The Picaresque

If you study literature you will come across the narrative form called the Picaresque. These episodic, usually naughty yet humorous works of extended prose started in Spain in the 16th century. The name comes from the “picaro” who was the hero, or anti-hero of the work. The picaro was a bit of a rogue, in and out of adventures, petty larceny, loose or easily won-over women, and always with a sense of humor and a salty tongue. Don Quixote is really a picaresque that got out of hand and turned itself into something new … or novel.

In more contemprary literature we have Saul Bellow’s Augie March as probably the best example of a modern picaresque, but there are many others (how about Tom Jones?). Back in the ’60s Maxwell Kenton (nom de smut of Terry Southern) wrote a delightful little picaresque that was very popular, especially in the more liberal colleges; it was called Candy.  Read it? I remember thinking at the time how so much depravity could be so much innocent fun (Little Annie Fanny is another good choice, but it was a graphic story).

While reading Iceland by Jim Krusoe I jumped back a few years and dredged up comparisons with Candy.

Iceland is the story of a man who is a dedicated typewriter repairman who has a bad organ which needs replacement. After adventures with the nymphomaniac who swims in the vat of spare body parts to keep them company and an eager carpet cleaner, the Paul ends up in Iceland and starts a family. He eventually returns to his home in St.Nils, bouncing from one adventure to another, some epic, others mundane. It’s a pleasant and engaging read.

Is it a picaresque? That’s interesting to contemplate. I think this is a point where the stricter definition of the literary form should be enforced but it should also be recognized that there are definitely elements of the traditional picaresque in many novels we read.

Here is what Abrams wrote about the picaresque in the Glossary of Literary Terms:

Another important predecessor of the later novel was the picaresque narrative, which emerged in sixteenth-century Spain [Lazarillo de Tormes and The Swindler]. The most popular instance, however, Gil Blas (1715), was written by the Frenchman Le Sage. “Picaro” is Spanish for “rogue,” and a typical story concerns the escapades of an insouciant rascal who lives by his wits and shows little if an alteration of character through a long succession of adventures. Picaresque fiction is realistic in manner, episodic in structure …, and often satiric in aim. The first, and very lively, English example was Thomas Nashe’s The Unfortunate Traveller (1594). We recognize the survival of the picaresque type in many later novels such as Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer (1876), Thomas Mann’s Felix Krull (1954), and Saul Bellow’s Augie March (1953).The development of the novel owes much to prose works which, like the picaresque story, were written to deflate romantic or idealized fictional forms. Cervantes’ great quasi-picaresque narrative Don Quixote (1605) was the single most important progenitor of the modern novel; in it, an engaging madman who tries to live by the ideals of chivalry romance in the everyday world is used to explore the relations of illusion and reality in human life.

Candy fits this definition quite well with one twist: rather than surviving by her street smarts, Candy survives her adventures with the strength of innocence and a rocking body. Paul in Iceland is less clear but he may also be seen as a modern day picaro surviving by his innocence:  it’s a good read and a good question.

By the way:  does anyone remember why there was such a titter when IBM came out with the pc and why?

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