Gargantua and Pantagruel by Francois Rabelais

Hey, everybody. Dave here again due to the fact that Halloween demands a bit more from a parent (Kim) than it does from a non parent (me). As such, I told Kim I’d take two weeks in a row and let her go the next two weeks. And, since Halloween is upon us, I thought this was a good time for giants (Gargantua and Pantagruel).

There are certain things you expect when you sit down to read a classic of French literature. Well, at least I do. Maybe you don’t have any preconceptions about classic French literature. Regardless, though I knew Gargantua and Pantagruel by Francois Rabelais was going to be a bit different, I wasn’t prepared that a work of 16th century France to be like this.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 4th for Fred Chappell.)

I mean, just imagine a work that describes the birth of one of the titular characters as follows:

As soon as he was born, he cried not as other babes use to do, Miez, miez, miez, miez, but with a high, sturdy, and big voice shouted about, Some drink, some drink, some drink, as inviting all the world to drink with him.

Yup, as soon as he is born he demands booze.

Frankly, this story of the giant Pantagruel and his father, the giant Gargantua, (mostly Pantagruel as Gargantua is only the primary subject of one of the five books) is far bolder than I would have expected for the 16th century. Excrement, sex, the list goes on. Though there is an awful lot of high brow historical references, language play, philosophy, and other such complex aspects, there is an awful lot of crude material as well. Considering how restrictive later works were, I’m surprised Rabelais got away with as much as he did. Just take urine and an example:

At which place, seeing so many about him, he said with a loud voice, I believe that these buzzards will have me to pay them here my welcome hither, and my Proficiat. It is but good reason. I will now give them their wine, but it shall be only in sport. Then smiling, he untied his fair braguette, and drawing out his mentul into the open air, he so bitterly all-to-bepissed them, that he drowned two hundred and sixty thousand, four hundred and eighteen, besides the women and little children. Some, nevertheless, of the company escaped this piss-flood by mere speed of foot, who, when they were at the higher end of the university, sweating, coughing, spitting, and out of breath, they began to swear and curse, some in good hot earnest, and others in jest.

Yes, Gargantua peed on the good citizens of Paris. But, of course, the crude elements are a small part of the work, and really do fit into the overall essence of Pantagruelism that the book expounds.

As such, let’s move away from crudity and talk about the plot. Well…okay, that’s easier said than done. I wouldn’t say there even is one overarching plot. Things happen, Gargantua and Pantagruel are born (each in turn of course) and grow into adult giants. There are some wars (usually someone rudely trespassing on their kingdom) which they each win in an excessive and fable-like style. However, beyond that the plot has a tendency to turn and shift whenever it seems to take a fancy to.

A huge portion of the book concerns whether or not Pantagruel’s friend Panurge is going to get married despite fears that he will be cuckolded, beaten, and robbed if he does. It seems like this takes up perhaps two-thirds of the book. Panurge’s waffling about it goes on for a good portion of that, combined with the various divinations they resort to in order to try to settle the matter, which almost all bode ill (predicting cuckolding, robbing, and beating) and which Panurge for some reason interprets favorably. Still, he keeps waffling:

