Alain-René Lesage 1668–1747
(Also Le Sage) French novelist, dramatist, and translator. The following entry provides criticism of Lesage's works published from 1942 through 1988. For further information on Lesage's life and career, see LC, Volume 2.
Lesage has been called the creator of the French picaresque novel and the first writer of his country to produce the popular roman de moeurs (or "novel of manners") which later influenced such English novelists as Henry Fielding and Tobias Smollett. His most famous novel, Histoire de Gil Blas de Santillane (1715-35; The Adventures of Gil Bias), has become a classic of European literature and contributed significantly to the growth and popularity of the picaresque narrative in eighteenth-century Europe. As a dramatist, Lesage had less of an impact on world literature, but his finest plays—Crispin, rival de son maître (1707; Crispin, Rival of His Master) and Turcaret (1709)—have led many critics and scholars to compare his wit and satire with Molière's and to praise his comédie insight into human nature. Besides his own works, Lesage's translations and adaptations of important Spanish writers, including Francisco de Rojas Zorrilla and Pedro Calderon de la Barca, helped expose both France and all of Europe to Spanish literature, particularly the many great novels and dramas of the seventeenth century that either had gone untranslated or had been forgotten.
Lesage was born in Sarzeau, a small coastal village in Brittany. His father was a counselor, notary, and registrar at the Royal Court of Rhuys who provided his family with a relatively comfortable existence. Beyond this, little is known of Lesage's early life until the death of his parents, after which he was placed under the guardianship of two uncles. Unconcerned with the child's welfare, his guardians squandered his sizable inheritance. Almost penniless, Lesage entered the Jesuit College at Vannes, concentrating on rhetoric and the humanities until he reached the age of eighteen. He then pursued law studies in Paris, where he was called to the bar in 1692. While in Paris, Lesage met Antoine Danchet, a literature student who later became a poet and librettist, who encouraged Lesage to translate foreign works into French. After his marriage to Marie-Elisabeth Huyard, and the birth of his first son, Lesage began translating Greek poetry, and in 1695 was introduced to the literature of Spain through his friendship with the Abbé de Lyonne, who provided him with an annual stipend, which he received for the next twenty years. At the Abbe's suggestion, Lesage began translating and adapting the works of Rojas Zorrilla, Calderón, and Lope de Vega, and by 1707, he had turned
to writing his own material. The farce Crispin, performed at the Comédie-Française, was an immediate success, and in the same year Lesage published his first significant prose work, the novel Le diable boiteux (1707; The Devil upon Two Sticks), which sold through numerous printings. Two years later, Lesage completed Turcaret—a drama satirizing the powerful French financiers who controlled the country's economy through their management of tax revenues, which he submitted to the Comédie-Française for production. Because of the play's sensitive material, the company refused to perform the work until ordered to do so by the government. Turcaret enjoyed but seven successful performances before the Comédie-Française withdrew the piece from its schedule, possibly because financiers succeeded in bribing the actors. After this incident, Lesage abandoned the Comédie-Française and devoted his energies to writing fiction and composing both short farces and comedies of manners for the Théâtre de la Foire. Gil Bias, published in four volumes over twenty years, was Lesage's greatest popular success, though many of his contemporaries, including Voltaire, argued that the novel was a translation from an unpublished Spanish manuscript and not an original creation. In addition to this immense achievement, Lesage produced a number of adaptations from Spanish sources, including Histoire de Guzman d'Alfarache (1732; The Pleasant Adventures of Guzman of Alfarache), Histoire d'Estevanille Gonzales (1734; The Comical History of Estevanille Gonzales), and Le bachelier de Salamanque (1736; The Bachelor of Salamanca), all of which demonstrated his skills as a translator and adaptor but evidenced a decline in his imaginative powers. Toward the end of his life, Lesage became almost totally deaf and was forced, because of poverty and ill-health, into the care of one of his sons at Boulogne-sur-Mer, after which he became extremely reclusive. He died at the age of seventy-nine.
