Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Jacques the Fatalist and his Master

I can see with a little bit of imagination and style, nothing is easier to rattle off than a novel.

And so, Diderot rattled off a novel. But what imagination! And, especially, what style!

Jacques is the servant to his unnamed master; in some ways, though not entirely, they're more friends and equals than master and servant. Jacques is a fatalist because 'everything that happens to us on this earth, both good and bad, is written up above.' But is it? That's kind of the question. And if so, who does the writing?

That sort of thinking meant that Diderot's novel, though likely finished by 1778, didn't appear until 1796, after the French Revolution got under way and after Diderot's death in 1784.

The master and Jacques are traveling:
Where were they coming from? From the nearest place. Where were they going to? Does anyone really know where they are going to?

But as travellers do, they tell stories to pass the time, with Jacques doing most, but not all, of the storytelling. He's going to tell the story of his loves:

MASTER: Has the moment come for hearing about those loves?
JACQUES: Who knows?
MASTER: Well, on the off chance, begin anyway...

But there are interruptions:

MASTER: Do you know what you are doing there? It is very common and very impertinent.
JACQUES: I'm certainly capable of it.
MASTER: You complain of being interrupted and yet you interrupt me.

Some of those interruptions are by the narrator. The interrupting stories are mostly love stories, and there's a reason for that:

It is also a fact that since I am writing for you I must either go without your applause or follow your taste, and you have shown a decided preference for love stories.

But not always! Don't get your heart set entirely on those love stories. Sometimes Jacques' horse bolts and deposits him at the foot of a nearby gallows. Is it 'written up above' that Jacques will end up with a halter round his neck? I can't tell you that!

There was not a single time that he [the master] took a pinch of snuff, nor a single time that he looked to see what time it was, that he didn't say with a sigh: "What has become of my poor Jacques?"

It even comes with literary criticism. But don't think that's just a way to interrupt love stories, because I'm sure it's not.

MASTER: ...an Italian poet called Dante who wrote a work called The Comedy of Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise.
JACQUES: That is a strange subject for a comedy.
MASTER: By God, there's some good things in it, though... 

Hmm. But the more pertinent criticism relates to Laurence Sterne, and The Adventures of Tristram Shandy, 'because of the particular esteem in which I hold Mr. Sterne.' I think we could guess that, Denis.


And what is this, Reader? One love story after another! That makes one, two, three, four love stories I've told you and three or four more still to come. That is a lot of love stories.

One of those love stories, probably the most famous, is that of Marquis des Arcis and Madame de la Pommeraye. It's told by the hostess at an inn where Jacques and his master are trapped for several days due to flooding. Marquis and Madame are in a love affair, an affair they'd pledged each other would last forever. Madame senses the Marquis' growing coldness and tests him by telling him that unfortunately she seems to be falling out of love with him. He replies, oh, good, let us be civilized about this, and we can be just friends.

But she was lying: she hasn't fallen out of love. Instead she plots revenge. Does she get it? I could tell you that, but I won't!

It's also the reason I took the book off the shelf recently. Robert Bresson's film of the story Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne was playing here as part of a series last weekend.

Robert Bresson did less well on this year's Sight and Sound poll of all-time great movies, and this isn't one of his absolute best anyway. Still it was interesting. It made me realize I'd seen another film version a couple of years ago, Mademoiselle de Joncquières:

It had its merits, too, but neither of them are quite what appears in Diderot. But then I'm not sure they entirely intended to.
MASTER: Madame, you tell a story quite well, but you are not yet skilled enough in dramatic art. [He gives some specific criticisms, but to tell you them would be spoiler-y.] You have sinned against against the rules of Aristotle, Horace, de Vida, and Le Bossu.
But our film directors did listen to the master's criticism. Were they right to do so? I can't tell you that!

Is it 'written up above' we learn the story of Jacques' loves? Have you read it? Then you know...otherwise, I'm not going to tell you!

Pretty fun.

I read the Penguin, shown above, translated by Michael Henry.


  1. I can't tell you: I tell you this review was a big tease:) First time hearing of this book, Reese. You have got me all interested.

    1. Tee hee. But it is pretty fun. Gives Voltaire a run for his money.

  2. I enjoyed reading your post, possibly more than I'd enjoy reading the novel! Heheh It's one that might tempt me into reading an introduction first, even though that would spoil things I'm sure.

    1. I had a good time being silly about it.

      The Penguin intro was pretty good about not spoiling the ending, but the real joke is the Sternean one of frustrating the desire to find out what happens next.