Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Sour Grapes





(image: sketch of fox and grapes, courtesy of Litscape.com)
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I've been working with another writer on a project that is not strictly about wine but related to it, so technically our project concerns sour grapes.

At the same time, I've been reading a translation of Jean de la Fontaine's fables in verse. Fontaine stole cheerfully, freely, openly, and well from Aesop and others and recast fables in verse. He was born in 1621 and died in 1695, by the way.

The edition I'm reading is from Penguin, translated by James Michie, with an introduction by Geoffrey Grigson.

Arguably the most famous fable from Fontaine (although not original to him) is the one about the tortoise and the hare. In fact, yesterday I asked a hard-working cashier if she were working too hard, and she said, "No, just steadily," and I said, "Slow and steady wins the race," and she said, "Yep, that's the way it worked with the turtle and the rabbit."

The second most famous fable (again, this is contestable) may be the one about the fox and the grapes. Because the fox can't get the grapes, he (or she) allows how he or she didn't really want them, and down the ages has come the phrase "sour grapes," except now it's applied to people who express disappointment after not getting what they want. Here's how Fontaine's fable ends, in translation:

Wasn't he wise to say they were unripe
Rather than whine and gripe?

So the point of the fable seems to be that instead of whining, the fox simply suggested that the grapes weren't ripe anyway yet and thereby kept his cool. I think our notion of "sour grapes" has drifted since then, and note that the grapes are not sour as in fermented (wine) but sour as in not yet full of enough sugar (unripe).

By the way, the illustrations for this edition are by J. J. Grandville, and they just slay me. I love sketches of animals that are fully costumed in human clothing. You get this sort of thing in Beatrix Potter books. The key is that the animals are not sentimentalized. Yes, they're personified, obviously, but they maintain their full animal-identity, and the effect is to make the costumes seem a bit much, not the animals. Perhaps my favorite animal-in-clothes sketch is in the Potter books; it is one of Mr. Jeremy Fisher, a frog. A most dignified frog.
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