the intention, or did his tormentors think they were doing the quiet recluse a favor by initiating him into Madrid's social whirl? With Busqueros involved, it's hard to say.

Don Felipe's son Juan takes a fatalistic attitude about the loss of his father:

... that was the end of a man who wasn't born with even the degree of physical and mental strength sufficient to give him an average amount of energy. A sort of instinct had led him to choose a way of life which was proportionate to his powers. He was killed by people wishing to propel him into active life.
— The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, Day 54

Personally, I see it differently. Upon reflection, Don Felipe seems to me less like someone on the autism spectrum and more like someone who, having experienced deep grief and pain, attempts to organize and control his life so perfectly that such emotions can never touch him again. All the messiness of life is controlled and contained, like a reservoir of ink in a great earthenware jar. Is it any wonder that, whenever a chaotic personality like Juan Avadoro or Don Roque Busqueros enters the quiet sanctuary, the jar is inevitable smashed, with catastrophic consequences?



This character is introduced in Day 12. 


Friday, March 27, 2015

Characters in The Manuscript Found in Saragossa: Pandesowna, the Gypsy Chief

If Alphonse van Worden's journey through the Sierra Morena is the skin that encloses all the disparate parts of The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, then the life story of Pandesowna is the backbone that holds the most important elements together.

Alphonse meets Pandesowna on Day 11. Two days earlier he received a letter from a friend in the Spanish government, warning him not to proceed to Madrid as planned; there's danger of trouble with the Inquisition, so he needs to delay for three months before reporting to the capital to take up his post as a captain in the Walloon Guards. After a day spent loitering in the castle of the sibling cabbalists, Pedro and Rebecca de Uzeda, Alphonse becomes restless and wanders outside to meet the gypsies who have set up camp nearby. He accepts an invitation by the chief of the gypsies, called Pandesowna, to travel with them for a few weeks through the mountains.

An illustration of the traditional costume of the Vlah gypsies, from a Hungarian book published in 1874.


Once on their way, Alphonse asks the gypsy chief about himself and comments that he must have had many strange adventures in his life of wandering. Pandesowna makes a modest reply:

"Señor caballero, I have indeed seen some extraordinary things since I have lived in these remote parts. As for the rest of my life, however, it comprises quite humdrum events, in which all that is remarkable is the infatuation I showed for experiencing different forms of life, though without embracing any one of them for more than a year or two at a time."
The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, Day 12

Either Pandesowna is playfully messing with Alphonse (and us), or his definition of "humdrum events" is very different than mine. The gypsy chief's narrative begins with his being born Juan Avadoro, son of a retiring gentleman in Madrid. The story runs on (and off, as he is frequently interrupted) for some 200 pages, interweaving tales of childish mischief, ill-fated romance, mistaken identity, violent jealousy, and improbable coincidence.

French scholar Yves Citton identified a mode of "carnivalization" in The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, with unlikely people being brought together and interacting; eccentric behavior being indulged in without consequences; high culture mixing with low; the sacred and the profane becoming jumbled together.

It reaches its high point in Avadoro's endless metamorphoses across genders and social status, from Elvire, a 'future vice-queen,' to a nameless beggar, to the Marquis Castelli, a courtier plotting among the highest spheres of wealth and power.
— Yves Citton, "Potocki and the spectre of the postmodern," p. 144

What I enjoy most about Juan Avadoro is that, at least in his youth, he seems to tackle life head-on, with boundless enthusiasm and no regard for the consequences. Dressed up spiffy by his doting aunt for a long-delayed reunion with his father, the boy Avadoro thinks it would be funny to climb up on top of the tall cabinet in his father's room; he slips and falls into his father's giant vat of ink, almost drowning before the aunt can rescue him by smashing the ink jar.

Later, when Avadoro and his aunt are traveling to another city, they stop at an inn and meet a young pair of love-struck teenagers. The young couple want to get married, but the girl is supposed to marry the Conde de Peña Vélez, a rich and powerful man who has recently been made the viceroy of Mexico. What does eleven-year-old Avadoro do? Dress up in the girl's clothes to meet the viceroy in her place, so the two young lovers can escape, of course!