Do not marry then, answered Pantagruel. Yea but, quoth Panurge, considering the condition wherein I now am, out of debt and unmarried; mark what I say, free from all debt, in an ill hour, for, were I deeply on the score, my creditors would be but too careful of my paternity, but being quit, and not married, nobody will be so regardful of me, or carry towards me a love like that which is said to be in a conjugal affection. And if by some mishap I should fall sick, I would be looked to very waywardly. The wise man saith, Where there is no woman—I mean the mother of a family and wife in the union of a lawful wedlock—the crazy and diseased are in danger of being ill used and of having much brabbling and strife about them; as by clear experience hath been made apparent in the persons of popes, legates, cardinals, bishops, abbots, priors, priests, and monks; but there, assure yourself, you shall not find me. Marry then, in the name of God, answered Pantagruel. But if, quoth Panurge, being ill at ease, and possibly through that distemper made unable to discharge the matrimonial duty that is incumbent to an active husband, my wife, impatient of that drooping sickness and faint-fits of a pining languishment, should abandon and prostitute herself to the embraces of another man, and not only then not help and assist me in my extremity and need, but withal flout at and make sport of that my grievous distress and calamity; or peradventure, which is worse, embezzle my goods and steal from me, as I have seen it oftentimes befall unto the lot of many other men, it were enough to undo me utterly, to fill brimful the cup of my misfortune, and make me play the mad-pate reeks of Bedlam. Do not marry then, quoth Pantagruel. Yea but, said Panurge, I shall never by any other means come to have lawful sons and daughters, in whom I may harbour some hope of perpetuating my name and arms, and to whom also I may leave and bequeath my inheritances and purchased goods (of which latter sort you need not doubt but that in some one or other of these mornings I will make a fair and goodly show), that so I may cheer up and make merry when otherwise I should be plunged into a peevish sullen mood of pensive sullenness, as I do perceive daily by the gentle and loving carriage of your kind and gracious father towards you; as all honest folks use to do at their own homes and private dwelling-houses. For being free from debt, and yet not married, if casually I should fret and be angry, although the cause of my grief and displeasure were never so just, I am afraid, instead of consolation, that I should meet with nothing else but scoffs, frumps, gibes, and mocks at my disastrous fortune. Marry then, in the name of God, quoth Pantagruel.

They even take a break in all this for an odyssey like trip to consult one more oracle. Along the way for a good, long while, they encounter an endless series of strange and unusual lands, only to return again at the end of it to the question of whether or not Panurge will marry.

Frankly, it’s a little tough to decide what to make of it all. There are so many things jammed into the five volumes of Gargantua and Pantagruel; it’s almost impossible to get a handle on it. I’m certain I missed things. Regardless, it was fun and there was some impressive writing. Gargantua and Pantagruel was a bit of work to read, but not as must as I expected, In any event, I thought the work I did do to read was worth it. It really was an experience.

Anyway, happy Halloween!

Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie

It’s always interesting to look into a book that has been Disney-fied, particularly where the Disney-fied version has almost entirely usurped the original in the collective conscious. I would say that Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie is just such a book. After all, though I only remember so much of the Disney version, everything I can think of comes from the Disney version. I thought it would be fun to disabuse myself of what I thought I knew.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 8th for Mary Gaitskill.)

I hardly think a discussion of the story behind Peter Pan is really necessary here. Everyone knows the tale of the eternal boy who takes a group of children to live in Neverland. Instead, I think I’ll focus on what surprised me about the book.

One thing that surprised me was how odd the children’s usual world was before they ever went to Neverland. For example, the children’s nanny is a dog:

Mrs. Darling loved to have everything just so, and Mr. Darling had a passion for being exactly like his neighbours; so, of course, they had a nurse. As they were poor, owing to the amount of milk the children drank, this nurse was a prim Newfoundland dog, called Nana, who had belonged to no one in particular until the Darlings engaged her. She had always thought children important, however, and the Darlings had become acquainted with her in Kensington Gardens, where she spent most of her spare time peeping into perambulators, and was much hated by careless nursemaids, whom she followed to their homes and complained of to their mistresses. She proved to be quite a treasure of a nurse. How thorough she was at bath-time, and up at any moment of the night if one of her charges made the slightest cry. Of course her kennel was in the nursery. She had a genius for knowing when a cough is a thing to have no patience with and when it needs stocking around your throat. She believed to her last day in old-fashioned remedies like rhubarb leaf, and made sounds of contempt over all this new-fangled talk about germs, and so on. It was a lesson in propriety to see her escorting the children to school, walking sedately by their side when they were well behaved, and butting them back into line if they strayed.

You might say that the kids had a dog that the adults treated like a nanny as a joke, but I’m not so sure this is a joke. Sometimes the parents seem to be kidding that the dog is their nanny, but other times they don’t. I was confused, but I suspect they might really be using a dog as a nanny.

