INTRODUCTION by WM. MORTON FULLERTON.
WALTER SCOTT, who craved the beatitude -- the word is his own -- that would attend the perusal of another book as entrancing as Gil Blas, was on the side of the untutored public which knows nothing of technical classifications or of M. Brunetière's theory of the "evolution des genres." Lesage's great book, though scarcely answering to the exact technical definition of a picaresque novel -- the biography of a picaro or rogue -- belongs, nevertheless, by its external form, to the picaresque type of fiction; and Scott would certainly have admitted that its picaresqueness was very good of its kind; that it was in fact as picaresque as could be expected of a Frenchman who was conspicuously an "honnête homme" and who signed himself "bourgeois de Paris." But In all likelihood he would have instantly added that it was not the "picaresqueness" of Gil Blas which has given that production its fame; and that, if Lesage's masterpiece has lived so long, and if it lives to-day with such a fresh and abundant life, this constant appeal has been made in spite of its resemblance to the Spanish picaresque prototype.
The application of the scientific method to literary criticism during the last generation has steadily tended to define works of art as "documents" of their epoch, and at the same time to classify them according to their structural variations rather than to accept them wholly as sources of human pleasure. The novel of Lesage for the purposes of classification, may be viewed as a picaresque novel, and it is interesting and legitimate to note that it is no doubt the best of its kind; yet there is equally little doubt that thousands of readers who do not know what the word "picaresque" means have for several generations regarded Gil Blas as simply the best of all novels, and that their reasons have been based on qualities quite independent of the mould into which it happened to be run. This is, in fact, the truth which these brief remarks are meant to set forth. In order to become a classic, and in order to hold its own among the books of the world, Gil Blas has had to live down its picaresqueness. The book has survived, and become one of the great books, notwithstanding the characteristics which seemed destined to confine it to the museum of antique literary forms.
Walter Scott's recognition of the supreme delightfulness of Gil Blas has not been general among the critics; indeed, the sense of its intrinsic value as a definition of life must rather be placed to the credit of the uncritical public. Voltaire, referring to Lesage in his "Siècle de Louis XIV," limits his praise to the remark : "His novel Gil Blas has survived because of the naturalness of the style." The curtness and inadequacy of this remark are probably due rather to the fact that Voltaire did not see beyond the superficial traits of this novel, its general picaresque atmosphere, than, as has so often been asserted, to any malicious intent to decry a book in which he supposed himself to have been held up to ridicule. [The traditional view is, however, plausible enough, as Mr. James Fitzmaurice-Kelly has shown in his introduction to the edition of Gil Blas published in the "World's Classics." There can be no doubt as to Lesage having ridiculed Voltaire in two of his plays.] Joubert, whose delicacy was a hothouse fruit grown in the thin subsoil and the devitalised air in which he was compelled to live, corroborates Voltaire, while revealing his own prejudices --after all, is not the main interest of criticism the light it throws upon the critic? -- in a characteristic utterance : "Lesage's novels would appear to have been written in a café by a domino-player, after spending the evening at the play." Evidently this is a long way from the "beatitude" of Walter Scott, but it is nearer the point of view of Mr. Warner Allen, who, while he notes in his remarkable General Introduction to his edition of Celestine in the Picaresque Section of the "Library of Early Novelists," to which this volume belongs, that Gil Blas "has a conscience," is ingeniously effective in arguing that the spirit of Gil Blas is essentially picaresque -- by which he means that realism and materialism are so predominantly its note that it must be classed well below "Don Quixote," where the heterogeneous picaresque material is beautifully fused by the 1magination of an idealist. "It is just because Lesage ignores the idealistic side of man," Mr. Allen says, "that Gil Blas misses being a great creation." On the other hand, La Harpe, who had read many books, but was no doubt the very opposite of a scientific critic of literature, praises Gil Blas not merely, as did Scott, for its entertainment, its agrément, but also for its moral inspiration; utile dulci, he insists, ought to be the device of this excellent book, forgetting that Lesage has himself written the precept of Horace on its title-page. "C'est l'école du monde que Gil Blas," La Harpe continues; and he remarks with singular felicity that Lesage in Gil Blas "has not fallen into that gratuitous profusion of minute detail which is nowadays taken to be truth." This comment suggests the probability that the reproach addressed to Lesage as to his lack of idealism is one that La Harpe would be disinclined to accept; and that they who make it have other standards for judging a work of art than those of the public to whom it is addressed, or indeed than those of the artist himself, especially such an artist as Lesage, who in his "Declaration" to the reader says expressly: "My sole aim has been to represent life as it is" : "Je ne me suis proposé que de représenter la vie des hommes telle qu'elle est."
