Field Notes: Gargantua and Pantagruel

GARGANTUA AND PANTAGRUEL

SYNOPSIS: François Rabelais’s jaunty, silly, ecstatically raunchy picaresque (published in five parts, from 1532 to ‘64), about the neverending adventures of a boisterous father and son in 16th-century France.

CONDITION: Penguin paperback, with a 1955 translation by J.M. Cohen. Bought used from Vancouver’s Bibliophile bookshop sometime in 2007.

THOUGHTS: Phew.

For more than two weeks I worked my way through this pillar of not just a certain brand of reckless deviant literature, but of no less than the novel itself. (It technically predates the first one, Don Quixote, by about 70 years, but I’m going to count it all the same—as a godparent, if nothing else.) And now that I’m done, I’m met with the same feeling I often get after finishing one of these classical doorstops: a mixture of warmth, deep satisfaction, and utter relief.

The truth is that Rabelais is useful, chiefly, as a reference point. As J.M. Cohen says in his translator’s introduction, he “stands prejudged”. There’s no pressing reason to actually read his books, so long as you can approximately place him in the overall landscape. And while it’s far from useless to try and parse all 700 pages and five installments of Gargantua and Pantagruel, or to analyze your reading experience thereof, I’d also caution against relying too hard on terms like good and bad. The shadow of influence is simply too big. This is a book that’s always been there, holding several important doors open, and it’s hard to imagine literature today without it. It’s a little like trying to review a letter of the alphabet.

Luckily, Rabelais’s first concern is that his readers are entertained. And, in Cohen’s translation, anyway, his prose flows as if from a faucet. You get the sense he’d rather you stay permanently jogging to keep up, not even stopping to appreciate the complexity of his puns and references. (I imagine there are versions of Gargantua and Pantagruel that come equipped with hundreds of footnotes. I can’t say how happy I am that mine isn’t one of ‘em.) The point is to keep his heroes constantly zipping from one set piece to the next; to keep the language as smooth and rhythmic as possible; and to keep the reader constantly gasping for breath.

The story is of a wealthy, aristocratic father and son—who have for all intents and purposes identical personalities—and who are also, probably, giants. Rabelais never says this out loud, and with his penchant for outlandish hyperbole (the number of French peasants who drown in streams of the heroes’ piss is surely in the thousands), the fantastic truth only slowly dawns on the reader. But this is a world chock full of such wonders, and such a gradual acclimatization makes for a reading experience that’s always on the verge of turning itself pleasantly sideways.

There are wars waged on the basis of a cake robbery. There’s a long, Odyssey-like naval journey to a series of eccentric nearby islands. There are wordless debates, multi-page lists of card games and monsters, and references to other books, both real and fake, by the hundreds. Every member of the heroes’ respective entourages gets out at least a few throwaway anecdotes; popular topics include the hypocrisy of the clergy and the importance of good wine. It’s clear that Rabelais poured the entirety of his knowledge into this book, and he knew a lot. (He was a priest, doctor, and editor by trade, as well as a voracious reader.)

Mostly, though, Gargantua and Pantagruel is a celebration of excess itself—of too-long sentences and of unnecessarily tangled conversations. If you’ve been weaned on stringy, 180-page novels starved on an MFA-approved diet, it may prove to be the all-you-can-eat buffet you’ve been looking for.

I won’t pretend I didn’t feel a great weight had been lifted when I finished it. These kinds of books are grueling even in their celebratory air and deep-seated love of life, and it’s such a foreign kind of text that you feel your brain stretching to try and better take it all in. You might also occasionally wonder, particularly near the end, whether it wasn’t possible to maybe get all this across in, say, 600 pages, instead of 700?

But I was relieved to discover that in this case, maybe it wasn’t Rabelais’s fault at all: the final book—which features an excruciatingly long description of some fountain in a cave, among other things—was published after his death, and is almost certainly unfinished. Some scholars question whether Rabelais wrote it at all. Good news indeed.

So now I can confirm what I’ve always been told: that Gargantua and Pantagruel is a crucial part of the most dazzling of literary constellations. Chronologically he falls between Homer and Cervantes, but Rabelais has been a glimmer in the eye of so many of my favourite writers—in many ways, reading his book was first and foremost an act of tribute, of kissing the man’s no-doubt-filthy ring.

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