By Ted Gioia

Forget the Nobel Prize in literature.  The highest literary
honor, accorded to a nobler elite, comes when an
author's name enters the language as a laudatory
adjective.  Who would not wish to write a work, or even
a single sentence, judged by
others to be Shakespearean,
Aeschylean, Faulknerian,
Dantesque, Miltonian,
Proustian, or dubbed with
some other similarly high-
flown modifier?  Such terms
are employed, sparingly and
judiciously, to describe a
grandeur of expression, a
heightened sensitivity toward
language, a lofty paradigm of

The term 'Rabelaisian'—derived from François Rabelais,
the most celebrated French author of sixteenth century
—is sometimes used in this manner as well, referring to
an earthy naturalism in storytelling and uninhibited
approach to literary expression.  Yet the word often
describes more than a style of writing, and is frequently
employed to describe an attitude toward life and a mode
of conduct.  A handy reference work tells me that
Rabelaisian can mean "bawdy, broad, coarse, earthy,
extravagant, exuberant, gross, lusty, raunchy."  This one
literary figure, in other words, has become a stand-in for
the seven deadly sins and host of less deadly vices.   Even
by our contemporary standards of extravagant authorial
that represents a considerable—and perhaps

And Rabelais managed to achieve this despite a CV that
included stints with the Franciscans and the
Benedictines.  Talk about covering
all the bases.  Yet the
excesses of Rabelais's biography are more than matched
by those of his writing, and I’m hardly surprised that his
characters have also contributed adjectives to our
gargantuan (from Gargantua) and pantagruelian
(from Pantagruel).  Both of these words are, like
'Rabelasian', typically applied to things larger-than-life,
enormous, voracious.  In short, whenever someone
pushes to the limits and beyond—in literature as in life—
Rabelais is the benchmark, the measuring rod for that
which defies measurement.

Almost everything about
Gargantua and Pantagruel
testifies to its excess.   The  plot is so convoluted as to
defy synopsis.  By comparison, Cervantes seems austere
and punctilious.  Rabelais's book is both long and long-
winded, and it crosses conventional boundaries of style
and subject, taking on aspects of fantasy, social
commentary, travel literature,
parody, allegory, adventure
story, narratives of battles and
chivalry, songs, bawdy jokes,
poetry, tall tales, wordplay and
most other types of vernacular
writing of its author’s day. By
the same token, no work of its
time is more outrageous or
transgressive, and it is a wonder
that Rabelais managed to find a
publisher and avoid suppression
…or worse.  Recall that, just a few months before the
publication of the first volume of
Gargantua and
, Jean de Cahors was charged with heresy for
demeaning the clergy and was burnt at the stake.   
Rabelais repeatedly takes on the clergy, and every other
interest group of his day, during the course of his work,
and never minces his words.  Fortunately he had friends
in high places, notably King Francis I, who gave Rabelais
legal protection, at least until the monarch's death in

The story revolves around the exploits of Gargantua
and his son Pantagruel, both giants of prodigious feats
and considerable appetites.  To make Gargantua’s
breeches required eleven hundred and six yards of linen,
his codpiece resembled a flying buttress, and his purse
was made of an elephant's testicle.  His son Pantagruel
was equally supersized—as a child he drank the milk of
four thousand six hundred cows at each meal, and his
mouth was so large that entire cities were built on his
teeth, complete with "tennis courts, handsome galleries,
beautiful meadows, and many vineyards."  Rabelais
adds:  "And these delightful fields were dotted with
more Italian-style summerhouses than I could count."

Although the term "magical realism" didn't exist back
in the Renaissance, Rabelais must be considered one of
the key precursors of the modern exponents of that
style.  A key subplot involves Pantagruel's attempt to
foretell the future, and determine whether his companion
Panurge should get married.  This pretext gives Rabelais
the opportunity to explore the full range of fortune-
telling and prognosticating methods, including reading
cards, rolling dice, studying the entrails of animals,
selecting random passages in Virgil's
Aeneid, seeking the
counsel of a fool, a wise man, a sibyl, and finally a large
bottle (a fitting symbol to cap a drink-filled narrative)
that spouts off Delphic utterances instead of liquor.  

The incidents presented here are often ludicrous, but
Rabelais also injects a considerable amount of social
commentary into his storytelling.  In this regard, too, he
anticipates the
Márquez, Grass, Rushdie, Allende and the
other leading magical realists of our time, who have
found that fantasy is not incompatible with a critique of
ruling powers and historical events.  For Rabelais, the
leading targets are corrupts monks, dishonest lawyers,
power-hungry nobles, religious hypocrites, pompous
academics, and most of the other elite groups of his
time.  No one is exempt from criticism and ridicule in
these pages, and a certain grotesque realism is ever
present as a foundation for the preposterous
exaggerations of the ever-changing plot.

Although Rabelais constantly seeks out targets for his
savage wit, don’t jump to the conclusion that his
worldview is essentially caustic and negating.  Far from
it.  Few literary works of any era are more boisterous or
less gloomy. Much of
Gargantua and Pantagruel is devoted
to eating and drinking and other sorts of revelry.   I'm
not sure I believe Rabelais's claim that he wrote this
work while feasting and boozing, but he certainly does
justice to those pursuits, and almost every adventure,
large or small, that takes place in this book is capped by
the protagonists celebrating with several rounds of

Yet even a party can grow tedious if it goes on too long,
and Rabelais pushes everything too far in this work.   
Some of his lists—of insults, of mythical books, of
dishes served at a meal, etc.—go on for pages and pages,
and most of the stories in this gargantuan book would
benefit from some pruning and excision.  There's just
too much here, and Rabelais is not the man to set
proper limits, whether at the dinner table or the writing
desk.  Indeed, if literature could give you a hangover,
this would be the book to do it.   