Certain of Lesage's predecessors had already declared it to be their aim to write books which should be a wholesome reaction against the romanticism of the tales of chivalry that had so long delighted the taste of Europe. The sub—title of Alemán's famous novel, Guzmán de Alfarache, was Atalaya de la Vida which Chapelain translated by "Image" or "Miroir de la Vie Humaine." And long before Lesage, the author of L'Histoire Comique de Francion used almost the identical terms of Alemán and Lesage in announcing his tale "Nous avons dessein de voir une image de la vie humaine, de sorte qu'il nous en faut montrer ici diverses pièces." Francion, less picaresque than the hero of Alemán, was undoubtedly what he has been called by one of Lesage's biographers, M. Lintilhac, a direct precursor of Gil Blas; and there can be no question as to the importance of the influence exercised upon Lesage by Charles Sorel's admirable performance. But, however easily even a little erudition can discover possible prototypes of Gil Blas in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century literature of both France and Spain -- however picaresque, in a word, Gil Blas may be, and whatever else it may be -- its picaresqueness was obviously, for Lesage, not an end in itself, but merely a device for carrying out his main project, which was "the representation of life"; and the meaning he put into those words was incomparably richer than was their connotation on the lips of an Alemán or even a Sorel. Lesage found ready to his hand one of the most convenient literary forms tint the novel ever assumed for the achievement of the end he had in view. That end was to hold a mirror up to Nature, and to the whole of Nature.
This ambitious project has haunted most observers who have essayed the novel form. It was obviously the end and aim of the author of Anna Karenina. But such is the complexity of human relations, such the variety of the kinds of human plights, such the swift passage of events, such are the endless differences and the fleeting character of the situations presented to the artistic consciousness at any moment of time, that only the most self—confident craftsman would be tempted, in his sane mind, to undertake their complete representation. The mirror in which a writer would seek to converge and to foreshorten the vast spectacle of things must needs be an all-but unmanageable revolving mirror of gigantic dimensions, unless some way he found of dispensing with such machinery altogether. Tolstoi made no attempt to achieve an artistic synthesis of life as a whole. He was content to map life out on a sort of Mercator's projection. Balzac despaired altogether of success, and confined himself to "doing" the multitudinous phases of human activity piecemeal. Lesage, on the other hand, hit on the happy idea of using the picaro type, the picaresque tradition in the novel, to facilitate his project. And what device, in fact, could be neater and more rapid? Certainly not the invention of Zola. The author of the series of the Rougon-Macquart set himself the task of describing the whole of French society at the end of the last century. He believed himself to have improved on Balzac's method by conceiving of a family-tree, with branches sufficiently wide-spreading to illustrate every kind of activity of which French men or French women were capable in his time. The unity of his result was to be secured by postulating a family, the sum of the several lives of whose members should be coterminous with the Conscious existence of all their essential French fellow—types at a certain historical period. The plan was ingenious but artificially ingenuous.
