Picaresque Novels

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The Picaresque Novel
Wednesday Workshop
3 May 2017

The Picaresque Novel

             Think of a pendulum: at one end of the swing, we have the pastoral novel and the novel of chivalry. The knights errant meet shepherds and shepherdesses on their travels, and all are cultured and can read and write. The main characters, heroes and heroines, if you wish, express high ideals and maintain a cultured standard of thought and living. The knights, in particular, follow the path of chivalry and defend the poor and maidens in distress. The ladies, especially the shepherdesses, are all ‘as pure as driven snow’ and they go to their graves, in the immortal words of Miguel de Cervantes, ‘as virgin as the mothers who bore them’.

            At the other end of the pendulum swing and positioned there partly in contrast to the ‘perfect society’ of knights, shepherds, and shepherdesses, we find the picaresque novel. Most pícaros are men, though female pícaras do exist (la pícara Justina, for example), and the pícaro is an anti-hero. He writes in the first person singular and tells the story of his survival in the lower ranks of a corrupt and impoverished society.

            Wikipedia phrases it this way: “The picaresque novel (Spanish “picaresca,” from “pícaro,” for “rogue” or “rascal”) is a genre of prose fiction that depicts the adventures of a roguish hero or heroine of low social class who lives by his or her wits in a corrupt society. Picaresque novels typically adopt a realistic style, with elements of comedy and satire. This style of novel originated in 16th-century Spain and flourished throughout Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. It continues to influence modern literature.”

            Lazarillo de Tormes, considered by many to be the first picaresque novel, was written in Spain and three editions appeared in 1554. Lazarillo is given by his mother to a blind man who agrees to look after the young boy in return for the boy’s services as a guide. Even today, a person who guides a blind man is still called a lazarillo in some places. The book describes the life of Lazarillo as he moves from master to master until he eventually establishes himself ‘at the peak of all happiness and the height of his career’ as the local town-crier, married to a cast-off woman with whom the celibate village priest has created three children.

             Lazarillo de Tormes, a book that never uses the term pícaro, establishes the basic rules for the genre. (1) It is an autobiography, or pseudo-autobiography, of the main character. (2) That character leads a peripatetic life, wandering from master to master, usually at the bottom end of society, but sometimes working in the kitchen or lower service of the great. (3) The picaresque novel also contains elements of humor and satire and in some cases, Guzmán de Alfarache, for example, has a moralizing purpose that is used to justify the immorality of the book.

            The church did not receive the picaresque novel well, especially when the satire and humor were aimed at the church. In the Lazarillo, for example, Lazarillo works for a seller of Papal Bulls who sets up an elaborate and deceitful charade in order to increase his sales. This charade involves a friend who poses as a doubter, is then cursed and goes into a fit, but recovers almost immediately with the blessing of the Papal Bull. Lazarillo de Tormes was censored by the Inquisition and appeared in an even shorter version that was called El Lazarillo Castigado, Lazarillo Punished, with all unwholesome references to the church removed.

            Perhaps the most famous picaresque novel, after Lazarillo, was El Buscón / The Swindler. It was written by Francisco de Quevedo in 1601 and circulated in manuscript form until it was published, illegally I should add, in 1627. The novel was so scandalous that it was denounced to the Inquisition and Quevedo often denied writing it. His intricate and heavily conceited style is inimitable, however, and the book contains several references to his own life. It is difficult imagining any other person as author.

            Wikipedia translates pícaro as ‘rogue’ or ‘rascal’ and this illustrates the pleasant and humorous scallywag style that the character often has. However, the darker, more murderous side of the pícaro emerges more clearly when ‘swindler’ (Penguin Translation) or a stronger term is used. In this fashion, the pícaro (rascal or rogue) can be associated with Tom Jones or Oliver Twist, while his darker, more reprehensible side may be associated with by Bill Sykes or Fagin himself.

            More important, perhaps, is the long life that the picaresque has had in Western Literature as the traveler, the journeyer, the observer, the young man who is ‘down and out’,  works his way across the land, surviving, adventuring and commentating.

