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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Alain René Lesage (1688–1747)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Jane Grosvenor Cooke
 
IN France the seventeenth century was a time of dreams. Imagination reveled in the grotesque and fantastic, and craved the exuberant sentiment, the ideal emotion, expressed in the romances of d’Urfé and Madame de La Fayette. Toward the end of the century this mood was followed by reaction. People stopped dreaming to study the real life before their eyes; and literature reflected the change. The first great realist in fiction was Alain Lesage.  1
  Lesage was a sturdy, self-willed Breton, with keen interest in human affairs, and more than usual skill in drawing conclusions from them. He was an optimist, taught by experience to distrust men’s motives. Left an orphan at fourteen, under guardianship of an uncle who squandered his small patrimony, he accepted poverty with characteristic cheerfulness. His seems to have been a sensible, controlled nature, with slight inclination towards irregular ways. At twenty-six he married a pretty girl of the bourgeoisie, went to writing, and was the first Frenchman to earn a living by authorship.  2
  Unlike the authors who preceded him, this honest bourgeois had no powerful patronage to insure his success. He knew little of court and salon, depended on his own exertions, and hence experienced many disappointments before he found his place. His need of money forced him to inferior production, and much of his work is now valueless.  3
  He had studied law; but Antoine Danchet—a successful young dramatist, and his chum and fellow-student of the Quartier Latin—urged him to write. Undoubtedly he liked the suggestion, although his was no evident vocation nor immediate success. His early attempts were pot-boilers, efforts toward self-discovery; and the first—a translation from the Greek, ‘Letters of Aristænetus’—a failure. But he was warmly encouraged by the Abbé de Lyonne,—eccentric drinker of twenty-two daily pints of Seine water, and probable original of the Sangrado of ‘Gil Blas.’ He took Lesage under his protection; made his perseverance in authorship possible by bestowing upon him a pension of six hundred livres; and is said to have interested him in Spanish literature, to which he may also have been attracted by the fact that his wife’s mother was a Spaniard. For years he groped on, translating Spanish plays and stories,—unoriginal plodder.  4
  Lesage was curiously unambitious. His aspirations never seem to have been of a highly emotional order, and he had no kinship with the exalted sentiment of French classic drama and romance. Sainte-Beuve calls him a man without any ideality; but it is truer to define his ideal as the rule of good sense. He scorned to affect emotion which he ignored, and was quick to detect and expose social hypocrisies. Kindly in spite of many disillusions, he is the genius of the commonplace; picturing with humorous satire and dramatic force the actuating sentiments of ordinary men and women.  5
  He required the stimulus of outside suggestion; and like Shakespeare, loved to transform a ready-made tale. The plot and scene remain Spanish, like the originals from which he borrowed; the atmosphere and characterization are French.  6
  When nearly forty he won his first brilliant success with two dramas,—‘Crispin Rival de son Maître,’ and ‘Don César Ursin,’—which were played upon one occasion at the Théâtre Français. The first was a lively improbable one-act lever de rideau, in which a valet in masquerade courts his master’s daughter. The audience applauded it enthusiastically, but were indifferent to the longer play. Oddly enough, the situation was reversed at Versailles, where Don César succeeded and the lever de rideau failed. The Parisians had shown the keener judgment, for ‘Crispin’ has become a classic.  7
  ‘Turcaret,’ his one great drama, was refused by the Théâtre Français under its first title, ‘Les Étrennes’; but when remodeled introduced a daring innovation in stage tradition. Turcaret, shrewd and unscrupulous, has made money as a government contractor and come to Paris to enjoy it, ordering his countrified wife to remain at home. He falls in love with a baroness, who flatters and fleeces him and promptly bestows his gifts upon a younger lover. The valets and grisettes flatter their master’s foibles, pilfer when they can, and better their condition by all clever knavery. The keen exposure of human pettiness ends in the discomfiture of the vulgar hero. His low-bred wife claims him at an evening reception; his coarse-grained sister comes to sell finery to the baroness; he is swindled out of his ill-gotten wealth and bundled off to prison. In the period of the Spanish war, this typical portrayal of a class whose unscrupulous dealings stirred up wrath and fear was even more daring than the realism of Lesage’s great predecessor, Molière. For a time the play was in danger of suppression, which it only escaped through the intervention of royal authority. Even then the ridiculed class reviled it hotly, hired men to hiss it down, and offered the author large bribes for its withdrawal: an opposition which only determined Lesage to continue it.  8
