Pierre Menard,
Author of the Quixote

by Jorge Luis Borges

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

written 1939

collected in —
The Garden of Forking Paths (1941)

Collected Fictions (1944)

  translated by Andrew Hurley

December 2008


"Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote" by Jorge Luis Borges is a story that may — if you are so inclined — leave a thoughtful and unsettled impression out of all proportion to its size.

Pierre Menard, a French litterateur, undertakes the recreation of Miguel de Cervantes' landmark novel Don Quixote (1605, 1615). Not a copy or transcription, not a translation or imitation or rewriting. Rather, he aims to recreate Don Quixote, the very book, word for word — not as Cervantes wrote it, "but continuing to be Pierre Menard and coming to the Quixote through the experiences of Pierre Menard."

This is a hard concept to wrap one's mind around. Certainly it is a quixotic labor of literature, to say the least.

I'm sure I can't do justice to this concept in an even briefer space than Borges' short story. I am not sure that Borges himself, or anyone, can quite do it justice.

Yet Borges here has created a miniature masterpiece. For literature is not a book, not even a great novel like Don Quixote. It is a process, a flow, a handing on from writer to reader, on and on. What, precisely, is it that is handed on? What is passed on in its original shape and texture and meaning, and how much is re-understood and re-created by subsequent readers, inspiring and imitated by subsequent writers?

Those nihilistic observations were not new; what was remarkable was the decision that Pierre Menard derived from them. He resolved to anticipate the vanity that awaits all the labors of mankind; he undertook a task of infinite complexity, a task futile from the outset. He dedicated his scruples and his nights "lit by midnight oil" to repeating in a foreign tongue a book that already existed. His drafts were endless; he stubbornly corrected, and he ripped up thousands of handwritten pages. ...

I have reflected that it is legitimate to see the "final" Quixote as a kind of palimpsest, in which the traces — faint but not undecipherable — of our friend's "previous" text must shine through. Unfortunately, only a second Pierre Menard, reversing the labors of the first, would be able to exhume and revive those Troys ...


© 2008 Robert Wilfred Franson

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