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Rabelais in English

ISSUE:  Winter 1932

The Works of Francis Rabelais. Edited by Albert Jay Nock and Catherine R. Wilson. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. 2 vols. $15.00.

That an educated person should read Rabelais would seem a proposition easy of acceptance. But in America it is not easily accepted. If a cultured man is to “know the best that has been said and thought in the world,” surely the French sixteenth century cannot be left out. And in this period no other name attained and kept the reputation of this great story-teller and humanist. But with us one is likely to have to apologize somewhat for reading and liking him: the Philistines are upon us and hypocrisy is rampant; the nasty-niceness of Sterne is more to the vulgar taste than the frankness of Rabelais. Thus one of the great men of France, indeed one of her basic minds, without a knowledge of which one cannot get a rounded notion of French character, is comparatively neglected. And Rabelais belongs not only to France; he is a world-figure. Yet he is generally spoken of in the United States as a vulgarian and buffoon. The man who possesses his works keeps them high up on the top shelves or down in a quiet corner for fear of what the neighbors may think. None the less, pantagruelism is what we need to revive the aridity of American university pastures.

Rabelais will not be generally read among us for a long time, if ever; but there are some who read him, and for these a great good has come to pass. The new edition of his Gar-gantua and Pantagruel by Dr. Albert Jay Nock and Miss Catherine Rose Wilson is timely and beautiful. The printing is excellently done (as “incense on the altar of pedantry,” I lay in passing the remark that I find one error: Le Mot-teux, on page v, line 1, is printed with an a for the o). The numerous photographs of persons, buildings, and places are all interesting, many, of them beautiful, and sometimes, as in the map of the Scene of the Picrocholine War, of great enlightenment for the understanding of the text. The translation is the one by Urquhart and Le Motteux, but modernized in spelling, punctuations, and capitalization, so that the reader is not held up by a strange-looking page. Hard words are explained but not too often; there are foot-notes but not too many. Best of all there is a preface of some 190 pages, relating what is known of Rabelais’s life, and full of the sort of literary criticism which only a pantagruelist is capable of writing.

The English-speaking peoples have long been fortunate in possessing a translation of Rabelais that is itself a classic of English prose. Urquhart’s “fidelity” consists not in a literal rendering, but in making an impression upon the English reader corresponding to that the original makes upon a French one. In this respect, only the King James version of the Bible is equal to it and these two translations remain unapproached in our language. It is therefore eminently fitting that this text should be made easily accessible for the modern reader, and the suitability of the present editors for the task is abundantly evident. One need only open the preface at random to come upon a passage like this: “It must be laid down once and for all, that the chief purpose of reading a classic like Rabelais is to prop and stay the spirit, especially in moments of weakness and enervation, against the stress of life, to elevate it above the reach of commonplace annoyances and degradations, and to purge it of despondency and cynicism.” Every candidate for a Ph. D. ought to frame that sentence and hang it above his desk, what time he is floundering among his fiches.

Or think how the candidate might be uplifted by this: “For in his estimate of the values of life, Rabelais is indeed wholly with the sages and the saints; it is only in method that he is not with them. He does not recommend the humane life; he exhibits it, and lets it recommend itself. . . . There is nothing of the hortatory or pulpit style in his moralities. . . . ‘The fashion of this world passeth away,’ said Goethe, ‘and I would fain occupy myself with the things that are abiding.’ Well, we all feel like that, sometimes at least; but the common sort of man is not really much moved by declamation of this kind, impressive as it is. Even the majestic sentence carved on the tomb of one of the Scipios, Qui apicem gessisti, . . . mors perfecit tua ut essent omnia brevia, honos jama virtusque, gloria atque ingenium— even this is profoundly melancholy in its majesty, melancholy and relaxing. Rabelais is dynamogenous and illuminating; he lights up the humane life with the light of great joy., so that it shows itself as something lovely and infinitely desirable, by the side of which all other attainments fall automatically into their proper place as cheap, poor, and trivial. One closes with it gladly, joyfully, perceiving that for the sake of it all else that is lost is well lost.” Maybe this can be beat, but I doubt it.


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