Today's children are familiar with the Harry Potter and Twilight series but once upon a time, Little Louis – the six-year-old son of Louis XIV of France was lucky enough to have the first collection of 124 Selected Fables of Jean de La Fontaine dedicated to him. La Fontaine and Fables are almost synonymous in French literature. As the author of immortal Fables, learnt “by heart” by generations of school children, La Fontaine (1621-1695) was the most famous French fabulist and one of France's highly appreciated writers abroad in the 17th century. His Fables provided a model for subsequent fabulists across Europe. According to Gustave Flaubert, La Fontaine was the only French poet to understand and master the texture of the French language before Victor Hugo. A set of postage stamps celebrating the 300th anniversary of death of La Fontaine and the Fables was issued by France in 1995. A film of his life was released in France in April 2007. It is worth the effort to rediscover the work of this bon vivant and the many facets of his literary vanities.
La Fontaine was one of the freest but most bizarre thinkers of all time. During his lifetime, the man was an enigma, being both provincial yet cosmopolitan. It was not until he was past thirty that his literary career began. The reading of Malherbe, it is said, first awoke poetical fancies in him. His first serious work was a translation or adaptation of Eunuchus of Terence in 1654. His work stands out in diversity (“Diversity is my motto”, he would say), its depth, its roots both rustic and learned, and the breadth of a culture that not only spanned the Greek classics, Latin authors and minor writers but was also receptive to the influence of oriental storytellers, an unusual aspect for the time. When writing about La Fontaine, pleasure, gentleness and sensual delight are words that recur, time and time again. Although morals are the subject-matter, there is no bitterness or condemnations rather there is always a luminous smile and a gentle feeling.
It is difficult to unmask La Fontaine. Like the epic philosopher Plato he believed that the road to truth passed through beauty and pleasure. The poet himself was wont to say so, at the risk of appearing candid (“Gentle truth is inaccessible to Reason”) or, on the contrary, subversive, through his constant and strangely pacifist opposition to absolute bureaucratic and military power, personified in his time by Louis XIV. It has sometimes been objected that the view of human character which La Fontaine expresses is unduly dark. In his defense, one can say that satire necessarily concerns itself with the darker rather than lighter shades.
La Fontaine's Tales and Short Stories are being republished, along with Adonis, The Loves of Psyche and Cupid. The 240 Faldes are part of a considerable body of work that includes tragedies and comedies, poems and ballads, travel accounts and novels. His first work of real importance, the first book of Contes appeared in 1664. His writings provide guidance on the path to greater wisdom, knowledge and truth.
“It is neither the true nor the likely that make the beauty and the grace of these things: it is the manner in which they are told,” wrote Jean de La Fontaine, in 1666, in the preface to his Tales and Short Stories, which posterity prudishly attributed to the licentious genre. They are in fact lighthearted narratives, copied from the Italian poets Boccaccio and Ariosto. For La Fontaine, all the art resided in the ability to suggest, rather than name.
La Fontaine can be admitted as an author of classicist age because of his love of order and reason, his ideal of the honest man advocating moderation in all matters and praising intellectual discipline as a means of curbing the soul's emotional outpourings. Though his youth sets him in the Renaissance and the baroque, he cannot deny his attraction to Italian and Spanish influences, the opulent celebrations, infinite metamorphoses, the fluidity of water as a symbol of time elapsing, and his obsession with death, which places each human destiny in front of the mirror of its foolish vanities. His devotion to his two different lines of poetry, as well as to that of theatrical composition reveals the true picture of human nature.
In the first collection of 124 Select Fables what are now called the first six books, La Fontaine adhered to the path of his predecessors with some closeness; but in the latter collections he allowed himself far more liberty. He had many predecessors in the Fable, especially in the beast fable. The poet took inspiration from Aesop, Horace, Tasso, Machiavelli's comedies, and Eastern stories that in his epoch were transmitted through translations from the Persian. The most likely source for La Fontaine was the pseudonymous version of Gilbert Gaulmin (1585-1665) under the title “The Book of Enlightenment or the Conduct of Kings” where the moral tone of his Fables is as fresh and healthy as its literacy interest is vivid. Behind each Fable, finely shaped and musical, each tale full of verve and spirit, there is meditation, profound reflection and a lesson in stoicism. There we touch upon the storyteller's own personality, “surrounded”, to quote Paul Valéry, “by a rumour of idleness and reverie, a murmur of absence and distraction”.
He never denied this reputation and described himself as a friend of sleep and an enemy of effort, unless in the pursuit of its pleasure. One patroness referred to him as her “fabulist”, saying he produced fables as an apple tree produces apples, that is, naturally. Indeed, he must have had an astonishing memory, an uncommon gift of observation, a sharpened gaze focused on all things, a mind forever active, and an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. This nobleman was forever short of cash through lack of concern; an absent husband and a distracted father; above all, he was a thinker, a most profound philosopher. Together with Montaign, La Fontaine was, among French writers, the one who assigned the greatest importance to friendship.
La Fontaine's work cannot be left behind without mentioning the illustrators Fragonard and Moreau le Jeune, Granville and Gustave Doré and even Delacroix who were so greatly inspired by him. They succeeded in capturing the spirit of the fables and turning La Fontaine into a fountain of fables.
When he wrote The Crow and the Fox, La Fontaine had a sophisticated audience in mind. Nevertheless, fables were regarded as providing an excellent education in morals for children. The 18th century was particularly distinguished for the number of fabulists in all languages and for the special cultivation of young mind as a target audience. The preface of one of his works announces that its aim is specifically to “give them an attraction to useful lessons which are suited to their age [and] an aversion to the profane songs which are often put into their mouths and which only serve to corrupt their innocence”. His fables were adopted by the education system in the early 19th century in Europe and elsewhere.
La Fontaine's talent and gift of fantasy were finally recognized by the French Academy in 1682. He became one of the first men of letters of France. This great fabulist's life came to an end in April 1695. He was given a simple burial but when the Père Lachaise cemetery opened in Paris, La Fontaine's remains were moved there for national honour.
Nasima Zaman is a professor in the Department of Political Science at Rajshahi University.