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Potocki, Jan

Entry updated 16 January 2023. Tagged: Author.

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(1761-1815) Polish military engineer, ethnologist, linguist, traveller and author whose first stories – which show the influences of Arabian Fantasy [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below] – appeared in the 1780s, embedded into his travel books. He is best-known for Manuscrit trouvé à Saragosse ["The Manuscript Found at Saragossa"], a complex text whose publication history is so convoluted that doubts were for some time plausibly expressed as to Potocki's actual authorship of the full book, which is a cycle of nested stories told by various characters (some of whom are themselves characters in some of the stories being told by others) over a period of sixty-six nights, the various sections (usually identified according to the days covered) being written, revised and published in no clear order; single days do not necessarily correspond to individual stories, any more than The Arabian Nights contains 1001 tales in its 1001 nights. Saragossa's creation around the beginning of the nineteenth century [for textual history see below] emphasizes its significance in the evolution of the short story; Potocki's ingenious uses here of Club Story conventions are as compelling and evocative as E T A Hoffmann's similar innovations only a few years later. Some early doubts about Potocki's authorship seem to have been laid to rest, and there have been no twenty-first century reiterations of any fundamental doubt about his composition of the whole; but the story of the book's coming together and publication, and the continued discovery of added manuscript evidence, is exceedingly complicated; authentic sources for some "days" seem still to be missing.

Potocki (who lived part of his life in Paris and who – in common with most members of the Eastern European nobility – spoke and wrote in French) is thought to have begun composing the book as early as 1794, publishing parts of the cycle in the first years of the nineteenth century, and continuing to work on the manuscripts until his Suicide. The first published iteration, far from complete, comprises Manuscrit trouvé à Saragosse (1804 and 1805; rev vt Les Dix Jours d'Alphonse van Worden 1814; rev version [?] trans Christine Donogher as Tales from the Saragossa Manuscript: (Ten Days in the Life of Alphonse Van Worden) 1990); it seems to have been printed privately (Potocki's frequent practice) and deposited in a Saint Petersburg library. Further scattered days were included in Avadoro, histoire espagnole ["Avadoro, a Spanish Story"] (1813 4vols) as by M L C J P (Monsieur Le Comte Jan Potocki). A considerably fuller text appeared as Rekopiz Znaleziony w Saragossie (trans Edmund Chojecki from French manuscripts 1847 6vols). Unfortunately, the complete French manuscript, upon which Chojecki claims this version is based, has never been found, though Manuscrit trouvé à Saragosse: Texte ebablie et presente par Roger Callois (1958) competently assembles what was available a century later. This version served as the basis for two English translations, the two together incorporating (it was then thought) all surviving portions of the original: The Saragossa Manuscript: A Collection of Weird Tales (trans Elizabeth Abbott 1960), contains fourteen days plus additional material; and The New Decameron: Further Tales from the Saragossa Manuscript (trans Elizabeth Abbott 1966), contains the remaining days, concluding after day sixty-six with an epilogue.

All these editions and translations were then superseded by René Radrizzani's version, Manuscrit trouvé à Saragosse (1989; trans Ian Maclean as The Manuscript Found in Saragossa 1995), which incorporates new material but does also continue to back-translate episodes whose only confirmed source is Chojecki in 1847. All the same, this edition can claim to base itself on manuscript sources for all days but 21, 30, 46, 57-66 and the conclusion. Further manuscript discoveries have, however, led to the publication of Manuscrit trouvé à Saragosse (2006), edited by François Rosset and Dominique Triaire, which prints nothing for which Chojecki is the only source; in this edition, it is argued that Potocki published an early version of his masterpiece (the 1804 and/or 1805 editions noted above) and rewrote that version by 1810. A two-volume edition has been issued, formalizing this discovery/claim: Manuscrit trouvé à Saragosse (version de 1804) (2008) and Manuscrit trouvé à Saragosse (version de 1810) (2008). For further details see Checklist below.

The cycle as a whole is provided with a frame story in which an unnamed French officer describes his discovery of a seventy-year old Spanish manuscript during the siege of Zaragoza in 1809 (this date-specific frame must have been added to the second version of the text from 1810); his discovery, the titular Manuscrit trouvé à Saragosse, comprises a series of tales depicting the adventures of Alphonse van Worden, a young officer in the Spanish army, who himself frames the telling of several stories in which he is directly involved; he also inscribes a number of tales others have told him (but in which he is often a participant), including a number told within an internal frame story concerning the gypsy chief Avadoro (which is to say stories within a story within stories within a story within a frame).

The central events centre around the year 1739, more or less. Van Worden, having lost touch with his regiment, has been searching for his companions through the desolate and mountainous Sierra Morena region of Spain, an area once under benign Muslim rule but now a cultural badlands, a featureless War-demolished landscape (like a Ruined Earth before the fact) very similar to the denatured estranging desert terrains that provide the setting for most great European picaresque novels before 1800. Potocki likely assumed that any contemporary reader who encountered the text would think that van Worden was a typical picaro. He is not.

