Gargantua and Pantagruel by Francois Rabelais

Gargantua and PantagruelGargantua and Pantagruel by François Rabelais
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An oversized book about oversized men overindulging in larger-than-life adventures.

I first read this book in 1980 or 1981 when a roommate had a copy. I had already formed the intention of reading the classics. I was surprised at how zany and absurd the book was, and how filled with wild exaggeration and bathroom humor. Lacking a central story line, the book is a long series of heterogeneous episodes, and I found it a challenge to make it all the way through its 712 pages. But I did.

Now that I’m reading the Britannica Great Books of the Western World, the book again appears on my list, and because I didn’t remember much of it, I decided to read it again. Now more mature, educated, and patient, I was able to get more out of it, but I still found it to be a chewy read that took discipline to get through.

Gargantua and Pantagruel seem to have been figures of local legend that Rabelais (ca. 1492–1553) seized upon as heroes for his work. At their respective births (Pantagruel is Gargantua’s son) they are described as enormous giants of King Kong-like proportions, but in the rest of the narrative they seem to blend in more or less easily with their normal-sized human companions.

Gargantua is the king of a small realm in the south of France, and his upbringing and adventures are related with a special emphasis on his bodily functions—a persistent concern of Rabelais. For example, a chapter is devoted to describing all the things that Gargantua uses to wipe his bottom with. There is also a lot of attention to food and drink, and the consumption of these in huge quantities. The narrator often refers to his readers as his fellow boozers, and there is a strong sense that this is a book by, for, and about bon vivants. If you’re not feasting, drinking, and wenching, then step aside and make room for someone who is.

Only Book 1 is about Gargantua; the last four books focus on Pantagruel and his retinue of roguish friends. They engage in wars, go on travels, and spend a lot of time in debate that is both learned and bawdy. They are not characters though in any proper sense, lacking qualities that make them individually distinct. With one exception: the character Panurge, who makes his appearance in Book 2. A mischievous, arrogant, cowardly wastrel, Panurge stands out in strong relief against the backdrop of the shadowy cast of characters—including even Pantagruel himself, who is not nearly so vividly portrayed. Much of the book’s interest comes from Panurge’s views and exploits.

The translator, J. M. Cohen, says in his introduction that there is no one Rabelaisian style, in the same way that there is no one Joycean style (James Joyce was reportedly an admirer of Rabelais, and when I read the book this time I thought I could see this connection). But I will try to summarize Rabelais’ style as it manifests in this translation. The Rabelaisian style is scatological, irreverent, and larger than life. It is characterized by wild exaggeration, lists, and allusions to classical works. It sees the central concerns of human life as eating, drinking, excreting, and copulating; all else is in a dim penumbra around these things. For while there is plenty of talk of things religious and priestly, it is clear that the lives of priests and monks are as centered on these four activities as much as anyone’s.

The five books were all published separately (and always to the official disapproval of the Church) during Rabelais’ lifetime (Book 5 may have been published posthumously), so reading them separately might make it easier than taking them all in one go. As it is, I found that the antics of the characters started to wear thin for me long before the end, even as I continued to appreciate the satirical repartee and learned references. I laughed out loud several times while reading this book. But I found it wasn’t in me to give it more than 3 stars.

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