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Penguins on Parade: Rabelais!

By (May 27, 2013) No Comment



penguin-colophonSome Penguin Classics furnish an appetizer that’s so good it almost competes with the main course. Naturally, that becomes proportionately easier depending on how brief the main course is – or how unappetizing.

penguin gargantua“Unappetizing” has always been my reaction to the two most famous books of sixteenth century satirist and weekend-Benedictine Francois Rabelais, 1532′s Pantagruel and 1534′s Gargantua. The books feature the ribald adventures of two giants in a world of fragile social customs and hypocritical moral strictures, and the fact that J. M. Cohen’s 1955 translation for Penguin Classics has gone through a jillion reprints is a testament to the fact that college lit professors aren’t above enticing bored students with endless fart jokes. They should be, but they’re not. And so Gargantua and Pantagruel lives on, a lovely fat little Penguin whose contents are sampled far more often (exclusively?) by prisoners of academia – whether inmates or wardens – than by the so-called common reader.

It wasn’t always so. W. F. Smith’s translation of 1893 was a modest hit, mainly owing to its vigorous English and its lavish notes. It could be argued that the late Victorian era was a perfect cultural backdrop against which to display Rabelais’ cheerful invectives against the starched moralizing of two-faced public figures, and Smith goes at his task with a wonderful exuberance. Cohen calls it “a monument of excellent scholarship devoted to a faulty theory of translation.” Sigh

Fortunately, Cohen’s own translation is every bit as good as Smith’s, if a bit less lively (nodding again to my adamantly held belief that when the seas finally close over the whole sorry epoch of mankind, enlightened later beings – perhaps evolved from basset hounds – will judge that the Victorian era was the single greatest era human creativity ever saw). And his obligatory Introduction is a stellar thing, one of the best such Introductions in the entire Penguin catalog. He’s firm about Rabelais’ excesses, but he forgives them out of love:

Only too often for his translator’s pleasure, he merely strings his narrative together with a series of thens and ands; and his sentences are sometimes so rich in half-related dependent clauses that his true meaning is in danger of escaping his reader. But once he is caught up by his passion for words, once he begins to catalogue, to pun, to travesty, to etymologize, to pile up his pebbles into monstrous and misshapen cairns; once he begins to list the Library of Saint-Victor book by preposterous book, or to list in parallel columns the games that Gargantua and his friends played in their unreformed youth, then we have the true Rabelais.

He’s sympathetic to his author’s plight – Rabelais was hounded throughout his life for the scandalous stuff he wrote (when Erasmus wrote the original inspiration for that stuff, in his The Praise of Folly two decades earlier, he had the good sense to issue it anonymously, so he could disown it if the Church came calling), andlucy reading rabelais Cohen understands that he perhaps in some sense couldn’t help writing it:

Rabelais is not concerned with individuals; he is not sufficient of a Renaissance man for that. What he draws is the picture of an age, or to be more exact, of a time when two ages overlapped, the new age of research and individualism, with which he was in intellectual sympathy, and the age of the fixed world-order, to which he owed emotional loyalty.

And best of all, he gets what Rabelais is about. With all due respect to Mikhail Bahktin (whose greatness even I must concede, however reluctantly), I myself don’t think Rabelais was ever about much more than burlesque, but even so, his shade must be comforted by a translator so brotherly:

He was a man intoxicated by every sort of learning and theory, who had at the same time the earthy commonsense of a peasant. His mind would reach out in pursuit of the wildest fancies, and when he had captured them he would relate them only to the three constants of this life: birth, copulation, and death, which he saw in their crudest physical terms.

Rabelais certainly would never have anticipated a day when he’d be more studied than read, and it’s very possible such a thought would have alarmed him. But that’s one of the lessons Penguin Classics teach: you can’t always pick the form of your immortality.