Warsaw

Jan Potocki

21 Nov 2016

The Mad Count


Most Western readers have never heard of Count Jan Nepomucen Potocki; indeed, his singular literary masterpiece was only translated into English in 1995, some 180 years after it was completed. However, here in Poland he remains a household name, achieving no small share of celebrity during his own lifetime, a celebrity which he has sustained in the nearly two centuries since his death. Potocki’s immortality is due as much to the endurance of his strange, supernatural novel The Manuscript Found in Saragossa as it is due to the mystery and intrigues of his life – and the bizarre circumstances of his departure from it. The Saragossa Manuscript (as it is also known) is therefore that rare work of literature, the story of which is inextricably entwined with that of its author, each giving the other more speculative potency.

Unlike most of us, Jan Potocki (1761 – 1815) had the good fortune of being born into one of the wealthiest aristocratic families in Poland; his great-uncle Franzciszek was known as the ‘King of Ruthenia’ due to the hundreds of towns and villages he owned across over one million hectares and was the wealthiest Pole in history up to that time. Wealth was a privilege Potocki put to good use throughout his life – a life composed primarily of exotic globetrotting exploits in the pursuit of secret knowledge (nowadays we have Wikipedia). Born in what is today Western Ukraine, the young Count was educated in Geneva and Lausanne where he received a solid grounding in what was known of the world at that time and developed an amazing capacity for languages, speaking eight fluently. From Switzerland it was off to the Vienna Academy of Military Engineering, after which he spent two separate stints in the Polish Army as a captain of engineers, interrupted by a gig upon a galley in the service of the Knights of Malta which included a naval battle against the Barbary corsairs (dastardly Muslim pirates of the era).

Potocki was getting around, as the independently wealthy so often do. Hop-scotching through continental Europe, the Count developed a strong scholarly interest in other cultures about which he began to write extensively, as well as recording accounts of his own spirited adventures thus becoming one of the first modern travel writers. Collecting historical, cultural and linguistic research as he went along his way through North Africa and Asia, Potocki wrote a series of books and essentially founded the study of ethnology. It was a passion he applied to his own homeland as well, finding time to also found the study of Slavic languages and civilizations about which he wrote extensively.

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07.09.2016
Spencer
Los Angeles
It took me a while after coming home from Poland, but I did finish the Manuscript Found in Saragossa. I loved it for the first 50%, but it got a little bit off topic in the second half, sort of abandoned its major narrative, and didn't pick it up again until the final 50 pages. But for a while there I found it really inspiring, the structure of stories embedded inside stories, sometimes 4 or 5 levels deep. And for a while they all shared this theme of lost innocence, falling prey to lust, and dealing with the temptations of the world. During the second half I got the feeling that Potocki had already gone insane and had just forgotten what the book was about.
22.09.2015
Editor IYP
Krakow
Coinciding with the 200th anniversary of his death, 2015 is officially recognised by UNESCO as the 'Year of Potocki.' More information at janpotocki2015.com
23.12.2012
Luiza Lobo
Brazil,
I have just finished the translation into Brazilian Portuguese of the COMPLETE text of the Manuscript from the René Randrizzani French edition and what strikes me is that many of the characters are from the 16h century, while you mention 40 years prior to the French Revolution. Sometimes I get lost in the interpretation of the historical elements of the book.
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