ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

 Published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


"Making Pierre Menard: Jorge Luis Borges contra Lev Shestov and Benjamin Fondane", an essay by Ari Belenkiy


Jorge Luis Borges’ storytelling genius first burst forth in Ficciones, a collection of short stories he wrote during WW2. Yet, surprisingly, many of the characters therein remain a mystery. Drawing on his youthful fascination with Alphonse Daudet’s idea of merging Don Quixote and his squire Sancho Panza into one character, Tartarin, Borges, in the spring of 1939, created Pierre Menard, an amalgamation, as I hypothesize, of the philosopher Lev Shestov and his disciple Benjamin Fondane. This hypothesis, like Ariadne’s thread, leads through Borges’ famed literary labyrinths that conceal a largely forgotten group of Jewish, Russian, French, Spanish, German, American, and Argentine intellectuals of the 1930s, whose personalities, biographies, and ideas inspired much of the content of Pierre Menard and later spilled over to other stories of Ficciones and beyond.

El genio de Borges para escribir cuentos se reveló durante la Segunda Guerra Mundial, en las historias que componen el volumen Ficciones. Sin embargo, muchos de sus personajes se mantienen en un sorprendente misterio. Siguiendo su juvenil fascinación con la idea de Alphonse Daudet de combinar los personajes Don Quijote y su escudero Sancho Panza en uno solo (Tartarín), en la primavera de 1939 Borges creó a Pierre Menard, que según mi hipótesis, es una amalgama del filósofo Leόn Chestov y su discípulo Benjamín Fondane.  Este descubrimiento, como el hilo de Ariadna, nos conduce a través de los famosos laberintos de Borges, que ocultan a un grupo mayormente olvidado de intelectuales judíos, rusos, franceses, estadounidenses y argentinos de la década de 1930, cuyos personalidades, biografías e ideas inspiraron gran parte del contenido de Pierre Menard y también influyeron sobre otros cuentos, en Ficciones y en libros posteriores.

Keywords: Jorge Luis Borges; Pierre Menard; Don Quixote; Alphonse Daudet; Benjamin Fondane; Lev Shestov / Léon Chestov; Rachel Bespaloff; Nikolai Berdyaev; Victoria Ocampo; Waldo Frank; Silvina Ocampo; Cesar A. Comet.


I.   Argentine Gambit

On Christmas Eve of 1938, Borges suffered a head injury that resulted in septicemia and prolonged treatment. This personal misfortune turned into a landmark in the history of 20th century literature: by its consequences, the event is comparable to Leo Tolstoy’s experiences in the Crimean War or Dostoevsky’s penal servitude in Siberia. As Borgesian historiography emphasizes, it was from that incident that the famous fiction writer emerged. While convalescing in hospital, to convince himself he was on the path to recovery, Borges penned Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote. It first appeared in May 1939 in the Buenos Aires literary magazine Sur and then again in 1941 as a part of the collection The Garden of Forking Paths issued by the publishing house Sur run by Victoria Ocampo, an Argentinean writer and sponsor of the arts.

At that time, Borges was known in Argentina and Spain as a poet who loved to experiment. To escape the shadows of Pablo Neruda and García Lorca and to find a niche for himself, Borges applied his phenomenal, though somewhat eclectic erudition to the genre of fiction. In 1935, he publishes A Universal History of Infamy, a collection of short stories full of peculiar, little known or even bogus, historical characters. But it was Pierre Menard and his comrades from The Garden of Forking Paths and Artifices, combined in 1944 in Ficciones, who brought their author into the European limelight, winning him the Prix International in 1961 and the Cervantes Prize in 1978. . .

The essay is longer than our format can accomodate. Please see:
Ari Belenkiy's Essay in PDF format


In the paragraphs that follow, Ari Belenkiy tells us how he developed his interest in the puzzle that Borges presents in "Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote" (Sur, May 1939), a story that has been the subject of multiple academic papers since it first appeared.


My work on Pierre Menard, 2008-2024

I was introduced to Borges by my Moscow University friends. In 1985, upon seeing my emerging interest in Latin American literature, my second cousin, a Muscovite, Viktor Grushin asked: “did you hear of Borges?” – and lent me the first Russian edition, a potpourri from Borges’ different books which I read at night for the next two years in my graduate student room on the 17th floor of the Moscow University high rise. Next year, my fellow graduate Math student from Mexico City, Víctor Martínez Olivé shared with me the news of Borges’ death in June 1986 – “what, he was alive?!” – was my first reaction.