Lesage, writing at the opening of the eighteenth century, had, it is true, the luck to be free to employ -- or, in fact, to have thrust upon him by the literary taste of his time -- a simpler trick for the representation of life, The literary air was full of picaresque odours. But, while Lesage came after Sorel and Alemán, and a score of other same story-tellers eager to temper the bombast of the hour by the saving salt of realism, the living models that surrounded him were quite as suggestive as any he might have been led to imitate in the books of his predecessors. Lintilhac, Cherbuliez, Brunetière, have dwelt in detail on this fact. What need had Lesage of a Guzmán or a Francion, when before his very eyes were such conspicuous models for the study of the valet parvenu as the Cardinals Dubois and Alberoni? And why go farther afield than the memoirs of the famous Gourville, which appeared in 1673, if one really feels impelled at all costs to account for the origin of Gil Blas, and to answer the futile question, "Where did Lesage get his idea?" That kind of inquiry explains everything except the essential. Homer and Shakespeare, Walter Scott and Corneille, have been put to the same torture as Lesage; and in the folds of their royal robes whole colonies of industrious parasitic moths are still furiously and often enviously at work. There is a "Lesage question" as there is an "Homeric question." But of this the public recks little. It sanely holds the view of M. de Maurepas, who wittily defined an author as "un homme qui prend aux livres tout ce qui lui passe par la tête." The public rightly judges the work of art by the criterion of pleasure which it is capable of giving. By that standard Gil Blas was long ago classed among the delightful books of the world. How many of its beauties are plagiarisms, or whether any of them are, are inquiries which the wise are content to leave to the mandarins of literature. [While the oft-reported story of the pillage by Lesage of a lost Spanish manuscript is a myth, it is incontestable that in the last books of Gil Blas he embodied long passages from a French translation of two Italian pamphlets on The Disgrace of Count Olivares, and from a book published in 1683 at Cologne entitled, Le Ministre Parfait ou le Comte-Duc. It is easy to prove also that Lesage had read Lazarilla de Tormes and a great many Spanish tales and plays; but, as M. Lintilhac says, so had Corneille, yet the Cid remains the Cid.]
The representation of life, then, is the avowed object of Lesage. Gil Blas is a microcosm. One might apply to Lesage the words of Balzac in allusion to the Comedie Humaine : "J'aurai porté une société toute entière dans ma tête." Gil Blas is a picture, singularly vivid and comprehensive, of the society of France at the close of the reign of Louis XIV and at the beginning of the Regency. Lesage, like St. Simon, sought to reflect the life of his time; but he is greater than St. Simon because of the larger general interest and significance of his literary form. Lesage was a gentleman, serenely, gaily taking notes on the world that surrounded him; but, as it pleased him to publish all his notes in his own lifetime, he adopted the novel form and the device of a Spanish atmosphere. Happily the society that surrounded Lesage in the Paris of the end of the seventeenth and the beginning of the eighteenth centuries was sufficiently complex and representative for an exhaustive picture of that world to assume a typical value.
Gil Blas is an encyclopadia of human types. No other single book contains so rich a collection of specimens of the genus homo. The success with which Lesage has introduced into Gil Blas virtually every form of human character, all sorts and conditions of men, is one of the miracles of literary art. The purely traditional picaro types, the vagabond and the beggar, the unscrupulous highwayman and the cut-throat, have, after all, comparatively small importance in the great comedy of life which Lesage depicts. These picaro types move in and out of the vast throng peopling his pages much as their counterparts in the flesh, the Apaches of the Marais quarter, jostled on the Pont Neuf the honest workman, the country bumpkin, the banker Turcaret, the bourgeois merchant, the strutting soldier, the barefoot monk, the daintily stepping petits maîtres, the authors and the actors, the ministers and the high officials, the servants and the adventurers, the priests, and the précieuses peering from their vinaigrettes. From the brigand cave that sheltered the jail-bird to the drawing-room of the Marquise de Chaves, from the boudoir of the enticing Laure to the cabinet of the Duke of Olivares, we visit every haunt of human activity and every social condition, conversing on the way with comedians, doctors, poets, lawyers, statesmen, valets, judges of the Inquisition, shopkeepers, courtesans, archbishops, and countless other actors of the Human Comedy. The final impression is that we have been in contact with the whole of life and with life as a whole. In this connexion it is pertinent to quote the verdict of Nodier in the "Notice" prefixed to the famous and now rare edition of Gil Blas containing the woodcuts of Jean Gigoux (Paris 1835) : "Comme il avait embrassé tout ce qui appartient à l'homme dans sa composition, il osa se prescrire d'embrasser toute la langue dans son travail." In other words, the grammarian and the lexicographer have in Gil Blas what Nodier is justified in calling "un monument de la langue."
