Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998
"La Fontaine's Lost Fable Brought to Light at Last," by Larry Smith
For the past three centuries, we’ve had no more than a few tantalizing mentions of Jean de La Fontaine’s “lost” fable in the recorded lore of French belles-lettres. Boileau references it disparagingly in a 1691 note to Racine as that “belabored bit of nonsense with which our friend seems preoccupied.” “Have you heard about La Fontaine’s astounding rhinoceros machination?” de Chaulieu asks Benserade in an undated note. We have no record of a reply.
It is not until some 125 years later that we get our one and only substantive commentary in a letter Balzac wrote Marie Du Fresnay. He is mainly concerned in that correspondence with announcing the completion of Père Goriot to his mistress; the fact that he would talk about “The Mouse and the Rhinoceros” at such a moment in his personal career suggests the extent to which the poem affected him. It is, to be sure, the great Balzac who alone saw the importance of “The Mouse and the Rhinoceros.”
“All that produced the deluge of 1789 percolates here,” he wrote. “Not that La Fontaine could foresee the forces he juxtaposes ever reaching such a point, but with what innate wisdom he understands the structures of class, expressed in terms of animal size, that were already locked in perplexed mutual apprehension. That he posits an amicable resolution to our historic agon is either a reflection of his era’s utter myopia or a judicious hesitation on his part to irritate the ancient regime.”
Welcome insights indeed, but our scholarship remains without a clue as to how Balzac came to read “The Mouse and the Rhinoceros” in the first place or why no one else is known to have enjoyed similar access in the preceding or subsequent century. Our scholarship is likewise befuddled by the apparent anachronism “Mercedes,” used by La Fontaine not as a feminine name reference but as a thing. The committee of French language scholars, which discovered the manuscript, and of which I am privileged to be a member, is continuing to seek similar 17th century word usages to explain it. We have duly considered but can now reject – based on handwriting analysis – Prof. Atwood’s supposition that it is the result of intended or unintended textual corruption.
I want to thank my colleagues on the committee, Claudine Garnier of the Bibliothèque nationale de France and Jean-Luc Brisebois of the Sorbonne. Singular mention is reserved for Alain Cochois, an independent scholar to whom it first occurred that – if we had thought to search for the poem in archival material that survives Marguerite de la Sablière, La Fontaine’s patroness – why not dig through similar documents of her lover Charles Auguste de La Fare as well? Their relationship had ended ten years or so before the apparent date of the poem’s composition, which we estimate as 1691 or 1692, but there is ample evidence of a polite correspondence that occasionally continued until her death. Alain was absolutely right. “The Mouse and the Rhinoceros” was found well-preserved in a library in Valgorge, La Fare’s birthplace. (Claudine helpfully pointed out that the manuscript may also have been sent to him by Chaulieu, who was La Fare’s close friend and who, as we know for a certainty, had read “The Mouse and the Rhinoceros.”)
Stylistically, the poem is markedly different from La Fontaine’s other fables. It has a timbre all its own, a rhythm that seems more urgent and precipitous than anything we’re used to in his rather more reflective verse. No doubt that further justified Balzac’s musings on the poet’s implicit socio-political concerns; the prosody is more agitated simply because of those concerns. If so, our discovery of “The Mouse and the Rhinoceros” now seems all the more momentous, as here is a work that speaks distinctly from La Fontaine’s time to our own era with its similarly peculiar agitations.
As the only native English speaker on the committee, I was honored to oversee the translation. While I have done my best, I welcome further and better attempts. My only immediate concern is that this masterpiece of French poetry – and I consider it that – be widely available as soon as possible to as many readers as, in the words of Marianne Moore, “have the heart and art for it.”
North Bergen, New Jersey
The Mouse and the Rhinoceros
There are many dreams the small cannot dream
Of enveloping planets, as they may seem,
Of impressing truth on power, right on might,
Or, to name what’s most beyond their grasp and sight
I’d say it would be the leveling of beveled edges
As if dwarves could bed giants ‘neath canopied sedges
Or acts, if not quite soteriological,
At least warmly cosmological,
Could e’er join east to west in size-less comity
Or saint to sinner in well-nigh human comedy.
Yet blessed to say, we say there is such a tale to prove
That rodents by rhino sides can somedays move
Or opposites converge as more than mere exception
Like David and Goliath embraced in salubrious reception.
Here’s how it happened….
Mr. Mouse it was a-tramp on main-traveled jungle-bush road,
Then sward to sward as gentle hillocks flowed,
Traipsing unconcerned or close to being so as long as serpent’s eyes
Fix no fixed gaze his way and deadly summer supper devise
(More light snack, I’d say), free that day of care and debt
Or as close to careless as tiny debtor nation has a right to get.
Then all changed with a thunderous sound – yet not a sound such as a threat,
No bloody tiger maw, more a wounded giant’s plaintive fret.
Was it succor being importuned
From such a littlest being by wounded giant – and soon?
Let’s find out…
Mr. Mouse followed the monstrous piteous supplication where’re louder,
Rapt curious by lure of sound to survey the agonized and enigmatic shouter,
Rapt curious to see what calamitous whole he might perpend,
Himself the eternal real of Tiny, he’d see what Huge such terror did upend.
Beyond a copse, where earth declined to mud and peat,
There he saw him, a wretched behemoth again about to bleat.
In quicksand he sank and was beastly buried dead in the mire
Save one corner of horn hung to a branch stretched past a briar.
“Oh Mr. Mouse! Mr. Mouse! Help me do.
I sink in muddy endless slimy oozy earth. Phew!
A sliver of ivory alone saves me now
But time and muddy tide soon shall break that bough.”
