Alain-René Lesage

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Alain-René Lesage Long Fiction Analysis

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3926

Although Alain-René Lesage wrote several novels, only two of his endeavors in long fiction are read at all widely today: The Devil upon Two Sticks and Gil Blas. The first novel, a brief tour de force, is sometimes seen, by critic Frederick C. Green, for example, as a sort of “practice run” for the greater feat of the later novel.

The Devil upon Two Sticks had as its admitted inspiration El diablo cojuelo (1641), by the Spanish author Luis Vélez de Guevara; this pattern of adaptation was followed throughout Lesage’s career and occasioned much subsequent comment through the years, especially by Spaniards—a circumstance that, on reflection, is not surprising. (Saintsbury, however, claims the debt to Guevara to be “exaggeration.”) After all, even the French have long since conceded Lesage to be more in the Spanish tradition of picaresque than the more introspective French lineage, extending from Madame de La Fayette through Marivaux to Stendhal. In this case, Lesage’s recasting of his Spanish original allows him to do what he most revels in doing: exposing a cross section of his society. The framing conceit of this novel is that Asmodeus, the bottle imp of the title, reveals for the benefit of Don Cléophas, his liberator from the bottle, all the rich variety of life in the city of Madrid, allowing voyeurism on a grand scale.

The Devil upon Two Sticks

The core idea of the narrative of The Devil upon Two Sticks—the unroofing of Madrid’s houses for Cléophas’s amusement—is unmistakably Guevara’s. The elaboration of the conceit, however, is Lesage’s: from the exposure of a lunatic asylum in the process to the revelation of the innards of a prison. Even the secrets of the dream lives of several people are served up for scrutiny—likewise Lesage’s own freewheeling invention. Even though Cléophas is present at these encounters, and despite the fact that at one point the bottle imp assumes Cléophas’s form in order to rescue from a fire the beautiful woman who will in gratitude become Cléophas’s bride—for all that, the two major figures are primarily the mere frames for this roman de murs, this collection of scenes and brief anecdotes.

Nicolas Boileau’s reportedly intense loathing of the book—to the point of declaring that “such a book and such a criticshould never pass a night under the same roof”—seems now to be a bit overstated, at the least. Yet, it must be acknowledged as well that such a book, by modern standards, is scarcely a novel at all. Lesage inflates Guevara’s development of his idea to roughly twice its original length, knowing a popular gimmick when he sees one, no doubt; the recapture of the bottle imp by the magician, closing off the narrative, is arbitrary enough that it could have come a hundred pages earlier or later, so many tales taken up or excised, as in a scrapbook.

It is not for the architectonics, however, that a reader would go to The Devil upon Two Sticks—or to Lesage in general, for that matter; it is rather for his dry, ironic, and lapidary style and for the keen satirist’s eye he turns on his character types (one hesitates to call them, in the modern sense of the term, “characters”) in their various walks of life. This early narrative effort of Lesage has put more than one reader in mind of the Caractères de Théophaste traduits du grec (1688-1694), by Jean de La Bruyère, that “prince of observers,” as Green has called him. Depth psychology was not a demonstrable part of Lesage’s equipment, but clearness of eye and apprehension of detail—all that one calls the novelist’s ability to observe human nature—are manifest even in this text, manifest with an ease and lightness conspicuously absent from, say, the epistolary novelists of sensibility of the latter eighteenth century in France.

Gil Blas

What in a two-hundred-page trifle may look like ease and lightness, however, can easily, in an eight-hundred-page novel in four volumes, come to resemble superficiality. That novel is Gil Blas, and it represents in many respects an advance over the earlier work. Whereas The Devil upon Two Sticks had been essentially a portrait gallery, a flimsy narrative excuse to peer into various styles of life of the time, the later work became a somewhat more purposive whole, one with more of a dramatic forward thrust. In Gil Blas, the reader will find the sort of inspection of social types that always distinguishes a novel of manners, but more attempt is made to tie the various anatomies to the fortunes of the hero and to retain him as the unifying lens through which the events are viewed. Gil Blas not only witnesses these moments as a spectator or voyeur but also participates in them, and what transpires in these worlds is often material to his success or failure. As the novel proceeds, moreover, Gil Blas attains ever-increasing prominence, eventually making his way into the court—not once, but twice, in fact.