We have witnessed the amusing spectacle arm-in-arm with Gil Blas de Santillane, a puppet of circumstance, but the most good-natured of companions. No youth of sprightlier wit, of keener observation, or of more unfailing good humour was ever born of mortal man or immortal writer. Gil Blas is too agreeable a fellow for us to dream of parting company with him merely because of his escapades. Moreover, no one was ever long in his company without discovering that the firstfruit of his innate gift of observation is a habit of reflection gradually conducting him to the point of view of the great American pragmatist. For Gil Blas, as for Franklin, whatever else honesty may be, it is at all events the best policy. His ambition "to get on," to succeed, is not the ambition of a Julien Sorel. He is not ready and willing to succeed at any price. He would not say cynically with Marie-Caroline of Naples :"je vois trop que la force seule compte et que la bonne foi ne sert qu'a être dupe." (Letter to the Marquis de Gallo, July 2, 1800.) In the case of Gil Blas, the habit of reflection has engendered a conscience. As he grows older in experience, the practical promptings of that conscience tend to arrest many an impulse to indulge his petty vices and to reinforce the virtues which he is prudent enough to regard as useful. His efforts to better his lot, while they bring to the fore his harmless vanity, and often indeed a certain less agreeable snobbishness, are after all to his credit. He is the first to laugh at his own mistakes, as he is the first to learn the lesson of his blunders. Here is a characteristic utterance of his:
"I let myself go with the current for three weeks. I gave myself up to every form of voluptuous pleasure. But I will say at the same time that in the midst of it all a sense of remorse often mingled bitterness with my delight. Debauch did not stifle this remorse; my remorse increased, on the contrary, in proportion as I became more and more of a debauchee; and, as a result of my fortunately honest nature, the disorder of the theatrical life began to strike me with horror. Ah, wretch that you are, I said to myself, is it thus that you are fulfilling the expectations of your family? Is it impossible, merely because you are a servant, to be an honest man? Do you really find it worth while to live with such a vicious crew? Envy, anger and avarice dominate some of them; modesty is unknown to others. Some have given themselves up to intemperance and idleness, while in others pride has become insolence. Enough of this! I will dwell no longer with the seven deadly sins."
From all that we know of Lesage himself, as well as from a comparison of Gil Blas with the author's other Works, it seems legitimate to conclude that the good humour of his most famous hero is merely the expression of his own philosophic gaiety, at all events of his own disabused placidity, his bourgeois moderation and practical sense, his bias toward taking things easily. Life, when viewed at the angle adopted by Lesage, is an endless series of comic situations of a highly diverting and edifying character. Many of its conventions, which are nurtured on hypocrisy and snobbery, form a constant object of his good-humoured raillery, just as they form the subject-matter of the comic verve of his great master, Molière. Both have the most refreshing sense of values and an unimpeachable intellectual honesty.
The most comic incidents of the tale are the series of rebuffs experienced by Lesage's naive hero before he finally reaches the point where discretion becomes second nature. With what touching and respectful candour does Gil Blas fall a prey to the pretensions and foibles of the great! Note the art with which Lesage, juxtaposing his hero with, for instance, an Archbishop of Granada, shows the vain prelate so enamoured of his own productions as to suffer no honest criticism from even the most disinterested of his acolytes. First cajoled by flattery, then infuriated by the naive frankness of Gil Blas, whose opinion he had solicited, he shows the rash youth the door; and Gil Blas returns once again to his life of adventure. It is his rich fund of good sense that saves him here as throughout his career, and that keeps his judgment sane and his heart true amid all the eccentricities and affectations and passing passions, and even the temptations, which surround and beset him during his checkered years. This jolly easy-going boon companion is a long time learning to be canny, but he is never really a fool. He comes out ultimately the poorer for the loss of a good many illusions, but profoundly convinced that straightforwardness in human relations is as desirable a good as simplicity in art.
Watch him with his friend Fabrice, turned writer à la mode, after having been the astute lackey who early in life defined with such cold-blooded cynicism the ideals of a servant:
"le métier de laquais est impossible, je l'avoue, pour un imbecile; mais il a des charmes pour un garçon d'esprit. Un génie supérieur qui se met en condition ne fait pas son service matériellement comme un nigaud. Il entre dans une maison
pour commander plutôt que pour servir. Il commence par étudier son maître, il se prête à ses défauts, gagne sa confiance et le mène ensuite par le nez."
