Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Gil Blas

Kottke flags a list of the 100 best novels--no, wait, it was assembled in 1898.  I've actually read eight--no wait, seven, no wait six--of the top  ten but my coverage falls off pretty fast after that.  Of he top ten, two struck me as surprising choices from not-so-surprising writers.  I wouldn't have thought you would pick Tobias Smollett's Roderick Random (which I've never read) over Humphrey Clinker (which I quite liked).    I've never even heard of John Bunyan's Holy War, though I am an admirer of both Pilgrim's Progress and Grace Abounding.  I'm still beating up on myself for never having waded through Clarissa, though now more from force of habit than any real conviction.

The one that in intrigues me most, though is  Gil Blas by one Alain René le Sage--tagged as France, 1715.   I first heard of (read about) Gil Blas back at an age when I was still more interested in assembling a list of books I should read (or at least, to pretend to have read) rather than  actually to read.  I think it was an answer to a literary quiz question (my mother loved literary quizzes and could always beat me at them--a topic worth years of expensive therapy).   I suspect the question had something to do with "picaresque novel"--another entry in the cabinet of literary curiosities then otherwise unknown to me.

I had never heard of Gil Blas, then, and just for the record, I have never read it. What intrigues me, though is that not only have I never read it--I don't think I've ever seen it, or at least not last night when I went a-Googling.  My impression is, for a long time has been, that, whatever its esteem in the 19th Century, still by my time it had utterly tumbled out of respectable company.

So, what kept it in and what drove it out?  Hard to say, but here's a thought: I remember reading a commentary on Ovid some years ago in which the commentator asked a similar question about his subject: what made Ovid so hugely popular for so many centuries, only to disappear?  His answer, as I recall, was something on the lines of "it's TV."  Or maybe movies (this is was quite a while ago).  Or maybe just the expansion of publishing. Anyway, the point was that Ovid was okay as long as there were no competitors.   Maybe (but how would I know?) a lovable scamp like Gil Blas could find an audience as long as there was no Mel Gibson?

A scan of the Gil Blas Wiki (yes, he rates that much) suggests another, albeit somewhat question-begging, reason. That is: he comes to the club with the best recommendations.   We have Poe, Dostoevsky, even Leopold von Sacher-Masoch.  Oddly, the Wiki does not mention two other promoters: Washington Irving and Smollett (of whom more in a moment).   Evidently a later generation of literary promoters missed the memo (an odd exception: Wiki lists Italo Calvino).

I said I'd never seen a copy.  Is this just inattention?  Apparently not. A quick skim of Amazon suggests that that it is readily available in French, but that its English presence is almost negligible.  There are free ebook versions, so maybe somebody somewhere is slugging away at it as I write even now.

One more oddity about the book, and the list: the compiler ranks Gil Blas as #3.  Inevitably, #1 on his list is  Don Quixote.  Smollett's Roderick Random is #6.   A condition of the list was that each author was allowed only one entry.  Yet for English speaking audiences in his time, if they found Quixote at all, the chances are it was through the translation by Smollett (or "workshop" of Smollett)--I read it a few years ago and it is still pretty good.  And for Gil Blas--yes, once again Smollett.  So working under pseudonyms, Ol' Tobias seems to have come to the party three times.


Dogen said...

Wow, I've read at least 8 or 9 of the first 100 and 1 from the shorter list. I'm embarrassed to admit that I can't remember if I ever read Crime & Punishment which I think means I can't count it...

Six of those came from his top ten! So, I think I will have to seek out Gil Blas, The Holy War and maybe Clarissa and Roderick Random just because I enjoyed the others quite a bit.

Thanks for the pointer.

bjdubbs said...

Robinson Crusoe? I reread it recently, but had to give up 1/2 through. Page after page of minute description of carving a boat, then dragging the boat up a hill, then carving a new boat. If it weren't for the novel idea (castaway on deserted island, though it was taken from an Arabic source) I don't think anybody would read that book today.