It's only later, when Avadoro is riding in a gilded litter, disguised as the bride-to-be, that he gets a good look at the viceroy, a fierce and intimidating man, and starts having second thoughts.

The more I observed the viceroy, the less comfortable I felt. The thought came to me that the moment he discovered that I was a boy would herald a beating the very idea of which made me quake. I did not therefore need to pretend to be shy. I was trembling in all my limbs and did not dare to raise my eyes to anyone.
The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, Day 17

Among Avadoro's other adventures are his playing a prank on his teacher, a handsome priest; an escape from the Inquisition; getting mistaken for a corpse and smuggled out of a graveyard; becoming a beggar in the streets of Madrid; getting hired as a servant of a worldly libertine; and spending time on a galley, chasing the Barbary pirates.

Avadoro's crazy life reminds me a bit of the life of his creator, Count Jan Potocki. A Polish aristocrat, Enlightmentment thinker, linguist, globe-trotter, travel-writer, Egyptologist, pioneering ethnologist, publisher, playwright ... Potocki reinvented himself as frequently as his fictional character Avadoro does.

In adulthood, Avadoro becomes disillusioned and finally starts to slow down. His first great love, the Duchess of Avila, deceives him, valuing her pride and social status more than their future together, with tragic consequences. Avadoro and his friend Toledo, loyal subjects of the king of Spain, watch as the court is taken over by vapid, fashionable men, like Don Enrique de Velásquez, and meddling flatterers like Don Roque Busqueros. After the king's death, Avadoro becomes involved in the dangerous politics of succession, and he takes on the role of the Marchese Castelli, a Sardinian gentleman. In the guise of an Italian serving an Austrian archduke in Spain, he is betrayed by his fellow Spaniards, who turn against him, and he has to flee for his life.

The life of author Jan Potocki also took a depressing downturn. Both his marriages ended in scandal and divorce. Poland, the country he loved, was dismantled and divvied up into pieces claimed by three powerful neighboring countries in 1795; it would not regain its independence until after World War I. An Enlightenment thinker who socialized with leading figures of the Jacobin Club, men who supported the French Revolution, Potocki lived to see their revolutionary ideals deteriorate into the oppression and mass executions of the Reign of Terror.

Looking back on his life, the elderly Juan Avadoro, who has found peace and anonymity in the identity of Pandesowna the gypsy chief, reflects

I have even been inconstant in my inconstancy, because in my travels and wandering I have always been haunted by the idea of tranquil happiness and a life of retirement, and the taste of something new has always lured me from such a life, so that now that I finally know myself for what I am I have put an end to these restless alternatives by settling down with this gypsy band. In one way it is a sort of retirement to an orderly way of life, but at least I do not have the misfortune of always looking out on the same trees and rocks or, what would be even more intolerable, the same streets, the same walls and the same roofs.
The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, Day 12

I can't help but wonder whether Potocki was thinking of his own situation — middle-aged, in poor health, and retired on his estate in what's now the Ukraine — when he wrote about always looking out on the same trees and rocks. Perhaps his story would have had a happier ending if he had been able to disappear into the mountains and live among the gypsies.


This character is introduced in Day 11. 


Sunday, March 15, 2015

Characters in The Manuscript Found in Saragossa: Zoto's Father

The father of Zoto the Bandit, also called Zoto (let's call him Zoto Sr.), is something of a mirror image of Alphonse's father, Juan van Worden. Juan's sense of personal honor is so blinding that he sees nothing wrong with the dozens of duels he fights (many of them fatal to his opponents) because he follows the proper etiquette so perfectly.

Zoto Sr. also clings to his identity as a man of honor, both before and after he becomes a bandit and assassin. He's an armourer by trade, but in his city in southern Italy he can barely make enough money in that profession to provide for his family. Then his wife's sister marries a rich oil merchant, and Zoto Sr.'s wife (who is never named) insists on keeping up with her younger sister's displays of wealth and social status.

