|French literary history|
Alain-René Lesage (May 8, 1668, Sarzeau – November 17, 1747, Boulogne), also spelled Le Sage was a French novelist and playwright born at Sarzeau, in the peninsula of Rhuys, between the Morbihan and the sea, Brittany.
Rhuys was a legal district, and Claude Lesage, the father of the novelist, held the united positions of advocate, notary and registrar of its royal court. His wife's name was Jeanne Brenugat. Both father and mother died when Lesage was very young, and his property was wasted or embezzled by his guardians. Little is known of his youth except that he went to school with the Jesuits at Vannes until he was eighteen. Conjecture has it that he continued his studies at Paris, and it is certain that he was called to the bar at the capital in 1692. In August 1694 he married the daughter of a joiner, Marie Elizabeth Huyard. She was beautiful but had no fortune, and Lesage had little practice. About this time he met his old schoolfellow, the dramatist Danchet, and is said to have been advised by him to betake himself to literature. He began modestly as a translator, and published in 1695 a French version of the Epistles of Aristaenetus, which was not successful. Shortly afterwards he found a valuable patron and adviser in the abbe de Lyonne, who bestowed on him an annuity of 600 livres, and recommended him to exchange the classics for Spanish literature, of which he was himself a student and collector.
Lesage began by translating plays chiefly from Rojas and Lope de Vega. Le Traitre puni and Le Point d'honneur from the former, Don Felix de Mendoce from the latter, were acted or published in the first two or three years of the 18th century. In 1704 he translated the continuation of Don Quixote by Avellaneda, and soon afterwards adapted a play from Calderón, Don Cesar Ursin, which had a divided fate, being successful at court and damned in the city. He was, however, nearly forty before he obtained anything like decided success. But in 1707 his admirable farce of Crispin rival de son maitre was acted with great applause, and Le Diable boiteux was published. This latter went through several editions in the same year, and was frequently reprinted till 1725, when Lesage altered and improved it considerably, giving it its present form. Notwithstanding the success of Crispin, the actors did not like Lesage, and refused a small piece of his called Les Etrennes (1707). He thereupon altered it into Turcaret, his theatrical masterpiece, and one of the best comedies in French literature. This appeared in 1709.
Some years passed before he again attempted romance writing, and then the first two parts of Gil Blas de Santillane appeared in 1715. Strange to say, it was not so popular as Le Diable boiteux. Lesage worked at it for a long time, and did not bring out the third part till 1724, nor the fourth till 1735. For this last he had been part paid to the extent of a hundred pistoles some years before its appearance. During these twenty years he was, however, continually busy. Notwithstanding the great merit and success of Turcaret and Crispin, the Theatre Francais did not welcome him, and in the year of the publication of Gil Blas he began to write for the Théatre de la Foire, the comic opera held in booths at festival time. This, though not a very dignified occupation, was followed by many writers of distinction at this date, and by none more assiduously than by Lesage. According to one computation he produced, either alone or with others, about a hundred pieces, varying from strings of songs with no regular dialogues, to comediettas only distinguished from regular plays by the introduction of music. He was also industrious in prose fiction. Besides finishing Gil Blas he translated the Orlando innamorato (1721), rearranged Guzman d'Alfarache (1732), published two more or less original novels, Le Bachelier de Salamanque and Estevanitte Gonzales, and in 1733 produced the Vie et aventures de M. de Beauchesne, which is curiously like certain works of Defoe. Besides all this, Lesage was also the author of La Valise trouvee, a collection of imaginary letters, and of some minor pieces, of which Une journee des parques is the most remarkable. This laborious life he continued until 1740, when he was more than seventy years of age. His eldest son had become an actor, and Lesage had disowned him, but the second was a canon at Boulogne in comfortable circumstances. In the year just mentioned his father and mother went to live with him. At Boulogne Lesage spent the last seven years of his life, dying on the 17th of November 1747. His last work, Melange amusant de saitties d'esprit et de traits historiques les plus frappants, had appeared in 1743.
