Francois Rabelais
Francois Rabelais; drawing by David Levine


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:

le tournoit, viroit, brouilloit, garbouilloit, hersoit, versoit, renversoit, nattoit, grattoit, flattoit, barattoit, bastoit, boutoit, butoit, tabustoit, cullebutoit, trepoit, trempoit, tapoit….

Frame correctly observes that “what is apparent is how one sound leads to another similar one,” but he fails to do anything with this insight. Yet what we see at work here is a continuous to-and-fro motion between the word as pure object, sheer breath, and the word as part of a system of signs conveying meaning.

This is typical of Rabelais’s tactic throughout: he leads us to the point where the realistic surface, his story of giants and battles, the education of gentlemen and the acquiring of wives, is just about to burst and disintegrate, and then pulls us back to the narrative and carries on. We can see this at work again in the marvelous description of Gargantua’s youthful games (Gargantua, Ch. 11). “Gargantua,” Rabelais begins by telling us, “from three years upwards unto five, was brought up and instructed in all convenient discipline, by the commandment of his father.” However, naturally enough, he “spent that time like the other little children of the countrey, that is, in drinking, eating and sleeping.”

So far this could be the description of any fictional childhood; but at this point the chapter ceases merely to convey information, and starts instead to mime the young giant’s activity: “…that is, in drinking, eating and sleeping: in eating, sleeping and drinking; and in sleeping, drinking and eating.” Now the narrative begins to go wild:

Still he wallowed and rowled up and down himself in the mire and dirt: he blurred and sullied his nose with filth: he blotted and smutch’t his face with any kinde of scurvie stuffe, he trode down his shoes in the heele: At the flies he did often-times yawn, and ran very heartily after the Butterflies….

This change of direction is the signal for the introduction of a seemingly endless series of actions attributed to the young Gargantua, actions which grow more and more preposterous, for what Rabelais does is to take literally a wide range of popular proverbs and locutions. Thus “he would sit down betwixt two stooles, and his arse to the ground, would cover himself with a wet sack, and drinke in eating of his soupe…. He would flay the Fox, say the Apes Paternoster, return to his sheep and turn the Hogs to the Hay…. He always looked a given horse in the mouth, leaped from the cock to the asse, and put one ripe between two green: by robbing Peter he payed Paul, he kept the Moon from the wolves, and hoped to catch Larks if ever the Heavens should fall….” This amazing sequence modulates gradually into a lyrical passage about the sexual games played by the young Gargantua with his nurses and then into a wonderful chorus by the nurses in praise of his sexual organ: “One of them would call it her little dille, her staffe of love, her quillety, her faucetin, her dandilollie: Another her peen, her jolly kyle….” Whereupon the narrative finally returns to its task at the start of the following chapter, with the reintroduction of time; “Afterwards, that he might be all his lifetime a good Rider, they made to him a fair great horse of wood….”

As we can see from this passage, Rabelais moves continually, yo-yo fashion, between the Pleasure and Reality Principles, between the expression of the unlimited desires of the child and the reminder of the limits imposed by the external world: sexual taboos, the laws of grammar and syntax. The whole of his book is thus rather like Wagner’s Tristan: a perpetually deferred climax which, if it were allowed to take place, would destroy the work.

Rabelais, then, is not primarily interested in character or plot. Compare, for example, the attitudes of Rabelais and Cervantes to the popular tales from which they take off. Rabelais retells the tale, while Cervantes creates a character who lives the tales. The English—is it because of Shakespeare?—have always responded better to solutions of the latter kind. Even Joyce, whose instinct was to go in the direction of Rabelais, felt compelled to create “characters”; and it is Beckett’s lack of interest in character that makes him so difficult to read for anyone brought up in the English literary tradition.

Rabelais provides himself with just enough character and plot to keep going—a few names, a few simple oppositions: Pantagruel-Panurge, Baisecul-Humevesne; some large, loose, episodic structures: wars, quests, symposia. His way forward from episode to episode, chapter to chapter, does not rely on these. What he does instead is to let all the voices inside him and inside his culture have their head. He echoes the multiplicity of languages available to him: not just the many modern and ancient languages of which the Renaissance was becoming aware, but the language of the law courts, of the market place, of commerce, of Humanist letters, of diplomacy, historiography, rhetorical praise and rhetorical lament. He inserts himself into each of these, draws his sustenance from it, and allows each to overreach itself just enough to give us a glimpse of what he is doing. We have seen this at work in the opening sentences of Pantagruel, but it is true even of the famous Humanist documents such as the letters of the giants, or the harangues of Janotusde Bragmardo and Ulrich Gallet. Listen to Ambassador Gallet begin his speech:

There cannot arise amongst men a juster cause of grief, then when they receive hurt and damage, where they may justly expect for favour and good will; and not without cause, (though without reason,) have many, after they had fallen into such a calamitous accident, esteemed this indignity lesse supportable then the losse of their own lives, in such sort, that if they have not been able….

The slightly overinsistent Ciceronianisms here draw attention to themselves, allowing us to glimpse the playful artist behind the solemn speaker.

