Picaresque Novel

Ignatius Reilly by Julia Sarda

The picaresque [pik-uh-resknovel (Spanish:’picaresca,’ from ‘pícaro,’ for ‘rogue’ or ‘rascal’) is a popular subgenre of prose fiction which might sometimes be satirical and depicts, in realistic and often humorous detail, the adventures of a roguish hero of low social class who lives by his wits in a corrupt society. This style of novel originated in 16th-century Spain and flourished throughout Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. The word ‘picaro’ does not appear in ‘Lazarillo de Tormes’ (1554), the novella credited with founding the genre. The expression ‘picaresque novel’ was coined in 1810.  The genre continues to influence modern literature.

Picaresque novels are usually written in first person as an autobiographical account. A Lazarillo or picaro character is an alienated outsider, whose ability to expose and ridicule individuals compromised with society gives him a revolutionary stance. Lazarillo states that the motivation for his writing is to communicate his experiences of overcoming deception, hypocrisy, and falsehood (desengaño).

In a novel of the genre, the main character is normally a lower class person who gets by with wit and rarely deigns to hold a job. There is no plot; the story is told in a series of loosely connected adventures or episodes, with little if any character development in the main character (Once a picaro, always a picaro; his circumstances may change but rarely result in a change of heart.) The story is told with a plainness of language or realism, and satire can be a prominent element. The behavior of a picaresque hero or heroine stops just short of criminality. Carefree or immoral rascality positions the picaresque hero as a sympathetic outsider, untouched by the false rules of society.

The first picaro was Lazarillo was a boy of humble origins from Salamanca in northwestern Spain. After his stepfather is accused of thievery, his mother asks a wily blind beggar to take her him on as his apprentice. The boy develops his cunning while serving the blind beggar and several other masters. The genre was influenced by Roman literature, particularly Petronius’ ‘Satyricon,’ about Encolpius, a former gladiator traveling with a companion and former lover named Asciltos, who has joined Encolpius on numerous escapades. Another Roman work that influenced the picaresque novel was Apuleius’s ‘The Golden Ass’ about a young man who is while attempting a magic spell accidentally transforms himself into an ass. This leads to a long journey, literal and metaphorical, filled with in-set tales. Both plays were widely read in renaissance Europe, and are rare surviving samples of a mostly lost genre, which was highly popular in the classical world, known as ‘Milesian tales’ (stories featuring love and adventure, usually being erotic and titillating).

Arabic literature, which was read widely in Spain in the time of Al-Andalus (the Islamic rule of Iberia) and possessed a literary tradition with similar themes, is another possible formative influence on the picaresque style. Al-Hamadhani (d.1008) of Hamadhan (Iran) is credited with inventing the literary genre of ‘maqamat’ in which a wandering vagabond makes his living on the gifts his listeners give him following his extemporaneous displays of rhetoric, erudition, or verse, often done with a trickster’s touch. Additionally, the curious presence of Russian loan-words in the text of the ‘Lazarillo de Tormes’ also suggests the influence of medieval Slavic tales of tricksters, thieves, itinerant prostitutes, and brigands, who were common figures in the impoverished areas bordering on Germany to the west. When diplomatic ties to Germany and Spain were established under the emperor Charles V, these tales began to be read in Italian translations in the Iberian Peninsula.

While elements of Chaucer and Boccaccio have a picaresque feel and may have contributed to the style, the modern picaresque begins with ‘Lazarillo’ Its principal episodes are based on Arabic folktales that were well-known to the Moorish inhabitants of Spain. This is also the reason for its negative portrayal of priests and other church officials. The protagonist, Lázaro, lives by his wits in an effort to survive and succeed in an impoverished country full of hypocrisy. As narrator of his own adventures, Lázaro seeks to portray himself as the victim of both his ancestry and his circumstance. This means of appealing to the compassion of the reader would be directly challenged by later picaresque novels such as ‘Guzmán de Alfarache’  and the ‘Buscón’ because the idea of determinism used to cast the picaro as a victim clashed with the Counter-Reformation doctrine of free will.