Not much is known of Lesage's life and personality, and the foregoing paragraph contains not only the most important but almost the only facts available for it. The few anecdotes which we have of him represent him as a man of very independent temper, declining to accept the condescending patronage which in the earlier part of the century was still the portion of men of letters. Thus it is said that, on being remonstrated with, as he thought impolitely, for an unavoidable delay in appearing at the duchess of Bouillon's house to read Turcaret, he at once put the play in his pocket and retired, refusing absolutely to return. It may, however, be said that as in time so in position he occupies a place apart from most of the great writers of the 17th and 18th centuries respectively. He was not the object of royal patronage like the first, nor the pet of salons and coteries like the second. Indeed, he seems all his life to have been purely domestic in his habits, and purely literary in his interests.
The importance of Lesage in French and in European literature is not entirely the same, and he has the rare distinction of being more important in the latter than in the former. His literary work may be divided into three parts. The first contains his Theatre de la Foire and his few miscellaneous writings, the second his two remarkable plays Crispin and Turcaret, the third his prose fictions. In the first two he swims within the general literary current in France; he can be and must be compared with others of his own nation. But in the third he emerges altogether from merely national comparison. It is not with Frenchmen that he is to be measured. He formed no school in France; he followed no French models. His work, admirable as it is from the mere point of view of style and form, is a parenthesis in the general development of the French novel. That product works its way from Madame de la Fayette through Marivaux and Prévost, not through Lesage. His literary ancestors are Spaniards, his literary contemporaries and successors are Englishmen. The position is rare; it is certainly interesting and remarkable in the highest degree.
Of Lesage's miscellaneous work, including his numerous farce-operettas, there is not much to be said except that they are the very best kind of literary hack-work. The pure and original style of the author, his abundant wit, his cool, humoristic attitude towards human life, which wanted only greater earnestness and a wider conception of that life to turn it into true humour, are discernible throughout. But this portion of his work is practically forgotten, and its examination is incumbent only on the critic. Crispin and Turcaret show a stronger and more deeply marked genius, which, but for the ill-will of the actors, might have gone far in this direction. But Lesage's peculiar unwillingness to attempt anything absolutely new discovered itself here. Even when he had devoted himself to the Foire theatre, it seems that he was unwilling to attempt, when occasion called for it, the absolute innovation of a piece with only one actor, a crux which Alexis Piron, a lesser but a bolder genius, accepted and carried through. Crispin and Turcaret are unquestionably Molieresque, though they are perhaps more original in their following of Moliere than any other plays that can be named. For this also was part of Lesage's idiosyncrasy that, while he was apparently unable or unwilling to strike out an entirely novel line for himself, he had no sooner entered upon the beaten path than he left it to follow his own devices.
Crispin rival de son maitre is a farce in one act and many scenes, after the earlier manner of motion. Its plot is somewhat extravagant inasmuch as it lies in the effort of a knavish valet, not as usual to further his masters interests, but to supplant that master in love and gain. But the charm of the piece consists first in the lively bustling action of the short scenes which take each other up so promptly and smartly that the spectator has not time to cavil at the improbability of the action, and secondly in the abundant wit of the dialogue.
Turcaret is a far more important piece of work and ranks high among comedies dealing with the actual society of their time. The only thing which prevents it from holding the very highest place is a certain want of unity in the plot. This want, however, is compensated in Turcaret by the most masterly profusion of character-drawing in the separate parts. Turcaret, the ruthless, dishonest and dissolute financier, his vulgar wife as dissolute as himself, the harebrained marquis, the knavish chevalier, the baroness (a coquette with the finer edge taken off her fineladyhood, yet by no means unlovable), are each and all finished portraits of the best comic type, while almost as much may be said of the minor characters. The style and dialogue are also worthy of the highest praise; the wit never degenerates into mere wit-combats.
