I started rereading Jacques The Fatalist this week. Not because I have a particular proclivity towards late 18th Century French Literature (I really don’t), but because while sitting on my couch I saw Jacques on my bookshelf, remembered that I did kinda enjoy it when I read it back in college, and decided that, hey, it might be fun to revisit it before I dive into the massive Murakami book on my to-read list.
And let me tell you, Jacques The Fatalist is a very funny book.
The whole conceit of the novel (and calling it a novel may be a stretch) is a framing device of Jacques and his unnamed master going on a journey. Where are they going? It’s not really important, which the narrator makes quite clear by saying as much. Ostensibly, Jacques is going to tell his master the story of his loves, but he keeps getting distracted whether by his own meandering storytelling or random events that happen in the world much to the frustration of everyone involved — up to and including the narrator who, claiming that this story is a true story and not some made up flight of fancy, insists that this is how it happened and so this is how it must be told. All the while, Jacques himself comments on the difficulty of telling his story, consigned to forces beyond his power.
I’m fully aware that saying I’m really enjoying this book much makes me sound like a pretentious blowhard, the sort of person who thinks art peaked centuries ago and that modern movies are just waves of sound and color. Well, dear reader, I assure you that despite getting great, genuine pleasure out of a book written by a philosopher of the French Enlightenment, I am still the uncouth blowhard who considers Hot Rod to be a cinematic masterpiece with incomparably narrative structure. I contain multitudes.
But then, Jacques the Fatalist’s humor isn’t the most sophisticated. A lot of the jokes within the story are based on misunderstandings and things not going the way you’d expect. Much of it is far from highbrow too (one scene involves Jacques lamenting how his stolen purse led to a magistrate demanding he pay a prostitute for her time despite having not availed himself of her services). At its most ‘intelligently funny,’ the book will have Jacques complain about the story while the narrator insists they’re doing what they can, not unlike a two-hundred-year-old The Princess Bride or Deadpool. But of course, because Jacques The Fatalist is French and its author, Denis Diderot, a celebrated thinker, this one is classy.
I wonder if that’s part of the problem with the ‘classics.’ I’ll be the first to admit that my general response to seeing a Penguin Classic is to roll my eyes with mild disinterest. So much of our (or at least my) interaction with the ‘classics’ —be they literature, art, film— is filtered through the lens of This Is Important and This Is Classy. They are to be read because they are Culturally Significant (and doing so will make you seem more intelligent) and not to be enjoyed for their own sake. And that’s not even getting into the fact that, owing to who gets to decide what the classics are, most all of these books are going to be by Old White Men for Old White Men with the awfully narrow scope that entails. Sure, you can read your books by African and Asian authors, but these aren’t real classics.
Look, there’s a lot to be unpacked when it comes to what’s considered classic, why we study and read the classics, and how they’re enjoyed, more to unpack than can fit in one of these blog posts. But I know I think they should be less sanctified, less hallowed; I think the pretentious sheen of These Books Make You Cultured needs to be wiped off. It’s okay to like them, it’s okay to absolutely hate them. Jacques The Fatalist is no fun when you treat it like some super Important and Serious work of French literature. But when you look at it as a metafictional story that plays with narrative with a meta main character and a trolling narrator? It becomes a lot more fun.