Rabelais's Unreadable Books
Bowen, Barbara C., Renaissance Quarterly
About twenty-five years ago, in the lobby of the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, a friend introduced me to the already legendary Eugenie Droz. As kindly as her rather haughty manner permitted, she asked me what I was working on, and when I replied "Rabelais" she said condescendingly: "Oh, do you think there is any more work to be done on Rabelais?"
In the generation since that conversation a good deal of work has been done on Rabelais, much of it interesting and some of it new and exciting. M. A. Screech and his followers, most notably Jean Ceard, Edwin Duval, and Florence Weinberg, have greatly expanded our understanding of Rabelais the Evangelical Christian humanist; Carol Clark and Samuel Kinser have corrected many of Bakhtin's outdated views on Rabelais and carnival; Walter Stephens has illuminated Renaissance attitudes to giants and their relevance to Rabelais.(1) We have been stimulated, if not always convinced, by a cornucopian Rabelais (Terence Cave), a sophist Rabelais (Gerard Defaux), an esoteric Rabelais (Claude Gaignebet), a misogynist Rabelais (Carla Freccero and Hope Glidden), a civic humanist Rabelais (Diane Desrosiers-Bonin), and the list could be much longer. Articles on individual episodes in the four books can be counted by the dozen.
Unfortunately, despite all these well-intentioned attempts at exegesis, Rabelais's books are probably less accessible to the general educated reader, Anglo-Saxon or French, than they were a generation ago. They have become, to put it bluntly, unreadable, except by specialists armed with voluminous footnotes and critical articles. The non-specialist reader can certainly enjoy the scurrilous jokes and the erotic and scatological stories, but no amount of literary intuition will help her to guess, for instance, that Panurge's recounting of the "fables of Turpin" (2:29) alerts us to Rabelais's views on historiography (Ceard), that a quotation from Enguerrand de Monstrelet in the third book is an important clue to the structure of that book (Duval), that the explanation of the fantastically described monster Lent in the fourth book (30-32) lies in sixteenth-century medical terminology (Fontaine), or that the stones and metals of the child Gargantua's rings (1:8) carry specific references to Christian caritas (Weinberg). Even Eugenie Droz, I believe, would have been impressed by these and other such discoveries.
The major difficulties in understanding Rabelais undoubtedly lie in the complex intellectual context that only specialists can reconstitute for us. But Rabelais's language has also become an insurmountable barrier for today's reader; he wrote his own idiosyncratic version of Middle French, packed with quotations in Latin and Greek, dialect terms, and made-up words which occur nowhere else. All of which means that at least since the seventeenth century, Rabelais has been untranslatable; the most recent attempt by the late Donald Frame gives us the content, probably better than most others, but cannot give us the flavor of Rabelais's text.
Like most books Rabelais's pseudo-epic is riddled with references, both overt and implicit, to previous books. All we do is write glosses on one another, said Montaigne, some while before Umberto Eco. And many of the books that Rabelais is admiring, saluting, exploiting, or attacking as he writes are themselves now unreadable, also for a variety of reasons. I propose to focus here on three of these books, which I believe can help us to read Rabelais more appreciatively.
Though very different, they have some common characteristics: all were published before 1532; all went into many editions and were read all over Europe; and all are written in languages with which very few readers nowadays are at home.
THE DE ASSE OF GUILLAUME BUDE
The first of these now-unreadable best-sellers is the De asse by the great French humanist Guillaume Bude, first published in 1514, which has never been translated or received a critical edition. …