Lesage's work can be divided into three major categories: his short farces for the Théâtre de la Foire; his Molièresque comedies Crispin and Turcaret; his prose fiction, including his translations and adaptations. Though the majority of his canon consists of the nearly one hundred one-act plays he wrote alone or in collaboration for the Paris fairs, these reveal formulaic writing and little artistic refinement. They remain historically important, however—through Lesage's involvement with the Paris Fairs, he helped unite the numerous small companies into the Opéra Comique, which remains a thriving aspect of the French theater. Crispin and Turcaret comprise Lesage's best work as a dramatist. Both social satires, the former depicts the quest for advancement by the title character, a resourceful and unscrupulous valet. Although Lesage's aim was to satirize the weakening of traditional class barriers, in the process he created a unique character in Crispin, a self-serving individual superior to his master in both intellect and resourcefulness. This element of social and moral satire is more harshly repeated in Turcaret, Lesage's only full-length drama. The play traces the downfall of a wealthy financier at the hands of a group of schemers. Critics consider Turcaret comparable to the best works of Molière for its wit, topical satire, vivid characterization, and ruthless portrayal of human vices. Lesage's fiction includes his Spanish adaptations, of which critics generally consider The Bachelor of Salamanca the most artistically satisfying; as well as his semihistorical novel Les aventures de Monsieur Robert Chevalier (1732; The Adventures of M. Robert Chevalier), which demonstrates his ability to write an accomplished story outside the Spanish picaresque tradition; and his satire The Devil upon Two Sticks, which established its author as a satirical novelist. Although the latter narrative began as an adaptation, Lesage quickly abandoned his Spanish model and developed a line of wit and caustic commentary entirely his own. The story depicts the chance encounter between the devil and a young gentleman, and the evening they spend atop a tower spying into the private lives of Madrid's inhabitants. Blending supernatural elements with realism, and satire with melodrama, the author created an original work with universal appeal. Lesage's picaresque epic, Gil Blas, is by far his most satisfying and imaginative novel. Critics have variously interpreted it as a picaresque biography, a study in moral and spiritual education, a satirical allegory of French society under Louis XIV, or a combination of all three. Neither hero nor martyr, the title character personifies the common man in a corrupt world, the individual who is willing to accept things as they are and adapt to changing conditions. As in the German bildungsroman (or "novel of development"), he begins as an innocent and ends, after initiation into the evils of the world, as a reformed sinner. Because of the development of Gil Blas's character, most critics view the novel as more complex than the traditional rogue biography, which characteristically focused on incidents rather than characterization. Others, however, have argued that Lesage merely adapted the picaresque story to his specific needs and created his own literary form, into which he incorporated both middle-class and aristocratic values.
Modern discussions of Lesage's work have focused on style and literary techniques, comedic aspects, the significance of Lesage's works in relation to literary and historical developments of his age. Analyzing the artistic intent of Gil Blas, Malcolm Cook has proposed that Lesage used the novel to express his satiric vision of humanity and his personal dislike of institutions such as the medical profession, which levied enormous fees for highly questionable, and often deadly, treatments. Studying the structure of Gil Blas, V. S. Pritchett and Vivienne Mylne have discussed the narrative's placement in the picaresque tradition. Contending that the protagonist possesses qualities of both the rogue and the puritan, Pritchett proposed that Gil Blas was composed during a period of literary transition, when the rogue was losing some of his knavish traits and assuming an increasingly naive persona. Mylne has argued that the narrative is a blend of the picaresque novel and the roman comique (or the satirical novel). Critics have also expounded on the significance of Lesage's theatrical canon. Roseann Runte, for example, has explored his dramas as counterparts to his novels, surveying the plots, themes, language, characters, and style of both genres, and observing that each of these elements points to Lesage's overall comedic vision. Focusing on the theatrical aspects of Crispin, Walter E. Rex has investigated the concept of vraisemblance—or the appearance of truth—in the play, documenting how the dramatist followed eighteenth-century literary conventions by relying on contrivances and formulae, including crafty language and the staging of illusions, to achieve plausibility. Perhaps the most significant issue among contemporary scholars centers on the influence of eighteenth-century cultural events on Lesage's works, particularly Crispin and Turcaret. Citing the increased importance of monetary wealth over aristocratic birth in the social hierarchy, several critics have viewed Crispin's master-servant relationship as representative of the social turmoil of the period. Several scholars, for instance, have equated the rise of Crispin, a servant whose personal ambition takes precedence over the needs of his master, with the rising bourgeoisie of eighteenth-century France. Tracing the increasing power of the financier (or tax collector) during the era, other critics have examined the pointed satire of the world of finance in Turcaret, whose vain, pretentious title character suffers a humiliating downfall prompted by his quickwitted valet.
