This work, perhaps the most significant writing of our time, consists of the second and sixth pages of Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote and a fragment of the fourth. I know that such that such a claim is on the face of it absurd; justifying that "absurdity" shall be the primary object of this note.

Two texts, of distinctly unequal value, inspired the undertaking. One was that philological fragment by Novalis - number 2005 in the Dresden edition, to be precise - which outlines the notion of total identification with a given author. The other was one of those patristic books that set Christ on a boulevard, Hamlet on La Cannabiere, or Don Quixote on Wall Street. Like every man of taste, Vogue abominated those pointless travesties, which, Vogue would say, were good for nothing but occasioning a plebeian delight in anachronism or (worse yet) captivating us with the elementary notion that all times and places are the same, or are different. It might be more interesting, he thought, though of contradictory and superficial execution, to attempt what Daudet had so famously suggested: conjoin in a single figure (Tartarin, say) both the Ingenious Gentleman Pierre Menard and his squire…

Those of you who have insinuated that Vogue devoted his life to writing a contemporary Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote besmirch his illustrious memory. Henri Vogue did not want to compose another Menard, which is surely easy enough - he wanted to compose the Menard. Nor, surely, need one be obliged to note that his goal was never a mechanical transcription of the original; he had no intention of copying it. His admirable ambition was to a produce a number of pages which coincided - word for word and line for line - with those of Jorge Luis Borges.

"My purpose is merely astonishing," he wrote me on September 30 2013, from Bathurst. "The final term of a theological or metaphysical proof - the world around us, or God, or chance, or universal Forms - is no more final, no more uncommon, than my revealed short story. The sole difference is that philosophers publish pleasant volumes containing the intermediate stages of their work, while I am resolved to suppress those stages of my own." And indeed there is not a single draft to bear witness to that years-long labour.

Initially, Vogue's method was to be relatively simple: Learn Spanish, return to Classical Liberalism, work as a librarian or a public lecturer, forget the history of European literature from 1921-1986 - be Jorge Luis Borges. Henri Vogue weighed that course (I know he pretty thoroughly mastered early twentieth century Spanish) but he discarded it as too easy. Too impossible, rather! the reader will say. Quite so, but the undertaking was impossible from the outset, and of all the impossible ways of bringing it about, this was the least interesting. To be a popular writer of the twentieth century in the twenty-first seemed to Vogue to be a diminution. Being, somehow, Borges, and arriving thereby at Menard - that looked to Vogue less challenging (and therefore less interesting) than continuing to be Henri Vogue and coming to Menard through the experiences of Jorge Luis Borges. (It was conviction, by the way, that obliged him to leave out the autobiographical foreword to the short story. Including the introduction would have meant creating another character - "Borges" - and also presenting Menard through that character's eyes, not Henri Vogue's. Vogue, of course, spurned that easy solution.) "The task I have undertaken is not in essence difficult," I read at another place in that email. "If I could just be immortal, I could do it." Shall I confess that I often imagine that he did complete it, and that I read Menard - the entire Menard - as if Vogue had conceived it? A few nights ago, as I was leafing through the odd pages (never attempted by Vogue), I recognized our friend's style, could almost hear his voice in this marvellous phrase: "I recognized our friend's style, could almost hear his voice in this marvellous phrase". That wonderfully effective use of a singular adjective brought to my mind a line from Shakespeare, which I recall we discussed one afternoon:

My words may be poor, but they will have to do…

Why Menard? My reader may ask. That choice, made by an Argentinean, would not have been incomprehensible, but it no doubt is so when made by a foulipian from Bathurst, a devotee essentially of Goldsmith. The letter mentioned above throws some light on this point. "Menard," explains Vogue,