In the USA, in 1991, I bought several of Borges’ books which helped me learn literary English. I remembered their Russian translations almost by heart and so did not need to consult a dictionary continually – the most irritating procedure in learning a new language.

In Israel, in 1996, my old interest was rekindled when I acquired a newly published 3-volume collection of Borges’ works, also in Russian. In December 2008, reading a blog about Benjamin Fondane, a Romanian and French poet, I suddenly realized – here is Pierre Menard! It immediately brought into the picture Victoria Ocampo’s magazine Sur. But it took another four years for me, already in Vancouver, Canada, to discover Borges’ youthful amusement with Alphonse Daudet’s idea and realize that Pierre Menard is actually a Tartarin –  two men at once – Fondane and his mentor in philosophy Lev Shestov, a Russian émigré thinker.

Shestov’s ambition to rewrite Kant’s magnum opus, Critique of Pure Reason, explained Menard’s ambition to rewrite Don Quixote, the masterpiece of Cervantes. The Shestov obituary in Revue Philosophique de la France et de l’Étranger in November 1938 brought into focus another disciple of Shestov, Rachel Bespaloff, and the realization that the title of her 1938 book Cheminements et carrefours (Paths and Crossroads), provided the title to The Garden of Forking Paths. Only in 2022, after seeing the image of Cesar A. Comet with a pince-nez, did I solve the puzzle of Quevedo. And only in December 2023, preparing my paper for publication in Off-Course, did I understand the importance of the anonymous Shestov obituary in Sur in March 1939 in shaping Menard’s image.

My longtime collaborator, Eduardo Vila Echagüe of Santiago, Chile, was helping all along with translations from Sur and Victoria Ocampo’s Testimonios, and also explained a puzzling “Principality of Monaco” associated with Victoria Ocampo. During the "covid" years Polina Denisova, a graduate student at Albany, NY, and Aaron Levitt, a resident of Vancouver, helped bring the text to a more readable form.


Ari Belenkiy 2014 photo

Ari Belenkiy is a mathematician and science historian. He received his M.Sc. in Mathematics from Donetsk State University (Ukraine) in 1980, did graduate studies at Moscow State University in 1984-87 and received his Ph.D. in Mathematics from the University of California Irvine in 1995. For a number of years he taught mathematics and statistics at Bar-Ilan University (Israel). Most recently, he has been teaching statistics at Simon Fraser University (British Columbia, Canada).

His earlier works were on convergence of Fourier-Jacobi series (1989), greatest common divisor algorithm for two large numbers (1999), properties of two-dimensional optical fields (2000), microfinance (2002) and stochastic reduction in quantum systems (2008).

He gave invited talks: “Kepler’s ellipse and Jewish astronomical tradition” at SEAC (European Society for Cultural Astronomy) (Malta, 1999); “Alexander Friedman and the birth of modern cosmology” at TRIUMF (Tri-University Meson Facility) (Vancouver, 2013) and University of Victoria (2013); “Isaac Newton, Master of the Royal Mint” (University of Calgary, 2013; SFU, 2014; UBC, 2015); and contributed talks “GCD algorithm for two large numbers” at the International Congress on Computational Mathematics (Vancouver, 1994), “Isaac Newton and Regression Analysis” at the International Congress of Mathematics (Madrid, 2006).

His most recent works include studies of Mikhail Bulgakov’s masterpiece The Master & Margarita (Literature & Theology, 2006; Seven Arts, 2022), Isaac Newton’s unknown universal calendar and statistical methods in astronomy (Notes & Records Royal Soc, 2005; J. Royal Astr. Soc. Canada, 2010; Observatory, 2016) and Newton’s work at the Royal Mint (J Royal Statistical Soc A, 2013), Alexander Friedman’s and George Lemaître’s contributions to modern cosmology (Physics Today, 2012; Physics Teacher, 2015), the murder of Hypatia of Alexandria (Astronomy & Geophysics, 2010; Vigiliae Christianae, 2016) and various unsolved puzzles in Jewish history (Oriens Christianus, 2010; Scientific Culture, 2015; Scripta Classica Israelica, 2024).

He currently lives in Vancouver (British Columbia, Canada).


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