Fabrice, seized by "la rage d'écrire," as Gil Blas calls it, and convinced that he has in him the stuff of a great writer, ignores the sage advice of his employer who has warned him that poetry is not all beer and skittles, and comes up to Madrid, the centre of "les beaux esprits," "in order to form his taste." He falls under the influence of one of the leaders in a log-rolling literary set, and so adroitly imitates the fashion of the hour that he is regarded as one of the cleverest writers of the younger generation. He and Gil Blas meet, after many years, over a bottle of wine; and Fabrice reads to his friend a sonnet which Gil Blas finds absurdly obscure. "A poet capable of producing such rubbish as that," he says, "can deceive only his time"; and he adds, "your sonnet is merely pompous nonsense." The tortured, involved, affected style disgusts Gil Blas as such a style always disgusted Lesage, whose one ambition was to be an "écrivain naturel qui parle comme le commun des hommes," and who detested "le langage précieux" which the great ladies and certain wits of his time took to be the mark of genius and a password for immortality. Fabrice becomes angry. "Tu n'es qu'une bête avec ton style naturel," he exclaims; and he maliciously reminds Gil Blas of what befell him with the Archbishop of Granada. The allusion makes the two old friends laugh, and they finish the evening over a third bottle.
Yes, Gil Blas, who is a kind of joyous jack-of-all trades, capable, as Fabrice on another occasion puts it, of fulfilling all kinds of employment, since he possesses "l'outil universel," is interesting and sympathetic quite as much because of his sound sense and ready wit as because of his amusing adventures. But this good sense and this wit, it should be remembered, are the fruits of his experience. Gil Blas's character is slowly formed by life under the reader's eye. Successively the dupe of the habits and the manners, the prejudices and the ideals of each social condition which he traverses in his advance towards the stable equilibrium of middle age, he is too intelligent ever to remain dazzled by his surroundings for more than a brief period. You constantly hear him, after each fresh round with Fate, saying in his natural French way: "ça n'est pas ça; there must be some thing better than that in store for me!" Even the seduction of life at Court ceases eventually to charm him; and one of his most poignant regrets is the fact that he had forgotten under that corrupting influence his father and mother and the old canon, his uncle. He does his best later on to make amends for this neglect. On his way to his country place at Lirias he is suddenly filled with remorse, and he turns aside towards Oviedo, where his parents live. His own dream now is to watch over their last years; and he looks forward, on arriving home, to inscribing in gold letters on the door of his father's house the Latin verses:
"Inveni portum. Spes et Fortuna, valete!
Sat me lusistis; ludite nunc alios!"
Alas! it is almost too late, for he arrives just in time to bury his father. He had previously entered the country inn, where he had been recognised by the inn keeper with lively joy. "By Saint Anthony of Padua," his host had exclaimed, "here is the son of the good Blas de Santillane"; and his wife had chimed in with, "Why, yes, so it is. Oh, I recognise him. He is hardly changed. It's that wide-awake little Gil Blas who had more intelligence than inches. I can still see him dropping in here for a bottle of wine for his uncle's supper." Gil Blas has changed, nevertheless. Fabrice is too keen not to perceive it some time afterwards when Gil Blas visits him at the hospital. Fabrice remarks upon his modest bearing and observes: "You haven't the vain and insolent air that prosperity is wont to give." Gil Blas explains the reason why: "Les disgraces ont purifié ma virtu; et j'ai appris a l'école de l'adversité à jouir des richesses sans m'en laisser posséder." He is now and then to be a backslider still, but we know that he has learned the essential lesson of life. Really, as the Italians say, "il tempo è galantuomo."
