Bon Garçon

David Coward

  • Complete Tales in Verse by Jean de La Fontaine, translated by Guido Waldman
    Carcanet, 334 pp, £14.95, October 2000, ISBN 0 18 575448 1
  • The Fables of La Fontaine: Wisdom Brought down to Earth by Andrew Calder
    Droz, 234 pp, £36.95, September 2001, ISBN 2 600 00464 5
  • The Craft of La Fontaine by Maya Slater
    Fairleigh Dickinson, 255 pp, US $43.50, May 2001, ISBN 0 8386 3920 8

La Fontaine’s permanent place in the schoolroom has made him the most widely read of all French writers. Children take his menagerie of talking flora and fauna in their stride. Grown-ups, however, worry about his howlers (grasshoppers don’t eat worms) and mutter about the ambiguity of his moral lessons. Lamartine winced at his cynical promotion of self-interest, and for Rousseau the method employed by the fox to relieve the crow of its cheese was as much an advertisement for flattery as a warning against flatterers. But though they mistook his observations of human behaviour for universal precepts, La Fontaine must take some of the blame. He was an awkward kind of fabulist, a tease who directed his subtle ironies as much at his readers as at his cats and foxes. His default creature was the red herring, that most slippery of fish. A playful, elusive writer, La Fontaine is never quite what we expect him to be.

Within the space of an alexandrine, he describes himself as a butterfly of poetry but also as a bee who toiled among life’s flowers. There is a world of difference between sipping nectar decoratively for lunch and buzzing among the stamens to feed a hive, the same distance in fact which separates the grasshopper from the ant of his most famous fable. Asked which they admire, the life-enhancing (but improvident) songstress or the industrious (but dour) formic worker, people will identify with one or the other according to temperament. La Fontaine leaves the matter open, but in all likelihood approved and disapproved of both. ‘Idling was his only vice,’ Tallemant des Réaux said: so he was a grasshopper. Yet his manuscripts reveal strong traces of the ant: just two lines of the draft of ‘The Fox, the Flies and the Hedgehog’ survive into the published version. If there is more than meets the eye in La Fontaine’s fables, the same is true of the man.

His life, unmarked by plotting, heroism, stratagems or spoils, was uneventful but rich in contradictions. He was mild and submissive yet always went his own way. He made fun of priests and popes and admired the pagan ancients, but was always mindful of his Christian faith. He flattered Louis XIV but denounced monarchs who, like the Sun King, made war and generated misery. Although he wrote about fields and farmyards and celebrated rural quiet, he was a devout Parisian and addicted to salon talk. He wrote decorously of love but frequented taverns and brothels, and his sunny verse was the product of a constitutional melancholia. Many anecdotes play up his absent-mindedness: a cat has kittens on his best suit, he mislays the new poem he is to present to the King, carelessly leaves a purse of gold in a cab and has to be reminded that the strange young man who speaks to him is his son. Dumas père gave him a walk-on part in the final episode of his Musketeer saga and turned him into a twittering buffoon. For Barbey d’Aurevilley, he was ‘an amoral moralist, a casual poet of exasperating perfection, as fabulous as his fables’. Was he naive or wily? How much tongue was there in his cheek?

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