Mark Danner

Roguery, Debauchery and War: A Thieves’ Journey Through the Picaresque

Tuesdays 9:30 — Olin 302
Mark Danner
The novel is a motley form and in its modern incarnation was spawned in thievery and disrepute: rogues spinning tall tales of roguery; hapless, cunning heroes conniving their way through war-torn landscapes as they contrive the most preposterous adventures. We will trace these tales – to which we have given the broad name picaresque – back to their start in the late sixteenth century on the Iberian penninsula, in the hands of the anonymous author of Lazarillo de Tormes. We will follow their spread, in the first great popular publishing phenomenon, northward through Europe. Finally, we will have a look at the picaresque in its modern form, peculiarly adapted as it is to telling the fragmented story of the war-torn twentieth century. Readings will include works by Petronius, Cervantes, Quevedo, Grimmelshausen, Defoe, Celine, Grass, Bellow and Kosinski, among others.


Requirements. This is an upper-level seminar. We read a book a week, some of them rather lengthy, and gather to talk about them. The requirements thus are simply stated:1. Attend class
2. Come Prepared
3. Take Part in the Discussions

Apart from this, a final paper taking up some of the themes and works discussed in the class will be due on December 2. A short paragraph setting out the theme or subject of the final paper will be due on November 18.

Course Grading.
 Grades awarded for the course will be based on attendance, class participation and the quality of the written work.

Required Reading and Editions.  Please use the editions specified in the list below. I would strongly urge you to purchase the required texts, from the Bard Bookstore or elsewhere; but in any event read the required texts in the particular editions indicated.


Required Reading (Books)


————-, Lazarillo de Tormes  (1554)

Miguel de Cervantes, Exemplary Tales (1613)

Francisco de Quevedo, The Swindler (1626)

Petronius, The Satyricon (c. 50)

Apuleius, The Golden Ass (c. 170)

Thomas Nashe, The Unfortunate Traveler (1594)

Johann Grimmelshausen, Simplicius Simplicissimus (1668)

Johann Grimmelshausen, The Life of Courage (1670)

Daniel Defoe, Roxana: The Fortunate Mistress (1724)

Voltaire, Candide; or Optimism (1759)

Thomas Fielding, Joseph Andrews (1742)

Thomas Mann, The Confessions of Felix Krull: Confidence Man (1954)

Jean Genet, The Thief’s Journal (1949)

Louis-Ferdinand Celine, Journey to the End of Night (1932)

Gunter Grass, The Tin Drum (1959)

Jerzy Kosinski, The Painted Bird (1965)


Suggested Reading

Robert Alter, Rogue’s Progress: Studies in the Picaresque Novel (Harvard, 1965)

Harry Levin, Contexts of Criticism (Harvard, 1957)

Stuart Miller, The Picareque Novel (Case Western, 1967)

Ulrich Wicks, Picaresque Narrative, Picaresque Fictions (Greenwood, 1989)

Donald P. McCrory, No Ordinary Man: The Life and Times of Miguel de Cervantes (Dover, 2005)

Eric Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Westerern Literature (Princeton University Press, 2003)


Syllabus For Fall 2008
*With a Few Class Notes by Dashiell Farewell, Course Assistant


September 2, 2008  

Introduction to the Course. The idea of the picaresque, in seven criteria. Rogery, debauchery and war. Texts and Editions. Mutual Introductions.

September 9

Lazarillo de Torres, translated by W. S. Merwin (New York Review Books, 2005 [1554])

– Story web is complex, formed by numerous circles as adult Lazaro is involved in many ranks of society
– Attack on Church practices and corruption (Chapter on Seller of Indulgences and Friar removed from original publication by censors)
– Real author: nobility? His insight into many layers of social structure and very critical of each (Assistance from traditional stories/folklore and other traditions)
– First story of a nobody
– Absurdity of honor (Trumps all else) (Status is key, even if life is empty/a lie (as with the squire and adult Lazaro) as a result  of obtaining status) (Cultural belief roundly attacked throughout)

September 16

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, “Rinconete and Cortadillo” and “The Dogs’ Colloquy,” from Exemplary Stories (Penguin, 1972 [1613])

– Teaming up of two young criminals
(Inculcated into criminal lifestyle by parents)
(Entrance into life through lowly standing)
– Sense of orphanhood
(Cutting self off from all connections/family)
(Removing oneself from the system that defined the individual in society)
– journey from isolated picaro lifestyle into organized criminal society
(induction into new form of society/a world w/in the world)
(Criminal organizations like guilds of old)
– Picaro operation on “the dark side”
(Crime is not an aberration but an active part of the world/society)
(Realm zoomed in upon by the picaro)
(The only insight for those not a part of this world)
– Frame sets up question of fact vs. fiction
(Who is lying? Who is swindling whom? How can one know?)

