January 2011


The Manuscript Found in Saragossa (not yet read)

(Wikipedia) [This early novel is] a frame tale which Potocki wrote to entertain his 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.

UPDATE: Holy smokes, it’s a movie too! There are clips from it on Youtube

The Riddle of the Sands: A Record of Secret Service (not yet read)

An early example of the espionage novel, this 1903 novel by Erskine Childers “owes a lot to the wonderful adventure novels of writers like Rider Haggard, that were a staple of Victorian Britain. It “established a formula that included a mass of verifiable detail, which gave authenticity to the story – the same ploy that would be used so well by John Buchan, Ian Fleming, John le Carré and many others.” Ken Follett called it “the first modern thriller.”

 

Available at Project Gutenberg to read online or to download to Kindle.

This is also available at Librivox but after reading the few reviews I’ll likely never read it. The first half is very technical about sailing the German North Sea coast, requiring following along on maps provided in the print version. The whole thing is described as slow and somewhat dry, with some excitement toward the end. Oh, well.