Thursday, April 09, 2015

Sucking the Marrow of Life

Gargantua and Pantagruel 
by François Rabelais


"It becomes you to be wise to smell, feel, and have in estimation these fair books, de haulte gresse, light in the pursuit, and bold at the encounter. Then you must, by a curious reading and frequent meditation, break the bone and suck out the substantific marrow, — that is what I mean by these Pythagorean symbols, — with assured hope of becoming well-advised and valiant by the said reading; for in it you shall find another kind of taste, and a doctrine more profound, which will disclose unto you deep doctrines and dreadful mysteries, as well in what concerneth our religion as matters of the public state and life economical."  - Rabelais, Prologue to Garganua and Pantagruel


On this day in 1553 the French monk and writer Francois Rabelais died.  He was a major French Renaissance writer, doctor, Renaissance humanist, monk and Greek scholar. He has historically been regarded as a writer of fantasy, satire, the grotesque, bawdy jokes and songs.  Because of his literary power and historical importance, Western literary critics considered him one of the great writers of world literature and among the creators of modern European writing.  Here is an updated version of my notes on Rabelais's novel:
In 1532 Francois Rabelais wrote a story about the giant Gargantua. For the following twenty years he would continue to write producing Gargantua and Pantagruel, the first great novel in French literature. This novel, in five parts chronicles the adventures of the giant Gargantua and his son Pantagruel. While many consider Rabelais a difficult writer, he is in many senses a modern novelist, rejecting the rules for the novel, if for no other reason than they had yet to be established. His translator, Burton Raffel, in preface to his 1994 edition, describes Rabelais as "something like a cross between James Joyce and Laurence Sterne (the latter, like Rabelais, an ordained clergyman)". Having read both Sterne and Joyce I would agree that Rabelais ' prose is like theirs, difficult but worth persevering. The bawdy humor helps make the reading a little easier, but I most enjoyed the many lists that Rabelais interjected including lists of fools, animals and food, among others. 
While the first two books focus on the lives of the two giants, the rest of the series is mostly devoted to the adventures of Pantagruel's friends - such as Panurge, a roguish erudite maverick, and Brother Jean, a bold, voracious and boozing ex-monk - and others on a collective naval journey in search of the Divine Bottle.
Even though most chapters are humorous, wildly fantastic and sometimes absurd, a few relatively serious passages have become famous for descriptions of humanistic ideals of the time. In particular, the letter of Gargantua to Pantagruel and the chapters on Gargantua's boyhood present a rather detailed vision of education.

With its bawdy and bold examination of life--from satire on education to descriptions of bodily functions--Gargantua and Pantagruel is a comic masterpiece. His style is best described in Mimesis, where Erich Auerbach writes:

"The coarse jokes, the creatural concept of the human body, the lack of modesty and reserve in sexual matters, the mixture of such a realism with a satiric or didactic content, the immense fund of unwieldy and sometimes abstruse erudition, the employment of allegorical figures in the later books---all these and much else are to be found in the later Middle Ages. . . But Rabelais' entire effort is directed toward playing with things and with the mutiplicity of their possible aspects; upon tempting the reader out of his customary and definite way of regarding things, by showing him phenomena in utter confusion;"

Rabelais demonstrates a freedom of vision, feeling, and thought that has led to his book being banned by some ever since it was first published. Remember "Marian, the librarian" from The Music Man? She was chastised by the town in part because she included Rabelais on the town library shelves. Many other towns, states and countries over the years have banned this book. For both this reason and for the vigorous humaneness demonstrated by Rabelais this is worth reading. If you are a reader like me you may share some vicarious pleasure in a romp through the middle ages with Rabelais. 

2 comments:

Parrish Lantern said...

I absolutely adored this book, when I read it. So I should really read it again sometime, just to see if the response would be the same.

Brian Joseph said...

This has been on my radar for some time and I will read it sooner or later.

It sounds so rich!

I have heard that it is slow reading but I am always up for a challenge :)