Zoto Sr. manages to find the funds to buy his wife golden jewelry and a golden hairpin, but then the younger sister appears at church escorted by a lackey in livery. The "lackey" is actually the sister's husband, who would rather pose as a servant than pay a servant to do nothing but escort his wife to church. Zoto Sr. is a proud man, though, and he refuses to follow suit when his wife starts sewing a livery for him. He shells out the gold for an actual servant for the following Sunday, but the writing's on the wall—he can't keep this up.

A shady friend called Monaldi advises Zoto Sr. that he has two options: either establish his dominance over his wife (by beating her with a stick) or turn to a life of crime to finance her vanities.

Zoto Jr. relates what happened next:

   ... my mother had gone after Mass to show off her lackey on the Corso and at various of her friends' houses. Eventually she returned, glowing with triumph, and my father received her in a way she did not expect at all. With his left hand he grasped her left arm and proceeded to put into effect Monaldi's advice. His wife fainted. My father cursed the hazelwood stick and asked for forgiveness; he obtained it and peace was restored.
   A few days later my father sought Monaldi out and told him that the hazelwood stick had not had the desired effect and that he placed himself at the disposal of the brave men of whom Monaldi had spoken.
The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, Day 5

While I don't approve of Zoto Sr.'s willingness to follow his friend's advice about abusing his wife (there must have been other possible solutions to these marital issues), I do like him more for his immediate repentance. It's hard not to feel some sympathy for Zoto Sr. as Monaldi shows him how to make himself available as a hitman and pay off local law enforcement to look the other way.

Illustration of the costume worn by brigands in the province of Rome at the beginning of the 19th century. In many Enlightenment fictions and Gothic novels, clergy and monastics were often cast as villains, reflecting a cultural sense that they belonged to a corrupt, superstitious past. In an extreme example, Matthew Lewis's novel The Monk is the story of the monk Ambrosio giving in to his lusts and being led into rape, murder, sorcery, and damnation. Jan Potocki isn't quite so rough on religious figures, but he does have the local priest quickly dismiss Zoto Sr.'s misgivings about having committed his first murder. The priest assures Zoto Sr. that it won't cost much to have twenty Masses said at the cathedral for the repose of his victim's soul, and he will be given a general absolution into the bargain.

Within such an atmosphere of corruption, it makes sense that Zoto's father still considers himself a man of honor, because he always keeps his word. In one instance, he is approached by two men separately, each paying him to kill the other. He carries out his first assignment and reports back that the second man is dead. The first man rejoices in having beaten his enemy to the punch—until Zoto Sr., keeping his promise to the second man, draws his dagger and stabs him to death.

In another incident, an elderly gentleman has Zoto Sr. blindfolded and taken to his nearby castle. When the blindfold is removed, Zoto Sr. finds himself standing before the man's wife, who is masked, gagged, and tied to a chair.

   The old gentleman said to him, 'Signor Zoto, here are a hundred more sequins. Be so good as to stab my wife to death.'
   [Zoto's] father, however, replied 'Signor, you are mistaken about me. I lie in wait for people at street corners or I attack them in a wood as befits a man of honour, but I do not undertake the office of public executioner.'
The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, Day 5

Zoto Jr. proudly recounts how his father refused this task and returned the money offered him, adding that "[t]his noble and generous action brought great honour on my father...." The son clearly feels no shame whatsoever regarding his father's actions, or his mother's, either. He reports on the end of his father's criminal career, due to his being wounded by a musket shot in the back, reflecting on how well Zoto Sr. provided for the family.

