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February 2011 - Johann Fischart's Gargantua


Johann Baptist Friedrich Fischart (1546-1590) was one of the first great writers in the German language. He wrote about forty books, including translations, satirical writings, epic poems, treatises, religious pamphlets, and romances.
Born in Strasbourg, probably in 1546, he was the son of Hans Fischer, a rich merchant originally from Mainz, hence his occasional nickname of "Mentzer", meaning a person from Mainz. He studied first at the Gymnasium in Strasbourg, then at the Latin school in Worms and Tübingen University. Starting in 1566, his travels took him to Flanders and Paris, and as far as England and Italy. In 1570 he returned to Strasbourg, although this did not prevent him from visiting Sienna (Tuscany) and Basle. Qualified as a Doctor of Law from the University of Basle, he acted as advocate at the imperial court of appeal in Speyer. In 1583 he was appointed Amtmann or magistrate in Forbach (Lorraine). Originally a Lutheran but later a Calvinist, in his writings he raged not only against the vanity of fashions and the decline in moral values but also, in the Protestant tradition, against the Jesuits and the Pope.

Affenteurliche und ungeheurliche Geschichtschrift vom Leben, Rathen und Thaten der for Langen Weilen vollenwolbeschraiten HeldenAffenteurliche und ungeheurliche Geschichtschrift vom Leben, Rathen und Thaten der for Langen Weilen vollenwolbeschraiten Helden

In 1575, Johann Fischart translated Les Horibles et espoventables faistz et prouesses du très renommé Pantagruel de Rabelais, published in 1533. Under the title Affenteurliche und ungeheurliche Geschichtschrift vom Leben, Rathen und Thaten der for Langen Weilen vollenwolbeschraiten Helden und Herrn Grandgusier, Gargantoa und Pantagruel Königen ihn Utopien und Ninenreich, Fischart produced not so much a faithful translation as a veritable novel inspired by Rabelais. He then reworked the first book of Rabelais' work, and this second translation of Gargantua - three times longer than the original - was published in 1582 under the title Geschichtsklitterung. In Fischart's work, sophisticated irony turns Rabelais' lambasting of intolerance and parodying of chivalric romances into a moral satire against a number of vices, including the stupid vanity of fashion as well as gluttony and drunkenness. Fischart's aim was to educate, but he also attempted to entertain his readers.

His masterpiece was the Geschichtsklitterung, which has been described as the Finnegans Wake of the sixteenth century. The comparison is explained by Fischart's almost experimental style, which fearlessly accumulated synonyms and adjectives, comparisons and neologisms, internal rhyme and assonance. Such boldness makes the Geschichtsklitterung a stylistic masterpiece that hints, as early as the close of the sixteenth century, at the Baroque poetry that was still to come. Very many editions were published, indicating the book's popularity. Fischart described it as a "disturbing, disorganised model of a world today that is itself disturbing and disorganised" ("ein verwirretes vngestaltes Muster der heut verwirrten vngestalten Welt"). Unfortunately there are no French translations of Johann Fischart's works.

The BNU has a large collection of more than 100 works by Fischart, and there are copies of the Geschichtskliterung in the first edition of 1575 (R.105.508), in the second edition of 1582 (R.101.639), and no fewer than five other editions up to 1631.

The City of Strasbourg named the street where the BNU currently has its second building after this famous writer and translator.

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