Francisco de Quevedo, The Swindler in Lazarillo de Tormes and The Swindler: Two
Spanish Picaresque Novels 
(Penguin, 2003 [1626])

– Strongly references Lazarillo
– Darker, more inflected/hyperbolic prose than Lazarillo’s simplistic style
– Lesson: Pablos is foiled in his attempts to become noble/raise his status is foiled
throughout b/c he is attempting the impossible
(Differs from Lazarillo’s social critique)
(Expresses fear of those trying to climb social ladder/displace old aristocracy (Quevedo an aristrocrat)
– Marriage as potential mechanism for mobility
(Source of striking it rich/trickery)
(illusion of eligibility as key)
(When is true love possible? Does it matter in this society?)

September 23

Petronius, The Satyricon, trans. By William Arrowsmith (Meridian, 1994 [c. 50 AD])

Cervantes, “The Deceitful Marriage” in Exemplary Stories

– Cervantes
(Frame for “Dialogue of the Dogs”)
(Themes of philosophy and gossip etc.)
(Idea of the con: spirals of trickery; mutual game is key Fact vs. fiction: what is reality of character? What is/can be believed?)

– Petronius
(Anachronistic picaresque)
(Written during reign of Nero)
(Highly fragmented)
(Characters on an adventure/quest)
(Lust the driving force, element sought)
(considered a novel but not recognizable as such)
(Satire is a better description)
(Satire as medley of forms/genres and form of social critique/mocking conventions) (legal docs, epics, high flown language ect.)
(Sex and love as exultation and frustration)

September 30

Lucian, The Golden Ass, trans. Robert Graves (FSG, 1951 [c. 170])

– Recovered in Middle Ages, clearly influential on early picaresque authors
– “Milesian Tale”
(Collection of bawdy tales/framing story with numerous other stories w/in the frame)
(Soup of stories picked out from myth/folk lore/religion ect, reformed, contorted, sewn back together in a unique pattern
– Locomotion: The sin of envy, Lucius’ curiosity, the sin of lust
– A world of story telling and ambiguity
(What is the truth? How can we know? Can it be determined at all? Reality must be  constantly interpreted/reinterpreted)
(World of competing gods, question of what should be believed is prominent)
(For Lucius, nothing should be rejected in theory for that would be presupposing  knowledge of the god/gods’ abilities/intentions)
– Confusion of ending: feels out of place: Where was the moral development?
(Makes story not truly picaresque)
(Shift from bawdy recount of sex/violence/adventure to religious propaganda)
(Climax of restoration)
– Religious message at the end foreshadowed throughout (in Cupid and Psyche story, e.g.)

October 7

Thomas Nashe, The Unfortunate Traveller  in The Unfortunate Traveller and Other Works (Penguin, 1972 [1594])

     – A world of puns/wordplay -> rhetoric over plot
            (Language is primary and takes precedent over plot/characters)
     – Citation and allusion (to history and classicism) common
     – B/C of Elizabethan era comp, riot of language, an exploration of prose/styles/language (the
            latter is malleable)
     – Effective metaphor is key, although at times Nashe lets the images speak for themselves
             (Metaphor melds the two into one, heightens visual impressions, makes them tangible,
              draws references between potentially disparate images)
     – See description of battle on pg. 276
     – Mocking quality to book? Elements picked/chosen from many places and stitched
       together/often exaggerated (escape narratives, dramatic soliloquies, revenge tales, war
       tales etc.) what is serious and what is being played up/poked fun at?

Eric Auerbach, Mimesis, “Odysseus’ Scar” (class handout)

     – Goes beyond what is happening on the page/plot
     – By examining style/inflection, a world view can be extracted from the text
     – Question should be: What is the world being conveyed/created/presented by the author
       and what on the page belongs to the author, even if the plot does not?

