Saturday, October 5, 2019

16th century French literature is too difficult - “In your throat, my Lord,” said I.

In the 16th century, the Renaissance arrives in French literature.  Everyone is absorbing and imitating the great new discoveries in Greek and Latin literature and two centuries of Italian responses to that literature.  Amazing books are written.  Modern French literature is invented.

I count five major literary events in the 16th century.  They have a minimal place in the French school curriculum.  Putting the pieces together, I understand why.  They are too hard.  Mostly too hard.  Advanced topics in French literature.

I will number them, and mention the “mostly” first.

1.  Marguerite de Navarre’s Heptameron (1558) is Boccaccio’s Decameron (1353) not merely imitated in French, but consciously made French in language, obviously, but also subject, characters, and attitudes.  It is not exactly what I would call modern fiction, but it is a big step closer than Boccaccio.  I can’t really tell apart Boccaccio’s frame characters, the ones who tell the stories, but they are distinct as characters in the Heptameron.

So here we have a woman author, a princess and queen of historical significance, and seventy stories on a range of subjects and social levels, written in a range of styles, easy to arrange into a variety of school editions.  If there is even one school edition on French Amazon – very useful for this sort of thing, French Amazon – I can’t find it.  I don't get it.

2.  François Rabelais, author of Pantagruel (1532), Gargantua (1534), and three more sequels (1546-64), books unique enough that the author’s name has turned into a useful adjective for the more earthy side of existence.  Man as an ambulatory and talkative digestive and excretory system.  The language is crazy, innovative, full of new words and jokes and nonsense.  Great stuff, especially the first two novels.

English translations are always of the whole 800-page monster, but the French often seem to think of “Rabelais” as five novels.  They are published separately, and there are a number of school editions – lycée level – of either one of the first two novels or of selections from the whole thing.  Or maybe selections from the first two books, I don’t know.

Rabelais’s language is hard enough that many ordinary editions of the novels are in “modern French” translations.  I assume that is what I have read.  Although Rabelais is an advanced topic, he is introduced early.  The school editions often come with excerpts of related works, and I read two that had bits of Rabelais.  How I loved those school editions.  A terrific collège-level collection of travel writing, Les récits de voyage, which included bits of Herodotus, Joinville, and Columbus, that sort of thing, included a few pages of Chapter 32 of Pantagruel, in which a traveler gets lost inside Pantagruel’s mouth – everyone knows that Gargantua and Pantagruel are giants, yes? – and describes the “twenty-five inhabited kingdoms, not counting the deserts and one great arm of the sea” that he finds there.  It sounds nice, except for the plague caused by the time Pantagruel “ate all that garlic sauce.”  The traveler finally returns to our world:

When [Pantagruel] noticed me, he asked me: “Where are you coming from, Alcofribas?”

“I answered him: “From your throat, sir.”

“And how long have you been there?” said he.

“Since you set out,” said I, “against the Almyrodes.”

“That,” said he, “is over six months ago.  And what did you live on?  What did you drink?”

I answered: “Lord, the same as you, and of the choicest morsels that passed down your throat I took my toll.”

“All right,” said he, “but where did you shit?”

“In your throat, my Lord,” said I.

“Ha ha! you’re a jolly good fellow,” said he.  (Donald Frame’s translation, p. 241)

I have not and I think cannot read much Rabelais in French, but that I read.

The hospital in Lyon where Rabelais was a physician has been beautifully restored and turned into a City of Gastronomy, whatever that is.  You can have lunch or relax in the courtyard on a long chair while admiring this medallion of Rabelais:

Then you can retrace his footsteps to the printers which printed his books.  Those buildings are also now occupied by restaurants, probably.

The remaining three topics in 16th century French literature are: the invention of French classical theater, the invention of modern French poetry, and the invention of modern man – Montaigne’s Essays, is what I mean by that last one.


  1. Thank you for this. For years I have been trying to get motivated to read Rabelais, in translation. Maybe now I will. I am very close to finishing at last my read through of La Comedie Humaine.

  2. Rabelais is singular. And when I think of it not as a giant book but as five novels published over a thirty-year period, it is not so daunting.

    The language, now that is daunting, but I'm not translating it, I'm just reading it.

    Frame's translation is excellent, but Thomas Urquhart's wild 17th century version is a sight to be seen.

  3. Apropos Rabelais and moutons, les moutons de Panurge have become proverbial.

    I notice that you finished that massive, heavy block of literature, The Magic Mountain. You're a much better reader than me: TMM defeated my youthful attempts to climb it. How did you like it?

  4. I liked some of it. That is not bad. That novel was real work. The "debates," the dialectic, holy cow. What nonsense.

    I took a hundred notes for some reason, so I will likely write something at some point.

  5. I've never read Rabelais or Marguerite de Navarre.
    I really dislike these school editions but I can see why you find them useful.

  6. I bought a few school editions in France. Some went to the charity shop, but a few came home. I plan to write thoroughly about at least one of them - show what I am talking about.

    Marguerite de Navarre may be harder than I remember, but most of the stories are if nothing else quite short. Although the shortest - as I remember it, one of the characters is a very bad storyteller, so all of her stories are extremely short and end with someone falling in the toilet. Those may not be so educational.

  7. I'm going to send you all the school editions we have, they'll be in a better home with you. :-)

  8. Maybe so. Now I even have preferences among French school editions. Good ones and bad ones.