The difference between writing like this and writing within the conventions of the traditional novel is rather like the difference between the stand-up comic and the actor in Ibsen or Chekhov. For the comic there is no safety. No wonder that the incompetent comic gets frightened, talks too much, too fast, dries up, loses the thread, looks round wildly for the exit. The master comic, on the other hand, takes his time, plays the audience. Our pleasure derives not from what he says or does, but from the combination of extreme vulnerability—he’s out there, all alone, with no script and no one to help him—and extreme control. In that situation he presents us with a true image of ourselves out in the wide world, and we realize, watching him, how unrealistic the plays of Ibsen and Chekhov in fact are.

Of course the writer in the extemporal style is less vulnerable than the stand-up comic. He is free, after all, to stop and start again. But the act of writing can also take him much further into the unexpected and unknown than the comic would care to go. The initial encounter between Pantagruel and Panurge is instructive here. In a courteous and flowery French the young prince questions the handsome but ragged Panurge who appears before him: Who are you? he asks. Where do you come from? What is your name? Panurge replies, equally courteously, first in Dutch, then in nonsense jargon, then in Italian, English, Basque, Spanish, Danish, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. “Well, my friend,” says Pantagruel, “but cannot you speak in French?” “That I can do, Sir, very well,” answers Panurge, “God be thanked; it is my natural language and mother-tongue….”

Although Pantagruel is held up as an ideal throughout the book and Panurge is shown to be vain, egotistical, and blind to his innumerable faults, the book, strangely enough, seems rather to be written by a Panurge than by a Pantagruel. But this is not altogether surprising. Like Panurge, the writer of the book has no name, comes from nowhere, and has no tradition to tell him how to speak or what to say. All he has are his wits and his impulse to imitate or mime everything he sees and hears. Sensing himself excluded from the societies of men he can only draw attention to this exclusion by borrowing the diverse tongues and gestures of men. Panurge’s surprising mode of reply makes us see that Pantagruel’s initial questions were couched in a certain language, a single closed system; for Pantagruel it was the only one and perfectly natural. Panurge will not accept the tacit rules of any society; his language is French, but he will speak in it only when asked point-blank if he can do so; otherwise he might as well speak in any of the multiplicity of languages which come just as easily to him. Panurge’s reply, however, does not only make us see the limits of Pantagruel’s world. There is also something excessive about it, as though the very ease of Pantagruel’s use of language had thrown him into a frenzy. We feel in Panurge a positive urge toward dispersal and fragmentation. It is this urge and the way it is just held in check that gives us Rabelais’s characteristic tone.

The medieval artist was a craftsman, experienced and adept at his trade; his subject matter was given him by tradition and his job was to rework it in his own way. For this the Renaissance substituted a new image, that of the artist as truth-teller and seer, rising above the muddled world of men and in touch with the mysteries of the universe.3 Rabelais could not subscribe to this view. He is no prophet and he is aware of the presumption of pretending to be one. On the other hand, though he retains a sense of the craftsman’s cunning and instinct, he senses too that he is now on his own, no longer part of any tradition which can support him. In Rabelais, for the first time, we find the urge to speak allied to the awareness that he has nothing to say. Accepting the challenge, he fragments and disperses himself to the four winds and, in the process of following his nose, his pen, he finds himself again, not an impersonal “maker” and not the wise Doctor François Rabelais, but anagrammatized into Alcofribas Nasier, the eternal trickster, cocking a snoop at our solemnities. His “natural language and mother-tongue,” the gift of the vernacular, is the sign of his (and our) exclusion from tradition, but it is also the sign of his (and our) freedom to move among all languages and to remain confined to none. It is the glory and the despair of the novel.


Pantagruel was published in 1532. By 1553 Rabelais was dead. In those twenty years he published three more volumes of his “novel,” and a fifth volume, written at least in part by him, appeared after his death. But already by 1549 the door he had opened had started to be pushed shut. In that year du Bellay published his Defense et illustration de la langue française, a key document, as everyone knows, in the cultural history of France. What du Bellay did in that essay was to glorify the vernacular by conferring upon it the status of Latin. The result was to turn the vernacular into yet another closed system, as rigidly exclusive as any poetic language. Extraordinarily enough, it was not until Proust and, after him, Céline and Queneau, that French literature was able to escape the tyranny of Humanist ideals and rediscover the openness and fluidity of Rabelais. (The whole history of nineteenth-century French literature from Chateaubriand to Rimbaud can be seen as the history of futile attempts at revolt, futile because revolt itself was still seen in the terms imposed by the dominant culture.)

It is therefore not surprising that French scholars have tended to see Rabelais exclusively in Humanist terms and have been quite unable to see the nature of his originality and importance. English scholars, however, should have known better. After all, our great Renaissance writers are not only Spenser and Milton but Shakespeare, Jonson, Nashe, and Donne. England escaped the establishment of a literary academy and the line of Shakespeare and Donne stretched on through the high age of the Augustans in such writers as Swift, Fielding, and Sterne.

But of course scholars, whether English of French, have a vested interest in Humanist ideals. Scholarship needs to sort out, pin down, classify, understand. Is it surprising that it has failed to deal with Rabelais?

