Gargantua and Pantagruel
Half a year. This is how long it took to get through “Gargantua and Pantagruel” by Francois Rabelais.
Part of the explanation for the exceedingly long reading time is that this is a massive book, just over 1000 pages. In fact, it consists of five books, but the List seems to consider all five part of the same work and who am I to question that.
The other and equally valid part of the explanation is that “Gargantua and Pantagruel” is a 500 year old comedy that is not funny. It is episodic, inconsistent and with little consideration for something as mundane as a plot. Combined with its status as a comedy means that the episodes it does tell have to be very interesting to keep my attention now that it is not funny and that is also, well, rather inconsistent.
Rabelais tells something (to call it a story is a stretch) about two giants (of variable size), Pantagruel and his father Gargantua. Book two was about the education of Gargantua and a mighty battle he was involved in. In Book three Pantagruel’s sidekick Panurge considers whether or not he should be married. He is convinced he will do just fine while his friends are convince the wife will cheat on him. In book four and five Pantagruel, Panurge and their extensive following go on a sea journey to find an oracle to answer the question in book three. Book one, well, I actually forgot what took place there.
This may sound quite exciting: battles, journeys, vital questions etc. but it is not. The progression of the story as it is is just not really happening. Instead the setting allows for a multitude of tableaux, discussions and descriptions. These have two functions of which one is to entertain.
It is very possible that in its day “Gargantua and Pantagruel” was hilariously funny, but comedy is notoriously entrenched in its own culture and translates poorly to other cultures, which, 500 years later, means us. The jokes are centered on farting and pooh jokes, with intercourse related wit mixed in. That ought to fit right into modern youth culture, but even that it fails. It is just crude and primitive. Other jokes make fun of sentiments and people relevant 500 years ago and yet other laughs (or attempts to) are of a scholarly colloquial kind, the sort that would mean nothing to you if you were not in the same line of business, meaning a monk dabbling in medicine, law and ancient Greek and Roman literature.
The second function is as a critique and ridicule of Rabelais’ opponents. Apparently, Rabelais belonged to the protestant side in the great religious schism dividing Europe in the sixteenth century and Rabelais got some royal protection to heap dung on the Catholic side in his books. Some, probably even most, of his criticism in intelligent, as far as I understand it, and it is this part that is interesting enough for me to actually finish this book.
It can be (certainly is to me) difficult to understand how practicing religion in two different ways can mean so much to people and throw Europe into a century of war, a conflict that still echoes today. This year it is the 500 year anniversary of Martin Luther, but the festivities seem muted, at least in Denmark. It is just not that relevant anymore. But clearly for Rabelais who was right there on the fault-line this was deadly serious and the viciousness of his attacks are hardly softened by the apparent comedy. This is certainly a window into an almost forgotten conflict that shaped Europe.
My advice to a reader considering to go into “Gargantua and Pantagruel” would be that this window to the past must be the primary motivation. Any other motivation is doomed to fall short. Read the first book and consider if this was rewarding enough. If it was not there is no point in continuing, it hardly gets better. To read it just to be a completionist starts to feel stupid and ridiculous before the halfway point.