JACQUES THE FATALIST BY DENIS DIDEROT

It is interesting to me how, as we become increasingly, almost aggressively, secular, many people still believe in fate and…

– What is this?

Excuse me?

– You’re meant to be reviewing Jacques the Fatalist.

Are you telling me how to review, Reader? I’m getting to Jacques. I’m doing what is known as ‘setting the scene’ and interruptions are only going to prolong it and therefore exacerbate your impatience. 

– Do hurry. I don’t have time for this.

I will take my own sweet time, and arrive at my destination when I am good and ready. You are free to leave, if you have more important things to do. What was I saying? Yada yada yada, believe in fate and, ah yes, destiny. I find this perplexing, because if the world is ordered in such a way, if your life is fated to follow a course from which it cannot be…

– God, this is boring.

Please be quiet! I can’t write the review in any other way; it is written up above that I will write the review the way I am writing it. It is fated that the review will be as it is, and your constant interruptions will do nothing to change that!

– But aren’t my interruptions also fated to be, then? Aren’t they also written up above?

That’s a good point, I hadn’t thought of that. But then it is also written up above that I will tell you to shut up and let me get on with my review and that you will accede.

– You wish!  

If the world is fated, if your life is meant to unfold along pre-determined lines, it suggests that something or someone is responsible, that someone made these decisions, that there is an ultimate controller. You hear all the time things such as ‘it was meant to be be!’ or ‘it was fate!’ and yet a large proportion of the people making these declarations would laugh in your face if you asked them if they believed in a divine force, a divine controller, a God.

– Shouldn’t you be telling me about your childhood or something equally personal? 

Eh? You want to hear the story of my childhood?

– God, no. I’ve had quite enough of that. Tell the readers about how the novel, you know the one you’re meant to be reviewing, is a baby Tristram Shandy, that it is similarly anecdotal and digressive. Or how the central relationship, the master and Jacques, is part of a lineage of literary double acts, such as Sancho Panza and Don Quixote. Or…

Ack, who is boring who now?

– Am I wrong?

No, you’re not wrong. It’s worth mentioning, I guess. And I suppose I ought to tell them about how the reader is a character in Diderot’s novel, and how the reader interrupts the author [who maintains, by the way, that Jacques the Fatalist isn’t a novel] with questions and opinions?

– Just like me!

Yes, but perhaps not as frequently as you are doing. In any case, maybe I should also tell the readers how Diderot appears to ‘compose’ or plot the novel, or the not-novel, as he goes, as you are reading it, that he openly demonstrates his authorial eminence by admitting that he can make his characters do whatever he likes?

– That’d be a start, yes. 

Jacques the Fatalist is, in this way, a clear precursor to Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night and O’Brien’s At Swim Two Birds. This displays…

– I rate both of those books. 

Gah, listen, have you heard the story, Reader, about the man who couldn’t stop interrupting?

– No, is it funny?

Probably not. I once knew a man and he couldn’t stop interrupting…

– That makes sense, what with you saying that this is going to be a story about a man who could not stop interrupting.

Quite. Anyway, he could not help himself. He would ‘butt in’ whenever he could, in any circumstances; not only during conversations that he was a part of himself, but the conversations of total strangers; and not only that, but he would interrupt anyone who was engaged in any kind of business at all.

– When they were on the toilet?

What?

– You said when engaged in any kind of business. I thought that was a euphemism.

Christ, man, do give it a rest! But, yes, goddamn it, when one was on the toilet, even then he would burst in and interrupt you as you went about your business. This man couldn’t help himself, as I said; he had to interrupt, to involve himself in some way in everything. Only one day he found himself in trouble, his house caught on fire, in fact, and naturally he needed help in order to put it out. So, he called first the fire brigade, but once too often he had interrupted the fire department as they were trying to put out fires and so they wouldn’t listen to him.

– They ignored him?

Next, he tramped the streets crying pitifully and looking for aid; he tapped men on the shoulder, grabbed them, pulled them towards him, and every one of these people ignored him.

– Are you trying to tell me something?

No. Yes. What do you think?

– I think this story sounds suspiciously like The Boy Who Cried Wolf! Tell me another.

Have you heard The Booklover?

– No, what’s it about?

It’s about a boy who gets trapped in a library one evening. The library has closed, the door is locked, the light has gone out, and from behind the bookcases a troll emerges. The troll peruses the bookshelves, picking up the novels of only the very finest writers – Marcel Proust, Thomas Mann, George RR Martin – and placing them in his satchel, before returning to his hiding place, the world of the trolls, behind the shelves…

– That’s pish. I’ve got a better one. You know how certain couples fantasise and engage in role play? Well, I once heard about a man who had arranged with his wife, who liked the idea of being kidnapped [as she was a thrill-seeking kinky sort], to drive along a stretch of road beside which she would be walking at a certain time, and bundle her into his car. Not my idea of fun, but it was all legit; they were both into the idea. Anyway, so the man keeps his end up and drives along the road at the appointed time, which is late so as to avoid being seen, and spies his wife, as arranged, walking by without a care in the world, and bundles her into his car. The problem was that his wife had unexpectedly been delayed! So the woman he kidnapped wasn’t his wife at all, she just looked like her in the dark!

Reader, that’s awful!

– Oh, I know that, I’m just trying to enliven this review of yours. No one’s going to read this shit, you know, certainly not this far down anyway. Jacques the Fatalist, then?

You know what, Reader, I’ve quite forgotten everything I ever knew about the book.

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2 comments

  1. I’m chuckling again! But if it bears any kind of comparison with Calvino, this must be worth searching out.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it. It’s taking the piss out of my reviews/style more than anything, but it is also a taste of how the book unfolds. I’m not a massive fan of If on a Winter’s Night, but there are certainly similarities between that and this. Jacques isn’t such a grand concept though. Just two dudes wandering around, talking crap.

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