Book 23: Jacques the Fatalist by Denis Diderot

Book 23 of the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (2008, not 2006) is Jacques the Fatalist (and his Master) by Denis Diderot. Jacques the Fatalist is a 254-page novel written in French and published in 1796. The first translation was available the following year. I checked out the 1986 Penguin version, translated by Michael Henry from the library.

The novel is arranged as a dialog between valet Jacque and his (unnamed) Master while they are on a journey (destination unknown). And, like many of the first 20 books of the list, it really is a series of tales. The Master is bored while traveling and asks Jacque to tell him about his love life. It seems that Jacque spent his childhood gagged (literally) and now cannot stop talking in an effort to make up for lost time. He gets frustrated by his own inability to communicate exactly what he wants to say, though, and is easily redirected by questions from the Master. The continual interruptions are also from additional characters who themselves tell stories and get interrupted. And, the author, or a reader character of some sort, interupts every so often to ask the storyteller questions, as well. Most of the stories are about romance or love, and they are for the most part comedic. Part of the comedy, though, is the apparent contradictions between the story tellers and their stories. For instance, Father Hudson is supposed to be a reformer but who doesn’t really practice Christian values. Jacque continues throughout the story to “preach” that everything happens for a reason, that everything is prewritten on a “great scroll” which is unrolled a little at a time. The story never really gets anywhere (literally or figuratively), but I would imagine that is for a reason.

In fact, Diderot was a famous philosopher during the Enlightenment who focused on free will and suggested that all behavior was determined by heredity (think Indian caste system?). Thus, his exploration of determination by Jacque makes sense. Diderot, though, was more famous as the general editor of the Encylopedie, the first modern encyclopedia of arts and sciences. As a writer and critic, he was known for his intentions to challenge the conventions of novel structure and content. I think this novel does that in some ways, but again, it is very much like the first 20 books on this list!

Did I like it? Not really. I’ve struggled a lot with the earlier books on this list. I am looking forward to Book 24: Pamela, though, since I have read it before.

Happy Reading!

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