1902 Encyclopedia > Alain-René Lesage

Alain-René Lesage
French novelist and playwright

ALAIN RENE LESAGE (1668-1747), novelist and dramatist, was born at Sarzeau in the peninsula of Rhuys, between the Morbihan and the sea, on the 8 th of May 1668, and died on the 17th of November 1747, at Boulogne-sur-Mer. Rhuys was a legal district, and Claude Le Sage, 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 Le Sage 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 Le Sage 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 Aristasnetus, which was not successful. Shortly afterwards he found a valuable patron and adviser in the Abbé 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. Le Sage began by translating plays chiefly from Rojas and Lope de Vega. Le Traître Puni and Le Point d'Honneur from the former, Don Félix de Mendoce from the latter, were acted or published in the first two or three years of the 18th century. In 1704 ho translated the continuation of Don Quixote by Avellaneda, and soon afterwards adapted a play from Calderon, Don César 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 Maître 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 Le Sage altered and improved it considerably, giving it its present form. Notwithstanding the success of Crispin, the actors did not like Le Sage, and refused a small piece of his called Les Étrennes. 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 Bias appeared in 1715. Strange to say, it was not so popular as the Diable Boiteux. Le Sage 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. This is the only positive statement we have about his gains. During these twenty years he was, however, continually busy. Not-withstanding 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 Bias he began to write for the Theatre 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 time, and by none more assiduously than by Le Sage. 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 Bias he translated the Orlando Inamorato, rearranged Guzman d'Alfarache, published two more or less original novels, Ze Bachelier de Salamanque and Estévanille Gonzales, and in 1733 produced the Vie et Aventures de M. de Beaucliéne, which is curiously like certain works of Defoe. Besides all this, Le Sage was also the author of La Valise Trouvée, a collection of imaginary letters, and of some minor pieces, of which Une Journée 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 Le Sage 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 Le Sage spent the last seven years of his life, dying, as has been said, on the 17th of November 1747, at the age of nearly eighty.

Not much is known of Le Sage'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. In his old age, when he was very deaf, he is also said to have been decidedly arbitrary in his choice of the persons whom he permitted to have access to his trumpet, but this is not unusual in such cases. 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 Le Sage in French and in European literature is not entirely the same, and he has the rare dis-tinction 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 French-men that he is to be measured. He formed no school in France ; he followed no French models. His work, admir-able 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 Le Sage. His literary ancestors are Spaniards, his literary contemporaries and successors are Englishmen. The position is almost unique; it is certainly interesting and remarkable in the highest degree.

Of Le Sage'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 no sensible critic who has taken the trouble to examine it will say that for the world at large there is any reason why it should be resuscitated. Of such work every generation produces its own quota, which is sufficient for the day. 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 Le Sage'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 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 Le Sage'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 Mattre is a farce in one act and many scenes, after the earlier manner of motion. Its plot is somewhat extra-vagant, inasmuch as it lies in the effort of a knavish valet, not as usual to further his master's interests, but to supplant that master. 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. The only thing which prevents it from holding the very highest place is a certain want of unity in the plot. This unity, however, which was too often attained by Moliere through the exaggeration of the ruling-passion theory, as in Tartuffe and the Misanthrope, is compensated in Turcaret by the most masterly profusion of character-drawing in the sepa-rate parts. Turcaret, the ruthless, dishonest, and dissolute financier, his vulgar wife as dissolute as himself, the hare-brained marquis, the knavish chevalier, the baroness (a coquette with the finer edge taken off her fine-ladyhood, 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 Le Sage, and the world as usual is right. A great deal of unnecessary labour 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 Le Sage 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 too the plan and almost the words, of the Diablo Cqjuelo of Luis Velez de Guevara. But after a few pages Le Sage 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 Bias is still more remarkable. It was at first alleged that Le Sage had borrowed it from the Marcos de Obregon of Vincent 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 Le Sage with separate incidents and hints for more than one of his books, Gil Bias as a whole is not in the least indebted to it. After-wards Father Isla asserted that Gil Bias was a mere trans-lation 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 Le Sage may have worked up in his usual way, in the same way, for instance, as he professes himself to have worked up the Baclielor 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 Le Sage 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. There is as little doubt (with the limitations already laid down) of the originality of Le Sage as of that of any great writer in the world. Gil Bias then remains his property, and it is admittedly the capital example of its own style. Fielding has been called the prose Homer of human nature, but in the sense in which the expression was used it is doubtful whether his master (as Le Sage certainly was) is not better entitled to the term. For Le Sage 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 does. Asmodeus and Don Cleofas, Gil Bias 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 had been said, no new genre; he did not, as Marivaux and Prevost did, help on the novel as distin-guished from the romance. In form his books are undis-tinguishable, not merely from the Spanish romances which are, as have been said, their direct originals, but from the mediaeval romans d'aventures and the Greek prose romances. But in individual excellence they have few rivals. Nor should it be forgotten, as it sometimes is, that Le Sage was a great master of French style, the greatest unques-tionably 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 colour, plenty of flexibility, and may be said to be exceptionally well fitted for general literary work.

The dates of the original editions of Le Sage's 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 I'oire, but the latter is far from exhaustive ; nor is there any edition which can be called so, though the Œuvres Choisies of 1782 and 1818 are useful. The Diable Boiteux and Gil Bias have been reprinted and translated numberless times. Both will be found conveniently printed, together with Estévanille Gonzales and Guzman d' Alfarache, the best of the minor novels, in four volumes of Garnier's Bibliothèque Amusante (Paris, 1865). Turcaret and Crispin are to bo found in all collected editions of the French drama. There is a useful edition of them, with ample specimens of Le Sage's work for the Foire, in two volumes (Paris, 1821). (G. SA. )

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