Alain René Lesage is essentially renowned for his vast and prolific playwright activity. His dramatic production previously for the “Théâtre Français” – mainly addressed to a more sophisticated and aristocratic audience; and lately for the “Theatre de la Foire” – characterised by a bourgeois and rather lower class public, gave him both financial stability and even success.
Born in 1688 in Sarzeau – a small village of Southwest Brittany, he lost prematurely both his parents (a well off notary public and his housewife) and was consequently raised and educated by Jesuits in a board school in Vannes. Once accomplished his juridical studies and admitted to the bar in Paris, he reluctantly started his legal practice whilst instead showed and followed his natural disposition toward writings and poetry – initially without any success, though. In 1694 he married a Spanish woman who devotedly spent her entire life by his side granting him his much desired domestic warmth and stability; soon afterwards, with the support of his mentor the Abbey of Lyonne, he finally started his fairly successful career as dramatist.
Lesage – as many others in those days – was particularly attracted by his contemporary Spanish literature, prose and theatre. Actually it is worth taking into account that the image of late 1600 Spain was enormously fascinating to other Europeans, especially Frenchmen. Spain: the kingdom that had discovered and conquered the New World, the land where all the gold of the Americas was flowing in, the country of unimaginable possibilities and the realm of great opportunities. Thus small wonder if Spanish literature highly influenced Le Sage, as well as many other French authors. In fact many of his early theatrical works were clear adaptations – if not mere translations – of masterpieces of Lope de Vega, Francisco de Rojas and Calderon de la Barca…
Yet, behind this fabulous façade, Spain was also the scenario of striking contradictions: the posh splendour of the Court of Madrid, the fancy riches of Valladolid and Grenada, the relentless traffics of Cadiz and Cartagena highly contrasted with the enormously desolated and scattered rural areas infested by robbers, raiders, gypsies and vagabonds. Nevertheless it is precisely within this shady, scanty and yet somewhat intriguing side of Spanish vagabonds, laymen, peasants and servants’ everyday life that the Picaresque genre rapidly had developed, even in other regions than Spain. Under the influence of “Vida de Lazarillo de Torres y de sus fortunas y adversidades” (Burgos 1554) and “Guzmán de Alfarache” (1599) and later on “Historia de la vida del Buscón, llamado Don Pablos, ejemplo de vagamundos y espejo de tacaños” many examples of light entrancing novels containing sequential petite adventures, endless journeys, petty misfortunes narrated by the protagonist were composed and published: in England – Moll Flanders (1722), The Adventures of Roderick Random (1748) and The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle (1751); in Germany – Simplicius Simplicissimus (1669).
Accordingly, in France, Lesage wrote a highly successful picaresque work “Histoire de Gil Blas de Santillana” (1715). Set in Spain the novel reports in brisk and amusing tones the captivating story of a Cantabrian adolescent fellow, who at only seventeen leaves his village and poor family to pursue his studies at the celebrated University of Salamanca. Nonetheless, soon after his departure, being too young and naïve he will stumble upon several unfortunate situations and encounter brigands, damsels, trickster, actresses and people of any sort who will drift him away from the chief purpose of his journey, forget about his higher education and start living an erratic and yet fulfilling life. Along with his travels throughout the whole Spain – he will have the chance to work and live in Valladolid, Toledo, Grenada, Seville, Valencia, Cordoba and of course Madrid. Gil Blas will time by time become and live as a bandit, a swindler, an actor, a surgeon (with scarce success…), a servant, a political detainee, a butler, a tax-collector, an archivist and even the head counsellor of the Prime Minister of Spain and finally will become a middle-aged country gentlemen…
His adventures keep frivolously flowing along his entire narration, and they mix together with the tales of his transitory comrades that occasionally appear, accompany him and then vanish from the scenario. Thus the novel lightly loops and wraps micro-stories within and around a major tale; like Chinese boxes that Gil Blas brilliantly opens and closes at his will, all through his recounting.
In spite Lesage’s aim:
Si tu lis mes aventures sans prendre garde aux instructions morales qu’elles renferment, tu ne tireras aucun fruit de cet ouvrage ; mais si tu le lis avec attention, tu y trouveras, suivant le précepte d’Horace, l’utile mêlé avec l’agréable.
the novel has always been considered as lacking of true moral intent, as its principal aim is to entertain the reader grabbing and winning his attention not solely with the narration of hazardous and amazing adventures, but also with petty accidents, love stories, duels and unexpected re-encounters. Of course, the protagonist, Gil Blas, is the son of a poor squire and a humble housekeeper, coming from Cantabria – a rural and rather deprived Spanish Northern region – who renounces since from the very start to any possible social climbing. He almost promptly, willingly – and I daresay happily – forswears the possibility of attending courses at the University of Salamanca in order to better his condition and commences instead a simpler unsteady life as a personal factotum servant of noblemen and rich merchants. In performing his duties, almost honestly and loyally, Gil Blas always strives to obtain as much as possible from his position, yet without any attempt to better his social status and favour his professional growth. His attitude is essentially practical and no other than pragmatic; hardly leaving room to any possible alternative behaviour than quick and shrewd adaptation to the events. Gil Blas will thus move from a master to another, but he will always be and remain a trustworthy and brilliant – yet acquiescent – servant. Any new employer will entail a new scenario, and imply a new challenge for him to exploit as much as possible from his new position using what unanimously are the most praised qualities of his times: astuteness and perspicacity.
Maybe Lesage had no genuine preaching intentions and perhaps he wished for no explicit lesson to teach, nonetheless I believe that it is remarkably interesting the circumstance that nonchalantly Gil Blas from page to page will eventually grow into a man, acquiring wisdom, patience and acumen; experiencing living both in the underprivileged countryside of his home village and the luxurious elegance of Madrid’s court, sharing his destiny and fortune with other fellow servants, actors, villains, politicians, noblemen; facing the challenges of life with more and more maturity and good judgement, he will finally abandon his errabund way of life coming to the realisation of what in life really counts:
Il y a déjà trois ans, ami lecteur, que je mène une vie délicieuse avec des personnes si chères. Pour comble de satisfaction, le ciel a daigné m’accorder deux enfants, dont l’éducation va devenir l’amusement de mes vieux jours, et dont je crois pieusement être le père.