Alain-René Lesage is chiefly remembered for his long picaresque novel, Histoire de Gil Blas de Santillane (1715-1735; Gil Blas, 1749, 1962), but his early publication of The Devil upon Two Sticks, with its extensive revision and enlargement in 1726, created far more excitement in his own day and is still an interesting example of the early realistic novel of manners. As he did in most of his prose fiction, Lesage worked from a Spanish original, borrowing his title and some of the early incidents from El Diablo Cojuelo (1641), by Luis Vélez de Guevara. Once started, however, the novel drew further and further away from its Spanish model and entertained Lesage’s contemporaries by introducing a wealth of anecdotes and reminiscences, portraits and sketches of some of the most prominent of Parisian personages, under the guise of Spanish names. Lesage’s satire is trenchant and ironical, though never gross or vulgar. Lesage sees humanity with a sharp and critical eye, and he is particularly successful in his witty portrayals of authors, actors, lawyers, the social world, and “persons of quality.” Like most picaresque fiction, the novel is loosely plotted; within a central narrative concerning the fortunes of Don Cleophas, a young Spanish cavalier, Lesage introduces scores of other tales, ranging from brief summaries of a few sentences to short stories running for several pages or chapters. The major plot remains in evidence throughout the book, however, and the author concludes his tale with a suitably romantic ending.
Although a satire on human nature, The Devil upon Two Sticks is an amiable, almost lighthearted work; the author attacks his victims with wit and grace, his high spirits and good humor balancing the grotesqueness inherent in the story. Asmodeus, the lame devil, helps Cleophas to see through the false fronts, both physical and moral, assumed by most people. The devil and his young rescuer thereby provide a framework for the stories that compose most of the narrative; Asmodeus shows Cleophas a man or woman and then exposes the person, telling his or her story with merciless truth. If there is any consistent message in The Devil upon Two Sticks, it is always to doubt first impressions and to seek to penetrate beneath the façades that individuals show the world.
Asmodeus is a unique character, a grotesque vision comparable to Caliban or John Milton’s fallen angels. Without possessing the dark powers of the greater demons, he presides over the vices and follies of humankind rather than over the crimes. He is malicious, but not cruel, and prefers teasing and ridiculing humanity to torturing it. He possesses so much wit and playful malice and is so vividly portrayed that he almost walks away with the book, making the reader forget that he is not intended to be anything more than a momentarily friendly fiend.
Cleophas, the fiery young Spaniard, is the perfect foil for Asmodeus. He is lacking enough in discretion to be glad of the opportunity to peek behind closed doors and barred windows and to discover the shocking truths about apparently respectable people. The other characters, who come and go in the secondary tales, are described with precision and amazing dexterity; few authors can summarize human nature, in its many shades and phases, in so few words. Lesage’s satire is never heavy-handed, and his humor is never blunted by anticipation. In many respects, The Devil upon Two Sticks is surer of touch and wittier than the author’s more famous Gil Blas; certainly, the skill he shows in drawing the scenes and completing the characterizations is reason enough for the book to be at least as well known. At times, the author reaches heights in this book that he never does in Gil Blas, such as in his personification of death. Even here, his humor breaks through to add still another dimension to his vision, when, having described one of the terrific phantom’s wings painted with war, pestilence, famine, and shipwreck, he adorns the other with the picture of young physicians taking their degrees. The narratives that make up the book are of differing lengths and of varying interest, but all of them are entertaining and executed with wit and style.