Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Fables of Jean de La Fontaine

Play’s the Thing:

The Fables of Jean de La Fontaine

Originally Published on’s Classic Literature Page

Although Molière, Jean Racine, and Pierre Corneille are often thought of as the greatest French literary artists of the late seventeenth century, their extraordinary plays standing as what we now think of as “Classical” French theater, it was the shrewd fable-writer Jean de La Fontaine who produced perhaps the richest body of work of his period. Both his lexicon and his vast array of influences dwarf those of his contemporaries, and his varied and innovative use of rhyme schemes influenced nearly every poet on the continent, including the later Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, whose famous Eugene Onegin stanza can be found in several places in La Fontaine’s fables. The trouble is that it’s nearly impossible to find a serious edition of La Fontaine’s fables in English. Even in France most editions are geared toward children and contain only the most simple and facile samples of his work, and the English translations almost uniformly transform his ingenious rhythms into sing-song nursery rhymes that lose nearly all of the fables’ wit and subtlety. As with Vladimir Nabokov’s literal translation of Eugene Onegin, La Fontaine—along with all other poets—requires an unrhymed translation, and after searching for years for a suitable edition, chance handed me a first-rate dual-language version published, surprisingly, as a Dover Books original.

Edited and translated by Stanley Appelbaum, who provides an excellent introduction, helpful notes to the fables, and an exceptionally thorough key to La Fontaine’s sources—which range from Aesop to Aristotle to Horace to the Desert Fathers to Rabelais, as well as to any number of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century fable-writers and fable-collectors who’d brought tales from as far away as India and Persia and Java—this edition is an ideal (if too short) introduction to La Fontaine for both the serious and casual English reader.

Hyacinthe Rigaud’s portrait
of Jean de La Fontaine, 1690
Culling seventy-five of the most famous and artistically significant fables from La Fontaine’s long career—he wrote 244 fables in all, filling several books over the course of a quarter of a century—Appelbaum’s edition of the Selected Fables offers an excellent sampling of the poet’s evolving and ever-widening approach to the genre. Opening with the well-known “The Cicada and the Ant,” La Fontaine’s version of Aesop’s “The Grasshopper and the Ant”—a fable that Nabokov hilariously plays with in his 1962 novel Pale Fire—the collection spends only a short number of pages on the early period of fables that most other editions focus on entirely. “The Crow and the Fox,” “The City Rat and the Country Rat,” The Wolf and the Lamb,” and “The Lion and the Rat” are known by practically everyone and require no explanation other than to say that they’re all more incisive and revealing in literal translation than they are in any watered-down retelling or retooling. La Fontaine examines human nature with an acute eye, and his use of animals in our place allows him to be as direct a commentator on the way we live our lives as any philosopher or essayist. In fact, the animal-skins that he places over our actions perhaps allow him to penetrate even farther into our foolishness and greed and cruelty than he could have if he’d have been writing in a different genre. La Fontaine relied heavily on patronage, but he was never well liked by Louis XIV, and some of his best fables—from all periods of his career—explore the uses and abuses of power, with lions and lambs and rats standing in our exposed and uneasy stead.

His fables growing in length, complexity, and scope, La Fontaine takes on increasingly ambitious challenges as he progresses, both in terms of form and content. His meta-fable “The Power of Fables” addresses contemporary relations between France and England by way of ancient Athens and Macedonia, and in the process he illustrates the spells that fables can cast on us as they blind us to the true dangers of the world, thus enchanting the reader with his own spell while revealing the trick and negating his own purpose and importance. Digging deeper, his “Discourse to Madame de la Sablière” brilliantly refutes Descartes’ theory that animals don’t possess the same form of intelligence as human beings, with the fable-within-a-fable “The Two Rats, the Fox, and the Egg” holding an interior mirror up to an example of animal ingenuity that easily rivals our own and that makes us recognize ourselves in even the most seemingly primitive creatures.

J.J. Grandville’s illustration of
“The Cicada and the Ant,” 1938
Going so far as to raise the animals that populate his fables to our own qualitative rank, La Fontaine attains to the level of philosophy while at the same time decentralizing the human mind that creates philosophy—an ouroboros much like the self-negating “The Power of Fables.” But as in “The Power of Fables,” La Fontaine’s fables are often as much about reveling in the pleasures and diversions of human and animal nature as they are about the profound reflection found in them. This lightness of play keeps him from falling into turgid sophistry, and combined with his poetic brilliance, his playfulness raises his fables onto a stage easily on par with the great playwrights of his day. “The world is old, people say, and I believe it,” La Fontaine writes. “All the same/It still needs to be entertained like a child.”

—David Wiley