Glass Man

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Glass Man

“I am made of glass,” I said.
“You can see right through me.”

But the harder you looked,
the less you saw.
You claimed
there was nothing there,
just empty air.

“Your glass is an illusion,” you said.
“It’s not half full
and it’s not half empty.”

“Glass is fragile,
I break easily.
Drop me, I shatter;
hot and cold will
make me crack.”

“Your fragility is in your mind,
not in the fact of your existence.”

“When light passes through me
I break into a million colors,”
I said.

“You are a prism,
the colors that you cast
change you and rain
rainbow  lights
that change others
too.”

 

World Book Day

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World Book Day
23 April 2017

A word about World Book Day before it is over: April 23 is the death date of William Shakespeare, Miguel de Cervantes, and the Inca Garcilaso de la Vega. While the dates are the same, the days are not. Spain used the Gregorian Calendar, but England used the Julian calendar, with the result that Cervantes died on the same date as Shakespeare, but ten days before him.

The connection between these dates was made in Catalonia in 1925 and it was there that the death of Cervantes was celebrated. Don Quixote, after all, decided to travel to Barcelona, rather than Zaragoza, in the second part of Don Quixote (1615). The link to the Inca Garcilaso de la Vega (author of the Comentarios reales) linked two continents and three great, very original authors.  In 1995, UNESCO declared April 23 to be World Book and Copyright Day.

The conflict between the two calendars (Julian and Gregorian) also complicates the dates mentioned in the various ships engaged in the Spanish Armada that sailed for England in 1588. Battles took place on different day and different dates, according to the not always accurate logs of the two navies.

Two complicate things further, time at sea was very difficult to judge and candles, water clocks, sandglasses, and lanterns were all very unreliable and gave great differing times for the different actions that took place during the engagements.

In 1988, for the three hundredth anniversary of the event, instead of days and hours, the ships’ actions were logged into a computer along with the retro-calculated tidal tables. What emerged was a seaman’s account of time and tide in which actions were seen in the light of the actual sea environment. As a result, very different picture of that famous series of sea battles emerged.

Three Unities

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The Three Unities
Wednesday Workshop
19 April 2017

The Three Unities

The Three Classical Unities are those of Time, Place, and Action. They are usually associated with classical theatre. It is worth remembering that, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when poetry and theatre ruled the artistic world of the west, the novel was relatively undeveloped and narrative form was concentrated in epic poetry. In fact, one of Cervantes’s greatest innovations was to draw a parallel between the modern narrative, as he developed it, and epic poetry. “También la épica puede escribirse en prosa,” he wrote in Don Quixote, I, 47. ‘Epic poetry may also be written in prose.’ Lyric and epic poetry had a different construct to the theatre, so it is really the classic theatre that we are discussing here, rather than poetry and prose, though all forms of creativity benefit from a knowledge and understanding of the three unities. Let us look at these unities one by one.

Unity of Time: The play should take place within a time frame of a day, twenty-four hours. This concentrates the action at the moment of maximum impact, or crisis, when the major decisions are being taken. In order to fill in the background details of what happened before, a confidant is often used, especially in French theatre, and this confidential person, or adviser, assists the main characters in coming to their decisions by providing missing background information.

Unity of Place: The play should take place in the same house, as a minimum, and preferably in the same room of the house. This limits travel, and the wanderings of Odysseus, for example, would be impossible in the classical theatre. This is a restriction that was blown away by epic poetry. The narrative forms also rejected this type of unity as they developed, and contemporary film, with its total mobility really reduces Unity of Place to the realms of history and the Absurd.

Unity of Action: All action within the play should be subordinated to the main plot and the main characters. There should be only one plot, but a minor plot is permitted provided it echoes, mirrors, and reflects upon the main plot. Unity of action is interesting in that, to a certain extent, it has remained with us. Television shows, especially police and crime shows, may have multiple actions, but they all link together to form a pattern of events that are linked within a series of unified patterns. It is these patterns of unified action that so often reveal the criminal.