This is not to say that scholarship has not taught us a great deal about the background to Rabelais. It has also used Rabelais extensively in its study of numerous facets of the Renaissance. But when it comes to what is really important about Rabelais, scholarship is not only silent; it is misleading.

Donald Frame’s book is a good example of what I mean. Frame is a learned man, the author of several books on Montaigne. He obviously loves and admires Rabelais, and he is both sensitive and commonsensical, surely a good combination in any critic. “In most writers,” he points out, and his tone invites assent, “the comic touch cancels a serious part that precedes it, puts that too in a comic light. This, I think, is not Rabelais’s intent, nor is it his effect on most readers. Neither voice cancels out the other; both continue to sound in our inward ear. Ours to harmonize them as best we can; for the book includes them both.”

Frame sets about analyzing Rabelais’s book in a detached, scientific spirit. He divides his own book into seventeen chapters: the first deals with the background; the second with the life; the next five with each of Rabelais’s five books; and the last ten with a variety of topics from comedy and satire to obscenity and storytelling. In each of the chapters dealing with the individual books he goes about things in the same spirit: the book is divided and subdivided so that we can get a clear idea of what it is about. Thus, for Pantagruel: “The book as a whole may be divided into three parts: genealogy, birth, childhood episodes (chapters 1-8); Panurge (9-24); the war and what follows (25-34).” And, for Gargantua: “The fifty-eight chapters…may be divided as follows: 1-13, genealogy, birth, childhood; 14-15 and 21-24, education; 16-20, arrival in Paris…; 25-51, the war against…Picrochole; 52-57, the Abbey of Theleme; 58, the prophetic enigma.”

Frame now proceeds to comment on this analysis: “Even this outline shows that twelve chapters (as against one plus of Pantagruel) are devoted to serious ideas….” At this point we begin to see how Frame’s assumptions color his understanding. For him, despite his opening disclaimer, the book is made up of separate portions of “light” and of “serious” material, and Rabelais is given more marks the greater the proportion of “serious” to “light” in any book.

At one go this sweeps away any hope of understanding what is distinctive and important in Rabelais’s narrative. Indeed, the fact that this is a story and not an encyclopedia is not noticed at all, except for the ritual-like assertion that “storytelling is one of Rabelais’s greatest gifts.” For Frame the narrative is merely a repository of ideas, and those ideas are the ones held by François Rabelais. “Of all five books,” we are told, “Gargantua gives the clearest picture of Rabelais’s attitudes and ideas—those of around 1534.”

Frame’s assumptions, we begin to see, impose a profoundly misleading reading on the whole book. “It is no wonder,” he remarks, “that the exuberant optimism of Rabelais’s first two books…written before the Placards, is absent from the last three.” However, “his book was new, his own, and an immediate hit.” Later, though, he qualifies this: “In his first venture into this form Rabelais is not yet ready to make it his own…. He seems to feel limited by the genre in which he chose to write.” Like other scholars, Frame is naturally puzzled why Rabelais should have chosen to write the way he did if what he wanted to do was to discourse on the glorious new dawn of the Renaissance: “It was a venture that might bring him not only general popularity but also the scorn of other humanists…. Probably Rabelais needed the money.” No doubt he did; writers usually do. But the remark cannot disguise the critical bankruptcy of “scholarship” when faced with the text of Rabelais. It really comes as no surprise after this to be told that “much of the plot is episodic”; that “there are inconsistencies”; and that “as a literary creation” Panurge “remains in this book not yet fully a man of flesh and blood but somewhat two-dimensional.”

There is a ghost hovering behind Frame’s book—or rather, a ghostly model of what human beings are like and of what art is for. We can reconstitute it quite easily: a man stands clearly defined, over against the world; has inside him certain ideas or views which he wants to convey; these ideas have to do either with the outside world or with the world inside the man; and he writes in order to convey them to the reader, who takes them off the page, so to speak, and places them inside his self. This is a model, fostered by Humanism itself, whose power and fascination Rabelais instinctively understood and wished to mock and exorcise. For Humanists it is axiomatic that a text (or a person), cleansed of the accretions of false traditions, can and will speak for itself; that if there is a mystery, it will be solved; that for every riddle there is an answer; and that when that answer is found all the doubts, hesitations, and anxieties of our present existence will be resolved once and for all.

Rabelais was more modest in his expectations and for that reason ultimately more optimistic. He knew that ancient texts, however well edited, still need to be interpreted; he knew, like Hamlet, that it is not possible to pluck out the heart of any man’s mystery and that men are no easier to be played on than pipes; he knew that there is no grail or final goal which will lead to Utopia here on earth; and he knew, finally, that we cannot return to “the Fountain and Original source” of our own or any other story. However, “seeing we are at leisure,” we can explore this very human though misguided impulse to find truth at all costs, to explain and understand everything. If we care to read him, with concentration though without undue seriousness, we will find that we do indeed make a number of discoveries, but that they are in the main discoveries about our own shortcomings and our own potential: about how frightening and exhilarating it is to cease to be François Rabelais and to become instead Alcofribas Nasier, abstracteur de quinte essence.

This Issue

October 13, 1977