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Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Gargantua and Pantagruel by Francois Rabelais

Gargantua and Pantagruel:
The five books
by Francois Rabelais
translation by Jacques Le Clerq

   One of the foundational principles of this blog is that you can compare different types of work of art: paintings can be compared to novels can be compared to symphonies. All works of Art have an Artist and an Audience.  Some art forms have a longer history then others, especially where the attribution of specific works of art to specific artists is concerned.

  A benefit to looking at an art form with a longer history is simply that you have more examples of Artists, works of art and the reception of art by Audiences.  For me, the early history of the novel fascinates because the history goes back so looonngggg.  Take Gargantua and Pantagruel, originally published in the 16th century by Francois Rabelais.  Generally considered to be a forerunner of the Novel, Gargantua and Pantagruel is actually a five volume series about the father and son pair of giants: Gargantua is the father and Pantagruel is the son.

     Confusingly, the first volume Rabelais wrote is actually sequenced second in most modern editions.  The second volume written, the story of the father Giant, Gargantua is presented as the first volume.  It's somewhat analogous to the way the Star Wars movies were made.  The first and second volume were received with much acclaim and approbation- this being the 16th century, Rabelais was accused of heresy, had to flee France in fear for his life.

   Each volume is about 150 pages long, but the first two volumes are clearly superior to the last three.  Only the first two volumes: Pantagruel and Gargantua really, really stand the test of time.  The third volume is basically a philosophical discourse a la Plato about the merits of marriage, and volumes four and five are a loose parody/homage to Homer's Odyssey.

   What's most surprising about Rabelais is simply how DIRTY the jokes are. Rabelais def. puts Sade in context.  All five volumes contain enough shit jokes and sex references to make an 80s era Andrew Dice Clay blush in shame.

   Unfortunately for Rabelais' contemporary prospects as a popular, widely read author, the 16th century rears its hard-to-understand in page after page of references to scholastic method, ancient authority, latin metaphors and paragraphs of lists, lists, lists.   And although the entire five volumes runs something like 750 pages in length, a modern reader can get the drift by reading the second/first volume: Gargantua.  It's in this volume that you get the best bawdiness, the best satire of scholastic teaching methods, and a story line that most resembles the modern novel (specifically, something like Gulliver's Travels.)

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