Unity of Theme: Spanish classical theatre, under the watchful eye of Lope de Vega, broke all the unities as established above, but created a new unity: unity of theme. This, too, has demonstrated its longevity and is still with us. Thematic unity is common to all forms of literature and is a binding thread in poetry and prose, theatre, film, and novel. Unity of theme suggests that beneath the surface movement of the art work, there is a thematic unity, a set of deeper ideas, if you like, that provides links to all the action and thought.

Closely linked to these four unities is what I call Unity of Language. Unity of Language is consistent within characters, the way they speak, the way they use language. It is also consistent within a poem or a book. Sometimes it is based on the concept of Associative Fields according to which each word is surrounded by a series of associations (the Associative Field) that links words to each other at one level and to a central theme at another level. The use of Associative Fields is greatest in poetry and those forms of writing that base themselves on poetical repetition. In fact, the Associative Field may be looked upon as a form of repetition that provides emphasis by repeating a theme while avoiding the repetition of the same word within that theme.

I look on the development of art and culture as akin to the movement of a pendulum on a grandfather clock. On one side, let’s call it the right, the pendulum demands rules, immutable rules, and writers that stick to those rules. On the other side, let’s call it the left, there are no rules and chaos reigns in a creative land where the broken rule is the law of the day.

Classicism, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, was followed by Neo-Classicism, in the Eighteenth Century, and this was an even more stultified form than classicism itself. The Romantic Movement, on the other hand, broke the rules of Classicism and brought energy and freedom to all forms of art. As Victor Hugo said: “J’ai mis un bonnet rouge sur le vieux dictionnaire.” ‘I have place a red [French revolutionary] bonnet on the old dictionary.”  Romanticism is Revolution. In art, we need regular revolutions. The next major revolution is always just around the corner. Or, as the pendulum theory suggests, maybe the next revolution, waiting just around the corner, is a swing of the pendulum back from freedom (Romanticism) to restraint  (Classicism).

Certainly we modern authors may exercise our choices in a way that older authors could not. We can and should be aware of all that has gone before us. Knowing the traditions from which we write allows us to write better and to choose better, taking or rejecting that which we want and that which suits us best in our own artistic endeavours.

Bakhtin’s Chronotopos

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Bakhtin’s Chronotopos
Thursday Thoughts
13 April 2017

This note is an adjunct to Dr. Margaret Sorick’s piece, The Novelist’s Pen, that I re-blogged yesterday. The author, Dr. Sorick, raises some important issues, upon which I would like to elaborate further. Dr. Sorick begins her article with a quote from the Marquis de Sade in which de Sade states that “The novel … is the ‘picture of the manners of every age.’” Dr. Sorick then adds her own comment to this: “What a weighty responsibility lies on the shoulders of the novelist then. To capture the truth of an age, to illuminate that which history’s light does not reach.”

Bakhtin’s Chronotopos may be summarized as “man’s dialog with his time (chronos) and place (topos).” Clearly, man, in this instance, stands for human being / writer / author, and it should be understood in this fashion. By extension, an author’s time and place is clearly the time and place in which an author lives. For me, my time is the early 21st Century and my place is Island View, New Brunswick. Dr. Sorick presents the reader with the question, rephrased in my own words, ‘are we doomed to write from our own time and place or can we insert ourselves into another time and place to write, for example, a historical novel of, let us say, the First World War’? Clearly, we can study ‘another time, another place’ and when we do so our dialog extends from our time and place into another’s time and place, and this second time and place will become one that we will in some way make our own. The exact historical resonance of that time and place and its substantial links with our own, will depend upon the skill and ability of the artist.

However, if I read the New Criticism correctly, we read and understand only from our own time and place. We must eliminate the author, eliminate the historical time, and read only the text that we have before us. There is no time and place other than our own time and place. I could be wrong about this, but it is my understanding that, for the New Critics of the Chicago School, we must not look beyond the text for the text is everything. In creating a text, we create a world, and that world is the only world. There is nothing beyond it.

