Jacqes the Fatalist by Denis Diderot (for Penguin)
Posted September 17, 2007on:
I decided to post my unedited Blog-a-classic version of my Jacques the Fatalist and His Master review by Diderot for posterity. Not really, it’s just something to have up before I stretch my muscles further on a later post for the blog and to publicly state sooner rather than late a little bit on why I think the book is so awesome so read it, yo. Conveniently enough it qualifies as my first completed book in the Index Librorum Liberorum challenge.
Before I get to that allow me to pooter on about my reading these days. The Good Fairies of New York by Martin Millar is not what I expected at all. Not that I knew what to expect when I bought it, but I did not imagine it was such a modestly light read. Hilarious, at times ingenuous, but light. So light it’s easy to put it aside for days and now I’m trying to drum up interest to finish the rest. (Which I will do. I think.)
You may have noticed that my posts on Paradise Lost have petered out. I find it difficult to keep up a long term interest in blogging about a single book, even if my reading experience continues to move along swimmingly. Right now there are only bits and pieces from various sections that wish to be publicly mentioned so I must come up with a way in which to do so cogently in one post, if that’s possible. I’m rather disappointed in myself, but oh well.
I’m back in Jamaica with Andrew Salkey with his A Quality of Violence, set in the St. Thomas parish. It’s a nice change after Roger Mais’ focus on Kingston life. I reviewed my choices for the Outmoded Authors challenge and decided to drop selections that I thought were too conventional and not sufficiently “out there”. So I’ve returned to one of the original gleams in my eye when I started the challenge, Jesse Hill Ford, and already have his Fishes, Birds, and Sons of Men, a collection of short stories purported to include some of his best work. If I read it in time I may finally have something to be entered into Mutford‘s hosting of Dewey’s Bookworm Carnival, or even something for his Short Story Monday feature. (Gogol’s name is popping up everywhere since I read that Nabokov essay. Eerie.) Rosalyn Drexler and Violette Leduc are other new replacements. Besides Shaw, I kept on Malcolm Lowry.
As other participants have confessed on first receiving a seemingly dowdy classic to review, my reaction on getting Jacques the Fatalist in the mail was one of trepidation. It’s a slim text, but I’m going to fall asleep on the third page, I thought. What a pleasure to see, then, that an 18th century French novel could be as fresh, engaging and amusing a read as any contemporary work, and offer the expected intellectual stimulation. (No matter how much I read and enjoy classical fiction — mostly 19th century Victorian and early 20th century works — I still have the typical fears the average person does when I tread into unfamiliar territory.)
The plot and tone is not unlike de Cervantes’ Don Quixote: two men, a French nobleman and his servant, Jacques, are on a journey together to parts unknown, and along the way they share stories and meet other characters who do the same. The story’s absurdity and the narrator’s insolent attitude is established from the first paragraph.
How did they meet? By chance like everyone else. What were their names? What’s that got to do with you? Where were they coming from? From the nearest place. Where were they going to? Does anyone ever really know where they are going to? What were they saying? The master wasn’t saying anything and Jacques was saying that his Captain used to say that everything which happens to us on this earth, both good and bad, is written up above.
How can one resist such an enthralling, mysterious start in which the reader is shown such disrespect? Diderot keeps it up to the very end, asking questions on the reader’s behalf in order to treat the familiar novel conventions with congenial contempt. The effect is not unlike a Choose your own adventure novel, except that Diderot allows glimpses of possible plot developments before shutting them off, revelling in the writer’s tyrannical position over certain aspects of a reading experience. But even his choices are imbued with the sense that they were only chosen by chance, one event could have happened as easily as another.
Jacques’ story of how he once fell in love is the strand that holds this haphazard novel together. He is continually interrupted by horse thefts, inn stops, funeral processions and the like as well as other characters he and his master meet along the way who are often inclined to share their stories as well. It is in these narratives that Diderot compliments or mocks writers of the period, and his favourite target, the Roman Catholic church. Clergy, monks and nuns alike are bywords for debauchery, hypocrisy and excess, stars in tales that are sometimes amusingly (or distressingly) similar to present news items on political scandals. Besides entertainment they serve as pathways for a curious reader to learn more about the religious and political ideas and controversies of the day.
Many have made much of the servant Jacques’ philosophical beliefs, briefly mentioned in the quote, but I tend to agree with Martin Hall in the introduction that his fatalism is more or less rooted in and restricted to a quaint aphorism. I found Diderot’s style and narrative structure much more intriguing and ripe for re-readings and explorations. However, like any great book, it has several facets with which to fascinate a variety of readers and would appeal to anyone who enjoys humorous intellectual adventures. Kudos to Michael Henry for such a great translation.