From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
The picaresque novel (Spanish: "picaresca", from "pícaro", for "rogue" or "rascal") is a popular subgenre of prose fiction which is usually satirical and depicts in realistic and often humorous detail the adventures of a roguish hero of low social class who lives by his or her wits in a corrupt society. This style of novel originated in Spain and flourished in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries and continues to influence modern literature.
The genre has classical precedents in the Sanskrit legend Baital Pachisi, in Petronius's fragmentary "Satyricon", and in Apuleius's "The Golden Ass". The last two are rare surviving samples of a mostly lost genre, which was highly popular in the Classical world, known as "Milesian tales".
Medieval Arabic literature possesses similar themes. 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. Ibn al-Astarkuwi or al-Ashtarkuni (d.1134) also wrote in the genre maqamat, comparable to later European picaresque novels.
While elements of Chaucer and Boccaccio have a picaresque feel, the modern picaresque begins with Lazarillo de Tormes, published anonymously in Antwerp and Spain in 1554 and variously considered either the first picaresque novel or at least an antecedent to the genre. The title character Lazarillo is a pícaro who must live by his wits in an impoverished country full of hypocrisy.
The autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, written in Florence beginning in 1558, also has much in common with the picaresque. Another early example is Mateo Alemán's Guzmán de Alfarache (1599), characterized by religiosity.
Francisco de Quevedo's El buscón (1604 according to Francisco Rico; the exact date is uncertain, yet it was certainly a very early work) is considered the masterpiece of the subgenre by A.A. Parker, because of his baroque style and the study of the delinquent psychology. However, a more recent school of thought, led by Francisco Rico, rejects Parker's view, contending instead that the protagonist, Pablos, is a highly unrealistic character, simply a means for Quevedo to launch classist, racist and sexist attacks. Moreover, argues Rico, the structure of the novel is radically different from previous works of the picaresque genre: Quevedo 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.
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 France, this kind of novel declined into an aristocratic adventure: Le Sage's Gil Blas (1715). In England, 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. Being written in 1590, it is contemporary with much of the above - but is unlikely to have been directly influenced by the European genre.
Influence on modern fiction
In the English-speaking world, the term "picaresque" has referred more to a literary technique or model 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. Henry Fielding proved his mastery of the form in Joseph Andrews (1742), The Life of Jonathan Wild the Great (1743) and The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749), but, as Fielding himself wrote, these novels were written in imitation of the manner of Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, not in imitation of the picaresque novel. Cervantes himself wrote a short picaresque novel, Rinconete y Cortadillo part of his Novelas Ejemplares (Exemplary Novels). J.B. Priestley made excellent use of the form in his enormously successful The Good Companions and won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction.
Other novels with elements of the picaresque include the French Candide, the Canadian Solomon Gursky Was Here and the English The Luck of Barry Lyndon. An interesting variation on the tradition of the picaresque is The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan, a satirical view on early 19th century Persia, written by a British diplomat, James Morier.
Some modern novelists have used some picaresque techniques, as Gogol in Dead Souls (1842-52). Rudyard Kipling's Kim (1901) combined the influence of the picaresque novel with the then new spy novel. Jaroslav Hašek's The Good Soldier Svejk (1923?) was the first example of the picaresque technique in Central Europe. Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was consciously written as a picaresque novel, as were many other novels of vagabond life, such as Jack Kerouac's On the Road (1957) and Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer. Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March is a picaresque novel with bildungsroman traits. George MacDonald Fraser's novels about Harry Flashman combine the picaresque with historical fiction. Hunter S. Thompson's "gonzo journalism" can be seen as a hybrid of fictional picaresque with memoir and traditional reportage. The picaresque elements are especially prominent in Thompson's less journalistic, more literary and psychotopically themed works, such as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and The Great Shark Hunt. A rather darker use of picaresque tradition can be found in Jerzy Kosinski's The Painted Bird (1965).
Recent examples are Camilo José Cela's La familia de Pascual Duarte (1951), Günter Grass's The Tin Drum (1959), Robert Clark Young's One of the Guys (1999), Rita Mae Brown's Rubyfruit Jungle (1973) Helen Zahavi's Dirty Weekend (1991), and Stewart Home's Cunt (1999). Sarah Waters recreated the classic picaresque in Tipping the Velvet (1998), following the life of a young Victorian lesbian through highs and lows of society and personal degradation.
- Alexander A. Parker: Literature and the delinquent: The picaresque novel in Spain and Europe, 1599-1753.