Alain-René Lesage

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 788

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.

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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 enlarged the work, adding numerous new anecdotes and countless allusions to his contemporaries for a second edition that appeared shortly thereafter. He repeated the process for a third edition, which also came out before the end of that year. The popularity of the work is confirmed not only by these three editions in rapid succession but also by two pirated ones (Amsterdam, same year) and by in excess of thirty more before the end of the century. Such was the success of the novel that in October, 1707, Florent Carton Dancourt, friend and protector of Lesage, put out two comedies, one entitled Le Diable boiteux and the other Le Second chapitre du diable boiteux. The plots in no way resemble that of Lesage’s novel, but the debt is nevertheless substantial.

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It was undoubtedly to cash in on the success of The Devil upon Two Sticks that Lesage’s editor asked him for something in the same vein but more original and unabashedly contemporary. The first six books of Gil Blas appeared in 1715; the twelfth and last did not come out until twenty years later. Each installment was an immediate success, a verdict that has stood the test of time: The work is today considered the first French novel of mores and the first one that can truly be considered picaresque. Spanish picaresque novels had been very popular in France for some time, and there had been numerous translations. The influence of the Spanish picaresque can easily be seen in works such as Tristan L’Hermite’s Le Page disgracié (1643) or Charles Sorel’s Histoire comique de Francion (1623, enlarged 1633), but when all is said and done, there is no true French picaro—that resourceful young scoundrel whose amoral ways are the result of the unkind blows of fate and the evils of society, and who hops from one adventure to another merely to afford the reader a panoramic view of that society—before Gil Blas. In turn victim and débrouillard, Gil Blas is lackey, secretary, confidant of the powerful, rising quickly and falling with equal rapidity; he eventually manages to retire to a château that he has been able to acquire in spite of all the vicissitudes of his adventurous life and spends the rest of his years in peace. These adventures are but a framework, an excuse for the cynical and satiric commentary on the society the picaro traverses, and that society is definitely French, as viewed by Lesage mercilessly and with biting irony. Spain is the fiction, and it is this “unrealism” that allows the author to be all the more realistic about his contemporaries. Parisians and provincials; nobles, burghers, and peasants; intellectuals, clergymen, and rogues—the distinction is not always easy to maintain or to perceive—all are there in this vast tableau of mores, where vices and general corruption are the rule rather than the exception.


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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 of pride and ambition: pride in their social standing and their refusal to be denigrated solely on the basis of their lowly birth and condition; ambition, antithetically, to rise above that station thanks exclusively to their superior wit enhanced by their nearly total lack of scruples. With them, as with Figaro, one does not have characters wishing to change class—which is definitely the desire of a Jourdain—but deliberately challenging the entire notion of class, all the while making one laugh at those whose behavior is predicated on such notions. Comedy, particularly of mores, owes it to itself to be iconoclastic. Crispin, Rival of His Master and Turcaret, especially when seen (or read with the mind’s eye on the physical aspects of stage business), are masterpieces of demystification. The critics have not always recognized this fact, but the theatergoing public has, and both these plays have maintained a more than honorable position in the repertoire of the Comédie-Française.

In spite of the impression given by school manuals, the French of the eighteenth century were even more avid theater devotees than their predecessors. Furthermore, they fancied themselves as connoisseurs, and this led to an era of specialization. Whereas the Comédie-Française, patronized mainly by the upper classes, restricted its offerings to more elevated genres defending the noble virtues and aspirations of its patrons, the more popular stages, particularly those of the fairs, gleefully responded to the plebeian demands of its roturier public. When Lesage, disappointed and hurt, left the Française for the Foire, he perforce changed his dramatic outlook, but he did not, for all that, give up all thoughts of coherent dramaturgy. Relying heavily on their legacy from the commedia dell’arte, the artists of the Foire had performed vaudevilles more remarkable for their isolated lazzi and disconnected burlesque scenes than for well-knit entities. Lesage single-handedly changed that—nine of the ten volumes of Le Théâtre de la Foire are taken up by plays that are entirely or partly by him. Toning down the excessively coarse tendencies of the Foire, he reduced the savagery of its political sallies for the sake of a less strident but more consistent and coherent comedy of manners. He also insisted on at least a semblance of structure and plot. The result is a light and lighthearted theater, highly topical and timely, with little or no thought given to tradition and verisimilitude, a forerunner of nineteenth century vaudeville.

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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).


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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 Isla’s plagiarism accusations came out at the very time—in Restoration France of the early nineteenth century—when Lesage’s literary reputation was nearing its zenith, the matter had all the makings of an international incident.

In 1818, the French Academy commissioned the Count François de Neufchâteau to probe the charges, and his famous “Examen” of that year gave Lesage a clean bill of health. Nevertheless, a cloud has always hung over this novelist’s claim to originality, in part because he himself freely admitted his liberal borrowings from Spanish originals for such books as The Devil upon Two Sticks and for plays with plots taken from the likes of the Spanish playwright Pedro Calderón de la Barca. As a result, the question of what Lesage merely inherited and passed on, as opposed to what he actually invented and contributed, remains murkier even than such questions usually are.

It is undeniable, however, that Lesage’s techniques and witty, cynical style did leave their mark on the eighteenth century English novel. The Adventures of Roderick Random (1748) and The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle: In Which Are Included Memoirs of a Lady of Quality (1751), by Smollett—the very titles proclaim their picaresque heritage—clearly owe to Lesage, despite their occasional tone of indignation; indeed, Smollett’s preface to Roderick Random pays explicit tribute to Lesage. Fielding also, as mentioned, seems to have drawn from him in some substantial measure. The French, by contrast, moved quickly to resume the psychologistic course set by Madame de La Fayette and to develop, with Marivaux, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and others, the epistolary novel of sensibility. Even in Great Britain, the influence of Lesage’s kind ofnarrative was cut short by Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740-1741), a book that inaugurated a trend toward novelistic psychology similar to that in France.

In another cross-cultural irony, it may well be that Richardson had more influence on later eighteenth century French novelists than their own countryman. Still, the unexpected resurgence of Lesage’s hero in Victor Hugo’s early nineteenth century play Ruy Blas (1838; English translation, 1890) kept Lesage popular and read throughout that century; even after the interest in Lesage had crested, around the time of the July Monarchy in 1830, he was cited frequently as an alternative to the increasingly prevalent “socially aware” novel in France written by people such as Eugène Sue. This is especially odd considering the heavy amount of social satire in Lesage and the similarities in technique between, for example, Sue’s Les mystères de Paris (1842-1843; The Mysteries of Paris, 1896) and Lesage’s The Devil upon Two Sticks. The thing to bear in mind is that, for all of these historical pitfalls of influence on other novelists, Lesage’s influence on many readers has not wavered.


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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.

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