Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Books: Gargantua, by François Rabelais

I picked up this book at the library somewhat at random, and somewhat in homage to the fact that one of my favorite books, John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces, is oft described as Rabelaisian. The book can be divided into three sections: the birth and miseducation of Gargantua, the reëducation of Gargantua, and the battle against a tyrant in which Gargantua saves his father's kingdom. I will say the most about the first section, for it is the section that defines the Rabelaisian character and tone, and the least about the last, because it is the most tedious and conventional.

Gargantua, an absurdly large baby, is born to parents Grandgousier and Gargamelle, and Rabelais catalogues carefully his various activities: eating (with long lists of large numbers, a meal might consist of six hogs' rumps, thirty-two chickens, fifty-eight blackbird pies, forty pounds of boiled potatoes, fourteen blood puddings, all washed down by eighty-nine casks of Spanish wine), drinking (as an infant, he requires the milk of 17,913 cows for daily sustenance alone), sleeping, and shitting. He is a filthy, flatulent child, but his grotesqueries are described in a high-flying tone full of the praise and the pride that his parents take in his grandiosity.

It is not until Grandgousier is introduced to a well-educated and well-mannered child that he sees that all is not well with his son. He hires a new tutor, who takes Gargantua to Paris, where he learns to engage in daily physical activity, groom himself with soap and water rather than shit and wine, eat and drink in moderation, and read and recite history and poetry.

Late into this reëducation, a small incident sparks a great war: on the road, some shepherds encounter a cake-maker's cart, and ask to buy some cakes. The cake-maker refuses, and words, and then blows, are exchanged, ending in the shepherds forcibly taking cakes, but also leaving payment in exchange. The cake-makers are from a neighboring kingdom, and their king declares war on the shepherds kingdom, that of Grandgousier. This generous king sends gifts and a formal apology, but his neighbor has already tasted the desire for an empire, and plans on taking over not only Grandgousier's kingdom, but all of the continent, and then likely more. Grandgousier cannot fight him sufficiently, but upon hearing the news, Gargantua returns on a great steed, and leads his kingdom to swift victory. At the novel's close, he establishes a hurly-burly "monastery" in which all the rules are the opposite of those typical to a monastery: there are no walls and everyone present is free to roam; the sexes are not divided, rather they must intermix; and leisure and pleasure are encouraged.

For all of its bawdiness, the book failed to meet my expectations. I revel aplenty in the piss and shit (reading in the subway station late one night, a young African man intently studying a textbook asked me what I was reading. He made the mistake of asking more and more until I simply read aloud the passage in which I was the midst: "I had a shit the other day/And realised how much I owe/To my dear arse, in every way/The smell was worse than that I know." He stopped me there and the conversation was ended. He is lucky that he missed out on the rest of it, even better in my opinion: "If only someone without more ado/Could've brought my gal to share my pooh/While shitting.//I'd have opened up wide her wee hole below/And shoved in my rain wand without any fear/While she with her fingers refused to allow/The shit to befoul my own dear rear/While shitting." This is something I've only since encountered in Pynchon (with relish), and the San Francisco Bay Guardian's (with much less relish, it being no longer fiction)). And yet, for all of his wit, Rabelais' text is overcrowded with tedious lists, excessive detail (which could be humorous, but here is tedious), and, ultimately, a rather mainstream ethical standard. And so, I am thankful to John Kennedy Toole for improving on a mediocre thing, and will seek more of Rabelaisian writing than that of Rabelais' himself.

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