   I suppose that my father used to send us large sums of money, for we had more than we needed for our household. My mother took part in the carnival, and during Lent she had a presepe, or crib, made up of little dolls, sugar castles and similar childish things which are very much in fashion in the kingdom of Naples and are luxuries indulged in by the citizens. My aunt, Signora Lunardo, would also have a presepe, but not nearly as fine as ours.
   From what I can remember of my mother, she seemed to me to be very tender-hearted and we often saw her weep when she thought of the dangers to which her husband was exposed. But a few triumphs over her sister or her neighbours soon dried her tears.
The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, Day 6

Alphonse van Worden, who has modeled his life on his father's code of honor, is shocked to hear a paid killer described in terms of honor and integrity (even by Zoto Jr., who openly admits to being a bandit himself). For the first time, he questions the values he holds most dear. It won't be the last time, though—Alphonse hears the ending of Zoto's father's story on the sixth day of his journey, and he has sixty more days to go.


This character is introduced in Day 5. 

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Characters in The Manuscript Found in Saragossa: Don Juan van Worden

Reading The Manuscript Found in Saragossa means traveling through the bleak Sierra Morena mountains of southern Spain with Alphonse van Worden, a young man who is headed to Madrid to serve the king of Spain as the captain of a company of Walloon Guards. Alphonse himself is almost a blank slate; he's young and hasn't done very much, or developed much personality, apparently. In the story he mainly functions as a kind of Joe Average, expressing an appropriate degree of confusion at all the bizarre adventures that happen to him.

Alphonse's only distinctive trait seems to be his preoccupation with his own honor. This is what sends him into the dangerous, mysterious mountains, in fact, in spite of various innkeepers warning him that "Travellers who ventured into that wild country found themselves assailed, it was said, by countless terrors which would make even the stoutest of hearts tremble."

Alphonse dismisses such warnings, refusing to take a safer road to Madrid.

I replied to him that this choice of route might suit ordinary travellers, but that as King Philip V had graciously bestowed on me a commission in the Walloon Guards, I was bound by the sacred laws of honour to take the shortest route to Madrid without considering whether it was the most dangerous.
The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, Day 1

This overblown sense of his own personal honor, we soon learn, is something that Alphonse has gotten from his father, Don Juan van Worden. While Alphonse himself raises some interesting questions, which I'll look at later, I'm more interested in his father, who I find a lot more absurd and therefore a lot more fun.

Juan is part of an ancient family that runs a fief called Worden in Wallonia, which today is the southern region of Belgium. In the early 18th century, it was part of the Spanish Netherlands, under the control of Spain. King Philip V of Spain ordered infantry regiments to be recruited from the Netherlands starting in 1702, which is how Juan ends up as a lieutenant-colonel in the Walloon Guards.

"At that time in the Spanish army there was a strong sense of honour which was sometimes taken to extremes," Alphonse explains on Day 3; "my father went even further."

That is one of the book's great understatements. In Madrid Juan becomes the man to get if you're challenging someone to a duel and want to make sure the duel is conducted properly. He keeps a history of all the local duels, which makes him a respected authority. He also shows no hesitation whatsoever when it comes to fighting duels himself.

Traveling through France on his way back to his ancestral castle in Wallonia, Juan's carriage is passed on the road by the carriage of a French army officer. What does Juan do? Challenge the man to a duel and very nearly get killed, of course.

French and Spanish fencing racks, an illustration from an 18th century book called (in Russian) "The School of Fencing," by Domenico Angelo.


My favorite bit about Juan is the description that Alphonse gives of his father's wedding:

My father thought it appropriate to invite to his wedding all the men with whom he had fought duels (I only mean those, of course, whom he had not killed). A hundred and twenty-two came to the wedding feast. Thirteen of those absent were away from Madrid, and it had been impossible to trace a further thirty-three whom he had fought while in the army. My mother told me on more than one occasion that the feast had been extraordinarily merry and that there was an atmosphere of great cordiality. I do not find this difficult to believe, for my father had at bottom an excellent heart and was much loved by everyone.
The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, Day 3

Later in the book, when the Duchess of Medina Sidonia is telling how her father and mother separated, Don Juan van Worden suddenly pops up as a secondary character. He's a member of a military tribunal sitting in judgement to determine whether the Flemish commander van Berg was fairly killed by a Spanish officer in a duel or was murdered. Van Worden contradicts his fellow Flemings on the tribunal by voting in favor of the Spanish officer's innocence.

