The OF Blog: How would a 21st century Pierre Menard be?

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

How would a 21st century Pierre Menard be?

For about a week now during those times that I have spare time to think of matters other than what literary selections my students will be reading this week (on Friday, they'll get to spend a few hours with me discussing the Sherlock Holmes mystery, "The Red-Headed League," if you're that curious), I have been pondering some more about what constitutes "pretentiousness." Kathy Sedia and I had an interesting email exchange related to this, where I observed that if Cervantes were alive today and if he were trying to get Don Quijote published, that almost certainly he would have been accused of having "pretensions" in the "affected" manner of the work, its presumed high degree of difficulty, and the sense that it would not be a satire of Amadis of Gaul but rather would be a blatant appropriation of the rich, colorful strands of a post-Tolkienian interpretation of what constitutes late medieval/early modern adventure.

Needless to say, Borges's famous "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quijote" came to mind. What would a 21st century Menard look like, not merely copying Don Quijote but instead (re)creating it for the 21st century? What about this passage from the 9th chapter of Part One:

...truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future's counselor. (Andrew Hurley's translation used here as it would be more familiar to the reader than my rendering of the passage)
Would such an expression, involving so many dependent clauses, be considered but an affectation that would seek to create an anachronistic literary past, one that surely has passed today? Would this 21st century Menard conclude that his Don Quijote would be a mostly indecipherable text whose audience would consist solely of those fellow anachronistic aficionados who would be most apt to rebel against the reigning "transparent prose" movement?

Something to consider. If I had any real combination of chutzpah and writing talent, I would attempt writing a story that would reflect this. But I do not, so I'm just leaving this thought trail for others to consider and to do with as they please.


Anonymous said...

Larry, curiously enough, I´ve re-read Don Quijote a few years ago and asked myself the exactly same question. I´ve even started to write a story about not a 21st Century Pierre Menard, but a 22nd one, to keep it more post-human. I never finished it, but your post is giving me second thoughts.

Lsrry said...

Fábio, if it'd encourage you some, I'd like to read it if you get it complete. Nice to know another has had similar thoughts :D

Joe said...

I don't remember the agent, I imagine it was either Colleen Lindsay or Kristin Nelson, but this agent had someone attempt to submit a Jane Austen manuscript to her as an original piece.

The agent, Colleen or Kristin, went on to explain in a blog post that besides the novel obviously being Jane Austen's work, a Jane Austen novel couldn't be published today. It wouldn't be a modern novel, it would be out of place in today's literature. People read Jane Austen because she is Jane Austen. Publishing the same style now would fail, not because the work isn't good, but because it doesn't work as a contemporary work. Even a novel set in that period is obviously written today.

Jane Austen, if alive today, wouldn't write Emma in the same way. Cervantes, if alive today, wouldn't write Don Quixote and try to publish the same manuscript he published hundreds of years ago. It's not because of the complexity (though maybe), but because the whole novel would have to be different.

I haven't read it, but I get the feeling that Pynchon's Mason & Dixon is a similar type of work in that it is wildly out of place in contemporary literature, is challenging and anachronistic, and yet was still published. That that Pynchon wrote it is likely the reason why the book was published, but work of the sort you are referring to still gets published.

Forgive the ramble.

Lsrry said...

I remember reading a few years ago where someone submitted part of V.S. Naipaul's first novel as a test to see what agents/publishers would say. It was universally rejected, but not because it was Naipaul's work, if I recall correctly.

Amusing how ephemeral literary tastes can be with the public, no?

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