The rapidity of the narrative enhances the effect of optimism which is so inspiriting throughout the whole book. The transitions from the episodes of bad luck to those of good fortune take place, as Smollett has already pointed out, so suddenly that the reader positively has no time to pity Gil Blas. He is speedily inspired with a firm confidence in Lesage's ingenuity, which somehow manages to extricate his hero from every possible embarrassment. Lesage's point of view, as an observer of life, is thus quickly revealed to be a lively sense of life's chronic succession of ups and downs, and of the merely relative importance of its plights. When Gil Blas loses his place with Count Galiano, he remarks:
"I began to lose courage when I found myself back again in so miserable a case. I had grown accustomed to the conveniences of existence, and I could no longer, as before, regard indigence with cynicism. Yet I will confess I was wrong to indulge in sadness after having so many times discovered that no sooner had Fortune upset me than it put me on my feet again."
Lesage accepts the stoical ideal of patience in adversity, but he does not accept it in the stoical way. His philosophy is the Christian belief in a Providence upon whom sane mortals may serenely rely. Providence, he knows, can be counted upon to hold the balance true on that Day of Judgment, when all human things will be set right, and when there will be a startling reversal of human verdicts. Convinced, like Bishop Butler, that things will be as they will be, his experience of life has taught him that the best philosophy is to bide one's me, all one's antennae out For Lesage the logical result of having been frequently a fool is to cease being dupe.
It would be possible and amusing to draw a parallel in this connection between the philosophy of Lesage and that of an even more successful French playwright of the present day, M. Alfred Capus -- who has not yet, however, written a Gil Blas -- and to contrast the manner of the two with that of Beyle in his characterisation of Julien Sorel, Gil Blas is too often, if you like, a genial rascal, as are so many of M. Capus's heroes, but he is never an odiously cynical one like his servant Scipion, and like Julien. While Lesage could say with Philinte, discreetly blaming the vices of mankind:
"Je prends tout doucement les hommes comme ils sont,
J'accoutume mon âme à soufirir ce qu'ils font . . .
Oui, je vois ces défauts dont votre âme murmure
Comme vices unis à l'humaine nature,
Et mon esprit enfin n'est pas plus offensé
De voir un homme fourbe, injuste, intéressé,
Que de voir des vautours affamés de carnage,
Des singes malfaisants et des loups pleins de rage,"
Beyle did not confine himself to "accustoming his soul to suffer" the enormities that men commit, but positively created in Julien Sorel an unscrupulous professor of energy whom he would appear to have regarded as an excellent model. Lesage, on the other hand, must be looked upon as a moralist; a moralist indulgent, no doubt -- such indulgence was the finest flower of his inexhaustible knowledge of life --yet a moralist in the same sense in which Shakespeare and Molière are moralists. Moreover, Lesage has no cynical Blas forcing him to confine the subject-matter of his novel to such naturalistic notations as were the stock-in-trade of the Goncourts and, to a large extent, of Zola.
He had notably no such bias, either "cynical" or "moral," as has wittingly altered the reports of so many British observers of life, who have regarded the pursuit of literature as a mission, to be accepted with a high and strenuous purpose, for the improvement of their fellows. Thus, even a Thackeray wrote first and foremost for edification. In a recently published letter to his friend Robert Hall, Thackeray refers as follows to Vanity Fair:
"I want to leave everybody dissatisfied and unhappy at the end of the story -- we ought all to be with our own and all other stories. Good God! don't I see (in that maybe cracked and warped looking-glass in which I am always looking) my own weaknesses, wickednesses, lusts, follies, shortcomings? in company, let us hope, with better qualities about which we will pretermit discourse. We must lift up our voices about these and howl to a congregation of fools: so much, at least, has been my endeavour." (The Times, July 17, 1911.)
