(Tomorrow is a leap day!)
The robots and the book turned up in the hands of French officers after the city of Saragossa (or Zaragoza) fell in 1809. The robots were the three automata created by the master machinists and clockmakers of the Jaquet-Droz family (they’re still in that line of work today, if you have twenty grand to drop on a wristwatch): the Draftsman, the Writer, and the Musician. The Musician is the most haunting of the three, for me, with a far-away expression as she plays, a suggestion of enigmatic interior life – less like the Mona Lisa, though, than like a room whose door is never unlocked. The Writer is the most mechanically marvelous, with a series of cams corresponding to letters to calligraphically produce any sentence programmed into it. They were on tour more or less continuously after 1789, turning up as exhibits in all kinds of spectacles and stranded in Saragossa by the time of the Peninsular War, as French batteries bombarded the walls and sickness broke out. Officers took them back to Paris; they didn’t return to Neuchâtel until 1905, at which point the writer’s program got a new sentence: “We shall never leave our country again” (which he still writes, once wound-up, in the flowing, twining style of an 18th century correspondent).
Another Saragossan room, with plaster falling from the ceiling and the reek of the dead outside: several notebooks filled with the same flowing handscript of that time – Spanish text, which the French officer who finds and takes the notebooks can’t read. When he’s captured later by the Spanish and kept prisoner, a Spanish captain translates it for him, reading aloud as the captive takes notes on the story of Alfonse Von Worden, Walloon Guard, in the Sierra Morena. Written by Von Worden over 66 days, it includes hermits, theology, geometry, incestuous vampires and succubi, demons and ghosts, con artists and grifters, an Islamic underground in Spain, knights and addicts to chivalrous literature, eccentrics and coquettes, cabalists, encyclopedists, true love, the Inquisition, grave robbers, recursive dreams, bands of Romany, smugglers and the hanged Zoto brothers (oh, and the immortal Wandering Jew). Except, of course, much of isn’t his story: everyone he meets has stories, and in their stories there are other stories. Von Worden meets Avadoro-Pandesowna, and transcribes his tale, within which Avadoro-Pandesowna meets Lope Soarez, so it becomes Lope’s story, except that Lope’s narrative necessarily includes the decisive meeting with Busqueros (also known as Dr. Robusti), who must give the full account of his own life, including how he, Busqueros, came to meet Frasqueta Salero, who must tell the story of her situation and how she came to be with Señor Cornádez … At certain wonderful points the stories start to shift and connect between layers: someone who appears as a young man in one of the tales (told within a story within a memory within yet another story) turns up much later in the present of Von Worden’s account, now old, to tell what happened after; a mystery or supernatural event that transformed one person’s life is accidentally explained in the backdrop of someone else’s tale (within another, within another).
The automata really were found in Saragossa; the manuscript wasn’t. Manuscrit trouvé à Saragosse was written by the Polish Count Jan Nepomucen Potocki over the course of almost twenty years. It was self-published in parts, in portions printed without titles or endings, so the story could continue to expand in any direction indefinitely. Potocki could publish this potentially endless book, full of erotic digressions (threesomes are a theme), gothic horrors, and admiration and open curiosity about Islam, Judaism, and illuminist freethinking, because he actually owned the press – he had installed a print shop in his castle, and the first free reading room in Warsaw, after an argument with the Polish government about press freedoms in 1789. An aristocratic polyglot who spoke eight languages (including “the secret patois of the Circassian nobleman”), he met the Enlightenment Freemasons of revolutionary Paris, adored Turkey (wearing Turkish garb for much of his later life), fought against Barbary corsairs at sea with the Knights of Malta, and traveled as far as Mongolia in the service of the Tsar. Everywhere he went, he collected stories – above all, he seems to have adored listening. He listened to Rosicrucians, to Cossacks, to the great Polish rabbis, to ghost stories, to the hashish smokers of Cairo, to Romany visitors, to Scythian Tartars (whose traditions he accurately connects all the way back to the central Asian nomads described by Herodotus – Potocki’s 1802 Histoire primitive des peuples de la Russie is the moment when European scholarship first starts to understand Siberian shamanism). In Morocco, he inquired after the original manuscript of the Thousand and One Nights; in Bavaria, he met the original Illuminati. His fierce interest in most everything that crossed his path was combined with physical vitality and daring: fascinated by hot-air ballooning, he hired tailors and bought hall-filling quantities of “rainbow colored Chinese silk” to build, with the aid of Jean-Pierre Blanchard, a grand balloon in which Potocki, plus his Turkish valet Osman and his dog Lulu, soared over Warsaw – the first Polish balloonist to survive the attempt.
Part of the pleasure of reading Manuscript Found in Saragossa is the sense of endlessness, of excess narrative opening out every way at once, with each life full of partway open doors, forks in the road, curtained windows, behind and beyond which lie still more stories. In Avadoro-Pandesowna’s awesome line from the movie adaptation, “I hear the noise of a variety of passions, and a mixed roaring of storms” – that’s how it feels. (And, why, yes, there is a movie adaptation from Wojciech Has, in 1965, which does a lovely job of capturing the overlapping tales-in-tales discursive vertigo of the experience, the mixed roaring of storms. Here it is, just for you – don’t tell anyone.) Potocki himself, in later life, became increasingly isolated and melancholy; his marriage and his era fell apart. (According to some accounts, he grew convinced that he was turning into a werewolf.) Always possessed of odd habits, he would spend breakfast idly filing away at the knob on the lid of silver sugar-bowl. Filing it down, a few minutes at a time, day after day, until one December morning it was just the right size to fit in the barrel of his pistol, and he shot himself with it.
As is annual (slightly delayed) tradition I’ve put together all my favorite new-to-me music of the previous year, one track per artist, for friends to download: here’s the 2015 edition (446MB .zip). I hope you find things there to delight you.
(Thanks for reading, as ever.)
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