‘El Buscón’ was considered the masterpiece of the subgenre because of its baroque style and the study of the delinquent psychology. However, a more recent school of thought contends instead that the protagonist, Pablos, is a highly unrealistic character, and simply a means for the author to launch classist, racist, and sexist attacks. Moreover, the structure of the novel is radically different from previous works of the picaresque genre: the author uses the conventions of the picaresque as a mere vehicle to show off his abilities with conceit and rhetoric, rather than to construct a satirical critique of Spanish Golden Age society. Indeed, in order to understand the historical context that led to the development of these paradigmatic picaresque novels in Spain during the 16th and 17th centuries, it is essential to take into consideration the circumstances surrounding the lives of conversos (Jews and Muslims converted to Catholicism by force during the Inquisation), whose New Christian faith was subjected to close scrutiny and mistrust.

In other European countries, these Spanish novels were read and imitated. In Germany, Grimmelshausen wrote ‘Simplicius Simplicissimus’ (1669), the most important of non-Spanish picaresque novels. It describes the devastation caused by the Thirty Years’ War. In Le Sage’s ‘Gil Blas’ (1715), a classic example of the genre, France had declined into an aristocratic adventure. Voltaire’s French novel ‘Candide’ (1759) contains elements of the picaresque. In Britain, the body of Tobias Smollett’s work, and Daniel Defoe’s ‘Moll Flanders’ (1722) are considered picaresque, but they lack the sense of religious redemption of delinquency that was very important in Spanish and German novels. The triumph of ‘Moll Flanders’ is more economic than moral. The classic Chinese novel ‘Journey to the West’ is considered to have considerable picaresque elements. Having been written in 1590, it is contemporary with, but unlikely to have been directly influenced by the European genre.

In the English-speaking world, the term ‘picaresque’ has come to refer to a literary technique or model more than to the precise genre that the Spanish call ‘picaresco.’ The English-language term can simply refer to an episodic recounting of the adventures of an anti-hero on the road. Thomas Nashe’s novel ‘The Unfortunate Traveller’ is often cited as one of the earliest examples of an English picaresque novel. Henry Fielding proved his mastery of the form in ‘Joseph Andrews’ (1742) and ‘The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling’ (1749), though Fielding attributed his style to an ‘imitation of the manner of Cervantes, author of ‘Don Quixote,” rather than of any particular picaresque novel; Cervantes wrote a short picaresque novel, ‘Rinconete y Cortadillo’ as part of his ‘Novelas Ejemplares’ (‘Exemplary Novels’). Charles Dickens, who was influenced by Fielding, wrote his first six novels in the picaresque form, with ‘Martin Chuzzlewit’ (1844) being the transitional novel to his later more serious and mature works. Another English novel with elements of the picaresque is ‘The Luck of Barry Lyndon’ (1844) by William Makepeace Thackeray.

In the twentieth century, Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Kim’ (1901) combined the influence of the picaresque novel with the modern spy novel. The illustrated ‘The Magic Pudding’ (1918), by Australian author Norman Lindsay, is an example of the picaresque adapted for children’s literature. ‘The Enormous Room’ is E. E. Cummings’ 1922 autobiographical novel about his imprisonment in France during World War I on unfounded charges of ‘espionage,’ and it includes many picaresque depictions of his adventures as ‘an American in a French prison.’ Jaroslav Hašek’s ‘The Good Soldier Švejk’ (1923) is an example of the picaresque technique from Central Europe. ‘The Twelve Chairs’ (1928) and its sequel, ‘The Little Golden Calf’ (1931), by Ilya Ilfand Yevgeni Petrov became classics of the 20th century Russian satire and basis for numerous film adaptations. Many other novels of vagabond life were consciously written as picaresque novels, such as Henry Miller’s ‘Tropic of Cancer’ (1934.

John A. Lee’s ‘Shining with the Shiner’ (1944) tells amusing tales about New Zealand folk hero Ned Slattery (1840–1927) surviving by his wits and beating the Protestant work ethic. Saul Bellow’s ‘The Adventures of Augie March’ (1953) is a picaresque novel with bildungsroman (coming-of-age story) traits. So too is Thomas Mann’s ‘Adventures of Felix Krull, Confidence Man’ (1954), which like many novels emphasizes the theme of a charmingly roguish ascent in the social order. George MacDonald Fraser’s novels about ‘Harry Flashman’ (1969) combine the picaresque with historical fiction.

Sergio Leone identified his spaghetti westerns, more specifically his ‘Dollars’ trilogy (1964), as being in the picaresque style. Hunter S. Thompson’s ‘gonzo journalism/ (1970) can be seen as a hybrid of fictional picaresque with memoir and traditional reporting. The picaresque elements are especially prominent in Thompson’s less journalistic, more literary and psychotropically themed works, such as, ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ (1971) and ‘The Great Shark Hunt’ (1979).


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