Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Gargantua and Pantagruel by François Rabelais.

Illustration from Gargantua and Pantagruel by Gustave Doré.
François Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel (La vie de Gargantua et de Pantagruel, 1532 - 1564) is one of those books I have read, thoroughly enjoyed, and know I haven't truly understood about 75%. It's a pre-Joyce, pre-Sterne, pre-Gulliver's Travels fictional history of the giant Gargantua and his son Pantegruel and is divided into five parts:
  1. 'The Horrible and Terrifying Deeds and Words of the Very Renowned Pantagruel King of the Dipsodes, Son of the Great Giant Gargantua' ('Les horribles et épouvantables faits et prouesses du très renommé Pantagruel Roi des Dipsodes, fils du Grand Géant Gargantua', 1532)
  2. 'The Very Horrific Life of Great Gargantua, Father of Pantagruel' ('La vie très horrifique du grand Gargantua, père de Pantagruel', 1534)
  3. 'The Third Book of the Heroic Deeds and Sayings of Good Pantagruel' ('Le tiers livre des faicts et dicts héroïques du bon Pantagruel', 1546)
  4. 'The Fourth Book of the Heroic Deeds and Sayings of Good Pantagruel' ('Le quart livre des faicts et dicts héroïques du bon Pantagruel', 1552)
  5. 'The Fifth and Last Book of the Heroic Deeds and Sayings of Good Pantagruel' ('Le cinquiesme et dernier livre des faicts et dicts héroïques du bon Pantagruel', 1564)
My Penguin edition (1955) begins with the birth of Gargantua, a confusing affair for all involved as his mother Gargamelle had eaten so much tripe it was hard for spectators to know if she was giving birth or evacuating her bowels. But lo, Gargantua was born after an eleven month pregnancy shouting "Drink! Drink! Drink!" 17,913 cows were ordered from Pontille and Bréhémont for his daily milk and an ox-wagon was designed to push him about in to show off his great beauty and eighteen chins. What follows is an account of his life: his childhood, the games he played (the list contains a great many games from Trump to Nick-nock, shit-in-his-beard to The Salvo of Farts), schooling, how he drowned thousands of Parisians by urinating on them, then the birth of his son Pantagruel, how his wife died giving birth to him, and then Panatgruel's life; childhood, schooling, adulthood... What is more interesting than the plot is the great many philosophical debates within it; there are a references to war, society, education, the legal system - all a dizzy whirl; it's realism, but the realism of James Joyce or Jonathan Swift - often grotesque, scatological, and above all completely unabashed: the body, in Gargantua and Pantagruel and beyond, will triumph over the political and the social. To top it off, it has the best advice on being in debt I've ever seen: "Always owe something to someone. Then there will be prayers continually offered up to God to grant you a long and happy life."

Gargantua and Pantagruel is a whirlwind of a book, but one to be enjoyed. There are many allusions to the Ancient Greeks and Romans, the Latin language, Christianity, the Bible, churches, the Pope... it can be very complicated, and I dare say most of it went over my head. I didn't find it so easy to follow, was lost on more times than I care to count, clearly haven't got to grips with it so well and I felt at a disadvantage with my poor grasp knowledge of the French Renaissance, but nevertheless I loved it. It's so big and brash and bold and I can't help but admire it and be fascinated with it. Very fresh, very surprisingly so give it is almost 500 years old (the first instalment, anyway). I will revisit it in the coming years, and hopefully then I'll do it more justice! For now, here are some of Gustave Doré's illustrations:


  1. I started reading this years ago and gave up thinking that I'd read it when I had the time to devote to it....I'm not sure if that time has yet come but I did think about reading it the other day :-)...Maybe I should just dip into it every once in a while. I Like the illustrations, of course.

    1. It is great, I do recommend you read it as soon as you can! Amazing, however difficult :)

  2. Oh fun! I can't wait for this one, despite the bathroom humour. It sounds quirky and since the author is French, one must expect something creative. Thanks for the excellent review!

    Perhaps a French Renaissance project is in order! ;-) But not now, right?!

    1. I'm too biased for a French Renaissance project - I'm really into my English stuff right now! I really want an Anglo Saxon reading project :)

      I hope you enjoy Rabelais and I can't wait to see what you make of it! It is so much fun :)

  3. I tried to read this once, but didn't make it very far. I hope it's because I was too young, and not that I'm too dumb. :)

    1. I think it needs a little bit of experience, though I'm sure many will disagree. But it this way, no way could I have got through this when I was younger :)


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