From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Count Jan Nepomucen Potocki (March 8, 1761 - December, 1815) was a Polish nobleman, Polish Army captain of engineers, ethnologist, Egyptologist, linguist, traveler, adventurer and author whose life and exploits made him a legendary figure in his homeland, although he is chiefly known outside Poland for his novel The Manuscript Found in Saragossa.
The Manuscript Found in Saragossa
Potocki's most famous work originally written in French, is The Manuscript Found in Saragossa (Manuscrit trouvé à Saragosse). It is a frame tale which he is said to have written for his own wife. On account of its rich, interlocking structure, and telescoping story sequences, the novel has drawn comparisons to such celebrated works as the Decameron and the Arabian Nights.
The book's title is explained in the foreword, which is narrated by an unnamed French officer who describes his fortuitous discovery of an intriguing Spanish manuscript during the sack of Zaragoza in 1809, in the course of the Napoleonic Wars. Soon after, the French officer is captured by the Spanish and stripped of his possessions; but a Spanish officer recognizes the manuscript's importance, and during the French officer's captivity the Spaniard translates it for him into French.
The manuscript has been written by a young officer of the Walloon Guard, Alphonse van Worden. In 1739, while en route to Madrid to serve with the Spanish Army, he is diverted into Spain's rugged Sierra Morena region. There, over a period of sixty-six days, he encounters a varied group of characters, including Muslim princesses, Gypsies, outlaws and cabbalists, who tell him an intertwining series of bizarre, amusing and fantastic tales which he records in his diary.
The sixty-six stories cover a wide range of themes, subjects and styles, including gothic horror, picaresque adventures, and comic, erotic and moral tales. The stories reflect Potocki's interest in secret societies, the supernatural and oriental cultures, and they are illustrated with his detailed observations of 18th-century European manners and customs, particularly those of upper-class Spanish society.
Many of the locations described in the tales are real places and regions which Potocki would have visited during his travels, while others are fictionalized accounts of actual places.
While there is still some dispute about the novel's authorship, it is now generally accepted to have indeed been written by Potocki. He began writing it in the 1790s and completed it in 1814, a year before his death, though the novel's structure is thought to have been fully mapped out by 1805.
The novel was never published in its entirety during Potocki's lifetime. A proof edition of the first ten "days" was circulated in Saint Petersburg in 1805, and a second extract was published in Paris in 1813, almost certainly with Potocki's permission. A third publication, combining both earlier extracts, was issued in 1814, but it appears that at the time of his death Potocki had not yet decided on the novel's final form.
Potocki composed the book entirely in the French language. Sections of the original manuscripts were later lost, but have survived in a Polish translation that was made in 1847 by Edmund Chojecki from a complete French copy, now lost.
The most recent and complete French-language version, edited by François Rosset and Dominique Triaire, was published in 2006 in Leuven, Belgium, as part of a critical scholarly edition of the Complete Works of Potocki. Unlike Radrizzani's 1989 edition of the Manuscript Found in Saragossa, Rosset and Triaire's edition has been based solely on Potocki's French-language manuscripts found in several libraries in France, Poland (in particular, previously unknown autograph pieces that they discovered in Poznań), Spain and Russia, as well as in the private collection of Potocki's heirs. They identified two versions of the novel: one unfinished, of 1804, published in 1805, and the full version of 1810, which appears to have been completely reconceived in comparison to the 1804 version. Whereas the first version has a lighter, more sceptical tone, the second one tends towards a darker, more religious mood. In view of the differences between the two versions, the 1804 and 1810 versions have been published as two separate books; paperback editions were issued in early 2008 by Flammarion.
The first English-language edition, published in 1995, was a translation of Radrizzani's edition by Oxford scholar Ian Maclean. Potocki's novel became more widely known in the West via the stylish black-and-white film adaptation made in Poland in 1965 as The Saragossa Manuscript (Rękopis znaleziony w Saragossie), directed by renowned film-maker Wojciech Has and starring Zbigniew Cybulski as Alphonse van Worden.