The idea of "howling to a congregation of fools" would have struck Lesage as a counsel of impertinent illbreeding, or, at all events, as a grotesque attitude for a self-respecting novelist. Of course, Thackeray was in the tradition of a literature which counts among its chief masterpieces the Pilgrim's Progress; but if the Puritan point of view is good sociology and good Tolstoism, it is not necessarily for that reason good art; and it would even seem to make "good art" a more difficult achievement. In the great book just mentioned there is no laugh of Tom Jones to clear the air. Thackeray would have seemed, indeed, in Vanity Fair to have been more of an artist than his pamphleteering preoccupations appeared likely to allow him to become. He himself states his object in that book to have been to indicate in cheerful terms that we are for the most part an abominably foolish and selfish people. Incorrigible misanthropist, he sets out to draw up a savage indictment of the society of his time. He is cheerful, as cheerful as he knows how to be; but, as he has resolved to give no one in his book a chance, his cheerfulness fails to produce all its intended effect. Finally, one and all, even Amelia, are branded because foredoomed. But what is the result? Gibbeted for an example, they inspire more pity than horror; and not only does all our sympathy go out to them against the despotic heartlessness of the author, who so unfairly nailed them to the cross, but we fail even to draw the whole of the useful general moral which Thackeray holds to be essential. Thus Thackeray upsets even his own ends; anxious, by the confessed clarion-toned morality of his appeal, to produce the effect aimed at by a prophet in Israel, he nevertheless inspires in his reader a quick and sane recoil before the arbitrary injustice, or, at all events, the incredibility of the author's misanthropy. In literary art, in fact, the only way to convey the illusion of reality is to tell the average truth about the average man.
Lesage, like the Tolstoi of the good period, had the tact and good sense to perceive this. He does not make the unscientific and inartistic blunder of humiliating his heroes. Like a Balzac or a Tolstoi or a Henry James, he gives them their full value, takes them for all they are worth. The pretension that naturalism, because superficially true to a certain aspect of life, is realism in the complete sense of the word, is a view which Lesage in Gil Blas triumphantly repudiates; and he differs from many playwrights of contemporary France, who appear to be so enamoured of caddishness as to regard its manifestations as pre-eminently worthy of presentation in the novel or on the stage. One of the ablest of Lesage's commentators has called him the Homer of naturalism; no neater phrase could be found to define his importance and his manner.
Nor is it the fault of Lesage if his immediate influence upon the literature of his time was perhaps not wholly what he would himself have wished it to be. It is a commonplace to note that Lesage helped to prepare in France that eighteenth century with which he was in so many respects out of sympathy. There was a whole side of Lesage that was out of touch with the modern world surrounding him. M. Faguet seems to me absolutely right as to this point. The spirit, the attitude of Lesage are seventeenth-century -- for, after all, the seventeenth century was realist while so eminently moralist; he believes in the superiority of the clear old form of expression; he abominates an affected style; he prefers natural utterance that everybody can understand to individual experiments in ingenious phraseology. Moreover, while not at all the conscious moralist, he is a moralist all the same; he has a certain generalising habit, the liking for large vistas, harmonious inclusive ranges of thought; his thought-scapes have the perfection and the proportions of a garden by Le Nôtre. But it is nevertheless certain that the immense success of Lesage as a realist, the fact that he made realism look so easy, constituted a terrible incentive to imitation; and that, as a matter of fact, his example was just one of those which no writer could afford to follow who had not his marvellous good sense and his mental and moral poise. Without such moral balance and such good sense the would-be realist is almost certain to become addicted to the grosser forms of naturalism, to exercise, that is, his faculty of clear vision on special salient and picturesque, even salacious and perverse cases, rather than upon the types of the average world with which average men are familiar. Thus there can be no doubt that Lesage's unconcern for positive edification, his indifference to matters of conscience, was a trait of the eighteenth century, and a trait for which he may to a certain extent be held responsible. It was inevitable that he should find imitators, and that, in this sense, he may be said to open the way to a Crébillon fils and a Laclos, even to a Louvet, for whom he would have refused to be responsible, and to prepare an eighteenth century with which there is every reason to suppose he would have become utterly out of sympathy, not merely as a man, but as an artist in letters.
