Let’s approach the picaresque by way of irony. It could be said that all great narratives depend on irony, which might include the unexpected, the paradoxical, and the ambiguous. A skillful reader may be able to argue a particular position and its opposite, just as outstanding works of criticism may offer convincing yet contradictory theses. Nothing is cast in stone. Picaresque texts display irony on a number of levels. For example, is the target of satire in the picaresque the antiheroic protagonist or the society that produces such characters, or both? Can an antisocial character elicit reader sympathy and even approval? Can prejudices revealed within a text also expose the prejudices of readers?
Commentaries on picaresque fiction often lead off with a reference to rogues or social outcasts. The starting point of this narrative form—although it does not begin in a vacuum—is a relatively brief and anonymous text, Lazarillo de Tormes, published in the middle of the sixteenth century. For well over four centuries, scholars, critics, and readers have analyzed and interpreted the work through a variety of methodologies. The more one delves into the material, the more complex, sophisticated, and open it becomes. What was the state of popular in Spanish fiction in 1554? The reigning forms—sentimental, pastoral, and chivalric romances—have been called idealistic. Autobiographies of exemplary figures reflect idealism, as well. With the picaresque (and a series of works from Italy), idealism cedes to realism and irony. The title figure Lázaro tells his story from his lowly birth to his precarious status at the end of his narration. He serves a series of masters, from whom he learns lessons, not always exemplary. He wants to better himself, to rise in a hierarchical society, but that is not going to happen. He and his successors are doomed by social protocol, itself dictated by strict censorship and Inquisitorial control. The fact that, as narrator, Lázaro discloses a bit too much can make the reader suspect that he is not speaking independently. There is a sense that the “real” author of the story gives the narrative an ironic twist, a redirection. The renowned theorist Wayne Booth, in The Rhetoric of Fiction, coins the term implied author to denote the implicit (and thus abstract) presence of the writer. An unequal battle between author and narrator takes place, and the author will win, but not necessarily in an absolute fashion. This element becomes a common denominator in succeeding picaresque fictions—with pícaros and pícaras—which certainly will be quite different in terms of length, content, and emphasis. In short, the author is a type of ventriloquist, who puts words in the narrator’s mouth. Digressions from the primary story line in Mateo Alemán’s Guzmán de Alfarache (1599, 1604) seem to signal the author’s intervention, as does the intensely baroque language of the protagonist Pablos in Francisco de Quevedo’s Buscón (1626). In the feminine variations, written by male authors, gender inflection does not favor the women. The bases and criteria for critical judgments obviously affect the judgments per se. The texts designated as picaresque thus are interrelated in some areas and miles apart in others.
A Companion to the Spanish Picaresque Novel contains sixteen essays by fifteen scholars with a broad range of backgrounds and interests. The volumelooks at the origins and general characteristics of the picaresque genre and at the debates that it has inspired, while devoting chapters to major works of the early modern period and to the continuation of the picaresque tradition in England, France, Latin America, and Spain. The picaresque plays a role in the development of the modern novel. The extent to which that is so is a polemical issue. The form endures, in highly diverse manifestations and with an array of consequences, over time, space, and medium, to the present. Is it ironic that realism reverts to the lower depths of society? Or that the principal flaw of the protagonists is their search for upward mobility? As the pícaros and pícaras dissemble, do their creators take measures to express opinions without incurring the wrath of the censors? Are the ironies of literature and of life sustaining forces in the survival of the picaresque? As the inquiry into the picaresque moves “all over the map,” as it were, the Companion may provide more questions than answers, and that is as irony would have it. The anonymous author of Lazarllo de Tormes started something big, something infinitely noteworthy.
This guest post was written by Edward H. Friedman, who is emeritus Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Chair in the Humanities at Vanderbilt University.