I was educated in a rather different fashion. While in Graduate School, at the University of Toronto, there were in the department where I was studying, two opposing sets of ideas. One followed the New Criticism and concentrated on the text, the text, and nothing but the text. The other followed the more traditional idea of the text in context. According to this school of thought, it was necessary to understand the time and place from which the original author was writing. Without that knowledge, the reader or critic was in grave danger of misinterpreting the text by approaching it from a single point of view: that of the modern reader.

Theory is one thing; practice is another. While both points of view stand up in theory, what happens when we see them working in practice? I will, with apologies, take a single example, that of the Adventure with The Galley Slaves, that occurs in Don Quixote, Part One (1605).

If we read this from the point of view of a 21st Century reader, then we see a gentleman adventurer, dressed in out-of-date, old-fashioned armour, meeting a chain gang of criminals walking towards imprisonment in the infamous galleys of the Spanish navy, where they will row for a number of years as part of their prison sentences. Don Quixote stops and politely requests each galley slave to explain why he is going to the galleys. He receives a series of answers that allow him to observe that the slaves are being forced against their will and, in an act of charity, he helps free them. From a 21st century point of view, this episode had been read as an act of social justice, the freeing of the innocent. This act of social justice resonates across the centuries and is a call for more understanding and a better sense of social justice and freedom in our own times.

When we immerse ourselves in Cervantes and the Golden Age of Spain, a very different picture emerges. Cervantes, the author, was always interested in the Spanish picaresque novel and he imitated it on several occasions. One of his artistic experiments in the Don Quixote, was an attempt at writing a picaresque adventure. Cervantes’s chronos is the junction between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. His topos is the countryside of Spain where the chain gangs were a relatively common sight. In this instance, the language of the galley slaves is the double talk of thieves’ slang. They are all, in their own minds, innocent and the double meaning of their language shows that this is so. Don Quixote accepts their innocence, as proven by his interpretation of their double-speak, and contributes to freeing them. His act is not, in the mind of the times, an act of social justice, but a crime against the laws of the land. He is pursued by the Santa Hermandad, the equivalent of the country’s police, for a crime against the state. Only his own state of total madness saves him from arrest.

Can we hold both pictures, that of the twenty-first century reader and that of the seventeenth century reader in our minds at one and the same time? I think we can. BUT, and it is a big BUT, hence the capitals, I also think that we must be aware of these two radically different points of view: (1) what we read and understand and (2) what ‘they’ would have read and probably understood. That said, throughout the seventeenth century, with a few notable exceptions, the great playwright Calderón de la Barca being one of them, the Quixote was seen as a work of humor in which a madman created comedy while doing crazy things and breaking all the laws of the land.

Let us return now to Dr. Sorick’s original statement: “What a weighty responsibility lies on the shoulders of the novelist then. To capture the truth of an age, to illuminate that which history’s light does not reach.” To seek to find comfort and understanding in another age, on the terms of that age, is a very great and difficult undertaking. That said, an event that is re-created in such a way that the event stands out and on its own is an artistic achievement. We are then entitled, as readers, to interpret that event in whatever way we please, social justice or criminal act, in the case of the Galley Slaves. However, we must also be aware of the biases and distortions that accompany us as we travel back in time and look at their lives through our own eyes. The world has changed, will change, and we will continue to evolve. We must always be aware of that.

In conclusion, I agree with Dr. Meg Sorick, as both readers and artists we bear a great and heavy responsibility indeed. As artists and critics, we must do our research. As readers, we must understand the limitations imposed upon us by our own time and place.

Truth & Lies

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Truth and Lies or Verisimilitude
Wednesday Workshop
05 April 2017

Miguel de Cervantes comes at truth and lies from a slightly different angle than most of us. In Don Quixote, he writes of verisimilitude (verosimilitud in Spanish) and defines it  in this way: “Tanto la mentira es mejor cuanto más parece verdadera” — The lie is so much better when it appears to be true.

