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.