Hungry, lost and bewildered, van Worden decides to spend the night at the Venta Quemada, an ominous inn, windowless from without and internally Labyrinthine, an Edifice with no exit. At midnight two beautiful but mysterious sisters offer him their bodies if he will convert to Islam. He refuses, but they seduce him all the same. In the morning he awakens, apparently some distance away, under a gibbet, in the embrace of two rotting corpses: but he feels that he has somehow never left the inn, and hints that his further adventures – as well as nightmarishly similar adventures subsequently recounted to him by others – may all be versions of the same underlying Doppelganger-infested Arabian Nightmare. Versions of the initial seduction episode are for instance repeated again and again, with the same horrific outcome, afflicting not only the narrator but also several of those who tell him tales; and on at least one occasion the sexes are changed. At one point Van Worden finds himself descending 1,500 steps into an Underground domain that – though its entrance is some distance away – seems to be sited directly under the inn he thought he had left. No matter how far a story may seem to take him or his companions, no matter how many Picaresque exorbitances seem to promise egress for the picaro from immurement on the desolate plain, there is no escape from the centripetal world that has entrapped him [for terms above including Arabian Nightmare, Edifice, Labyrinth, Picaresque, and for Story below, see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below].

As argued by Brian Stableford in his introduction to Tales from the Saragossa Manuscript: (Ten Days in the Life of Alphonse Van Worden) (1990), Van Worden's own adventures are clearly the most the most vivid and integrated part of the book. But recent versions of the text have demonstrated that the seemingly random nest or cycle of stories that dominates the latter pages of the text are not in fact adventitious; some of the embedded tales are mundane and lack follow-through, but most are conspiracy-friendly Supernatural Fictions, including an appearance by the eschatology-haunted Wandering Jew – who himself tells several such tales – and throughout all of these a sense of imminence points to some stygian endgame. Though it may be anachronistic to suggest a science-fictional intent, there is an abiding sense that each Story may manifest, or open, or take the cabbalistic shape of, a portal to something like a Parallel World, where events may proceed to some natural closure. But that sense of sustained movement toward ultimate release may seem, in the end, delusional: for it becomes moderately clear (Potocki never finished polishing his Manuscrit) that van Worden has become the unwitting bearer of tales that impart infection rather than release, and that from deep within the earth under the Venta Quemada the world is run by Secret Masters who entrap us into the grasp of their dread sovereignty by transfiguring us into Story.

Manuscrit trouvé à Saragosse cannot therefore be described as Proto SF, though these hints of a secret history of the world – hints only clearly uttered in the final sections, and masked even now by the reluctance of some critics to include "spoilers" when analysing the meaning of this two-hundred-year old narrative – suggest a much more telling and ominous rationale than provided by the back-story paraphernalia common to much Gothic SF, even hinting at something close to an Alternate History version of Europe's secret past. Certainly, though it has some of the structural deliciousness of the Arabian Nights, Manuscrit is no Arabian Fantasy; the abysses plumbed by its banyan of tales are too troubled for that, too oneirically descriptive of a disrupted world, too totalitarian. The dark turbulences depicted here are consistent with the exceedingly complex and conflicted understanding of history and science and politics and Religion displayed by Potocki in his life and other works; he is a typical figure of the late Enlightenment whose rational contempt for tradition and in particular for the Christian religion is balanced (or riven) by a sense that the world is not in truth that easy to understand (see Horror in SF); his anfractuous chef d'œuvre seems clearly to inhabit the same uneasy war-divided world that a very few years later inspired the work of E T A Hoffmann. Potocki's interest in arcane societies [for Rosicrucianism see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below] underlines a sense that in Manuscrit trouvé à Saragosse he meant what he was saying. The whole of the text is, in this sense, best understood if each contained tale is taken literally (with exculpatory metaphorizing best left to critics unfamiliar with the fantastic), a reading which may put into some doubt the simplistic rationalization implied by the close of the narrative as it now exists, where the whole range of Van Worden's experiences is explained as a pre-marital initiation rite (or Godgame), which he has duly succeeded in surviving; but this may be just another story.

Manuscrit trouvé à Saragosse was filmed as The Saragossa Manuscript (1965), directed by Wojciech Has (1925-2000), who conveys the labyrinth of tales as a surreal extravaganza which gives the rationalized ending short shrift. More recently it became a hypertextual experiment by the Kraków-based publishing company Ha-art!, which launched an Internet edition of the novel [see links below] structured in the mode of Julio Cortázar's Rayuela (1963; trans by Gregory Rabassa as Hopscotch 1966), that is, offering the reader different ways of combining the embedded tales and de facto creating their own versions of The Manuscript [for Cortázar see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]. [JC/KW]

see also: Poland.

Count Jan Nepomucen [or Nepomuck] Potocki

born Lezajsk, Pikow, Ukraine [now Poland]: 8 March 1761

died Uladowa, Podolie, Ukraine [now Poland]: 23 December 1815



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