Wednesday, May 02, 2012

A world (not French) classic

Title: Pantagruel
Author: Francois Rabelais
Publisher: Hesperus  Press
Price: 43.50
(First published 1552)

I'm not long into the book when I think, "Damn it! This is so James Joyce." I'm thinking Ulysses. Rabelais's influence is unmistakable; and one can be sure that Shakespeare and Cervantes were quite familiar with his work, too. As was Jonathan Swift. It would be difficult for any writer not to be influenced by the style of Rabelais after reading him, although his book was written over 450 years ago, and his works will not fall into the neat modern category called the 'novel'. The influence this bawdy, gross, over-the-top classic satire, involving various bodily parts and functions, has had over the centuries is obvious. Rabelais is often described as 'a major French renaissance writer'. This is an unfortunate Anglophone put-down, one that has lead to profound ignorance of his works amongst those who read in English. Rebelais was a major world writer. Period. He was, and, is a hugely important writer. And -- think of it -- he wrote at a time when writers were tortured, strangled and burnt in public places in Paris for translating Plato, or quoting Socrates. (Pantagruel by Hesperus Press is only one part of the 1,000 odd page Penguin volume called Gargantua and Pantagruel.)

Francois Rabelais was a Franciscan monk, turned Benedictine, who studied law and graduated as a doctor in 1530, rejecting his monastic life for a career in medicine. He lectured in medicine around Europe, and wrote stories based on folklore, of an imaginary world of giants, comic characters and situations. He mocked education, imperialism, monastic ideals, judiciary, language ... everything. He led a dangerous life, even if he had the patronage of a king and two cardinals.

Excerpts from Pantagruel:

1. On imperialism: ... books now published are printed correctly and elegantly, printing having been invented in my lifetime by divine inspiration just as – conversely – artillery was invented at the instigation of the devil. (Gargantua’s letter to Pentagruel, Chapter 8.)

2. On society: ... as you know the people of Paris are noted for their stupidity (natural stupidity both sharp and flat) ...

3. On education: In response to the way a scholar from Paris speaks, Pantagruel says, “He’s really talking through his arse, what does he mean?" to which his friend replies, "... my lord, This young fellow is trying to ape the way they talk in Paris ..."

4. On the legal fraternity: read the lawsuit between Sir Kissarse and Sir Fartsniff. It is hilarious.

Whether you buy classics to read for enjoyment, to educate yourself, to enjoy the use of language, to impress friends or to decorate your bookshelf, Francois Rabelais should be an essential part of it.