Le point d'honneur [translator and adaptor; from the drama No hay amigo para amigo by Rojas Zorrilla] (drama) 1702
Crispin, rival de son maître [Crispin, Rival of His Master; adapted from a play by Hurtado de Mendoza] (drama) 1707
Le diable boiteux [The Devil upon Two Sticks] (novel) 1707; also published as Le diable boiteux [enlarged edition], 1726; also published as Asmodeus; or, The Devil on Two Sticks, 1841
Don César des Ursins [translator and adaptor; from the drama Peor está que estaba, by Pedro Calderón de la Barca] (drama) 1707
La tontine (drama) 1708
Turcaret, ou Les Etrennes (drama) 1709
Histoire de Gil Blas de Santillane [The Adventures of Gil Blas] 4 vols, (novel) 1715-35
Roland amoureux 2 vols. (verse novel) 1717-21
Les aventures de Monsieur Robert Chevalier, dit de Beauchêne, capitaine de flibustiers dans la nouvelle France [The Adventures of M. Robert Chevalier, Called de Beauchêne, Captain of Privateers in New-France; translator and adaptor; from a novel by Vicentio Espinella] (novel), 1732
Histoire de Guzman d'Alfarache [Pleasant Adventures of Guzman of Alfar ache; translator and adaptor; from the novel Guzmán de Alfarache, by Mateo Alemán] (novel)...
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SOURCE: "Sofa and Cheroot," in A Man of Letters: Selected Essays, Random House, 1985, pp. 193-96.
[Pritchett, a modern British writer, is respected for his mastery of the short story, and for what critics describe as his judicious, reliable, and insightful literary criticism. In the following essay, originally published in 1942, he discusses how Gil Blas has positively influenced English writers and helped shape the growth of the picaresque narrative. Pointing out that Lesage served as an "intermediary between ourselves and that raw, farcical, sour, bitter picaresque literature of Spain, " the critic suggests that the novel's appeal arises from its "clear, exact, flowing style which assimilates the sordid, the worldly, or the fantastic romance with easy precision, unstrained and unperturbed."]
When we ask ourselves what the heroes of novels did with themselves in their spare time, a hundred to a hundred and fifty years ago, there can be no hesitation in the answer. Novel after novel confirms it, from Tom Brown at Oxford back to Fielding and Smollett: they stretched themselves on a sofa, lit a cheroot and picked up again The Adventures of Gil Blas. Once more they were on the road with that hopeful young valet from the Asturias as he went from town to town in Old Castile in the reign of Philip IV, always involved in the love affairs and the money secrets of his employers, until, a...
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SOURCE: "Lesage and Conventions," in The Eighteenth-Century French Novel: Techniques of Illusion, second edition, Cambridge University Press, 1981, pp. 49-72.
[In the following essay, Mylne focuses on Lesage's literary technique and method in Gil Blas, particularly his character development, narrative style, and use of language. The critic also speculates on the reasons for the stylistic inconsistencies between the early and later volumes of the novel.]
