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Julian Meynell's Books

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Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel

Gargantua and Pantagruel - Fran├žois Rabelais, M.A. Screech

This is easily the best book that I have read all year and a neglected masterpiece.  I have had Gargantua and Pantagruel sitting on my shelf for probably at least a decade before taking it down and reading it at a whim.  I did not know what to expect, but I found a book unlike almost any other.  The closest thing that I have read to it is Wu Cheng'en's Journey to the West, but that is not that close.  The book is nominally about the two eponymous giants of the title but is a broad ribald and energetic satire of virtually everything but first and foremost religion.

Rabelais was for some unaccountable reason a monk.  He had absorbed the learning of a monk, but otherwise had about the least monkish personality imaginable and also held monks in almost complete contempt.  His work celebrates the baser physical functions of the human body; drinking, eating, fucking, pissing and most of all shitting.  There are as many and probably more poo jokes here than in South Park but alongside that is a depth of learning.  On top of all that there is a celebration of word play.  Rabelais is in love with words.  My introduction talks of him piling them up like heaps of pebbles and this is a good metaphor for much of his writing.  The writing is also not just sardonic but also absurdist and very playful.

The book was written in stages and reflects the ferment of its time.  The reformation is also most here and the book reflects the intellectual and religious ferment of its time.  It can be withering in its satire.  The book also contains many fine comic characters, including most notably Panurge who is indescribable and one of the greatest comic characters in literature.  The book itself is an experimental novel through and through and to my mind probably the finest comic novel ever written.  The fifth book is at least partially not by Rabelais in my opinion and is clearly inferior to the rest.

Beneath it all is a serious message.  It is absolutely a humanist book and the mix of extreme learning with a concentration on the most basic needs of the physical body is a rejection of the ideas of the middle ages in its strongest form.  In its heart it was a revolutionary work and I think remains so.  It's an act of pure rebellion, a delight, a puzzle and a great and wonderful book.