Wednesday 15 February 2023

Review: Gargantua and Pantagruel by François Rabelais

 I’d long wanted to read Gargantua and Pantagruel because of its influence on comic literature, particularly Tristram Shandy, which I plan to re-read later. After reading Anatomy of Laughter, my desire to read the book piqued even further so I picked it up.

The first book (written second) tells the adventures of Gargantua, an intelligent and convivial giant. The second book (written first) is about his son, Pantagruel, his all-worthy son. The third book is about finding the answer to a conundrum posed by Pantagruel’s friend, Panurge and the last two books are about a travel round the world to find an oracle to answer that question. 

Most of that is beside the point, this is not a novel, it’s a piece of freewheeling prose fiction. Rabelais doesn’t want to tell a psychologically complex, long story; he wants to tell anecdotes, to prod thoughts and tickle laughter. Gargantua and Pantagruel is a waste of time and it’s supposed to be.

The most common technique in the book is to bring everything back to the body. That human beings have bodies and that those bodies shit, puke, piss, cum, queef, vomit, fart and burp is of great amusement to Rabelais. Even funnier is when the main characters are giants and their bodily functions are exponentially bigger. Norman Inkpen admits to finding Gargantua and Pantagruel too big a jobbie in his genre-defining Shit Jokes- a study of Scatological Humour and following his sad demise will never be able to read his Rabelais-based follow-up, Gargantuan Turds.

Rabelais also makes great effect of mixing bodily functions with more intellectual elements. It may be the developing arts of the index and concordance to produce a list of different kind of bollocks or fool. He may use classic, university style chopped logic to discuss the likelihood of being cuckolded or modern humanist understanding to explore the same. Rabelais also loves lists. Many of these come in the form of overenthusiastic synonyms but some are actually formatted as such. The book consists of a list of types of ball-bag and also types of fool. There’s also a scripted dialogue at one point. Rabelais (or the translator) also loves semi-plausible nonsense words, people are philogrobolized in the brain and monks go on circumbilvaginations. 


I particularly enjoyed the prologues to each book, where Rabelais insulted his audience in a jocular manner, made extravagant claims about the success of his work and hopes for how they’ll be received. At one point he says he hopes everyone is so taken by his book that they’ll forget to do anything else but read them and civilisation will fall apart. This won’t be so bad though, as everyone will have memorised his works and will all be laughing nonetheless.

The first two books are pretty similar. They both tell the story of a giant’s birth and childhood, how they went to Paris to be educated and how they returned to their homeland to defend it from invaders. Both drown those invaders in piss at one point. 

The first giant, Gargantua is poorly served by his education at first. He starts of a natural genius, using experimentation to discover the best bum wiper (and settling on the downy neck of a live goose) but being destroyed into uselessness by his tutoring. He’s turned around by a good tutor though and is ready to recapture his country with the aid of Fr John, a drunken, violent monk and Gymnaste, who vaults actual horses. 

The second giant, Pantagruel is better served by his education, becoming a genuine renaissance man. He meets Panurge, a character who has numerous ways to gain money but even more numerous to lose it. Panurge initially responds in a melee of languages, begging for food and drink, before he gets it and becomes part of the team. There’s a wonderfully ludicrous chapter where Panurge argues a thesis with a British academic only in the form of mime. The book describes all their strange movements but has no commentary on what is actually being discussed.

The third book takes a turn. Not only is it the first where Rabelais names himself as author, he also describes himself as being among the characters. This is where Panurge becomes the focus and Pantagruel steps back. Panurge wants to get married but is worried he might be beaten, robbed and cuckolded by his wife. The gang ask numerous experts, soothsayers and quacks and each give the same answer - that everything Panurge fears will come true but he’s stubborn and keeps asking more people. I quite liked this running joke and it gave the third book more of a shape. 

The fourth and fifth book depict a voyage halfway across the world to visit the ultimate oracle and ask it Panurge’s question. It’s a real proto-Gulliver, with each world having a different satiric purpose. There’s the land of The Belly, a ‘Ventipotent God’, an island of clergyman birds, one of cat-lawyers (known as ‘clawyers’) and another of people who worship Papal Bulls to an extreme degree. Fr John and Panurge bicker a lot throughout these books, with the formally brave Panurge now a reluctant coward against the bluff clergyman. One odd element is the setting off of the voyage contained six chapters describing a magical weed they bring with them, which isn’t ever mentioned on the voyage itself.

It’s debated whether the fifth book is fully Rabelais, or whether it’s built from bits, pieces and notes. I didn’t find it to be a significant drop-off in quality and actually enjoyed the descriptions of the Temple of the Bottle. There was even a slightly grand moment when Panurge receives his wisdom, a big fat yes. Yes to everything, to the joys of marriage, to the pitfalls, to life in general. Yes.

This is the ‘point’ of the whole book though. Embrace life. Be big. Be magnanimous, generous, giving, curious. Enjoy life. Enjoy being alive right now, in a messy, hungry, thirsty body. Embrace everything that life throws at you or thrusts upon you. The small, petty, pedantic and blinkered are the opposite of this - don’t be them (or you might drown in piss). It’s an oddly enlivening book with a surprisingly positive message. Though the misogyny of the book can’t be denied, nor can the spitefulness of the main characters sometimes (especially Panurge). It does lessen the book, it can’t be so magnanimous as to include women - this is a book written by the blinkered vision of a (twice-former) monk in the 1500s. Yet the intended spirit of the book comes through, making it oddly more enjoyable in the abstract than the specific. There were times I was bored reading this (despite the.. ehem gargantuan efforts to entertain) and there were times Rabelais’s limits to include women in his vision were off-putting but thinking of the overall message, this is a great and positive work.

Aside from anything else, I find it hard to walk into the classroom I work in after lunchtime and not feel that I am being “pickled in farts” and if I ever get the chance to call an old friend, “my velvety ball bag”, I’ll be a very happy person.

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