As part of my research into picaresque novels I knew I had to pick up one of the most widely lauded examples of the genre, The History of Gil Blas of Santillana by Lesage. I’d considered buying the book for several weeks, but couldn’t make up my mind which edition to buy. When I saw the three- part edition pictured above on eBay, I knew that this was going to be the one that I would read and purchase. The outside design was, in many ways, exactly what aesthetic I wanted for it as based upon the numerous comments I’d read about the story the age and design matched the story I’d be reading – clearly somewhat antiquated, but still beautiful. The History of Gil Blas was indeed that, and for those less concerned with the books covers/container, they can find a free copy for download here.
Like Kvachi, Gil Blas is the story of a precocious youth that leaves his home to travel to a major city. After several years of extensive study of the classics, it’s his family’s hope that he will find work as a tutor for a nice family. Such aspirations are soon dashed, however, as Gil Blas soon learns that nearly everyone he encounters seeks to swindle him of the money that his parents had saved in order to make this trip. The roads are ever a place of potential danger and the “law” of such dubious quality that many avoid the various combination judges and enforcement officers.
Through the process of learning the ways of the world finds his fortunes alternately bolstered and battered. Several times he accumulates a sizable sum of gold and several times it’s completely drained from him by immoral persons that match his guile or take from him whilst he is incapacitated.
Unlike Kvachi, Gil Blas has more moral compunctions and is not a womanizer. I’d say that he is not willing to kill innocent people in order to further his interests, but for a short time he does so while working as the apprentice of a doctor who believes that all maladies can be cured by bleeding and drinking water. Like Kvachi, Gil Blas finds himself around the royal court and in a position to profit from it and does so. His corruption, however, is temporary rather than a defining character feature. After a several month stint in a prison, made more amenable due to his having done good deeds to the family of the main jailor.
Stylistically and narratively, Gil Blas is packed incredibly tightly. Blas’ own story is itself a frame for a number of other interesting characters that make up the motley social strata of 17th century Spain. Gil Blas finds himself taken into the employ of a group of bandits, a group of thieves, a priest, a doctor that kills more people than he saves, a dissolute gambler, a mysterious foreigner, a government minister, an aristocratic family and a number of other personages. From his various positions as these people’s servant he is able to gain insight into both their psychology as well as that of those employed. One of the recurrent themes – how it is that a good servant can make or break one’s home – is an interesting conceit of the self that unfortunately does not get developed in the story. What does get extensive coverage is love in the age of chivalry.
In Gil Blas someone is always trying to pull something over on somebody else for pecuniary or sexual gain. Being a chivalric society, people frequently challenge each other to defend their honor. The fear of facing death is common, yet still it is couched in a poetic language. When gentry face insult or discover that someone stands in the way of their dignity, reputation or desires – the same with the brigands who have adopted an inverse yet similar honor-code – the immediate response is to violence. The number of characters driven by a desire for retribution is staggering, though each provides an interesting narrative.
While by no means a political satire along the lines of the Good Soldier Svejck, there are a number of humanistic insights to be gleaned from the text that criticize the some times insanity of social institutions as well as the people that run them. The latter third of the book, which recounts Gil Blas’ time at the court of the King in Madrid, contains an interesting account of a government in transition. In this part of the narrative the previous manner of enacting business, bribes, is done away with. While this is a good change in that meritocracy purportedly returns to be the basis of political appointment, we soon learn that such alterations have more to do with the humble egomania of the new minister. This politicking soon backfires and a new bureaucratic constellation takes its place.
While Lesage wrote Gil Blas over three hundred years ago, the humanistic topics that are dealt within, the comic yet moralistic tone, the pacing of events, and the theatre-like scripting of scenes all combine to make it an eminently modern novel. I’ve not gone into many of the scenes of the story as there are so many and that to pick and choose ones to comment would mean that others which ought to be included are left out. I profoundly enjoyed this book and look forward to reading next the books with which this books is often associated – Don Quixote.