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Gross, but engrossing,
This review is from: The Histories of Gargantua and Pantagruel (Classics) (Paperback)
Here's a book in which the name of one of the main characters has given us a synonym for "enormous", whilst the author's name has spawned an adjective for coarse humour or bold caricature (which I came across most recently in the title track of Donald Fagen's Morph the Cat). Rabelais was a monk and physician who lived in sixteenth century France, and who took aim at oppressive religious and civil forces, pomposity and humbug of all kinds in this classic of world literature. One of its most well-known sections is a description of the so-called Abbey of Thélème, which Rabelais presents as a utopia (with the motto 'Do What Thou Wilt') in order to critique society and the state of the church; this imaginary institution may have also formed the inspiration for Francis Dashwood's Hellfire Club and Aleister Crowley's Thelema religion.
The book's characters travel through a vividly-drawn grotesque world of violence, stupidity and greed in which no opportunity is lost to describe bodily functions and various types of sensual pleasure. Little attention is paid to plot, or consistency in character development; instead, there's a flood of outrageous anecdotes and adventures which come from the author's wildly original imagination, and his almost uncontrollable fascination with words. This latter quality is made manifest throughout the text in lengthy lists - which, in places, are arranged in columns that march across many pages - and that illustrate the author's propensity to (as mentioned on p17 of the introduction) "play with words as children do with pebbles; he piles them up into heaps".
I enjoyed reading this book because of this fascination, which I found completely engrossing; although rather lengthy (c. 700 pages), it's divided up into very short chapters which facilitate navigation through it. At times I wondered if more editorial material would have been helpful - some of its episodes seem to have their roots as parodies of contemporary religious and civil disputes, which it might have been interesting to learn more about. Indeed, a more recent translation than this one (which first appeared in 1955) appears to have more of this background information. But most of the book has a timeless appeal: after all, people haven't changed much, and - to take just one example - the quest that Gargantua describes in Chapter 13 of Book 1 for the ideal material for the performance of a distasteful but crucial bodily practice is always of basic interest, even if his conclusion (the neck of a goose) could be viewed as contentious.