It is, however, as a novelist that the world has agreed to remember Lesage. A great deal of unnecessary labor has been spent on the discussion of his claims to originality. What has been already said will give a sufficient clue through this thorny ground. In mere form Lesage is not original. He does little more than adopt that of the Spanish picaroon romance of the 16th and 17th century. Often, too, he prefers merely to rearrange and adapt existing work, and still oftener to give himself a kind of start by adopting the work of a preceding writer as a basis. But it may be laid down as a positive truth that he never, in any work that pretends to originality at all, is guilty of anything that can fairly be called plagiarism. Indeed we may go further, and say that he is very fond of asserting or suggesting his indebtedness when he is really dealing with his own funds. Thus the Diable boiteux borrows the title, and for a chapter or two the plan and almost the words, of the Diablo Cojuelo of Luis Velez de Guevara. But after a few pages Lesage leaves his predecessor alone. Even the plan of the Spanish original is entirely discarded, and the incidents, the episodes, the style, are as independent as if such a book as the Diablo Cojuelo had never existed.
The case of Gil Blas is still more remarkable. It was at first alleged that Lesage had borrowed it from the Vida del escudero Marcos de Obregón of Vicente Espinel, a curiously rash assertion, inasmuch as that work exists and is easily accessible, and as the slightest consultation of it proves that, though it furnished Lesage with separate incidents and hints for more than one of his books, Gil Blas as a whole is not in the least indebted to it. Afterwards Father Isla asserted that Gil Blas was a mere translation from an actual Spanish book, an assertion at once incapable of proof and disproof, inasmuch as there is no trace whatever of any such book. A third hypothesis is that there was some manuscript original which Lesage may have worked up in his usual way, in the same way, for instance, as he professes himself to have worked up the Bachelor of Salamanca. This also is in the nature of it incapable of refutation, though the argument from the Bachelor is strong against it, for there could be no reason why Lesage should be more reticent of his obligations in the one case than in the other. Except, however, for historical reasons, the controversy is one which may be safely neglected, nor is there very much importance in the more impartial indication of sources chiefly works on the history of Olivares which has sometimes been attempted. That Lesage knew Spanish literature well is of course obvious; but there is as little doubt (with the limitations already laid down) of his real originality as of that of any great writer in the world. Gil Blas then remains his property, and it is admittedly the capital example of its own style.
For Lesage has not only the characteristic, which Homer and Shakespeare have, of absolute truth to human nature as distinguished from truth to this or that national character, but he has what has been called the quality of detachment, which they also have. He never takes sides with his characters as Fielding (whose master, with Cervantes, he certainly was) sometimes does. Asmodeus and Don Cleofas, Gil Blas and the Archbishop and Doctor Sangrado, are produced by him with exactly the same impartiality of attitude. Except that he brought into novel writing this highest quality of artistic truth, it perhaps cannot be said that he did much to advance prose fiction in itself. He invented, as has been said, no new genre; he did not, as Marivaux and Prévost did, help on the novel as distinguished from the romance. In form his books are undistinguishable, not merely from the Spanish romances which are, as has been said, their direct originals, but from the medieval romans adventures and the Greek prose romances. But in individual excellence they have few rivals. Nor should it be forgotten, as it sometimes is, that Lesage was a great master of French style, the greatest unquestionably between the classics of the 17th century and the classics of the 18th. He is perhaps the last great writer before the decadence (for since the time of Paul Louis Courier it has not been denied that the philosophe period is in point of style a period of decadence). His style is perfectly easy at the same time that it is often admirably epigrammatic. It has plenty of color, plenty of flexibility, and may be said to be exceptionally well fitted for general literary work.
The dates of the original editions of Lesages most important works have already been given. He published during his life a collection of his regular dramatic works, and also one of his pieces for the Foire, but the latter is far from exhaustive; nor is there any edition which can be called so, though the oeuvres choisies of 1782 and 1818 are useful, and there are so-called oeuvres completes of 1821 and 1840. Besides critical articles by the chief literary critics and historians, the work of Eugene Lintilhac, in the Grands écrivains francais (1893), should be consulted. The Diabie boiteux and Gil Blas have been reprinted and translated numberless times. Both will be found conveniently printed, together with Estvansile Gonzales and Guzman d'Aifarache, the best of the minor novels, in four volumes of Gamiers Bibliothique amusante (Paris, 1865). Turcaret and Crispin are to be found in all collected editions of the French drama. There is a useful edition of them, with ample specimens of La Sages work for the Foire, in two volumes (Paris, 1821).
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