   "It is my conviction which makes me speak in this way, although I hate having to contradict the opinion of my eleven comrades. Being almost certain of having the misfortune of having lost their affection, and in the hopes of forestalling in the least violent manner any manifestation of their displeasure, I ask all eleven of them to do me the honour of duelling with me, six tomorrow morning and five tomorrow afternoon."
   This argument gave rise to a general murmuring but the challenge had, in propriety, to be taken up. Van Worden wounded the first six, who came in the morning. He then began on the last five. The first three were wounded by van Worden, the tenth wounded him in the shoulder and the eleventh ran him through and left him for dead.
The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, Day 28

In recounting all this, Alphonse expresses nothing but admiration for his father's intelligence and honorable conduct. Clearly author Jan Potocki is satirizing the code of honor; the witty Rebecca comments to Alphonse, "If your father hadn't duelled with eleven officers a quarrel might well have arisen. This he did very well to avoid."

Why Potocki was so interested in satirizing the code of honor is something I don't fully understand. My first guess was that it might be a spoof of a perceived exaggerated sense of honor among the Spanish, but Don Juan van Worden is Flemish, not Spanish, and there are plenty of Spanish figures in the book who carry their sense of honor much more lightly. Maybe it was a Flemish thing?

Another idea is that the ritual of fighting duels for honor was an element of the Age of Enlightenment that was beginning to fall out of favor by the 1770s. Perhaps Potocki saw the hypocrisy in rational, educated aristocrats stabbing each other to satisfy their sense of personal honor.

If anyone has alternate theories or can provide more historical context, please comment or email me!


This character is introduced in Day 3. 

Monday, February 9, 2015

Characters in The Manuscript Found in Saragossa: Don Enrique de Velásquez

The Manuscript Found in Saragossa is full of fathers and sons, and the inescapable bonds between them. Zoto's father, a skilled armourer, enters into a life of banditry reluctantly, but Zoto seems born for it and takes to it enthusiastically, from a young age. Don Felipe Avadoro deservedly has "the reputation of being the most serious and methodical man of his age" and is a slave to rigid daily routines; his son, Pandesowna, the gypsy chief, recalls a life that seems to bounce from one adventure to the next, including swapping places with a pretty young girl to allow her to escape an unwanted marriage, and later being mistaken for a corpse and smuggled out of a graveyard. Alphonse van Worden avoids his father's mania for duels but seems almost as obsessed with following a strict code of honor.

Perhaps the closest resemblance is between Don Pedro de Velásquez and his father. When the mathematician describes his father as "earnest, studious, over-sensitive," he could just as easily be describing himself. Don Enrique de Velásquez starts out as a brilliant young man, adored by his betrothed and about to win acclaim from the king for his remarkable analysis of the best way to redesign the country's military strongholds. Enrique is naively attached to his brother, a man "frivolous, rash, and incapable of applying himself to anything" — who their guardian has wisely sent off to France to keep him from messing up the seemingly perfect situation.

But Enrique insists on a reunion with his brother and is ecstatic when it happens. He's so overjoyed that, in a moment of extreme absent-mindedness, he literally signs his beloved, his new title, and his governmental post all over to his frivolous brother. By the time he figures out what has happened and why, his fiancée has fallen in love with his brother's elegant dancing and flashy French style. Brokenhearted, Enrique surrenders the title and the job as well, then has a total breakdown, ending up locked in a cell in a monastery as a madman.

When he eventually recovers, the only government post available to him is commandant of Ceuta, a remote port city on the north coast of Africa. Enrique takes the job gratefully, seeing in it a second chance at life. Overqualified for the simple bureaucratic duties, he devotes his considerable mental powers to improving the lives of the residents, the soldiers, and the political prisoners of Ceuta alike. In time he comes to be revered by everyone in the city, and he ends up marrying the lieutenant-governor's daughter, a young woman who worships him. They have a son, Pedro.

One reason I like Enrique de Velásquez so much is that he loves his newborn son and does what so many of us parents do: he tries to help his child avoid making the same mistakes in life that caused him misery.