As in The Devil upon Two Sticks, however, the main purpose is less to involve the reader viscerally with the fortunes of the hero than to display various aspects of society, usually to satiric purpose or effect. The setting and time of the novel are presented as early seventeenth century Spain; but the thinly disguised targets and the points made about them are clearly early eighteenth century French, even Breton. Critics of the novel have subsequently uncovered the likes of Madame de Lambert and Madame de Tencin (both of whom kept famous salons in Lesage’s day) under fictional cloaks; Martin Turnell has even argued, though without stated evidence, that most of the inserted stories of lesser characters are actually autobiographical on the part of the author. Given the space these framed tales consume in the narrative, this would mean that roughly one-third of the complete novel consists of veiled autobiography. Certainly, the material having to do with the stage seems too close to Lesage not to have been wrung from bitter experience, even from what little can be ascertained about the author’s life. The sarcastic condescension with which the acting troupe in book 3 treats its starving author, and the repeated inability of the performers throughout the book to account for or to predict their audience’s taste, have the ring of astringent authenticity.

Indeed, to the extent that the novel has any moral at all, the proliferation of ruses, false identities, and theatrical metaphorics suggests that “All the world’s a stage” would be a likely candidate. Initially sent on his way from Oviedo to Salamanca by his generous uncle, Gil Blas is soon waylaid, quite literally, from his original itinerary, which was to become a student. Instead, the highwaymen under Captain Rolando capture him and initiate him in fraud and deception. Realizing, after a thwarted attempt to escape, that he must accommodate to his captors, Gil ingratiates himself with the gang in order later to take advantage of their complacency; he must join them to beat them, and eventually he does escape the gang whose loyal member he pretended to be. This opening narrative sequence of the novel is really only the extreme form of his tactic, and his strategy, throughout his adventures. Lacking his own resources, Gil adopts with great facility the role favored by whichever patron is shoring him up at the moment.

Scruple plays scarcely any part in Gil’s undertakings. Although it is largely left to supernumeraries such as Don Raphael and Ambrose de Lamela to don costumes of disguise, Gil himself wears disguises on occasion, and he unquestionably rivals Don Raphael and Ambrose, in a subtler way, at dissimulating the right character for his master of the day. In book 2, serving as apprentice to Doctor Sangrado, Valladolid’s infamous practitioner of the bloodletting cure, Gil is quite happy to apply the identical method during a village epidemic, with predictably fatal results that he blandly recites for the reader’s information.

By contrast, there are few instances in which Gil is totally candid with an employer; one of them occurs in book 7, where Gil has entered the service of an archbishop. Significantly, this candor seems to have resulted from his patron’s insistence on candor; more significantly, and ironically, Gil’s obedience is fatal to his tenure under the Archbishop. He has been enjoined by the Archbishop to be brutally frank in critiquing his master’s sermons. Soon thereafter, the Archbishop, recently recovered from a stroke, delivers a sermon that betrays with painful clarity exactly how limited the recovery has been; Gil Blas, having previously been urged to be honest under pain of losing his job, tells the Archbishop, with immense tact, that there has been a slight falling off in the quality of the most recent sermon. (He is thereupon relieved of his post.)

What moral can be drawn from this famous moment in the novel—assuming any moral can be judiciously drawn from the insouciant Lesage—is that honesty is scarcely, if ever, the best policy, if the goal of policy is to prosper and succeed. The loot that the highwaymen take by force of violence is bettered by Gil, who amasses his fortune, even acquiring an estate and a title, by flattery, discretion, and, above all, intrigue and deceit. It has been said that volumes 3 and 4 satirize the reigns of Louis XIV and the regency in France, rather than those of Philip III and Philip IV of Spain. Regardless of the extent of intended allusion to his own time, Lesage’s view of life at court is certainly a dim one. Gil is oddly suited to it by dint of a peculiar talent, first revealed in book 4.

At that point, Gil is in the service of a woman named Aurora de Guzman. He manages to convince her to dress herself as a man in order to find out about, and ultimately win, a man she desires, Don Lewis Pacheco. Not the initiator himself, Gil with his usual tact is the go-between, or facilitator, of this romance. His talents as a diplomat in this area become particularly useful at court later, while under the wing of the duke of Lerma. Gil is requested to act as the procurer for the heir apparent to the Spanish throne. Yet the king himself does not approve of his son’s activities, and he puts Gil into prison for promoting them, once his spies discover the prince accompanying Gil into a house of ill fame.

This signal turn of events in book 9 makes clear several points. First, this incident, as with the Archbishop’s sermon, shows Gil’s pliable eagerness to please his masters. Second, both incidents indicate that while disobedience to superiors almost invariably gets one into trouble, obedience does not by any means necessarily save one from trouble. What makes this second twist of fate different from the first, however, is that in the nature of court life, it is not merely one master who must be pleased but numerous masters simultaneously. What delights one superior—in this case, a trip to the local house of prostitution (itself an interesting figure for life at court)—may not delight others, yet more superior.