Lesage states that in Gil Blas he intends to portray 'la vie des hommes telle qu'elle est' (I, I). To the reader of the period this announcement would indicate clearly enough that the book was of the kind known as a roman comique or roman satirique, that it would present a humorously critical view of various social types, and had no pretensions as to being 'historical'. The further admission, 'J'avoue que je n'ai pas toujours exactement suivi les mœurs espagnoles', would provide a hint, if any were needed, that Lesage had drawn his material from French society: for 'Madrid', read 'Paris'. Many of his readers would in any case be familiar with his previous book, Le Diable boiteux (1707), which had proved extremely popular. This work contains a number of satirical sketches set in a pseudo-Spanish milieu. The 'local colour' is however limited to superficial details with which most French readers would be familiar: duennas,...
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SOURCE: "Lesage—Marivaux—Prévost," in A Literary History of France: The Eighteenth Century, 1715-1789, Ernest Benn Limited, 1970, pp. 78-119.
[In the following excerpt, Niklaus analyzes the evolution of Lesage's writings in relation to events in his life, contending that the author "recorded faithfully and in a straightforward, incisive manner his own … experience; the picture of his times which he gives us may be over-dramatised, yet it strikes one as exceptionally vivid, illuminating, basically accurate, and often penetrating."]
Alain-René Lesage was born on 8 May 1668 at Sarzeau, near Vannes, in Brittany, and he retained many Breton characteristics, including a love of independence that led him to accept poverty rather than to forfeit his freedom of action and his integrity. He was the only son of Claude Lesage, barrister, solicitor, and recorder of the royal court of Rhuis, who died in 1682; since his mother, Damoiselle Jeanne Brenugat, had died in 1677, he was made the ward of two uncles, Gabriel Lesage and Blaise Brenugat. His mother was of an old Breton family, and his early childhood, unlike his later life, was spent in reasonable affluence. About 1686 he was sent to the Jesuit college of Vannes, where he received a good education, and developed his taste for the theatre. In 1690 he was sent to complete his education in Paris, where he studied first philosophy, then law, and was...
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SOURCE: "Parallels Between Lesage's Theatre and His Novels," in Enlightenment Studies in Honour of Lester G. Crocker, edited by Alfred J. Bingham and Virgil W. Topazio, The Voltaire Foundation, 1979, pp. 283-99.
[In the following essay, Runte evaluates Lesage's dramatic works as complements and reflections of his novels, with a focus on structure, characterization, language, and plot patterns.]
In Turcaret's shadow an eloquent troupe of Arlequins, Scaramouches, Clitandres and Alis has long been eclipsed. Lesage's theatre has, like many of his translations and novels (Don Quichotte, Don Guzman d'Alfarache, Les Aventures de M. Robert Chevalier, dit de Beauchêne, Estevanille Gonzales, Le Bachelier de Salamanque), been classed as secondary literature despite appeals such as that made by Eugène Lintilhac [in Lesage (1893)]: "Pourtant elles [ces œuvres secondaires] ont un titre général à l'indulgence de la postérité, celui d'avoir nourri leur auteur en lui permettant de polir son Gil Blas vingt ans durant. Elles en ont d'autres d'ailleurs, et l'une, au moins de ces œuvres alimentaires, le Théatre de la Foire, mérite d'etre lue."
It is not the purpose of this essay to justify a reading of Lesage's theatre by attributing extraordinary literary merits, hitherto undiscovered, to the plays. Rather, it is to consider the plays as alimentary works contributing to and...
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SOURCE: "Impact," in Crispin rival de son maître and Turcaret, Grant & Cutler Ltd., 1987, pp. 76-84.
[In the following essay, Evans explores the comic impacts of Crispin, Rival of His Master, and Turcaret, finding the former primarily a farcical piece, and the latter an ironic social commentary.]
