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?
He was born in 1621 at Château-Thierry, a hundred kilometres north-east of Paris. His father, a royal functionary, sent him to a local school where, according to a fellow pupil, he was a ‘bon garçon, fort sage et fort modeste’. In 1636, he moved to Paris to continue his studies, and at 20 entered an Oratorian college, where he quickly wearied of theology but discovered Plato, devoured L’Astrée, the interminable novel which defined the new pastoral mode, and admired Malherbe, the architect of French classicism. He left in 1642 and returned to his father who, assuming he would eventually succeed him in his post, approved of his verses and didn’t object to his reading: Cervantes, Boccaccio and especially Marot and Rabelais who, despite their ribaldry, still had fervent admirers in polite society. Between times, he returned to Paris, studied law perfunctorily and joined a group of young writers determined to make their mark. Dazzling no one but well-liked, he wore dashing white boots, ran through the money his mother left him and embarked on a scandalous affair with a married woman. In 1647, judging it was time he settled down, his father found him a wife, Marie Héricart. She was 14 and brought him a useful dowry.
Marie has received a mixed press, but whether she was lively and gregarious or disagreeable and pedantic, La Fontaine soon grew bored with her and drifted back to Paris. He took no part in the aristocratic revolt of the Fronde but, as it ended, he bought an administrative post, which did not improve his finances. By 1658, when his father died, his circumstances were straitened, partly because he had no head for business but largely because he was a prodigal spender. That same year, he separated from Marie, over whom he had fought a half-hearted duel, but remained on friendly terms with both her and his opponent. By this time he had published a translation of Terence’s Eunuch – a first publication at 33 was hardly precocious – which was too literary for performance, and a clutch of poems; the lyrical, mythological Adonis was rewarded by Fouquet, the young King’s guardian and First Minister.
La Fontaine had found not only a patron but someone to admire. Fouquet was a grasshopper (his successor, Colbert, was the ant): he was a man who knew how to enjoy his power and vast wealth. But Louis XIV was suspicious and resentful and ordered his arrest in 1661. The disgrace and imprisonment of Fouquet upset La Fontaine more than any other event in his life. Bravely, he wrote an ode and an elegy in his defence but, finally realising that it was both useless and dangerous to protest, retreated to temporary exile in Limoges in 1663. It was the furthest he ever ventured. His travel notes, which catch something of the equanimity of the Duke in As You Like It, suggest that he quickly regained his composure, and he soon returned to Paris. There he now counted Molière, Racine and Boileau among his friends. In 1664, still short of funds, he was attached to the household of the Duchesse d’Orléans and discharged dull duties in the Palais du Luxembourg without enthusiasm until she died in 1672. On the other hand, he had his entrée to the salons, where he enjoyed a growing reputation as the author of bawdy tales and, after 1668, when the first collection appeared, of fables.
But he also wrote Christian poetry, the charming Amours de Psyché et de Cupidon (1669), which refashions ‘in the modern taste’ the story first told by Apuleius, and four elegies which extended his poetic range. His financial situation worsened in 1671, when he was obliged to surrender offices he had inherited from his father and, like the Idler, whose epitaph he wrote, he continued to reduce his income by spending his capital. He didn’t understand the neglect of those who were in a position to help him and after 1672 his tone darkened: the tales published in 1674 have an almost Voltairean edge; they were banned for their immorality the following year. He began a libretto for Lully, which was rejected, and he was further slighted when Boileau omitted him from his Art poétique, the fullest statement of the goals and achievements of classicism. He was far too engaging a man to remain friendless, however. He was rescued by Madame de La Sablière, who gave him a roof, and after her death in 1693 he moved into the house of another admirer, d’Hervart, a banker.
Never at his best when working to order, he dedicated poems to great personages like the Contis, and attempted to make his mark in the theatre, which offered richer pickings than poetry. A comedy, Le Rendez-vous, was performed just four times in 1683 and an opera, Astrée (‘a tragedy with music’), was a failure in 1691. But there were compensations. In 1683 he was elected to the French Academy, though Louis XIV, who did not care for his bawdy tales, blocked his entry for a year until he promised to be ‘good’. He found admirers in the younger, modernist generation, talked and corresponded with old friends and remained close to Racine. In 1693 he fell seriously ill, recanted his sins and disowned his ‘pernicious’, ‘abominable’ tales. He recovered but, it was said, donned the hair-shirt which he was still wearing when he died in 1695.
The tales which made him famous and brought such trouble from the authorities and his conscience were published between 1665 and (despite his promise to be good) 1685. With the odd exception, they were purloined from venerable Italian and French writers. La Fontaine resurrected their lewd monks, randy students, wives with an itch, goatish hermits and shoals of nuns with trembling knees. The gullible are duped, sinners prosper, and quick wits turn tables, lift skirts and lower breeches. He shows a world which sets peasants against townsfolk, servants against masters, youth against age, clerics against their flock, wives against husbands and, not least, women against men. In historical terms, La Fontaine belongs with the European tradition of honest bawdy rather than to the harder libertinage of Aretino and Nicolas Chorier which would dominate the 18th century. In social terms, he paints a Hobbesian picture, a world of un-neighbourly discord.
La Fontaine turns familiar tales into sly farces, establishing character by a phrase and setting up situations with an innocence which adds immeasurably to the humour. His verse is irresistible and his timing impeccable. He pauses to ask his readers if he should go ahead and say what they know is coming next. He picks his way with delicate euphemisms through the traps of bad taste which constantly open beneath his feet. In one tale, he takes 15 lines to suggest the essential item of male equipment and in another coyly leaves it to us to supply the word for the female equivalent which houses Hans Carvel’s finger.