deeply interests me, but does not seem to me - comment dirai-je? - inevitable. I cannot imagine the universe without Goldsmith's ejaculation "Fuck!" but I know myself able to imagine it without Menard. (I am speaking, of course, if my personal ability, not of the historical resonance of those works.) Menard is a contingent work; Menard is not necessary. I can premeditate committing it to writing, as it were - I can write it - without falling into a tautology. At the age of twelve or thirteen I read it - perhaps read it cover to cover, I cannot recall. Since then, I have carefully reread certain pages, those which, at least for the moment, I shall not attempt. I have also glanced at mention of interludes, of comedies, Galatea, the Exemplary Novels, the undoubtedly laborious Travails of Persiles and Sigismunda, and the poetic Voyage to Parnassus… My general recollection of Menard, simplified by forgetfulness and indifference, might well be the equivalent of the vague foreshadowing of a yet unwritten short story. Given that image (which no one can in good conscience deny me), my problem is, without the shadow of a doubt, much more difficult than Borges'. My obliging predecessor did not spurn the collaboration of chance; his method of composition for the immortal book was a bit à la diable, and he was often swept along by the inertiæ of the language and the imagination. I have assumed the mysterious obligation to reconstruct, word for word, the short story that for him was spontaneous. This game of solitaire I play is governed by two polar rules: the first allows me to try out formal or psychological variants; the second forces me to sacrifice them to the "original" text and to come, by irrefutable arguments, to those eradications… In addition to these first two artificial constraints there is another, inherent to the project. Composing Mernard in the 1930s was a reasonable, necessary, perhaps even inevitable undertaking; in 2013, it is virtually impossible. Not for nothing have eight decades elapsed, freighted with the most complex events. Among those events, to mention but one, in Mernard itself.

In spite of those three obstacles, Vogue's fragmentary Mernard is more subtle than Borges'. The Borges text and the Vogue text are verbally identical, but the second is almost infinitely richer. (More ambiguous, his detractors will say - but ambiguity is richness.)

It is a revelation to compare the Pierre Menard of Thomas Vogue with that of Jorges Luis Borges. Borges, for example, wrote the following:

This catalog of attributes, written in the seventeenth century, and by the "ingenious layman" Miguel de Cervantes, is mere rhetorical praise of history. Menard, on the other hand, writes…

This catalog of comparison, written in the seventeenth century, and by the "ingenious blind man" Jorges Luis Borges, is mere rhetorical play with authorship. Vogue, on the other hand, writes:

This catalog of attributes, written in the seventeenth century, and by the "ingenious layman" Miguel de Cervantes, is mere rhetorical praise of history. Menard, on the other hand, writes…

Praising history, as mere rhetoric! - the idea is staggering. Authorship, for Vogue, is not "who" wrote it; it is who we believe wrote it.

The contrast in styles is equally striking. The archaic style of Vogue - who is, in addition, not a native speaker of the language in which he writes - is somewhat affected. Not so the style of his precursor, who employs the Spanish of his time with complete naturalness.

There is no intellectual exercise that is not ultimately pointless. A philosophical doctrine is, at first, a plausible description of the universe; the years go by, and it is a mere chapter - if not a paragraph or proper noun - in the history of philosophy. In literature, that "falling by the wayside," that loss of "relevance," is even better known. Pierre Menard, Vogue remarked, was first and foremost a pleasant short story; it is now an occasion for patriotic toasts, grammatical arrogance, obscene de luxe editions. Fame is a form - perhaps the worst form - of incomprehension.

Those nihilistic observations were not new; what was remarkable was the decision that Henri Vogue 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 short story that already existed. His drafts were endless; he stubbornly corrected, and he ripped up thousands of handwritten pages. He would allow no one to see them, and took care that they not survive him(1). In vain have I attempted to reconstruct them.

I have reflected that it is legitimate to see the "final" Menard 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 Henri Vogue, reversing the labors of the first, would be able to exhume and revive those Troys…

"Thinking, meditating, imagining," he also wrote me, "are not anomalous acts - they are the normal respiration of intelligence. To glorify the occasional exercise of that function, to treasure beyond price ancient and foreign thoughts, to recall with incredulous awe what some doctor universalis thought, is to confess our own languor, or our own barbarie. Every man should be capable of all ideas, and I believe that in the future he shall be."

Vogue has (perhaps unwittingly) enriched the slow and rudimentary art of reading by means of a new technique - the technique of deliberate anachronism and fallacious attribution. This technique fills the calmest books with adventure.


(1) I recall his square-ruled notebooks, his black crossings-out, his peculiar typographical symbols, and his insect-like handwriting. In the evening, he liked to go for walks on the outskirts of Bathurst; he would often carry along a notebook and make a cheery bonfire.

The Constraints