By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’ is a short story by the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges. The story, narrated as a non-fiction account by the fictional Menard’s equally fictional friend, sees the title character attempting to write Miguel de Cervantes’ seventeenth-century novel Don Quixote. The story is witty, funny, and absurdist – even postmodern – and raises some intriguing questions about literature and readership.
Before we offer a summary and analysis of Borges’ story, you might want to read it. You can find ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’ online here.
‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’: summary
The story is narrated by someone who knew the (fictitious) French poet, Pierre Menard, who lived at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century.
After Menard’s death, this narrator outlines the body of work Menard left behind him, making a distinction between Menard’s visible work (which he enumerates) and the other projects Menard devoted his time to. Among the latter was a curious undertaking: Menard wished to rewrite Cervantes’ early seventeenth-century book Don Quixote, but word for word.
That is, he didn’t want to copy out the original by Cervantes, nor did he want to write a sequel or ‘another’ version of Cervantes’ novel. He wanted to write a few pages, at least, which would coincide with Cervantes’ original text, word for word and line for line.
The narrator quotes from a letter he received from Menard, telling him that Menard cannot recall whether he read the novel in its entirety when he was younger (he may have done), and that he knows a few chapters of Cervantes’ work quite well. But his intention is not to memorise these sections and then copy them out, but to ‘write’ them as if Cervantes had not already done so!
In order to achieve this seemingly impossible feat, Pierre Menard tried to experience the things which Cervantes (1547-1616) had experienced in his life, prior to his writing Don Quixote in the first decades of the seventeenth century. These things included learning Spanish, recovering a belief in Catholicism, fighting against the Moors or Turks, and forgetting all of history between the years 1602 (when Cervantes began working on the novel) and 1918 (when Menard embarked on his project to rewrite the Quixote).
Sure enough, before he died Menard did succeed in producing a few pages which coincided exactly with Cervantes’ original, simply by following this method and absorbing himself in Cervantes’ own life experiences and influences.
The narrator then compares a passage from Cervantes’ novel with the identical passage from Menard’s writing. Although they are exactly the same, word for word, the narrator argues that Menard’s is different, because Menard was writing in the twentieth century and this knowledge influences our response to the text.
The narrator concludes by telling us that Menard devoted his time to a task which was, ultimately, futile, although Menard argues that it would be easy to complete in its entirety if he lived forever.
In the final paragraph of the story, the narrator argues that Menard’s experiment encourages us to play around with the same idea in relation to other classic works of literature: for instance, imagining that Virgil wrote his Aeneid before Homer’s Odyssey (so that the latter was following the former, rather than the other way around, which was the historical reality).
‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’: analysis
‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’ is a clever story which centres on an intriguing paradox – as many of Borges’ short stories in Labyrinths do. What if Don Quixote were written by a twentieth-century French Symbolist poet rather than a seventeenth-century Spanish writer who pioneered the novel – or, more specifically, what if Menard wrote Don Quixote as well as Cervantes, word for word?
Menard’s assertion that his task is perfectly possible, and would simply require him to be immortal to achieve it, recalls, in one sense, the idea of the monkeys hammering away at typewriters. The argument runs that, if you put a bunch of monkeys in a room and got them to type randomly, eventually – if you allowed for eternity – those monkeys would, by chance, produce the Complete Works of Shakespeare, just because they would manage to strike the right letters in the right order.
Menard obviously has an advantage over those monkeys, and he is setting out intentionally to produce Don Quixote. But he is not trying to ‘copy’ Cervantes’ achievement simply by sitting down and typing out the novel. He is trying to write it as if for the first time, as Cervantes did when he originally wrote it.
So the more important issue which Borges is playfully exploring in ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’ (and note the mischief in that title, which immediately piques our interest: surely, we cry, that should read ‘Miguel de Cervantes, Author of the Quixote’?) is our relation, as readers, to a literary text. We bring our knowledge and awareness of a whole host of contextual details to a work of literature: the identity of the author, when they lived, when they wrote the text, and so on.
Jorge Luis Borges would have known about some of the most celebrated (and most notorious) literary forgeries and hoaxes in history. For example, in the 1760s, a Bristol schoolboy named Thomas Chatterton claimed he had ‘found’ a number of poems written by a fifteenth-century medieval monk, Thomas Rowley.
The poems, written in the Middle English that was characteristic of the fifteenth century, were taken as genuine by quite a few high-profile authors of the day, until Rowley’s poems were eventually exposed as forgeries written by Chatterton himself. Clearly, we respond to these poems differently now, knowing they were written by an eighteenth-century schoolboy rather than a fifteenth-century monk.
What, then, if we gave a reader Don Quixote – a reader who had never heard of either Cervantes or his novel – and told them it had been written by a twentieth-century French writer influenced by Edgar Allan Poe and French Symbolist poets of the nineteenth century? That reader would doubtless respond to the novel differently. For a start, they would consider Don Quixote a work of historical fiction set in the seventeenth century, rather than a bona fide seventeenth-century work.
In the last half-century or so, there have been many novels – quite a few of which have become classics in their own right – which essentially ‘rewrite’ classic Victorian novels but from a more modern perspective. These ‘Neo-Victorian’ works are obviously viewed differently by us than, say, the works of Dickens, which were written by someone who was actually alive during the Victorian era.
But what if we presented someone with Great Expectations and told them it was a new novel? They would obviously treat it as a clever piece of historical fiction which was attempting to ‘recreate’ the nineteenth century with appropriate language and period detail.
This is the clever paradox that ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’ exposes for us to ponder: our response to a work of literature is always governed, at least in part, by our knowledge of its author, and when it was written (when we know this information).
But this means, in Borges’ story, that the same text is treated completely differently if we treat it as Menard’s book, from if we treat it as Cervantes’. The author of the text is, then, at once a central factor in determining our response to it and, in some respects, curiously dispensable – even interchangeable.