The Preoccupied Text
October 9, 2009 § Leave a comment
Now reading: The Manuscript Found in Saragossa.
Reading next: Nights at the Circus, by Angela Carter.
The most surprising thing about this book isn’t the erotica, or the range of genres and voices employed; that’s always somewhat startling in a 19th-century work, but it’s really par for the course in the Boccaccio-Chaucer-1001 Nights stories-within-stories tradition. What’s surprising about Potocki’s book, at least to me, is its self-consciousness, its reflexivity, its — dare I say it? — its metafictional tendencies, and its occasional seemingly contemporary sensibilities.
These moments can be hard to track, and may be an effect of translation as much as content. However, there must be something undeniably modern in a passage like this, from the end of the tenth day, as van Worden is puzzling over the strange way that a story seems to apply to his own situation: “The bell for dinner sounded. The cabbalist was not at the table. Everyone seemed preoccupied to me because I was preoccupied myself.”
Everyone seemed preoccupied to me because I was preoccupied myself. Couldn’t that be Fitzgerald, Carver, or even a Dylan lyric? That anxiety, disaffectedness, alienation? That projection of inner turmoil onto environment? They rattled me, those flat, modern sentences, coming as they did after the retelling of a 17th-century religious parable/spook story. This juxtaposition itself seemed further evidence of a rather jaded, modern sensibility; evidence that the history of literature is much weirder, more tangled, and idiosyncratic than its presentation in survey courses; evidence that seeming historically inevitable, societally molded progressions are often more like cycles of discovery, rediscovery, recycling, affiliations among fellow thinkers. (Call it the Tristram Shandy hypothesis.) The passage, and others like it, seemed a window onto the mysterious Potocki: losing himself in his maze of stories and characters, eminently preoccupied, unable to connect with others. Facing a quandary, perhaps, about the need for entertainment and the need for human contact.
It’s a very flat work, emotionally. I am uncertain how conscious of this Potocki was, or whether he cared. Compared to Boccaccio or Chaucer, certainly, Potocki evinces much less concern or compassion for his characters and much more concern for his structure, for the mapping of his narratives and the relationships among the work, the author, and the reader. There is an ongoing motif in the framing narrative of characters coyly voicing the concerns Potocki feels the reader (and perhaps he himself) has about the direction the book is taking. Much of this Potocki works rather brilliantly into the romantic subplot between Rebecca/Laura, the caballist’s daugher, and Velasquez the geometer (of whom I’ll write at more length later). At the end of the 28th day, Velasquez complains that the stories-within-stories that the gypsy chief Pandesowna is telling have become impossible to follow, and, even though he’s hearing rather than reading the stories, he states,
“It is a veritable labyrinth. I had always thought that novels and other works of that kind should be written in several columns like chronological tables.”
“You are right,” said Rebecca…. “That would no doubt clarify the story.”
After Velasquez clarifies that he wishes the stories would be presented more systematically and logically, Rebecca replies: “Yes, indeed…. Continual surprises don’t keep one’s interest in the story alive. One can never foresee what will happen subsequently.” After one more dig, van Worden realizes “that Rebecca was making fun of all of us.” The author takes the last word here; but at the end of the 35th day, with its four layers of tales, Velasquez the geometer states, “I was right to foresee that the stories of the gypsy would get entangled one with another…. I hope the gypsy will tell us what became of fair Ines. But if he interpolates yet another story, I’ll fallout with him… Meanwhile I don’t believe that our storyteller will be coming back this evening.” He is not refuted. In these passages, Potocki performs the neat trick of sympathizing with and challenging his readers. Potocki seems keenly aware of the “level of reader annoyance” (I seem to recall DFW using the phrase, as applied by an editor to himself) for which he is aiming, and which he thinks the interest of the work can withstand.
There are many more examples of these metafictional flourishes; the convenient summoning and dismissal or departure of the Wandering Jew, and the discussion of same, form another fascinatingly self-conscious thread, especially in its play with the supernatural and listeners’ (and readers’) attitude toward it. But more on that shortly. Another simple but telling example: the continuation of the gypsy chief’s tale with the phrase “the gypsy, having nothing else to do, continued his story as follows.” Having nothing else to do. Does Potocki intend his metafiction and modernism as avant-garde gestures and comments on his society, his self? Or does he have nothing else to do, and amuse himself by complicating his narrative, even to the point of talking back to himself? Part of the attraction and the frustration of reading historical works is the difficulty of grasping the mind behind the work — their frame of reference, the culture and society and family and history and canon to which they are responding. Potocki is clearly and explicitly writing in many traditions here, and responding to them, but it is hard to find the motivations behind those responses.