   When the weak child that I was first saw the light of day, my father took me in his arms, raised his eyes to heaven and said, "Oh almighty power, whose exponent is immensity, oh last term of all ascending series, oh my God, behold another sensible being projected into space. If he is destined to be as unhappy as his father may you in your mercy mark him with the sign of subtraction."
   Having thus prayed, my father kissed me passionately and said, "No, my poor child, you will not be as unhappy as I have been. I swear by the holy name of God that I will never teach you mathematics but you will know the saraband [a popular French dance], the ballets of Louis XIV and every other form of impertinence which comes to my attention." Then my father bathed me in his tears and gave me back to the midwife.
— Pedro de Velásquez, The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, Day 19

Enrique fails completely at this, of course, which is how we have the pleasure of reading about his son, Velásquez the Geometer.

Only when his son experiences rejection and depression does Enrique come to terms with his son's true nature. His understanding and wisdom gives Pedro the courage and confidence to travel to Spain to take his place in the world.

   "In nearly all men the self is almost never inactive. You will detect their self-interest in nearly all the advice they give you, in the contacts they make, in the friendships they form. They are deeply attached to the things which affect their interests however remotely, and are indifferent to all others, When they encounter a man who is indifferent to personal interest they cannot understand him. They suspect him of hidden motives, of affectation, or of insanity. They cast him from their bosom, revile him and relegate him to a rock in Africa.
   "Oh my son, we both belong to this proscribed race, but we also have our compensations, which I must tell you about. I have tried everything to make you a dandy and a fool. But heaven has not crowned my efforts, for you are a sensitive soul with an enlightened mind. So I must tell you that we too have our pleasures. They are private and solitary but are sweet and pure...."
The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, Day 25

This character is introduced in Day 19. 

Friday, February 6, 2015

Characters in The Manuscript Found in Saragossa: Rebecca de Uzeda


Note: This blog entry contains some spoilers. If you have not read all of The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, you might want to skip this one. 

One of the problems that the male characters in The Manuscript Found in Saragossa struggle with is how to determine the true character of the women in their lives. I don't see much real misogyny in the book — in playing the game of love, both male and female characters use strategies of flattery, seduction, and deception, and women and men are portrayed as being equally capable of faithfulness and infidelity.


Many of the men who are most confident in their assessment of women's characters are completely mistaken — often with tragic results. The Conde de Rovellas furiously disowns his pregnant wife Elvira, sure she has been unfaithful to him with Don Sancho de Peña, when actually the closest the young man ever got to her was singing outside her window before she was married. Similarly, the jealous Marqués de Val Florida unjustly accuses his wife Leonor of infidelity with Hermosito when he finds them together, minutes after the two friends from childhood have been reunited after years apart.

At the other end of the spectrum we have Señor Cornádez, who never realizes that the ghosts plaguing him are part of a scheme concocted by his wife Frasqueta and her lover, in order to humble the husband, and also get him to conveniently leave town. Throughout this part of the story, her married lover, the Duke of Arcos, has been disguised as a pious neighbor woman, whom Cornádez trusts to act as a chaperone for his pretty young wife.

All this brings us to Rebecca de Uzeda, by far my favorite female character in the whole book. It's true that Rebecca remains something of a mystery. Is she really a reformed cabbalist who has rejected her father's plans of marriage for her, to "the two Thamin which the Greeks knew by the name of Dioscuri and the Phoenicians Cabirir, in other words, the celestial Gemeni"? Or is all this a fiction, her role in the great conspiracy arranged by the Great Sheikh of the Gomelez, in order to continue his ancient family's bloodline?

Does she really love Velásquez the Geometer, or is it all an act in order to bring about the marriage and offspring desired by the Great Sheikh? When she changes her name to Laura, is it because she is rejecting her identity as a cabbalist and establishing herself as a mere mortal, content to love a human husband, or is she just playing a new role?

