Alain-René Lesage Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Author of translations, of dialogues, of varia, and of a great number of plays, Alain-René Lesage is best known as a novelist. His reputation as a novelist rests primarily on two works: Le Diable boiteux (1707; The Devil upon Two Sticks, 1708, 1726), loosely adapted from Luis Vélez de Guevara’s El diablo cojuelo (1641), and the highly original Histoire de Gil Blas de Santillane (1715-1735; The History of Gil Blas of Santillane, 1716, 1735; better known as Gil Blas). Both novels appear to deal with the Spain of the early seventeenth century, but in fact they are barely disguised satires of the mores of France a full century later. This was not a new procedure: It had been used as a basic ploy by the writers of imaginary voyages—of which Cyrano de Bergerac was perhaps the first to have achieved lasting renown. In fact, contrary to the claims of certain manuals of literary history, Lesage never saw Spain, and so a realistic description of the place and its mores would have been most difficult outside the realm of slavish imitation. In his two major novels—as in his Histoire de Don Guzman d’Alfarache (1732; The Pleasant Adventures of Gusman of Alfarache, 1812); Le Bachelier de Salamanque (1736; The Bachelor of Salamanca, 1737-1739), and La Valise trouvée (1740)—Lesage takes the basic plot from a Spanish author as well as many of his anecdotes, and adds a style and descriptions that, though somewhat derivative—owing more to French predecessors such as Jean de La Bruyère than to any Spanish influence—are highly original when the finished product is examined.

The Devil upon Two Sticks is a good case in point. Its first edition came out in mid-1707 and contained a fair number of anecdotes that can easily be traced to Guevara. Quickly and accurately judging the real source of its success, Lesage...

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(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Whether one fully agrees with the verdict that Alain-René Lesage deserves his place in literary history more on the basis of his novels than on the basis of his plays, it is undeniable that his contributions to the development of eighteenth century French comedy are far from negligible. It is fashionable to dismiss all but two of his plays, Crispin, Rival of His Master and Turcaret, and to belittle the originality of these two in the bargain. Neither verdict is, however, fair.

Crispin, Rival of His Master is a delightful one-act curtain raiser whose outlandish lazzi provoke such laughter as to make one forgive the generally unsavory nature of all its characters. Those who have considered the play (and Turcaret) unpleasant because of its unlikable characters have done so because they took these characters out of the comedic jeu and reduced the play to pure literature. Having failed to revive romanesque comedy, with his close adaptations of Spanish drama, Lesage, with Crispin, Rival of His Master and eventually with Turcaret—brought life to the comedy of manners. Although his friend Dancourt had done much for the genre, Dancourt’s comedies, populated by puppets, are sometimes funny but never really alive. Lesage’s Crispin and Frontin owe much of their psychology to Molière’s Scapin or Sganarelle, but these predecessors are characters created principally to make one laugh—at them, or at their tricks and trickery. Crispin and Frontin are closer to Figaro than to Scapin. Like the latter, they hold the reins of the intrigue, but like the former, they do so out...

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Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

In addition to being a novelist, Alain-René Lesage (leh-SAHZH) was a playwright. While he was with the Comédie-Française, he penned two major plays: Crispin, rival de son maître, pr., pb. 1707 (Crispin, Rival of His Master, 1766) and Turcaret: Comédie en cinq actes, pr., pb. 1709 (English translation, 1923). After these plays were written, Lesage quarreled with the company and commenced writing pieces, both singly and in collaboration with others, for the Théâtre de la Foire. The pieces written for the Théâtre de la Foire were chiefly farces, interspersed with lyrics sung to popular songs of the day, and were categorized as comédies à vaudevilles. The ten-volume Le Théâtre de la Foire: Ou, L’Opéra comique (pr. 1712-1738) includes many of these theatrical pieces. Lesage also wrote short fiction, such as the two-volume La Valise trouvée (1740).


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The novelistic work of Alain-René Lesage has been called a parenthesis in the history of French letters, and such a formula, though in need of technical improvements (it should be said that Lesage’s work is between parentheses), is neither cruel nor inaccurate. Both the provenance of his sources for Gil Blas and the subsequent picaresque tales, and that for The Devil upon Two Sticks were Spanish, and the subsequent impact of Lesage’s work has been felt not so much in France as in England, in the persons of his translator Tobias Smollett and of Henry Fielding, whose The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749) carries faint echoes of Lesage’s world. In truth, Lesage’s novels seem to constitute rather a halfway house for Spanish techniques making their way to England. Since scholars in any literature prefer to study authors who can connect with other trends and larger movements within that literature, Lesage has come to be a writer of whom characteristically only one work is read, and that not to the end.

Part of the difficulty of assessing Lesage’s achievement is a matter of simple authorship questions. First, Voltaire, no Lesage partisan in any case, accused him of lifting Gil Blas in its entirety from the Spaniard Vicente Martínez de Espinel’s Marcos de Obregón (1618). This splenetic assertion proved easy to refute. A more serious, because more detailed, charge was leveled by the Padre de Isla, who argued that Gil Blas was little more than a translation from some Spanish original. Though more detailed, the charge proved equally baseless: Despite the reality that Lesage collected picaresque manuscripts and had begun his career as a translator of Spanish, this putative manuscript from which Lesage was supposed to have plucked his story was precisely that—putative, never proved to exist. Given that de...

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(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Alter, Robert. Rogue’s Progress: Studies in the Picaresque Novel. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1964. Includes a study of Lesage’s novels and a bibliography.

Bjornson, Richard. The Picaresque Hero in European Literature. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1977. Includes a discussion of Lesage’s novels in the context of the European picaresque novel. Includes bibliography and index.

Fellows, Otis. “Alain-René Lesage.” In European Writers: The Age of Reason and the Enlightenment, edited by William T. H. Jackson. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1984. A concise overview of the life and writings of Lesage.

Green, Frederick C. Literary Ideas in Eighteenth Century France and England. New York: F. Ungar, 1966. A revised edition of Green’s 1935 Minuet: A Critical Survey of French and English Literary Ideas in the Eighteenth Century. Includes a study of Lesage’s novels.

Magruder, James. Introduction to Three French Comedies, edited by C. B. Coleman. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1996. In the introduction to the collection, which contains a translation of Turcaret, Magruder describes both the work and Lesage.

Meglin, Joellen A. “Le Diable boiteux: French Society Behind a Spanish Facade.” Dance Chronicle 17, no. 3 (1994): 263. A comparison of the 1836 ballet created by Jean Coralli and Edmond Burat de Gurgy and Lesage’s novel, looking at the symbolism in the dance.

Mylne, Vivienne. “Le Sage and Conventions.” In The Eighteenth Century French Novel: Techniques of Illusion. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1965. A study of Lesage’s novels. Includes a bibliography.