Fall break

October 28

Johann Grimmelshausen, The Adventures of Simplicius Simplicissimus (Dedalus, 1999 [1668])

     – Story compiled of flotsam and jetsam of narrative details and styles
             (Great complexity throughout)
                     (Layers of meaning and irony common)
     – Implied author adds to narrative complexity
     – Realistic tale with an allegorical shape -> not to be confused with allegory
     – Beginning in innocence (Eden), finding religion, descending into world (The Fall,
       knowledge and sin)
     – Believability of character?
            (Notion of transformations)
            (A succession of types instead of “realistic”)
                  (Development often more external than internal)
     – Incredible accuracy of dates/conditions of battle
     – Satirizes simple minded/foolish/violent approach to religion
     – Attacks notion of ideological war
            (The logic of war does not equal the cause or reason for war)
     – Existence of magic simply a part of the world system

November 11

Class from 10/21 Rescheduled to this day (two sessions).

9:30am regular session

Johann Grimmelshausen, The Adventures of Simplicius Simplicissimus (Dedalus, 1999 [1668])
     – See notes above
     – Series of rises and falls in character development
            (Rise in  knowledge to fall in sin; rise in arrogance to fall from smallpox etc.)
     – Question of “agency”
             (Who or what is the driving force behind the individual/his world?)
     – Earthy (sex/war) but with structure of religious allegory of sorts

Voltaire, Candide (Norton, 1991 [1759])

     – Philosophic tale/fable
     – Multiple dialogs from various characters each of whom espouse a certain dogma/belief
       /philosophy onto Candide
     – Much use of innuendo/satire/pun etc.
            (Fetishism of rationalism as a paradoic tool for example)

7:30pm make-up session

Johann Grimmelshausen, The Life of Courage: The Notorious Thief, Whore and Vagabond
(Dedalus, 2001 [1670])

     – field of endeavor in Picaresque=survival, this is limited for a woman
     – Gender as crucial
             (Women: transactional reality of selling body for security)
                  (Accepting this fact, manipulating it for one’s own benefit)
             (temper with notion of feminine sexuality)
             (Necessitated practicality of show of pureness)
                  (Much like strength/honor for a man)
                         (All in appearances)
     – currency of female power: power=beauty/sex, translatable into currency
     – manipulation of social constructs key
     – In picaresque world, lack of name/place/standing is multiplied for a woman b/c of threat to
     – Husbands/suitors are akin to male’s masters.
        (Same ambiguity of true control.)
     – in Courage, absence of God
          (practicality of actions/realism of world view necessitates a removal of God from the
     – No pretense to repentance and no desire to repent

Daniel Defoe, Roxana, the Fortunate Mistress… (Oxford, 2008 [1724])

     – Transitions:
             (Poor/religious to Wealthy/debauched)
             (Poverty/worthless husband to wealth/wealthy, good husband)
             (Adherence to societal structures to rejection of societal structures)
                   (Inversion of material and spiritual wealth throughout)
                         (Continual/schematic fall with similar material rise)
     – importance of beauty for a woman in her situation and a recognition of and manipulation of
       that fact is key for survival
     – Like Courage, also a vehicle of titillation but with moral overpass to veil it

November 18

Henry Fielding, Joseph Andrews (Norton, 1987 [1742])

     – A parody of modern fiction, ideas, etc.
     – A book in response to a book (Pamela)
            (Parody of characters as caricature, traditional tropes etc: reminder of the fact that “this
             is a book” consistent throughout)
            (Augustan opposition to realism: recognition of being a book)
                  (Self assertion of identity as piece of art with threads from other forms of art pulled
                    together/made recognizable)
     – “Comic-epic poem in prose”
             (Ripe for parody of many styles)
                    (For contrast, see realism of Defoe)
     – Self referential/Augustinian style melded with the bawdy and parody
     – Notion of power of upper-class as a dominant and dominating one
            (Provides for need for revenge when power is denied)
                  (Revenge as story motor)

Final paper proposals — one paragraph descriptions – due

November 25

Thomas Mann, Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Mann (Vintage, 1992 [1954])