It remains to consider Gil Blas as a work of literary art. In style it is one of the most perfect examples of narrative prose in the world, comparable for limpidity, ease, and precision, with that of Cervantes in Don Quixote. With regard to its composition, it is noticeable that the novel begins at the same pitch of calm lucidity which is to characterise it to the end. The reader feels that the promise of the author in his "Declaration," "I have merely undertaken to represent life as it is," is likely to be kept. Lesage speaks with authority. The artists who inspire confidence with their very first stroke are not numerous. They belong to the aristocracy of the masters. What do such certainty and distinction imply? They mean that the product is the fruit of a mature intelligence; that the artist, be he sculptor, writer, or painter, has not undertaken to express until his mind is, as we say, thoroughly made up as to the nature of its content, nor until he is serenely master of the means at his disposal; that, in a word, he knows his business. In the case of Lesage it is peculiarly significant that, when he published the first part of Gil Blas in 1715, he was already forty-seven years of age; that the second part did not appear until 1724, nine years later; and that he was already an old gentleman with a family of boys, one of whom had entered the Church, when he ended his lifework, by the publication of the third part, in 1735. Gil Blas, in short, is the product of the maturity of one of the keenest observers that ever looked out upon the spectacle of things. The broad good-humoured gaiety of the earlier book, which vibrates with a picaresque lilt, is shaded gradually down, in the second volume, into a finer, serener, more intellectual irony. This change betrays the natural evolution in the author's interests and curiosities during the period reaching from his forty-seventh to his sixty-seventh year. The gaiety of the six books of the first part is to be contrasted with the soberer, more reflective spirit of the tale as it proceeds. We seem to be suiting our pace to the increasingly graver temper of a man whose knowledge of life has become richer, his insight keener, his heart more tolerant and generous. With the steady elimination of the picaresque element the novel becomes more and more an inclusive criticism of life. The author seems to be brooding over his pages with a tenderer care, as if he were more and more conscious of the significance, the magnificence even, of his task.
It is one of the results of this long gestation that Gil Blas has become a book of world-wide popularity. In the history of letters it has been an inexhaustible source of energy. It inspired the realistic novel. From Smollett
and Marivaux to Dickens and Zola, and even to an Anatole France and to a Pio Baroja, Lesage has been the avowed or unavowed model of those writers who have been passionately enamoured of life, and irrepressibly compelled to express it. The influence of Lesage on the author, for instance, of Le Rouge et le Noir and of La Chartreuse de Parme -- perhaps particularly on the Stendhal of the Chartreuse de Parme -- seems incontestable. In August 1804, Beyle, writing to his sister Pauline, recommends her to read Gil Blas in order to learn to know the world, and cites the famous anecdote of the Archbishop of Granada's sermons. In April 1805, he promises to bring her the book. In another undated letter to his sister, Beyle writes: "the most accurate picture of human nature as it is, in the France of the eighteenth century, is still the book of Lesage, Gil Blas. Meditate well this excellent work." And finally, in his Journal, under the date of "10 Floréal, an xiii, 1805," Beyle notes his intention to cure himself of romanticism, and to learn to judge men as they are, by re-reading a certain number of books, among which he mentions Beaumarchais, the tales and La Pucelle of Voltaire, Chamfort, and Gil Blas. That is to say, at the most impressionable period of his intellectual life Beyle read and re-read Gil Blas; a fact which a discerning critic might easily guess, as to the truth of which, indeed, such a critic would feel an absolute conviction, and which the documents cited appear to leave beyond a doubt It would perhaps be an exaggeration to pretend that but for Gil Blas, Beyle would not have been Stendhal; but I may be permitted to quote the following passage from a private letter of M. Paul Arbelet, the editor of Stendhal's Journal d'Italie.
"Votre hypothèse me parait très séduisante. Il y a sans aucun doute quelque parenté intellectuelle entre Lesage et Stendhal, tous deux curieux d'observation morale, tous deux juges sans illusions des faiblesses humaines, mais point misanthropes, car ils s'indignent peu des vices ou des ridicules, qui les amusent plutôt ou les intéressent. D'ailleurs l'un et l'autre manquent d'imagination et de poésie. Je comprends donc très bien que vous ayez eu l'idée d'une influence de Lesage sur Stendhal."
Furthermore, while Lesage is all this, the fountain-head of a great literary current, he is at the same time, as a moralist, in the sanest Latin and French tradition, that which is marked, in successive epochs, by the serene temper of a Horace, by the gay science, the pantagruelism of a Rabelais, by the irony of a Beaumarchais, who "se hâta de rire de tout, de peur d'être obligé d'en pleurer," and finally by the tranquil mansuetude of a Renan: observers, one and all, who, after having told the towers of all the citadels of science, became amusedly aware that the only really absolute truth in the world is that all things are relative.