   "I would willingly entrust to you the secret of my name," said the Jewess, "if I did not have to fear the results of your absent-mindedness."
   "There is nothing to fear," interrupted Velásquez. "Through the frequent practice of substitution in calculations I have acquired the habit of always designating the same values in the same way. As soon as you have given me your name you couldn't change it even if you wanted to."
   "Very well," said Rebecca. "Call me Laura de Uzeda."
   "With the greatest pleasure," said Velásquez. "Or fair Laura, clever Laura, charming Laura, for there are many mathematical exponents of your base value."
The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, Day 12

Even if every word she speaks throughout the novel is a lie (and it well may be), it would be hard not to like Rebecca. She's the only character we meet who is educated and intelligent enough to keep up with Velásquez's calculations and complex reasoning. Her gentle teasing makes it clear that she is fully aware of the mathematician's eccentricity, but she is careful never to humiliate him. Even if her relationship with Velásquez is part of the great Gomelez conspiracy, I have to think they'll both enjoy married life together.

This character is introduced in Day 9. 

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Characters in The Manuscript Found in Saragossa: Velásquez the Geometer

Velásquez the Geometer is not only my favorite character in The Manuscript Found in Saragossa; he's one of my favorite characters in all of 19th century literature. Obsessed with mathematics, Don Pedro de Velásquez finds ways of relating to every aspect of  life through formulas, ratios, or geometry. Impatience is in inverse ratio to the square of the force of inertia; the pursuit of happiness can be compared to the solution of a quadratic or cubic equation; human intelligence can be understood as permutations of the number of ideas people have been exposed to. In considering the relationship between Antony and Cleopatra, Velásquez sees a parallelogram composed of lines representing Antony's dueling emotions of ambition and love.
   "Now let us suppose love to have a positive value marked by a plus sign; hate, which is the opposite of love, will have a minus sign; and indifference, which is no feeling at all, will be equal to zero.
   "If I multiply love by itself, whether I love love, or love to love love, I still have positive values, for a plus multiplied by a plus always makes a plus.
   "But if I hate hate, I come back to feelings of love or positive qualities, for a minus multiplied by a minus makes a plus. But if on the contrary I hate the hate of hate, I come back to feelings which are the opposite of love, that is to say, negative values, just as the cube of a minus is a minus.
   "As for the product of love and hate, or hate and love, they are always negative, just as are the products of a plus and a minus or a minus and a plus. So whether I hate love or love hate my feelings are always opposed to love. Can you think of any argument against my reasoning, fair Laura?"
   "None at all," said the Jewess, "and I am convinced that there is not a woman who would not yield when faced by such arguments."
The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, Day 33

I believe that, in the character of Velásquez, author Jan Potocki is spoofing the exaggerated rationalism of some figures of the Age of Enlightenment; this seems to be the case with many of the intellectuals encountered in the book. Velásquez the Geometer exhibits an absurd degree of cluelessness, naivete, and absent-mindedness. Following Pandesowna and his associates as they stroll and exchange stories, he becomes so immersed in his calculations that he accidentally wanders down a separate trail and falls into the water. Alphonse saves him from drowning, but upon Velásquez's recovery, he becomes confused about what has happened and thinks that he has saved Alphonse from drowning. Throughout the rest of the book, he quietly congratulates himself on the brave rescue.

In spite of his foolishness, Velásquez remains endearing. His approach to God and nature is humble and thoughtful. As other characters plot, deceive, and seduce, consumed by greed, wrath, lust, or pride, Velásquez is consistently gentle and kind-hearted. His feeling are hurt when he becomes aware that others consider him insane or an imbecile, but when his equally eccentric father explains that the general public will never understand or respect people like them, Velásquez resigns himself and accepts the world for what it is.

Finally, The Manuscript Found in Saragossa is full of stories in which people fall passionately in love with each other based on the most superficial of traits: the perfect face, the noble family, the sensual body, the gallant manner. Velásquez comes to love Rebecca for her intelligence and wit as well as her beauty. As a geeky girl myself, I like that in a man.


This character is introduced in Day 18.