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A Modern Master

François Rabelais: A Study

by Donald M. Frame
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 238 pp., $12.95


The moments in the history of art when a door is suddenly opened onto a wholly new range of possibilities are extremely rare. Monteverdi’s Orfeo marks one such in the history of music; Cézanne’s late canvases another, in the history of painting. The works of Rabelais, beginning with Pantagruel, first published in Lyons in 1532, most definitely mark one in the history of literature.

Historians and scholars are much concerned with origins, precursors, and influences. But when one is faced with something wholly new such considerations can blunt rather than sharpen one’s responses. Is it possible to put oneself in the position of the first readers of Pantagruel? To try to recapture the sense of exhilaration and bafflement that always accompanies confrontation with that which is totally new in art? Such readers would have known that a chapbook had recently appeared, called Les Grandes et inestimables cronicques du grant et enorme geant Gargantua, and that it had been a wildfire success. They would pick up Pantagruel expecting more of the same, for the subtitle explicitly tells us that this is “Son of Gargantua”—Les Horribles et espouventables faicts et prouesses du tresrenommé Pantagruel, Roi des Dipsodes, fils du grand geant Gargantua. But here, after a brief prologue, is what they would find:

It will not be an idle nor an unprofitable thing, seeing we are at leisure, to put you in minde of the Fountain and Original Source, whence is derived unto us the good Pantagruel; for I see that all good Historiographers have thus handled their Chronicle: not only Arabians, Barbarians and Latines, but also the gentle Greeks, who were eternal drinkers. You must therefore remark, that at the beginning of the world, (I speak of a long time, it is above fourty quarantaines or fourty times fourty nights, according to the supputation of the ancient Druids) a little after that Abel was killed by his brother Cain, the earth, imbrued with that blood of the just, was one year so exceeding fertil in all those fruits which it usually produceth to us, and especially in Medlars, that ever since, throughout all the ages, it hath been called the yeare of the great medlars….1

We are present here at nothing less than the birth of the novel. An important moment (though hardly a solemn one), and one we would do well to try to understand. Three aspects of the passage call for comment: the insistence on origins; the invocation of authorities; and the tone.

No medieval story is much concerned with tracing things back to their sources. Either it’s “once upon a time” (“whilom”), or it’s when or after this or that happened (“after that the seige and the assault was ceased at Troy”); other narratives begin with the poet falling asleep or coming to in a dark wood, where the landscape tells us what tradition and what traditional images the poet is evoking. Just as few medieval churches can really be said to date from this or that time, since there had always been a church or shrine on the spot, so no medieval story can be said to be original or new. But this story is different. Rabelais—or Alcofribas Nasier, as he anagrammatically calls himself on the title page—wants to put us “in minde of the Fountain and Original Source, whence is derived unto us the good Pantagruel….” One of the elements of the novel as it develops in the eighteenth century is going to be this insistence on birth, the single source, uniqueness, novelty.

The narrator, however, is equally anxious to assure us of the truth and historicity of his tale: “A little after that Abel was killed by his brother Cain….” No assertion, however trivial, is allowed to slip by without reinforcement from a venerable authority: “…according to the supputation of the ancient Druids….” Truth, authenticity, thus joins originality as an essential element in the birth of the new form.

But the most significant element in the passage is also the most difficult to pin down: it resides in the tone. No reader can fail to realize, after a line or two, that all is not as it should be with this narrative. There is a growing sense of disparity between what is said and how it is being said. By the time we get to the medlars we need to go back and reread the paragraph. When we do so we are struck by the little aside about the gentle Greeks, a phrase we had no doubt ignored at a first reading as it seemed out of keeping with the effect of the weightiness of authority the narrator seemed to want to convey, but which now is seen as holding the true key to the tone. In other words the lack of interest and importance, the lack even of any reality of “the good Pantagruel,” is borne in upon us precisely by the impressive array of stylistic and rhetorical gestures which herald him.

But we misread the passage if we conclude from this that Rabelais is being ironic at the expense of the giant. The disparity between style and content contaminates both historical truth and fabulous narrative. Looking back once again at the passage we note that it addresses itself to a “we” who include both author and readers, and who are said to be “at leisure.” This leisure, this hiatus in the busy day, is the space where narrative inserts itself. Later Rabelais—like Nashe and Sterne—will say that he threw off the book while eating and drinking. The scholar, seeing the brilliance of the work, will want to dismiss such a remark, but we ought perhaps to take it seriously. In contrast to the medieval poet, who has a vision to impart or a tale to narrate to a community of men who share the same assumptions and interests as himself, Alcofribas Nasier talks merely to pass the time, and he addresses himself to the solitary reader who, like himself, has leisure on his hands.