Cervantes extends verisimilitude into perspectivism when an object, for example, the shaving bowl that turns into Mambrino’s helmet, is seen from different angles to represent different things.

Thus Sancho sees a barber’s bowl while Don Quixote sees a warrior’s helmet, specifically that of Mambrino. As Cervantes demonstrates, when both aspects can be held to be true, we are no longer dealing with a direct opposition, truth (barber’s bowl) versus fiction (Mambrino’s helmet). In fact we are dealing with a new reality, that of the basin which doubles as a helmet and the helmet that doubles as a basin. The compromise, in Cervantes’s Spanish, is to invent a new word, a new world, that of the baciyelmo, the first half of which is the basin (baci-) and the second half of which is the helmet (-yelmo). This blends two appearances together to form a new fictional reality upon which the protagonists can agree.

I like to think that this is what we are all doing when we write, forming a new fictional reality to create a new world. We do this when we combine our memories and our imaginations to create new truths. Perhaps it is the fuzziness around the edges, rather than true clarity,  that allows us to penetrate the mist of meaning and come up with the new words and worlds.

For example, some men like facial hair and some men don’t.

I was invited to play an acting role in the local film co-op and the art director asked me to grow a specific type of mustache, something I had never ever done previously. I didn’t want to do it and was faced by a dictat “do it or you don’t get the role”. The AD was a good friend, so I did it. I grew a mustache.

It was the worst mustache you have (n)ever seen and trust me you can be glad you didn’t see it (but you can see it on the film, except I’m not telling you the name of the film). Anyway, when the final words “It’s a wrap” were called, late one Sunday night, my beloved was waiting on the doorstep with a razor and a shaving brush. “Off with it,” she said. And I’ve never grown another whisker since.

Is this a true memory or a coloring of the facts? You’ll never know. What is true is that the art director was amazed at the refusal of many males to grow facial hair.

Spanish proverb: “Both man and bear: each more beautiful with more hair / ¡El hombre y el oso: más peludo, más hermoso!

The film in which I played the role of a domineering theater director was a New Brunswick short (15 minutes). It’s called Misdirection (and is available from the NB Film Co-op). It’s a totally amateur production and was enormous fun to make.

In retrospect, the mustache actually didn’t look too bad … but there’s a very evil glint in my eyes in a couple of scenes. The DoP was using a shoulder held camera and did some great close-ups. I was trying to avoid looking at the camera, but he was so close that I was staring down the lens a couple of times.

More on body hair: I was coaching at the Canada Games one year (once upon a time, a long time ago, in another life) and was moved to investigate the howls of merriment that were emerging late at night from one of the bathrooms in the residence we were all sharing.

I did so to discover, after hammering at the door and demanding entry, that five or so girls were devoting their attention and their razor blades to removing all the body hair of one of our male swimmers so that he could slip through the water with less friction.

It wasn’t exactly a Brazilian Wax, but it was a gazillion laughs: death by a thousand cuts. I am sure the scars slowed the swimmer down. This was a long time ago, incidentally, when the world was young.

Truth or Fiction? Verisimilitude? The closer the lie is to the truth, the more convincing it is. Ask Cervantes: he should know.

Maritormes

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Merry Tormes

Men of La Mancha

“Carters and peasants
found me soft to the touch.

I’ve had my fill of everything,
save money, youth, power, fame …
yet pleasure brings its own reward.

I never treasured money
more than the sweet caress,
flesh on treasured flesh.

Better a trellised bed
with horsehair blankets
than that bed of sour, dry earth
where I will one day lie.

Come:
let us strike a bargain,
for when midnight strikes
there’s no one prettier than I
for that is the hour of my greatest
power.

Lead me then to where
I can get your full attention.

But keep me far from madmen
who call me outlandish names:
virgin, maiden, sweet and chaste …

 … all foreign to my every intention.”