Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Potocki, [Count] Jan

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(1761-1815) Polish military man and ethnologist whose first stories – which show the influences of Arabian Fantasy – appeared in the 1780s, embedded into his travel books. He is best-known for the Manuscrit trouvé à Saragosse ["The Manuscript Found at Saragossa"], a complex text whose publication history is so convoluted that doubts have been expressed as to JP'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 66 nights. Such doubts seem to have been laid to rest, at least for the time being; but the story of the book's composition and publication is still complicated. JP (who wrote in French) is thought to have begun composing the book in about 1797, publishing parts of the whole over the next decades, and continuing to work on the manuscripts until his suicide.

The first version – Manuscrit trouvé à Saragosse (1804 Russia and 1805 Russia; rev [day 12 and half of day 13 cut; day 14 added] vt Les Dix Jours d'Alphonse van Worden 1814 France; rev version trans Christine Donogher as Tales from the Saragossa Manuscript: (Ten Days in the Life of Alphonse Van Worden) 1990 UK) – was printed privately (JP's frequent practice) and deposited in a St Petersburg library; it contains the first 12½ days. Further scattered days (15, 18, 20, 26-29, 47-56) were published as Avadoro, histoire espagnole ["Avadoro, a Spanish Story"] (1813 France) in 4 vols as by M L C J P (Monsieur Le Comte Jan Potocki). The full text appeared as Rekopiz Znaleziony w Saragossie (trans Edmund Chojecki from French manuscripts 1847 6 vols Poland). The complete French manuscript for this latter version has never been found, though by the late 1980s – when a scholarly edition of Manuscrit trouvé à Saragosse (1989; trans Ian Maclean as The Manuscript Found in Saragossa 1995 UK) appeared – manuscript sources for all but days 21, 30, 46, 57-66 and the conclusion had come to light. A further translation of parts of the book is The Saragossa Manuscript: A Collection of Weird Tales (trans Elizabeth Abbott 1960 US), with further excerpts appearing as The New Decameron: Further Tales from the Saragossa Manuscript (trans 1966 US).

The first 10 days are the most conspicuously integrated, and describe a remarkable descent on the part of the protagonist – who falls asleep in various places, but always awakens beneath a scaffold in the embrace of two corpses – into an Arabian Nightmare, each story he hears (and in which he participates in Dream) dragging him deeper. Later episodes lighten the protagonist's burden, as he becomes more of a listener to tales within tales told by others, though he remains implicated in their outcomes. Some of the embedded tales are mundane, but most are Supernatural Fictions; Doubles and other haunted echoings appear and reappear throughout, and there are Fantasy-of-History hints (never fully developed) of some secret knowledge that will change the listening protagonist's understanding of the world.

The full scholarly publication of the book has revealed a masterpiece. [JC/BS]

[Count] Jan Nepomucen Potocki


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.