  In spite of this success, he did not go on producing regular drama, but devoted himself to the more profitable work of writing little plays and operettas to be acted out of doors at the fairs of Paris. These pièces de la foire, given in booths set up along the streets, attracted a humbler audience, which received his satire more cordially and offered him more certain recompense than the regular theatres. In one of these plays he introduced a woman doctor; and the idea of such an anomaly was greatly enjoyed as an impossible burlesque.  9
  His first noteworthy story, ‘Le Diable Boiteux,’—founded on the Spanish ‘Diablo Cojuelo’ of Guevara, to whom it was dedicated,—appeared in 1707, and was the most immediately popular of Lesage’s works. The spirit, liberated from a bottle in a magician’s laboratory, entertains his rescuer with the secret sights of a great city at night; and unroofing the buildings, explains the sufferings, transports, and agitations revealed. On this thread of story is strung a succession of vivid satiric little dramas. Often compared with ‘Les Caractères’ of La Bruyère in general idea, ‘Le Diable’ has greater continuity; for while the former is a series of detached sketches, the latter continually recalls the interest to a central plot.  10
  English readers know Lesage best from his great novel, ‘Gil Blas,’ over which he worked for more than twenty years. After a long and bitter controversy as to his indebtedness to Spanish literature, the idea of a romance of which ‘Gil Blas’ is a translation was disproved. The central idea is Spanish, as often in his work; the development his own.  11
  Lesage had no exalted opinion of reason as a controlling power; but regarded a human being as an impressionable mass, capable of recording and of being transformed by sensation. Gil Blas, the young Spaniard who starts out to seek his fortune, is not remarkable for vice or virtue. He is a shrewd, good-hearted youth, easily influenced by his surroundings. But the power of good is impressed upon him without conscious moralizing; and in middle life, after many follies and mistakes, he becomes a staid, trustworthy citizen. He tells the story of his adventures with witty candor and good-humor. He is a shifty politic fellow, “with a racquet for every ball.” When he hears of a relative whom he had never met—“Yet nature will prevail: as soon as I had heard that he was in a fair way, I was tempted to call upon him.” While a valet, Gil Blas finds it necessary to leave his place at short notice. “I made a bundle of my own goods, incidentally slipping in some odd articles belonging to my master.” He is a knave certainly, but never a serious villain. Society, he finds, is composed of people who live by their wits, and who think a great deal about good things to eat and drink. So he scrambles with the others. In the four volumes of Gil Blas’s adventures, with the long digressions about his acquaintances, there is no more plot than in a man’s life. There is no preaching. Yet the effect is of unity, and the tale as “moral as experience itself.”  12
  The distinctive quality of Lesage is unprejudiced exposition. “My purpose was to represent human life historically as it exists,” he says in the preface to Gil Blas. “God forbid I should hold myself out as a portrait-painter.” Nevertheless he is a portrait-painter, seizing the outward visible fact with little psychological effort. His is the hearty spontaneity of the simple story-teller.  13
  In spite of his love of Spanish models, Lesage breaks away from the popular picaresque literature,—sensational tales recording the success of low-born, witty rogues. He represents plenty of knavery; but after all, Gil Blas finds honesty the best policy.  14
  The work of Lesage marks the transition from the spirit of the seventeenth to that of the eighteenth century. In his large and general view of life, of society en masse, and in his taste for foreign literature, he belongs to the seventeenth century. But his realism is more modern; and in his lack of conscious moral motive, and in his fatalistic acceptance of the conditions of human life, a grain of Voltairean unbelief is already germinating.  15
  Curiously enough, Lesage exercised more influence abroad than at home. Before his fellow-countrymen had learned to appreciate him, Smollett had translated Gil Blas into English; and it had become the model after which Fielding and his contemporaries sought to shape the English novel.  16
  The great charm of Lesage lies in the strong and rapid style of his witty narration. Occasionally he shows an appreciation of nature, but his interest in life is almost wholly social. Whatever he has to say is expressed with characteristic grace and strength. The words are so ready and so apt, the phrase so just yet easy, the whole effect so animated, that in his instinctive pleasure the reader hardly realizes the great literary skill which created this masterpiece of precise and vigorous French.  17
 
 
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