Beyond that, there is the fact that the children’s mother finds Peter’s shadow and keeps it:

She returned to the nursery, and found Nana with something in her mouth, which proved to be the boy’s shadow. As he leapt at the window Nana had closed it quickly, too late to catch him, but his shadow had not had time to get out; slam went the window and snapped it off.

You may be sure Mrs. Darling examined the shadow carefully, but it was quite the ordinary kind.

Nana had no doubt of what was the best thing to do with this shadow. She hung it out at the window, meaning “He is sure to come back for it; let us put it where he can get it easily without disturbing the children.”

But unfortunately Mrs. Darling could not leave it hanging out at the window, it looked so like the washing and lowered the whole tone of the house. She thought of showing it to Mr. Darling, but he was totting up winter great-coats for John and Michael, with a wet towel around his head to keep his brain clear, and it seemed a shame to trouble him; besides, she knew exactly what he would say: “It all comes of having a dog for a nurse.”

She decided to roll the shadow up and put it away carefully in a drawer, until a fitting opportunity came for telling her husband. Ah me!

A mother finding a shadow and keeping it certainly doesn’t seem ordinary. That seems a tad bit magic-tinged to me.

Dogs for nurses? Keeping a shadow in a drawer? These children had a plenty fanciful life long before they ever got to Neverland.

Beyond that, the thing that struck me was how Peter Pan is kind of an @**hole. He kills people. He has a tendency to forget the children if not reminded. He takes credit for the achievement of others. He seems had-pressed to interfere when Tinker Bell tries to have Wendy killed. I know the whole point is that he’s supposed to be the ultimate ‘boy,’ but he seemed far more self-centered than any child I’ve ever met. He has some redeemable impulses from time to time, but he’s nowhere near as nice a guy in the book as Disney made him. I always thought he was supposed to have a heart of gold and merely be problematic due to ignorance, but he’s really kind of a jerk.

But, all that aside, I did enjoy reading the book. It was charming. There was something of the world of the child about it, though perhaps a little more of the world an adult creates when telling a child a story.

Really, I think I’ve already said the word that can sum the book up best. What is Peter Pan? Charming. Take that in any way you want

To The Lighthouse–Virginia Woolf

(*note to Dave* I know I said Hamlet, but I changed my mind. 😀 )

I read To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf for this week’s blog.  The following authors all listed it in their favorites:

Michael Cunningham, Margaret Drabble, Mary Gaitskill, Haven Kimmel, Susan Minot, Stewart O’Nan, Reynolds Price, Roxana Robinson, Lee Smith, and Meg Wolitzer.

In college, for a modern literature class, we read Mrs. Dalloway.  I didn’t like it much, so I have since really avoided Virginia Woolf.  Now I realize that might have been a mistake.

To The Lighthouse is a beautiful novel.  Sometimes I am reading a book and am just awestruck by the beauty of the prose.  I dabble in poetry sometimes, and some of the best novels are also poetry in many ways.  Woolf attained this in To The Lighthouse.

The story basically is about a family and the cottage they vacation at each year.  They always have various guests, both intellectual and artistic.  The Ramseys consist of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsey and their eight children.  Mr. Ramsey is a philosopher and runs around just feeling whatever emotion comes over him.  So, his wife, the children and his houseguests will often walk around quietly (so to speak) due to not knowing if he will suddenly be feeling impatience and temper.   Lily is a houseguest there, a 34 year old “old maid” whom Mrs. Ramsey is attempting to marry off to Mr. Banke, an old friend of the family.  Lily is a painter, who feels she is not very good.

The book covers two different summers.  The first has the whole family there.  The second, Mrs. Ramsey and two of the children have died, and it has been years since the family has vacationed there.

Woolf plays with and masters the switching narrator narrative.  She meshes characters together so that when one narrative changes it flows into the next.  For example, Mrs. Ramsey might be talking to her son and another person is contemplating her, remembering something.  The narrative will change to what Mrs. Ramsey is thinking and doing right at that second.