There is perhaps a fourth lesson here as well, though it is an ironic aftershock of this particular sequence of events, occurring as it does in the eleventh and final book. Once Gil is rehabilitated and returns to court as the underling of the now prime minister, the count of Olivarez, he becomes a pimp yet again, this time joining forces with his actor friend Laura to coax her daughter, Lucretia, into the king’s bed. As it turns out, Lucretia dies almost instantly of grief upon contact with the lustful monarch, whereupon Laura enters a convent in penitential sorrow and Gil once more feels impelled to leave, only this time it is he who resigns first. That he voluntarily quits may be the only evidence that Gil learned anything from his earlier role as procurer; other than that, he ignores any conceivable lesson the first disaster may have held for him.

This fact is important, and not only because it accounts in part for the feeling of repetition some of those commentators who have already soldiered through volume 3 sense when they encounter volume 4. It is important, too, as an index of what a picaresque novel such as Gil Blas is not—and decidedly not. It is not a story with a gathering message, a unified character as one now conceives of it, or even, finally, much of a plot. As mentioned, it does mark a greater narrative unity than did The Devil upon Two Sticks. Finally, however, the hero of this tale, much as he progresses in rank and wealth, does not exactly develop as the nineteenth century novelistic characters such as Stendhal’s Julien Sorel—of whom Gil is sometimes, perhaps tendentiously, seen as the prototype—may be said to do. He remembers the characters who continually reappear in the novel: Captain Rolando, Laura the actress, Don Raphael, and Don Alphonso all pop in and out in good picaresque fashion, as does Gil’s servant Scipio, who gets in a great deal of travel toward the book’s end. It may even be that Gil acquires manipulative skills as he moves up the hierarchy. The kind of education one associates with the fuller characters of the later French novel—the kind called “wisdom”—is not, however, forthcoming. No doubt the irony that Gil never arrives at his studies is meant to argue that he becomes a student of life, but he shows little evidence of maturing very much in that school, either.

Lesage ends the book as flat and superficial as at the outset. The reader, as one would expect with a roman de murs or satire, does learn a fair amount about the great world. For all the recurrent interest in veiled motive and social gamesmanship, lovers of Henry James, for example, had best look elsewhere for psychological subtlety. Even in the case of the narrator himself, it is as actors rather than as mentalities that Lesage’s people engage interest.

Along with the lack of introspection goes the thin sense of time passing. So many of the characters in what is now termed “novels” move through a time of which they have only a limited amount. The decisions of Isabel Archer in James’s The Portrait of a Lady (1881), of Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield, or of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina are lent weight by the escalating pressure of mortality. In contrast, Gil seems neither to age nor to accumulate a determining history: As in the American clean-slate fantasy, everything can seemingly be razed and built anew each day. (Such weightless skipping from incident to incident leads one to wonder whether Lesage bothered with an outline.) This curiously atemporal ambience allows for, among other things, the frequent coincidences that keep this narrative from shutting down.

To take a notorious example, the first chapter of book 11 narrates the death, in rapid succession, of Gil Blas’s wife and child at the estate at Lirias, where he still resides, followed immediately by the news that Philip III, who had imprisoned Gil, has died, and that the duke of Lerma has been removed from his post, with the count of Olivarez—friendly, like the new king, to Gil and his patron Alphonso—replacing him. All three deaths, in this felicitous conjunction, allow Gil to return to court life for another “go.” In a nineteenth or twentieth century novel, such a coincidence would obtrude garishly in the reader’s mind; here, Gil’s experiences have so little causal shape to them, and are so helter-skelter and random in their eruptions and cessations, that one scarcely notices the fortuity in this particular outbreak of deaths.

Beyond the matter of coincidence, however, the entire way death is treated in the novel is probably symptomatic of this lack of accumulating time, this atemporality. The deaths of Gil’s parents may be taken as emblematic. In yet another notable coincidence, in book 10, Gil, though not generally given to nostalgia, suddenly decides to make a sentimental journey back to Oviedo, arriving just in time for his father to die. This chapter of grievous loss becomes—typical of Lesage—one of the novel’s funniest.

With his new wealth, Gil decides to have an opulent funeral for his father, so as to “instil into the conceptions of the bystanders a high sense of my generous nature.” Instead, the townspeople, driven to rage by a luxurious show of pompous mourning by a son content to have left his father to die poor, stage a vicious riot at the funeral and run Gil ignominiously out of town. It is a hilarious bit, no question; one feels not the slightest sympathy for the self-important hero, yet that is part of the foreignness of the form of picaresque for the modern reader. It is not as if the death of a parent would necessarily teach the title character any great truths, but here it is as externally observed, as much the excuse for risible hijinks as anything else in Lesage’s Spain. The mother—who refuses to accompany Gil back, incidentally—is dispatched with even greater brevity. In a few sentences, Gil receives word that the simple serving woman has died, feels a moment’s remorse, and then reflects with his usual sangfroid that she had never been very affectionate toward him, so why should he brood. These deaths put neither title character nor reader in mind of his or her own mortality; in fact, but for the most conventional sort of shorthand, the events have no affective weight whatsoever.