For Rabelais, in 1532, two options were open: he could go on writing commentaries on ancient authorities, like the ones on Galen and Hippocrates he was called upon to undertake in the course of his medical studies; or he could write merry tales in the vernacular, as Boccaccio had done, or as, more recently, the author of the Grands Croniques had done with notable success. He was condemned, in other words, either to gloss The Truth, or to spin lies out of his own entrails. He chose, of course, to do neither, but to explore instead his own unease with both.2 In other words, he chose to use the impulse to write as a way of discovering where lay his subject matter: he chose the extemporal vein.

The birth of the novel is coterminous with the birth of the extemporal vein. No one, least of all the author, could have predicted those medlars at the start of his story, but here they are, making an appearance and we are not yet two sentences into the chapter. They appear not because Rabelais wants to make a point or create a character, but simply because the logic of his discourse has brought him here. The only question that now faces him is: where does one go from here?

The reader too is launched into the unknown, all the normal props whipped away from under him. The timid reader will quickly shut the book and look for something safer; the more intrepid reader will cling on and gradually grow to relish the danger. But even he may not quite see where the newness of the extemporal style really lies.

All art is the result of exclusion. The systems of exclusion of art are its forms: the sonnet, the elegy, the five-act tragedy. Thus there will always be a gap between the impulse toward expression, which is chaotic and limitless, and its embodiment in the forms of art—a dark area where the crucial transformation takes place and which, it seems, must always remain shrouded. This is where the novelty of the novel lies. For suddenly it seems that everything can be said, that our doubts and hesitations, the gaps in memory and desire, the inevitable and repeated failures to turn chaos into form, to make sense of past and present—all this can now be given expression, can have conferred upon it the dignity of art, need no longer be a source of shame.

Thus to refer to Pantagruel as a Menippean satire, to relate it, as scholars have done, to Erasmus’s Praise of Folly or Brant’s Ship of Fools, is to miss the central point. Those works do indeed exist in a particular tradition, a distinctive genre. To write in that tradition is to make a pact with your reader beforehand: this is the kind of work it’s going to be. With Pantagruel the only sign to the reader is a warning: hold on tight.

But of course rules sustain at the same time as they exclude—whether in the sonnet or the five-act tragedy. Very soon the novel too, out of a natural spirit of self-preservation, started to build up its own tacit rules: rules regulating the tense of the narrative, the degree of authorial intervention, the way character is to be presented, etc., etc. The nineteenth-century novel is as tight a genre as the sonnet, though, unlike the sonnet, it conceals the fact—sometimes even from its own practitioners. Only a handful of authors in the long history of the novel have managed to keep open the door unlocked by Rabelais: Cervantes, Fielding perhaps, Sterne. It was not until this century that a new desire was to manifest itself on the part of a wide range of writers to return to the freedom of the extemporal vein.

The extemporalist trusts to the moment: it will provide. In the case of most writers it doesn’t. It would have been much better for them, we feel, to have accepted the constraints of the traditional novel. We, as readers, grow restive as the outlines of the writer’s self start to emerge, as his own private obsessions grow more and more blatant. The exclusions of art, its forms, have the function of directing the writer to what is most valuable and interesting, putting him in touch with the experience of all earlier practitioners of the genre. Without them he is usually only a bore.

How does Rabelais escape these strictures? Partly, he was lucky. He happened to be writing at the right time. Partly too, like Sterne and Proust and Kafka, he combined immense patience with immense reserves, cultural, linguistic, and human.

Is Rabelais merely, as Donald Frame suggests, “intoxicated with words,” never using two when six or even sixty will do? Here is part of a passage from the Prologue to the Tiers Livre, where sixty-four verbs in the imperfect tense are used to describe how Diogenes drove his barrel out of the city of Corinth and up and down a nearby mountain:

  1. 1

    The translation I use here is that of Sir Thomas Urquhart, published in 1653. Despite its inevitable shortcomings it still seems to me to catch Rabelais’s tone better than any other.

  2. 2

    The point is well made by Michel Beaujour in what is undoubtedly the finest book on Rabelais: Le Jeu de Rabelais (Paris, L’Herne, 1969).

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