It’s said about To The Lighthouse that Woolf was grappling with the age old question “What is the meaning of life?”, and while different characters pose that question through the course of the book, I didn’t get that as the main gist of the book.  To me, due to the switching narratives and the contemplations on Mrs. Ramsey in the second half of the book, it was more about how we see ourselves versus how others see us.  How people saw Mrs. Ramsey was quite different than how she saw herself.  It also showed how time can change the perspectives people view us under. 

I found the following quotations particularly…illuminating? amazing? (not sure what word is best here, so pick one!).

The first one is a rumination that Mrs. Ramsey has after sending her youngest child to bed, about the effects that being alone has to a mother.

“To be silent; to be alone.  All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others.  Although she continued to knot and sat upright, it was thus that she felt herself; and this self having shed its attachments was free for the strangest adventures.  When life sank down for a moment, the range of experience seemed limitless.”

Mrs. Ramsey thinking of her husband and his tendency to wander around saying whatever popped into his head.

“…that directly he had said them he always seemed more cheerful than usual.  All this phrase-making was a game, she thought, for if she had said half what he said, she would have blown her brains out by now.”

Mrs. Ramsey while reading a book in the evening and knitting at the same time (I liked this one because it describes how one sometimes does read a book).

“And she opened the book and began reading here and there at random, and as she did so, she felt that she was climbing backwards, upwards, shoving her way up under petals that curved over her, so that she only knew this is white, or this is red.”

Lily, thinking on Mrs. Ramsey after her death, during the second visit.

“She was astonishingly beautiful, as William said.  But beauty was not everything.  Beauty had this penalty it came too readily, came too completely.  It stilled life froze it.  One forgot the little agitations; the flush, the pallor, some queer distortion, some light or shadow, which made the face unrecognizable for a moment and yet added a quality one saw for ever after.  It was simpler to smooth that all out under the cover of beauty”.

In the first half, the youngest boy James, desperately wants to go the lighthouse.  Mrs. Ramsey says they will go the following day, to which Mr. Ramsey cruelly dashes the hope.  In the second half, James finally goes to the lighthouse with his father and his sister Cam.

“Now James looked at the Lighthouse.  He could see the white-washed rocks; the tower, stark and straight; he could see that it was barred with black and white; he could see windows in it; he could even see washing spread on the rocks to dry.  So that was the Lighthouse was it?  No the other was also the Lighthouse (referring to his imaginings and sightings of the lighthouse as a boy).  For nothing was simply one thing.  The other LIghthouse was true too.”

If you are a Downton Abbey fan and are jonesing for season 4, I highly recommend reading this.  It has a bit less “drama” than Downton, but the language and the feel of the book will prepare you for Downton, and hopefully keep your addictive need to watch it tamped down a bit.

Til next time!




The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas

I’ve talked a lot about books that are somehow powerful enough in their presence in the cultural landscape that I feel familiar with them even though I haven’t read them yet. For me, it is always interesting to end up reading those books and see how the actual text compares with the impressions that were already formed in my mind. Today we do this again, this time with the famed adventure novel The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas.

Athos! Porthos! Aramis! Kind of D’Artagnan too (he of course not being part of the original, inseparable trio and only becoming a musketeer partway through the book)!

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 9th for Arthur Phillips.)

I can’t imagine anyone is unfamiliar with the overall concept of this book at this point, given its reach into such far afield areas as Slumdog Millionaire and Tom and Jerry. But, in short, young (but strong, brave, and skilled) D’Artagnan comes from the countryside to Paris to become a musketeer and seek his fortune. He meets up with the three musketeers (Athos, Porthos, and Aramis) and adventures begin. You’d think after I already knew this that all that would be left would be seeing how it all came about. However, there was a bit more than that. One thing I wasn’t prepared for was some of the aspects of the characters of the heroes.

