The Adventures of Gil Blas of Santillane
Reviewed by Heidi Boudro
The Adventures of Gil Blas of Santillane (published 1715-1735), by Alain-René Lesage, translated from French in the 18th century by Tobias Smollett, takes place in Spain, or, more precisely, Gil Blas's adventures criss-cross Spain in a series of perambulations, journeys, and flights. The author may have felt that everything picaresque--a Spanish genre popular in Europe at the time: the episodic adventures of a servant, petty criminal, or prostitute--should take place in Spain; also, Lesage, a successful playwright, had traveled in Spain and was a student and translator of its literature.
Gil Blas, the son of servants, sets out with a vague plan of going to college in Salamanca, and is promptly conned and robbed. He seeks work as a servant and is involved with, among others, highwaymen, con artists, degenerate nobles, murderously inept doctors, long-winded churchmen, and actresses. But will Gil Blas always be a servant?
Hundreds of stories, in very short chapters, for 700 pages, lead from one to the next. I often laughed at the extreme ironies, the turns of events and turns of mind, and the occasional reappearances of such notables as Baron Steinbach, "Don" Raphael the con artist, and the outrageous Laura. Each of the hundreds of characters has his or her story to tell, including the sixty-page rather obvious lies of Don Raphael. (Was he really at the court of the grand-duke of Florence? Did he really buy his own mother out of slavery in Tangier? Gil Blas himself comments that Don Raphael's narrative "with all the other qualities of a romance, had the tediousness.")
I have to admit that I can't remember a single incident from, for example, The Swindler (1604), a more realistic novel by Francisco de Quevedo. Whereas I probably will not forget how Gil Blas, as a trusted servant, assisted Donna Aurora in a complex plan, worthy of "I Love Lucy," to alienate the affections of Don Lewis Pacheco from Donna Isabella. ("I conceived that with due cultivation of my talent I might in time become a consummate hypocrite and most successful cheat.") Or the comic and tragic services to the prince of Spain. Or the general trajectory of Blas's life, which turns out, in a perhaps disturbing nod to the status quo, to not be chaotic after all.
Gil Blas is an anti-hero of an almost modern cast. He is contrasted to people much worse than he is, who do much worse things; and there are some lines he will not cross. Also, he must on occasion rescue a young lady from bandits. As the novel was written over a period of twenty years, there are some changes in tone throughout; as Blas's general condition improves, so do his morals.
I remain curious about the audience for this novel and the motives of its author. Unfortunately, it appears to be relatively forgotten. I assumed that it was important when I learned of it from a list of picaresque novels; yet it doesn't seem to be in print in English, although it is available online. As a connoisseur of episodic adventures, however, I admired Lesage's skill in weaving hundreds of outrageous stories into one propelling narrative, and I count Gil Blas among the most entertaining I have read.
Update: Now in print!
Copyright © 2008 by Heidi Boudro