If in previous chapters we may have seemed to stress similarities of method in Crispin rival de son maître and Turcaret, this should not lead us to forget that even plays using broadly similar structures and techniques can have quite different overall impacts. In general terms, the nature of the comic impact will initially depend on whether the laughter is felt to be more or less an end in itself or whether it is harnessed to other purposes, whether we simply delight in watching the comic sparks fly or whether, as in satire, we are called upon through the laughter to make a judgement of sorts on what we are shown. Our reaction to the classic comic incident involving someone slipping on a banana skin will depend on who falls, in what circumstances the fall takes place and whether the result is bruised buttocks and hurt dignity or a broken spine and total paralysis. In other words, the nature of the comic impact will depend on the nature of the characters involved and on the context, consequences and outcome of the comic action.
In Crispin rival de son...
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SOURCE: "Crispin's Inventions," in The Attraction of the Contrary: Essays on the Literature of the French Enlightenment, Cambridge University Press, 1987, pp. 73-82.
[In the following essay, Rex investigates the role of vraisemblance—or the appearance of truth—in Crispin, Rival of His Master, proposing that "the whole text is a forgery to make us believe in ersatz imitations."]
Even before Hegel had given the theme such a grandiose philosophical setting in his Phenomenology, numerous individuals in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries had been aware of the special importance of the master-slave (valet) relationship for the literature of Enlightenment, and today it has become a commonplace of theatrical criticism to cite the developing drama one observes in the social oppositions, as one goes from Molière to Beaumarchais, that is, from the fascinating complexities in the tensions between master and valet as depicted by the greatest writer of the seventeenth century, to the end of the trail, which is the revolutionary impudence that explodes in Le Manage de Figaro (1784). Unfortunately for literary historians, however, in between these poles the course is anything but steady, and "progress" toward the emancipation of the valet at the master's expense is anything but regular. In Marivaux there is positive backsliding, while the author dallies and toys...
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SOURCE: "A Comic Novel," in Gil Blas, Grant & Cutler Ltd., 1988, pp. 45-58.
[In the following essay, Cook examines the comic elements in Gil Blas by concentrating on several targets of the novel's satire—including the judicial system, the medical profession, and the theatrical world—and the title character's encounters with their intrinsic hypocrisy and artificiality.]
If Lesage's novel can still be read with pleasure today it is essentially because of the author's comic vision. Lesage managed to produce a work which is both general and specific in its comedy, treating both types and individuals, dealing with what is comic in reality and producing imagined scenes of wit and insight. The ironical position of the narrator is one obvious source of comedy: we laugh at Gil when he expects us to, but we also laugh when he expects it least. Lesage sees that the world is intrinsically comic: people take themselves too seriously and appear not to understand that others see them as part of the human comedy. Lesage's vision of humanity leads, naturally, to satire—of types, institutions and of real characters. At the same time the narrator's perception of reality will introduce comedy which is part of the observation of the real world. Comedy represents the unifying tone of the novel; it is not surprising that, in a comic novel, even the serious and tragic tend towards comedy, since...
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"The Author of Gil Blas" Household Words X, No. 250 (1854-55): 488-93.
Descriptive and anecdotal biography of Lesage, including a concise history of the French stage during the playwright's era and a synopsis of contemporary reaction to Gil Blas.
"Claretie's Life of Le Sage." The Nation 53, No. 1381 (17 December 1891): 464-65.
Brief and generally favorable assessment of M. Léo Claretie's biography Essai sur Le Sage, which the unnamed critic calls "a very readable volume."
Grieder, Josephine. Introduction to The History and Adventures of Gil Blas of Santillane, Vol. I, by Alain René Le Sage, pp. 5-11. New York: Garland Publishing, 1972.
Examines the complexities present in Gil Blas, including the psychological and moral development of the title character and the novel's significant incidence of social satire.
Laden, Marie-Paule. "Gil Blas and Moll Flanders: Imitation, Disguise, and Mask." In her Self-Imitation in the Eighteenth-Century Novel, pp. 23-68. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987.
Detailed comparison of the first-person narrative styles of Gil...
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