For one thing, D’Artagnan is a bit more of a hothead at the beginning than I expected him to be. Granted, his father told him to get into fights at the slightest provocation, but still. His very first fight of the book doesn’t go so well for him and it ends up making him seem kind of dumb:

He had scarcely finished, when d’Artagnan made such a furious lunge at him that if he had not sprung nimbly backward, it is probable he would have jested for the last time. The stranger, then perceiving that the matter went beyond raillery, drew his sword, saluted his adversary, and seriously placed himself on guard. But at the same moment, his two auditors, accompanied by the host, fell upon d’Artagnan with sticks, shovels and tongs. This caused so rapid and complete a diversion from the attack that d’Artagnan’s adversary, while the latter turned round to face this shower of blows, sheathed his sword with the same precision, and instead of an actor, which he had nearly been, became a spectator of the fight–a part in which he acquitted himself with his usual impassiveness, muttering, nevertheless, “A plague upon these Gascons! Replace him on his orange horse, and let him begone!”

“Not before I have killed you, poltroon!” cried d’Artagnan, making the best face possible, and never retreating one step before his three assailants, who continued to shower blows upon him.

“Another gasconade!” murmured the gentleman. “By my honor, these Gascons are incorrigible! Keep up the dance, then, since he will have it so. When he is tired, he will perhaps tell us that he has had enough of it.”

But the stranger knew not the headstrong personage he had to do with; d’Artagnan was not the man ever to cry for quarter. The fight was therefore prolonged for some seconds; but at length d’Artagnan dropped his sword, which was broken in two pieces by the blow of a stick. Another blow full upon his forehead at the same moment brought him to the ground, covered with blood and almost fainting.

It was at this moment that people came flocking to the scene of action from all sides. The host, fearful of consequences, with the help of his servants carried the wounded man into the kitchen, where some trifling attentions were bestowed upon him.

Of course, he generally has more luck after that (though he does end up with the musketeers after challenging each of the three to successive duels on the same day). Still, it wasn’t exactly how I expected D’Artagnan to start out.

Even more confusing for me is the moral makeup of the heroes. I know morality was different then, and the heroes were supposed to be men of arms and therefore different than the average person, but I didn’t expect to see D’Artagnan pretend to be another person in order to sleep with a woman. Moreover, I didn’t expect him to sleep with her maid in order to be able accomplish the deception. All this time, D’Artagnan was supposed to be in love with yet another woman. This is the hero of the book?

(This is to say nothing of the lesser foibles of the musketeer trio, such as the habit of Aramis to talk about taking up orders every time he thinks his mistress has abandoned him or how Porthos barricades himself in his hotel room and steals the innkeepers booze when he can’t pay his hotel bill).

I’m also confused by the fact that the musketeers are supposed to be loyal to the king and enemies of the sinister and powerful Cardinal Richelieu. I thought that was supposed to be the whole point. However, if that is the case, then why does so much of the intrigue in which the musketeers are involved concern keeping the king from finding out what has passed between the queen and her lover, the Duke of Buckingham? Granted, the queen isn’t schtupping the Duke during this time and isn’t trying to, but doesn’t this seem like they are more loyal to the queen than the king? Admittedly again, they are really just supporting the queen against the cardinal, but she still cheated on the king and the musketeers are helping cover up what he doesn’t already know about. What can I say? Their loyalties confuse me.

All in all, though, I enjoyed finally reading The Three Musketeers. There were some aspects of the characters that I didn’t expect (and which didn’t seem to fit the story entirely), but it’s not like it’s the first time something about a book has puzzled me. Regardless of any confusion on my part, the book was fun and it was a lot more readable than I expected from mid nineteenth century French literature.

Doctor Sleep–Stephen King

Now.  For those of you that have not been reading long enough to have seen this, let me make a confession.  I am a Stephen King nut.  I wouldn’t go so far as to Kathy Bates it, that I am his “biggest fan”, but I do geek out about King quite a bit.  Which means that the latest King roused my King geekiness to a new level.  See, Dr Sleep’s main character is none other than Danny Torrance, the little kid from The Shining.  The Shining is often considered one of King’s best novels.  Because of the excitement of this, like Dave said in last week’s post “We mentioned in our initial posting that we might deviate from our normal format from time to time, i.e. not just reviewing a book from The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books. One thing we said we might do is occasionally look at a book that isn’t from The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books.“, I decided it was time for me to veer off of the Top Ten for one blog entry.

