Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

The Picaresque Novel in Western Literature: From the Sixteenth Century to the Neopicaresque

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

The Picaresque Novel in Western Literature: From the Sixteenth Century to the Neopicaresque

Article excerpt

ARDILA, J. A. GARRIDO, ed. The Picaresque Novel in Western Literature: From the Sixteenth Century to the Neopicaresque. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. ix + 277 pp. $99.00 hardcover.

While picaresque fiction has always been central to the study of Spanish literature, it has tended to skulk in the margins of our most influential histories of the English novel. This is especially curious given the sustained English interest in Spanish (and later French) picaresque by writers and readers from the Elizabethan era through the nineteenth century. Lazarillo de Tormes (1554; trans. 1576) had entertained two generations of English readers by the time that Don Quixote was translated in 1612, while new translations, dozens of editions, and countless imitations of Lazarillo and other Spanish rogues' tales continued to appear during the period of the modern novel's ostensible rise. But what, if anything, might this knowledge add to our ongoing attempts to rewrite the history of the European novel?

That depends on how students of picaresque pose their questions. Scholars during the heyday of picaresque studies in the 1970s and '80s insisted that Lazarillo, Guzman de Alfarache (1599, 1604). La Picara Justina (1605), and similar tales were precursory forms of novelistic fiction rather than novels per se. J. A. Garrido Ardila's declaration in this volume's introduction that the "great challenge...to scholars and students today lies in our need to understand the precise nature of the picaresque genre" (18) would seem to align with this view, yet most of the twelve essays that follow echo the collection's title by referring casually throughout to "the picaresque novel," which implies rather loose definitions of both terms. Here we can detect the influence of Mikhail Bakhtin, for whom picaresque, with its startling use of the languages of displaced, hungry lower-class individuals for its raw material, set the modern novel on its course. In this reading, the first picaresque tales represent a deep shift in the conceptual and material range of storytelling in Europe. A modern narrative voice is born with the picaro, whose story of a life lived badly in the name of trying to survive in a harsh, dishonest world entertains as much as it repels, illuminates as much as it hides. The novel proper, in this view, then reformulates and refines upon the new narrative voice and formal-realist possibilities limned in picaresque fiction.

Something like this understanding informs The Picaresque Novel as a whole. It implies a broad structural approach to the role of picaresque in literary history, even as many of these essays persist in trying to discover the particular influence of specific Spanish tales on later novels, with mixed results. The first picaresque tales are so bound up with the political and religious controversies of early modern Spain that it would seem hard to adapt them to other national circumstances. This is made clear in essays by Alexander Samson, Howard Mancing, Enrique Garcia Santo-Tomas, Edward H. Friedman, and Chad M. Gasta, whose careful excavation of the cultural contexts especially of Lazarillo, Guzman, and El Buscon (1626) reinforces the impression that picaresque loses something vital to its internal workings when translated out of Spain. …

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