23 March 2009

Jacques the Fatalist, by Denis Diderot

I have a lot of respect for Tristram Shandy on a theoretical level, but honestly, I've always found it somewhat tedious to read. The endless digressions, the snarky lewd humor - it just gets old after awhile. All the same, it's a fascinating text, and really interesting from the perspective of how to construct a novel. Jacques the Fatalist is, in a sense, Tristram Shandy v. 2.0. It has a lot of the same playful experimentation (and endless digressions) but it doesn't go overboard. What results is a charming little novel that is clever, silly, and actually entertaining to read.

The story is a kind of loose collection of conversations, beginning with Jacques starting to tell his Master. They are endlessly interrupted by a host of other characters with stories of their own and various misadventures on the road. If that weren't enough, the text is laden with authorial intrusions "Where are they going? I don't know! Who cares?" "Ok reader, you're bored with this conversation? Then allow me relate a little anecdote of my own". 

In some ways, the novel is an early prototype for choose your own adventure fiction - except in this case, the novel progresses with the choice you have seemingly made. When the characters momentarily part ways, there's a moment there's a moment of debate over which one to follow, and then one is dismissed as too boring and off you do.

It's an interesting book, playing as it does with its fictional status (going back and forth between the author saying he doesn't know what happened and, for example, threatening to send the carriage into the ditch just to create a commotion). It's also a nice take on the stories-within-stories and digression mode, much more effective than Sterne's, I think. 

For all it's dry wit and snarkiness though, it's also quite warm and lovable. Really, just a lot of fun to read. Worth checking out.

4 comments:

Nick said...

Hrm. All I've read of Diderot is Rameau's Nephew. And I totally agree Tristram Shandy is amazing as a concept in my head, but reading it is super boring. Except the beginning. Makes me laugh a lot. *wink*

I'll have to take a look at Jacques.

culture_vulture said...

It's worth it. I just read The Nun as well, which is kind of amusing, but really not that great. Apparently quite similar to The Monk, somewhat less hardcore but also not as long-winded. I haven't read Rameau's Nephew - how is it?

culture_vulture said...
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Erdem Banak said...

I was looking at the connections between Sterne and Diderot and I found out Diderot admitted copying two paragraphs from Sterne in this book.