The French Review 60.2 (1986): 256-257.

ASSAF, FRANCIS. Lesage et le picarsque. Paris: Nizet, 1984. Pp. 154.

[Reprinted with the permission of The French Review]

In this succinct and authoritative study, Francis Assaf clearly provides the bases for understanding the picarsque themes and values in six novels by Lesage, but far from defining le picarsque as a literary phenomenon limited to the Iberian peninsula, he establishes that the characters in Lesage's works "représentent, par la vie qu'ils mènent, une certaine manière - d'être qui renseigne le lecteur sur les intentions didactiques profondes de l'auteur" (8). Assaf then identifies a trait or leitmotif that endows the picaresque novel with particular coherence, "l’exploitation par l'auteur, à travers le héros-narrateur, du désir aussi bien que de la manière exceptionnelle dont désire le picaro"
(10-11). Defining désir as "le phénomène d'investissement du moi dans ce qui lui est extérieur, c'est-à-dire le monde' (11), Assaf argues that the picaro's acquisition of knowledge of the exterior world through observation and narration of "le désir des autres, sans désirer lui-même," constitutes "l'esthétique du désir picaresque [qui] devient le pivot de la dynamique du récit" (12).

By first defining critical perceptions of Lesage's novels from 1709 to the present (chapters I and 11), Assaf emphasizes his view of Lesage's originality in the face of a critical corpus whose main concern was not if, but to what degree, Lesage plagiarized Spanish sources and genres. This examination grounds Assaf's study of specific works: in chapter three, his comparison of El Diablo Cojuelo with Le Diable boiteux leads him to conclude that these tales, while not conforming to the archetype of the picaresque genre, do display picaresque traits, most notably the absence of desire, which allows Cleofas "d'observer et de ‘digérer' le désir des autres, sans perdre sa puissance d"avoir faim" (92). Then, in chapter four's analysis of Gil Blas' vocation "d'étudier le désir des autres et d'en parler, ou de faire en sorte qu'ils en parlent eux-mêmes," Assaf establishes that this novel shares with Le Diable boiteux the common goal of teaching the reader that "il n'est pas besoin de s'engager dans le désir pour 1'expérimenter et, qu'une fois l’experience faite, le désir comporte sa propre satisfaction" (119). Assaf then examines Lesage’s minor novels from two perspectives: first considering Beauchêne and Le Bachelier de Salamanque as "une tentative de concilier le picaresque et le Nouveau-Monde" (121), he shows that their lack of picaresque detachment seemingly weakens the heroes' desire and therefore the novels' force of observation. Second, Assaf shows that Lesage's adaptations of the Spanish Guzman d'Alfarache and Estévanille Gonzalez drew their strength from the French picaresque tradition, "par les éléments de la narration, par le fait que l'absence de désir est plus apparente et par l'observation détachée'"(144).

While I find this study admirable in its overall clarity and depth, there are nonetheless some minor, but aggravating deficiencies in the edition and the composition: one not only finds no index, but no table of contents; the text is pocked with intermittent typographic errors and omissions, and burdened with a few overlong footnotes. Furthermore, one wonders if the recapitulation of pertinent Lesage criticism, however vital to the definition of Assaf's own critical position, need have occupied nearly one-third of the entire volume. More disturbing is Assaf's occasional recourse to the author's "intention" as the absolute criterion for valid interpretation (cf. 95), all the more confusing in light of his final reflections, suggesting, for example, that "voir la -écriture de Gil Blas comme texte picaresque est un acte personnel, qui doit être recommence par chaque lecteur à chaque lecture" (149). Despite these weaknesses, I find this study quite remarkable both for its concision and rigorous development of the key themes in Lesage's work related to the focal concept of the picaresque, and for the accessibility that will render its insights all the more valuable for serious scholars.

Charles J. Stivale
Wayne State University

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