The end result is a peculiar flip-flop:  the extravagant
work that its author thought would entertain, amuse
and shock only achieves those ends in small doses for
readers today.  Yet other aspects of this work now stand
out, qualities that its initial audience no doubt paid less
attention to, but which are especially appealing to
modern readers—not just the elements of magical
realism and social critique mentioned above, but a host
of other radical techniques that nowadays would be
described as modern or postmodern.  Of all the works
of the Renaissance,
Gargantua and Pantagruel is the one
closest in spirit to James Joyce, Thomas Pynchon,
Hunter Thompson, Kurt Vonnegut, and a host of
other leading spirits of our times.  In fact, there might
even be something about modern life that makes us all
a bit Rabelaisian, whether we care to admit it or not.  
Certainly in a literary environment that continues to
prize transgression as well as expression, audacity as
much as veracity, this boundary-busting book will not
just survive, but continue to find new admirers,
emulators and even a few suitably Rabelaisian drinking
Gargantua and Pantagruel
by François Rabelais
Click on image to purchase
The Year
(click here)
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction
Welcome to my year of magical
reading.  Each week during the
course of 2012,  I will explore an
important work of fiction that
incorporates elements of magic,
fantasy or the surreal.  My choices
will cross conventional boundary
lines of genre, style and historical
period—indeed, one of my intentions
in this project is to show how the
conventional labels applied to these
works have become constraining,
deadening and misleading.

In its earliest days, storytelling almost
always partook of the magical. Only
in recent years have we segregated
works arising from this venerable
tradition into publishing industry
categories such as "magical realism"
or "paranormal" or "fantasy" or some
other 'genre' pigeonhole. These
labels are not without their value, but
too often they have blinded us to the
rich and multidimensional heritage
beyond category that these works

This larger heritage is mimicked in
our individual lives: most of us first
experienced the joys of narrative
fiction through stories of myth and
magic, the fanciful and
phantasmagorical; but only a very
few retain into adulthood this sense
of the kind of enchantment possible
only through storytelling.  As such,
revisiting this stream of fiction from a
mature, literate perspective both
broadens our horizons and allows us
to recapture some of that magic in
our imaginative lives.

The Year of Magical Reading:

Week 1:
Midnight's Children by
Salman Rushdie

Week 2:  The House of the Spirits by
Isabel Allende

Week 3:  The Witches of Eastwick
John Updike

Week 4:  Magic for Beginners by
Kelly Link

Week 5:  The Tin Drum by Günter

Week 6:  The Golden Ass by

Week 7:  The Tiger's Wife by Téa

Week 8:  One Hundred Years of
Solitude  by Gabriel García Márquez

Week 9:  The Book of Laughter and
Forgetting by Milan Kundera

Week 10: Gargantua and Pantagruel
François Rabelais

Week 11: The Famished Road by
Ben Okri

Week 12: Like Water for Chocolate
Laura Esquivel

Week 13: Winter's Tale by Mark

Week 14: Dhalgren by Samuel R.

Week 15:  Johnathan Strange & Mr.
Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Week 16:  The Master and
Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Week 17:  Dangerous Laughter by
Steven Millhauser

Week 18:  Conjure Wife by Fritz

Week 19:  1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

Week 20:  The Hobbit by J.R.R.

Week 21:  Aura by Carlos Fuentes

Week 22:  Dr. Faustus by Thomas

Week 23:  Orlando by Virginia Woolf

Week 24:  Little, Big by John Crowley

Week 25:  The White Hotel by D.M.

Week 26:  Neverwhere by Neil

Week 27:  Alice's Adventures in
Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Week 28:  Fifth Business by
Robertson Davies

Week 29:  The Kingdom of This
World by Alejo Carpentier

Week 30:  The Bear Comes Home
by R
afi Zabor

Week 31:  The Color of Magic by
Terry Pratchett

Week 32:  Ficciones by Jorge Luis

Week 33:  Beloved by Toni Morrison

Week 34:  Dona Flor and Her Two
Husbands by Jorge Amado

Week 35:  Hard-Boiled Wonderland
and the End of the World by Haruki

Week 36:  What Dreams May Come
by Richard Matheson

Week 37:  Practical Magic by Alice

Week 38:  Blindess by José

Week 39:  The Fortress of Solitude
by J
onathan Lethem

Week 40:  The Magicians by Lev

Week 41:  Suddenly, A Knock at the
Door by Etgar Keret

Week 42:  Cloudstreet by Tim Winton

Week 43:  The Obscene Bird of
NIght by José Donoso

Week 44:  The Fifty Year Sword by
Mark Z. Danielewski

Week 45:  Gulliver's Travels by
Jonathan Swift

Week 46:  Harry Potter and the
Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling

Week 47:  The End of the Affair by
Graham Greene

Week 48:  The Chronicles of Narnia
by C
.S. Lewis

Week 49:  Hieroglyphic Tales by
Horace Walpole

Week 50:  The View from the
Seventh Layer by Kevin Brockmeier

Week 51:  Gods Without Men by
Hari Kunzru

Week 52:  At Swim-Two-Birds by
Flann O'Brien
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at

Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to reviews)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute

Links to related sites
The New Canon
Great Books Guide
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
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Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Los Angeles Review of Books
The Millions
Big Dumb Object
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More Words, Deeper Hole
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