Lesage, Alain-René

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Lesage, Alain-René (1668-1747). French Author.

Alain-René Lesage popularized the genre of the picaresque novel while also dominating vaudeville theater in France. Born on 6 May, 1668 in Sarzeau, Brittany, Lesage grew up a poor orphan who had the opportunity to study law and Spanish literature thanks to supportive Jesuits. After wedding Marie-Elisabeth Huyard, he began translating Spanish plays, then wrote original works. His farce Crispin, His Master’s Rival (1707) and the still-popular comedy Turcaret (1709) established Lesage as a potential successor to Molière. As in the latter’s works, Lesage’s plays focus on humorous knaves tricking one another for love and profit.

The Limping Devil (1707), Lesage’s first successful novel, was based on a Spanish tale. Lesage emulated the old picaresque writers of Spain, in whose works the picaro was usually a trickster who outwitted his rivals. Lesage’s masterpiece was the satirical four-volume novel L’Histoire de Gil Blas de Santillane (or simply Gil Blas), published from 1715-35. In it, Lesage modified the picaresque format somewhat, emphasizing the episodic adventures of a naïve young hero who travels widely and learns the ways of the world from assorted quacks and swindlers. Lesage managed to capture the budding optimism of his age, however, by making everything turn out well for his hero Gil. Lesage also wrote over 100 vaudeville plays performed primarily at fairs. He died in Boulogne-sur-mer on 17 November 1747 at the age of 80, and is widely credited with having influenced many authors, including Fielding, Henry and Sterne.

Further Reading:

Henri Cordier, Alain-René Lesage, 1668-1747, 1970.

Kenneth T. Rivers

Lamar University