This very lightness is part of the novel’s refreshing appeal. Thomas Pynchon has spoken of the way the “elitism and cruelty often found in college humor arises from” a certain sense of “one’s own Exemption, not only from time and death, but somehow from the demands of life as well.” It is, in a loose sense of the word, an aristocratic kind of wit, and much as Lesage was no more aristocratic than Gil (Anatole France once said of him, “He worked for his living,” meaning, at least in part, that he was bourgeois), there is still in his narrative flow a “breeziness,” a sense of the unreflective “open air,” as Green remarks, which conveys the lighthearted—and sometimes seemingly coldhearted—wit of the aristocrat, of one who feels exempt from death, from having to work for a living, even from living itself.

It should not surprise that the high-water mark of the novel’s prestige in the eyes of French critics was during the Bourbon Restoration, roughly from the early 1810’s to the late 1820’s. That bourgeois era, so desperately desirous of appearing aristocratic, had reason to admire this bourgeois novel that had succeeded so well in simulating an aristocratic worldview. Lesage, in this respect, could well be an even better chameleon than Gil.

The aristocratic narrative is the scion of a literary estate, prodigally spewing forth plot turns, inset stories, and unrelated characters. (It is interesting that Saintsbury compares Lesage to a man with rich forebears—here presumably the Spanish picaresque writers—“whose property he now enjoys.”) The later novels of sensibility, both of France and of England, have less abundance with which to make free, and they work more on the model of capital accumulation, like good bourgeois. They start with modest properties—a few characters, a clutch of related incidents—and create a dramatic structure that in the course of reading gradually accumulates meaning and emotional impact, just as a well-managed factory or home gradually accrues value.

This is definitely not the case with Lesage’s work, as Vivienne Mylne argues very convincingly. Although the novel can be said to have a narrative structure that, at least abstractly, looks dramatic and purposive—coming to a sort ofclimax about two-thirds of the way, and so forth—the reading of it conveys little or none of the accumulated impact or meaning the narrative incidents could have. Given the offhand style of Lesage, it is even difficult at times to register who are the crucial characters. (Don Alphonso, for example, gets short shrift when one considers his sponsorship of Gil Blas at central moments.) The obvious rejoinder to this complaint, if that is what it is, would be that modern novel readers, on the lookout for the author who carefully husbands resources and cultivates properties—that is, a novelist with “unity” of plot, steady development of character, gradual clarification of theme—should cheerfully accept a different style of narrative, one that at first may look like squandering the literary patrimony but that has its own joys as well.

Indeed, it does. The best things about Lesage, as Mylne acknowledges, are not his novels, or even his volumes, but his chapters—which are often shaped quite well dramatically, as in the marvelously irrelevant interpolated tale in book 4, chapter 4—and, above all, his sentences. It is in these epigrammatic, La Rochefoucauld-like moments that the reader glimpses Lesage’s truest gift.

When Laura announces that she has chosen an actor’s life because the standard of virtue in such circles is so low that she can see as many men as she likes and that as long as they do not overlap she will be thought virtuous; or when Gil at court avoids doing a favor for his friend Navarro, so instrumental in his first gaining his present position, and then snubs poor Navarro because it would “not have been at all the thing,” given his current prominence, to “keep company with a certain description of people”—when the reader hits upon passages such as these, he or she sees the wit that is Lesage’s best letter of introduction to any reader. The reader begins to see why Stendhal preferred Lesage to the novelists of sensibility, arguing that it is harder to provoke laughter than sympathy. As Lesage himself remarks, however (in the person of Gil), “Great witshave short memories.”

Perhaps the reader who wants to approach Lesage’s works in the most appropriate spirit could best do so not by starting at page one and reading religiously to the end, but by leafing through the table of contents and turning to chapters that appear most promising; by trying the various inset stories and finishing only the intriguing ones; or even by opening the novel more or less at random and reading from the first chapter one encounters. The delight is not in the onward rush of narrative suspense and excitement or in the building up of psychological meaning or emotional impact; it is in the brief snapshots, the satiric glimpses into social mores and oddities, the elegantly treacherous turns of phrase.

In sum, Lesage’s books are long, his art fleeting. His best impact is made in miniature, not en gros, and in this regard, he may well be seen as a precursor of Honoré de Balzac, another master of the feuilleton-like sketch. Lesage’s brilliance is fitful and shines to best advantage in occasional snatches. That he should be read there is no question; that he should be read as a great anecdotist more than as a great novelist per se is scarcely less certain.

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