Literary Daybook, April 9

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

By the Salon Books Editors
Published April 9, 2002 9:00PM (EDT)

Today in fiction

On April 9, Cleasby gives his first talk at Nelson Club; seven people attend.
-- "Losing Nelson" (1999)
by Barry Unsworth

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
occurred? Send it to

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Today in Literary History
On this day in 1553, the French physician, humanist scholar and writer François Rabelais died. His influential and much-imitated satiric masterpiece, "Gargantua and Pantagruel" (five books, 1532-52), is in the mock-quest tradition, with the emphasis so decidedly on "mock" that the book has been imagined "as if Benny Hill had turned 'The Praise of Folly' into a filmscript for Monty Python." In the 16th century, the author's lampoon of religious orders, lawyers, Sorbonne pedants and just about every other power group going brought condemnation and censorship; today, readers marvel more at the style, that exuberant combination of humor, sex and scatology -- one entire and graphic chapter devoted to the search for the ideal toilet paper -- deemed "Rabelaisian."

The first book in the series, "The Inestimable Life of the Great Gargantua," follows the hero's education and rise to friendly gianthood. In Book 2, "The Horrible and Terrifying Deeds and Words of the Renowned Pantagruel," "King of the Dipsodes," the focus is on Gargantua's son, the "all-thirsty" Pantagruel, and on his sidekick, Panurge. Books 3, 4 and 5 (many question whether Rabelais wrote all of Book 5) are concerned with a journey to Cathay, via some Northwest Passage, undertaken so that Panurge might consult the Oracle of the Holy Bottle. The hope is that Panurge will find relief for what has become his all-consuming worry: whether he should marry -- or, more precisely, whether, once married, he should be cuckolded.

The answer to such a question lies beyond the land of Pettifogging; beyond Ringing Island, where the bells perpetually peal over the caged clerical birds -- monkhawks, abbothawks, cardinhawks and one pope-hawk; beyond the Islands of Tools, Ignoramuses, For-ward Folks, Lies and Queen Whim. Beyond, almost, comprehension: Having passed through the door to the Temple of the Bottle (above which is inscribed, 'In Vino Veritas'), and having undergone elaborate initiations, and having finally posed the momentous question, the only answer is: TRINC. To Panurge's puzzlement, the Holy Bottle offers the elaboration that "trinc is a panophean word, that is, a word understood, us'd and celebrated by all nations, and signifies Drink." Though many commentators gloss "trinc" as the drinking of knowledge, truth and love, many readers enjoy a literal interpretation.

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," email Steve King.

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