On the Derivation of Ulysses from Don Quixote
I imagine this story being told to me by Jorge Luis Borges one evening
in a Buenos Aires café.
His voice dry and infinitely ironic, the aging, nearly blind literary master observes that "the Ulysses, " mistakenly attributed to the Irishman James Joyce, is in fact derived from "the Quixote."
I raise my eyebrows.
Borges pauses to sip discreetly at the bitter coffee our waiter has
placed in front of him, guiding his hands to the saucer.
"The details of the remarkable series of events in question may
be found at the University of Leiden," he says. "They were conveyed
to me by the Freemason Alejandro Ferri in Montevideo."
Borges wipes his thin lips with a linen handkerchief that he has withdrawn
from his breast pocket.
"As you know," he continues, "the original handwritten
text of the Quixote was given to an order of French Cistercians in the
autumn of 1576."
I hold up my hand to signify to our waiter that no further service is
"Curiously enough, for none of the brothers could read Spanish,
the Order was charged by the Papal Nuncio, Hoyo dos Monterrey (a man of
great refinement and implacable will), with the responsibility for copying
the Quixote, the printing press having then gained no currency in the
wilderness of what is now known as the department of Auvergne. Unable to
speak or read Spanish, a language they not unreasonably detested, the brothers
copied the Quixote over and over again, re-creating the text but, of course,
compromising it as well, and so inadvertently discovering the true nature
of authorship. Thus they created Fernando Lor's Los Hombres d'Estado in
1585 by means of a singular series of copying errors, and then in 1654 Juan
Luis Samorza's remarkable epistolary novel Por Favor by the same means,
and then in 1685, the errors having accumulated sufficiently to change Spanish
into French, Moliere's Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, their copying continuous
and indefatigable, the work handed down from generation to generation as
a sacred but secret trust, so that in time the brothers of the monastery,
known only to members of the Bourbon house and, rumor has it, the Englishman
and psychic Conan Doyle, copied into creation Stendhal's The Red and the
Black and Flaubert's Madame Bovary, and then as a result of a particularly
significant series of errors, in which French changed into Russian, Tolstoy's
The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Anna Karenina. Late in the last decade
of the 19th century there suddenly emerged, in English, Oscar Wilde's The
Importance of Being Earnest, and then the brothers, their numbers reduced
by an infectious disease of mysterious origin, finally copied the Ulysses
into creation in 1902, the manuscript lying neglected for almost thirteen
years and then mysteriously making its way to Paris in 1915, just months
before the British attack on the Somme, a circumstance whose significance
remains to be determined."
I sit there, amazed et what Borges has recounted. "Is it your understanding,
then," I ask, "that every novel in the West was created in this
"Of course," replies Borges imperturbably. Then he adds: "Although every novel is derived directly from another novel, there is really only
one novel, the Quixote. "