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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Jacques the Fatalist

Denis Diderot

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To purchase Jacques the Fatalist

Title: Jacques the Fatalist
Author: Denis Diderot
Genre: Novel
Written: (1796)
Length: 254 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Jacques the Fatalist - US
Jacques the Fatalist - UK
Jacques the Fatalist - Canada
Jacques le fataliste et son maître - Canada
Jacques le fataliste et son maître - French
Jacques der Fatalist und sein Herr - German
Jacques il fatalista - Italia
Jacques el fatalista - España
  • French title: Jacques le fataliste et son maître
  • Written between ca. 1760s to 1778
  • Translated by Michael Henry (1986)
  • With an Introduction by Martin Hall
  • This review refers to the Penguin Classics (1986) edition, but there are numerous other translations, the first dating from 1797. Others currently available include those by J.Robert Loy (1959), Wesley D. Camp and Agnes G. Raymond (1984), and David Coward (OUP Classics edition)

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Our Assessment:

A- : clever, good fun

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Jacques the Fatalist is a rambling novel presented largely in dialogue-form, with the author popping up occasionally to add his two cents to the proceedings. The dialogue-partners are Jacques and his Master, and while the novel has them have a few real-time adventures along the way (and at the end of their journey) more space is taken up with Jacques' story-telling (though the Master gets in a few episodes as well). But even here, the stories are not related in straightforward form: the Master wants to hear specific things (such as about Jacques' love-life) and frequently interrupts and redirects matters -- and the intrusive author also pushes things along, especially when they threaten to get too tedious.
       This approach gives Jacques the Fatalist a very modern feel; it's no surprise that Milan Kundera is such a big fan of the work and author (and, in fact, adapted it for the stage). The playful aspect is appealing enough, but Diderot handles it particularly well: it feels fresh even now, when we're used to all such games (and at the time of its publication must have seemed all the more impressive).
       The author is playing with the genre -- and even as he lets the reader know it, manages to write an engaging enough tale (and series of tales) to make the reader forget it again. His suggestions and winks give occasional pause, but then the story sucks the reader right back in:

     It is quite obvious that I am not writing a novel since I am neglecting those things which a novelist would not fail to use. The person who takes what I write for the truth might perhaps be less wrong than the person who takes it for a fiction.
       Nowadays, the neglect Diderot means is not as obvious -- novelists are more likely to do just as Diderot does -- but for his day he certainly was not true to the form. There are other examples from the past two or three centuries, but this is a particularly fine one of what we recognise as a modern novel -- an example of what the novel has evolved into since Diderot's times.
       Fatalist Jacques is a talkative sort -- a mania apparently the result of having spent his childhood literally gagged. The France of that times apparently isn't one that appreciates talk: even once he leaves his home and all the enforced quiet he can't seem to hold a job until he finds the Master, as: "I was a born talker and all those people wanted silence." Fortunately, he's come across the right employer: "I have got precisely the vice that suits you", he notes, as the Master wants to hear Jacques carry on and on.
       There's some adventure along the way, both in the present (they have horse problems, and women problems, and a few dangerous and awkward encounters) and in the stories, and there's also a philosophical bent to the narrative. Jacques is smart but no academic, and his wisdom tends to be presented along with the stories (which serve as examples) -- no real major moral issues and the like, but a good deal of commonsensical stuff (if often with a twist or two), all coloured by Jacques' unsurprising fatalism.
       Despite speaking steadily and constantly, like many -- including, presumably, most authors --, Jacques is frustrated by his inability to communicate exactly what he wants to:
Ah, if I only knew how to speak the way I think, but it was written up above that I would have things in my head and the words wouldn't come to me.
       But the pair are amusing conversation partners, and Diderot a good storyteller. Jacques the Fatalist is very good fun, and well worthwhile.

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Jacques the Fatalist: Reviews: Denis Diderot: Other books by Denis Diderot under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Denis Diderot lived 1713 to 1784.

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