Now, for my second confession:  I was so excited about this book that I pre-ordered it on Amazon.  So, pretty much within a day of it being released, I had it in my hot little hands.  If I was any geekier, I would have probably hugged it to my chest and sang “Glorious Day! Beautiful Day!”.  Instead I just Snapchatted the cover to the couple of friends I have on Snap Chat

I began to read.  And I will make a third confession:  I was a little disappointed at first.  Either King’s writing wasn’t up to its usual standard or my reading ability at that point couldn’t click with the story.  Possibly, it was a combination of both.  Whatever the reason was, at first I was disappointed.  But, other than the first time I attempted Lisey’s Story, I have always finished a Stephen King novel, I kept on reading.  And suddenly, a quarter of the way in, I was hooked.

First, the book covers Danny Torrance’s growing up years, the years in between when The Shining ended and Dr Sleep really begins.  Danny Torrance grows up to resemble his father quite a bit, an alcoholic with a temper.  He started drinking to tamp down the “shining” (his psychic ability) and then just kept drinking to drink.  Finally, he hits rock bottom, and joins AA.  At about this same point, a little girl named Abra is born and begins her growing up years.  And her shining?  Well it’s out of this world.  It’s one of the biggest shinings to ever exist.  She begins communicating with Danny when she is barely born.  When she is a few weeks old, she communicates with her parents via their dreams about September 11th, which happens a day later. 

At the same time, a group, called the True Knot, is traveling the countryside.  They appear to be like any other RV community, mostly elderly people with a few younger ones thrown in.  But they’re different.  Very different.  They are all at least a hundred years old (barring a couple of newer members).  They stay that way by taking in “Steam”.  Which is only obtained by torturing children who have anything from a little to a lot of the “shining”. 

As you can probably determine from the points I put above, the novel becomes about a battle.  Danny and Abra must battle it out with the True Knot.  At the same time, Danny must battle his own past, in a shadow Overlook. 

Most of the book is tight.  However, there was a plot point that just came out of nowhere and, to me at least, it wasn’t very well connected.  I can’t tell you what it is, as it becomes a major part of the plot 3/4 of the way through the book.

Stephen King says in the afterword that the man who wrote The Shining is definitely not the same man who wrote Doctor Sleep.  And that’s obvious.  King’s writing style has definitely evolved over the years.  In the days of The Shining, he was still attempting to prove something (in my opinion) and attempted to write in a provocative and literary style.  King, today, has come to know his own writing style and to live comfortably in his own skin. 

Some things I thought of while reading this:

1.  King tends to write a lot of stories about children who fight evil and win.  It, The Shining, Firestarter, The Talisman, the Tower series (to an extent, as one of the main characters battling evil is Jake, a young boy), In a lot of other ones, children are the target of evil, with adults doing the major part of the battling for them.

2.  Psychic powers play a HUGE part in most of his books.  Now, while that may be common in the horror genre, King’s approach really isn’t.  Much of the evil in books centers around these psychic abilities, with those that have them being targeted (again, see the list above, as well as Hearts in Atlantis and Bag of Bones).  Even Duma Key deals with the ability of one of the main characters, when she was a little girl.

3.  Stephen King only officially wrote about vampires a couple of times:  Notably, Salem’s Lot and Wolves of the Calla, Song of Susannah and The Dark Tower.  However, unofficially, he writes about vampires a lot of the time.  Doctor Sleep, Hearts in Atlantis, Bag of Bones, and The Shining are all examples of this.  All of the entities, the “bad guys”, the “monsters” in these books want to consume parts of the characters, most of the time psychic ability.

So.  In conclusion, this book, while not on my top five favorite King books, did two things.  First, it satisfied my desire to know what happened to Danny Torrance, _after_.  Second, it provided me with a very engrossing read.  This second is so important as for the last two months, I just haven’t been reading as much.  Sometimes this happens to me.  And I always wait impatiently for it to end.  Hopefully, Doctor Sleep began the beginning of the end of this time for me.