Saturday, March 7, 2020

A very great and very funny French writer

French writers.

They're of two sorts, IMO.  One are the writers who draw form their minds.  To wit: Corneille and Racine.  Voltaire and Sartre.  I think many French see themselves as intellectual aristocrats, and that's one reason they worship those dudes.

But the other great French writers, those who write from the heartnot without great skill and mental prowessare the giants, to my mind.

At the pinnacle, Molière and Balzac.

I doubt anyone would contest Balzac.  But I would wager most French wouldn't place Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, aka, Molière, at the very top.  I'm on shaky ground, of course, not being French.  How dare I!  Well, as the French say, enfoiréRoughly translatedwell, look it up.

One reason, I think, is because Molière is funny.  Comic writers have always securely occupied a second rung in literature, never the first.  Which is fucking ridiculous.  

But who is not one of the greatest writers who ever lived if not Cervantes, a comic writer to the marrow?  

Molière (1622-1673) was and IS funny.   He's more than that, natch.  A great satirist. (Got him in trouble.) but, in the end, he makes you laugh.  Still, 350-odd years later.

To wit.  In his play, Le Malade imaginaire (The Imaginary Invalid), a doctor is trying to woo a young woman.  To entice her, he proposes:

"...I invite you to come see one of these days, to amuse yourself, the dissection of a woman, about whom I'll lecture."

The woman's servant drily replies:

"A very agreeable amusement.  There are some who would take their lady love to a play, but a dissection is something much more gallant."

A scene from an American production of The Imaginary Invalid
To get an idea of how brilliant Molière was/is, all you need to do is to check out any of Richard Wilbur's translations. They are masterpieces in themselves.  

In fact, Le Malade imaginaire was Molière's last play.  Sick with TB, he insisted, in true theatrical tradition, that the show must go on.  He collapsed and died shortly thereafter.  He was refused burial in sacred ground because he was an actor.  WTF?  Never mind that he was also an author.  144 years later, the French woke up and had his remains transferred to Père Lachaise Cemetery.

What I would give to see what he would do with our present times.


  1. Salut Richard. Excellent piece about Molière. He is indeed very funny. I think most French people who like 17th Century theater tend to like him the best. It is not rare for people to yawn when Racine or Corneille are mentioned (although our friend Denis will argue that _Les Plaideurs_ is hilarious).
    Molière et Balzac? I think you are right on. People also like Voltaire for his humor. Sometimes when I reread Proust I suddenly I am reminded how incredibly witty and hilarious he can be. The guy who can make me laugh the most is the other great stylist of 20th Century French Literature is Louis-Ferdinand Celine, despite the fact that he was "une ordure," his first two novels are extraordinary and full of Rabelaisian invention.

  2. Yes, I love Celine, too. I remember reading the two most famous books and laughing. Actually, Bouvard et Pécuchet is very funny, I think, and GF wasn't exactly a laugh a minute. By the way, did you ever hear of Charles Ludlam? He wrote and performed a take off of Le Bourgeois gentilhomme back in 1983 in the Village that was fantastic as part of his Ridiculous Theater Company. He died of AIDS, alas.

  3. Bouvard et Pécuchet is fantastic. I do not know Ludlam but I am curious now.
    Here is a link that Denis recently shared with me. Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme in a version that replicates the 17th Century conditions, lighting, speech, make up etc. It is spectacular.

  4. Dear Richard, thank you for this nice article on Molière - I enjoyed it. I have recently seen this masterpiece in a theatre in Paris with a mise en scene by Daniel Auteuil with one of his kids as one of the main actors. And then, surprise , the theatre du Ranelagh ( around the corner; a small confidential but cosy theatre) will be giving this piece starting April ! As you know you are always welcome - in front of the Tour Eiffel !!