But what could Mr. Mouse do?
“But what can I do,” exclaimeth Mr. Mouse. “I am but the eternal real of Tiny,
Compared to you all impotent and whiny.
It is not meant for the likes of me to succor the likes of you.”
“But something by someone must be done,” saith the beast. “Please do!”
“I know what to do!” proclaimeth Mr. Mouse. We call that revelation,
A sun-lighting of the mind of the Tiny, truly cause for celebration.
“I will run home straightaway, my shiny new Mercedes I will fetch
For there’s rope in that trunk with which to yank thee out, poor wretch!”
“But hurry, Mr. Mouse,” says Mr. Rhinoceros, “the sliver of salvaging horn doth slip its grip.”
So with resolute pace Mr. Mouse did hie along the many footfalls of his urgent trip.
One way or another he’d have a story to tell…
Mad, mercurial, merciful, Mercedes and Mouse raced o’er the terrain.
A bug in the way must flee that path or squashed be his buggy brain.
Out he jumps, he’s not too late, Mr. Mouse is a man on a mission;
The trunk is popped, the rope is seized, anon’s the moment of decision.
Assiduous, he ties hawser to splashboard;
Fervid, he hurls it e’en as the hapless beast still roared.
There is a moment of consternation
As the lariat falls just short of its destination
But, with jaw ajar and a desperate downward dip of his head
Mr. Rhinoceros catches in his mouth the redemptive thread.
Seeing which, Mr. Mouse retakes his driver’s seat,
Guns the engine and completes the feat:
The great machine resurrects the primal creature
Like a newborn beached, a new world’s feature.
Gargantua now eyes Pipsqueak; nonplussed, feeling queer,
He can only pose the ancient questing riddle all saviors hear:
To wit, “Mr. Mouse, how can I ever thank you?”
Mr. Mouse grins and shrugs. “There’s nothing you need do.”
But thereby hangs another tale.
History has alway catalogued what big ought pay small,
How now it is noblesse oblige, de la Sablière’s gestures et al.
Those favored of the gods bestow diverse bounties
Or like Arthur’s fabled knights interdict dragons in far-flung counties,
Extricate distressed maidens in order thus to end a serpent’s reign.
Imagine then that ever since the panicked rhino’s pain which we’ve related,
Our beast now seeks some beau geste, to remit the debt to which he’s fated.
It happened like so…
Mr. Rhinoceros it was a-tramp on main-traveled jungle-bush road,
One of those who be lords and masters of all that in the land was stowed.
Through the thinnest of morning airs, he heard the squeal of one in desperation.
A tiny puny cry, oh mirabile dictu, from the spot of the bog of his own tribulation.
With such expansive gait he arrives in a trice – and what did he behold?:
Mr. Mouse himself awash in that pit of familiar filth and ooze and mold.
Alas, with aught but such miniscule frame – no leverage! – he was submerging fast.
Mr. Rhinoceros is serviceability itself but the rodent’s next breath will be his last.
“Oh Mr. Rhinoceros, Mr. Rhinoceros,” said Mr. Mouse, “I tumbled in, I’m doomed.
In a moment I shall be no more, what once was me to be unspeakably entombed.
Oh by all rhinoceroses who charge and pounce, a solution bring.
Throw me something, availeth me, toss a line to which to cling.”
But what could Mr. Rhinoceros do?
“Oh Mr. Mouse, Mr. Mouse,” sayeth Mr. Rhinoceros, “my debt is dearly felt,
My resolve unfettered, I shall do unto the small as to the huge the small have dealt.”
Continued Mr. Rhinoceros, “I too have a Mercedes of soundest frame and surest speed
And, as providence is with us, there’s rope in that trunk that I may do the gracious deed.”
“Oh no, Mr. Rhinoceros,” cried Mr. Mouse. “I have no sliver of horn by which to tarry
Ere thou return from thy garage with the rope you purpose to carry.”
(Mr. Rhinoceros felt a little silly, how could he not at once have comprehended?)
“Oh Mr. Rhinoceros,” saith Mr. Mouse, “there is one last hope. Extend it!”
It was as though through some supernal light the rodent could picture
This path of salvation – “I’ve got it! I’ve got it! I’ve got it for sure!”
Quoth he further, “Mr. Rhinoceros, thy rod shall comfort me.
Put thy ginormous tool in the mire and it shall set me free.”
So it transpired thus…
Mr. Rhinoceros lowers the boom tumescent as the sunrise.
Rodent fastens on and rhino maketh ready; that way salvation lies.
As with such mighty yank does Giant extricate Tiny, harmony thus abideth,
For on the sinews of the mighty the hope of the meek does rideth.
That is one lesson, yet there are others, about debts to be repaid
And how the fearsome quicksands of the mind are stayed.
Another lesson abideth most of all and to us all: these dicta pour like blessed rain
From Serengeti to Gobi, from city and village to forest and plain,
From Nile to Yangtze, from Tigris to mighty Euphrates;
To wit: When you have a big dick, who needs a Mercedes?
Larry Smith’s poetry has appeared in Descant (Canada) and Elimae, among others, His novella, Patrick Fitzmike and Mike Fitzpatrick, was published 2016 by Outpost 19. His story “Romero and Sylvette” was published in Pank, No. 3. “Tight Like That” appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern (print edition), #27. “The Shield of Paris,” published in Low Rent, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. “Woman, My Come Is Time,” won Judge’s Choice as highest-rated short story for Issue One of Heart and Mind Zine. Other stories were published in Exquisite Corpse, The Collagist, Curbside Splendor, and numerous others. His articles and essays were published in Modern Fiction Studies, Social Text, The Boston Phoenix, and others.