Until recently, opinion has sided with Louis XIV or with Furetière, who dismissed the Contes as ‘adulterated Aretino’. In the last generation, however, his tales have ceased to offend, and it is customary to admire them for their good humour and craftsmanship. English readers can now judge for themselves, for Guido Waldman’s stunning translation of the complete collection conveys all their cheek, delicacy and self-deprecating humour. He has allowed himself space and, against La Fontaine’s tightly controlled prosody, opts for ‘loose-limbed, conversational Ogden Nashery’, called to metrical order by bouncing Hilaire Bellocries. His rhymes are impertinent, his vocabulary suitably suggestive and the tone exactly echoes the quirky, unseedy manner of the originals. Waldman, one of the most versatile British translators, deserves a prize for the wit and charm of his invention.
Although he was famous in his lifetime for his ruderies, La Fontaine’s literary reputation rests on the 230 Fables, published between 1668 and 1694, which are highly proper but far more shocking. The device of showing human foibles through the behaviour of animals was hardly new, and La Fontaine ransacked, among others, Aesop, Phaedrus and the Indian fabulist Pilpay for materials to work from. Creative imitation was at the heart of classical doctrine (tragic authors were not expected to devise new plots and characters) and the originality of the 12 books of Fables lay not in the newly invented ones but in La Fontaine’s treatment of the old.
In his hands, the flat, moralising narrative becomes a drama, economically staged, with sharp dialogue and neat reversals. The verse is wonderfully finished and supple. It trots, skips, ambles, subsides and sails on a tide of irony which asks us to share a secret. The mood ranges from the heroic to broad farce, from burlesque to lyrical, but rarely loses contact with the cynical sententiousness in vogue in the 1660s. His animals, gods and humans behave according to type and inhabit a precarious world dominated by power, against which prudence and a ready wit seem the best defence. He may have been working within a popular tradition, but La Fontaine confronts issues as grave as those raised by tragedy: there is more cruelty and death in his fables than in all the plays of Corneille and Racine. His insight into human drives and his meditation on the vanity of things make him the most lucid moralist of his century, and, with his teasing ironies, by far the most engaging. At a time when poetry was dominated by the systematic celebration of the reign of Louis XIV, La Fontaine showed the vulnerability of social consensus to the subversions of individuality.
His relationship with his sources, however, was more complex here than it is in the Contes. For Andrew Calder, in The Fables of La Fontaine, he was a late Humanist, the heir of Marot, Rabelais and Montaigne. Renaissance writers, who admired Socrates for bringing the wisdom of the gods down to earth, where it was useful, saw the same process at work in the deceptively naive fables of Aesop. Calder’s La Fontaine is a Socratic ironist who dispenses wisdom by inviting his readers to smile at unreason. He inverts the Homeric perspective as an antidote to the magnification of courage and sacrifice, which are occasional virtues: frogs and flies are more suitable metaphors for the human condition than heroes. His fables are mirrors which show the faults of others but also implicate the reader. The lion who has boasted of its power is driven mad by the bites of a gnat. We are still nodding at this reassuring example of humbled pride when the glorying gnat crashes into a spider’s web. Whose dignity is dented here more than our own? The fable, ostensibly a lesson in not counting chickens, turns into a reflection of the reader’s self-regard.
The fables create a world of predators in which bigger predators are always waiting in the bushes. And of them, man is the cruellest. La Fontaine was no friend to ambitious kings and the powerful, but neither was he the champion of the people. He regarded other people as facts of life, problems to be faced or, preferably, outwitted. His morality was not social or ethical but situational. While his admiration for Epicurus furnished him with a broad framework of values, each lesson is inseparable from its figurative illustration. The fate of the frog who, in attempting to become as big as an ox, swells until it explodes, exposes the foolishness of one frog: it does not suggest that we shouldn’t have aspirations. This is why his lessons can seem contradictory and his maxims, as Rousseau found, provokingly reversible. For while he had principles – friendship, honesty and moderation in most things – his moral rules were not fixed. If the point of existence is to be happy (or as least unhappy as we can make it), the secret of a peaceful life is to behave differently towards foxes and lions from the way we behave to sheep and deer.
La Fontaine believed that human nature does not change but he didn’t share the pessimism of La Rochefoucauld or Pascal. On the other hand, he wasn’t optimistic or, worse, indifferent. He was not overtly didactic, not merely because direct preaching was offensive to his salon public, but because he knew that his readers wouldn’t be improved by exhortation. Instead, he provided them with pictures of themselves at which they could laugh. No doubt, by showing dupers duped, biters bitten and takers taken, he teaches us how to handle our betters and get out of fixes, how to avoid ruin and injustice, and how to manage fools and cheats. But to read the fables as a course in assertiveness misses the point. The goal is not success but contentment and its precondition is the puncturing of self-esteem.
In The Craft of La Fontaine Maya Slater agrees that the appropriate response to La Fontaine is suspicion: a view she justifies with micro-readings which peel back the layers of his writing and reveal as much craftiness as craft. Her careful study of La Fontaine’s cunning art adds a technical dimension to Calder’s urbane, engaging guide. Together, these books help to explain why his Fables are still unmatched in subtlety and charm. Florian (1792) preached, Joel Chandler Harris’s Brer Rabbit cosied up to folkdom, and James Thurber (1940) was too knowing by half. Ambrose Bierce’s definition of the fable (‘A brief lie intended to illustrate some important truth’) is suitably ironic, but the most Lafontainian of fabulists is probably T.F. Powys (1929), whose feyness sugars wickedly dosed pills. Yet even he fell into the trap which La Fontaine studiously avoided: he drops home-truths from a position of moral superiority. La Fontaine lets us know that he is no better than the rest of us, a grasshopper who wrote his way from rich to poor, and an ant who stored up not material things but the contents of a wise and civilised mind.