     – Idea of art as swindle and swindler as an artist
     – A sort of anti-bildingsroman
          (Learning morality in reverse)
                (From innocence to slowly learning life of crime/deception)
                      (Financial/social growth with moral decrepitude)
     – Krull’s development is a continual process of increasingly intense and last adaptations
     – Focus on doubles
           (Bipolarity of character)
           (Duality of lifestyle: leading more than one life simultaneously)
           (Fascination with pairs (mother/daughter, brother/sister)
     – Idea of interchangeability
            (What determines one’s social/economic position?)
                  (Potentiality of metamorphosis addressed)
     – Notion of transmutation
            (Nothing as static)
            (Lack of inherent qualities in nature, so too in man)
            (Impersonation is a part of the process of evolution, a step along the way to complete
             and genuine adaptation in nature: Krull to use this mentality in the social sphere)

December 2

Jean Genet, The Thief’s Journal (Grove, 1994 [1949])

     – Opposition to society (beggar, thief, vagabond, homosexual); but from that role comes the
       creation of a new moral system
             (A logical end to picaresque mentality: from outside of society/looking in and wanting to
              be a part of it – to outside and looking out, to the potential for a new social structure
              defined by oneself: Glory in being an outsider)
     – Oppositionist position embrace and construction of new philosophy pursued with that in
     – Genet’s Trinity of “Outsiderness”
     – For Genet: Lifestyle grounded in transgression i.e. opposition to the accepted order
              (Need to upset the traditional order via “evil,” outrageous acts which would be
               “revolting” to traditional law/societal structures
              (Theft as primarily a way of undermining traditional morality)
     – Necessity of moral self-sufficiency
               (The strong can invent new moral precepts)
               (Creation of world for one’s self)
     – Need to transgress as assertion of singularity
               (Not enough to be a thief)
               (Must use/think about thievery as a means to assert a condition being a “monstrous
                exception” to society and achieving, from that monstrousness, an “exceptional
                solitude” in order to “achieve something new with such rare matter”
                       (Not just to transgress but to use the inherent solitude of transgression to create,
                        hence justifying the wretchedness of thievery and its potential singularity)
     – Lawlessness as choice
               (For Genet: he chooses to enter into a life of degradation, thievery, betrayal etc.)
               (Move to completely inhabit outsider status)
                     (Rejection of the world which had rejected him)
     – Question of sexuality as a political issue
              (Vulnerability, longing, passivity, desire, aggression and power all examined through
               the lens of sexuality)
              (Question of who has power and why, how do preferences in above list when it comes
               to sexuality play out in other spheres of life?
             (Analysis of love)
                    (A potential for slavishness inherent)
                    (How do all these elements above respond to one in varying levels?)

Final Paper Due

December 9

Louis-Ferdinand Celine, Journey to the End of Night (New Directions, 2006 [1932])

     – Grounded firmly in notions of absurdity/hypocrisy of the military/institutions
     – Written in atmosphere of desperation to avoid a second war
     – Very sensory: world of smells/stench/rot ect.
     – Life as survival, you’ll be killed one way or another
     – People and institutions generally absurd, stupid and dangerous
     – In society: war painted as heroic to hide the truth: a public blindness/ignorance
            (Soldiers reduced to status of performance seals for those at home clamoring for heroic
             war stories)
            (Public completely ignorant of what war really is)
            (This ignorance creates a division and plays into a general societal stupidity)
                  (This recognitions becomes increasingly bitter throughout the book)
     – Follows picaresque form to an extreme
            (Natural tendency of genre toward grotesque exaggeration of misfortune, intensification
             of everyday troubles)
     – Question of choice: are we condemned to the world we’re born into or do we have a choice
       in where we can go?
     – Banality of deprivation/crime
            (Exposes a sordid underbelly as writers like Zola did but with no attempt to Â
             moralize/frame events morally
     – Life as an accepting engagement with the world’s sickness

December 15 (Make-up Class, 7:30pm)

Gunter Grass, The Tin Drum (Vintage, 1990 [1959])

     – Notion here and with The Painted Bird below of modernity as pretense
            (Brutality, superstition, blind hate etc. still just as present)
                  (“Second Thirty Years’ War” (WW I and II) reveals this and brings it out into the
                    public sphere)
                   (H. James’ notion that while the world seemed to be consistently becoming a better
                    place, advancement of civilization was all leading to this moment of utter
     – Points to modernity/civilization as little more than a cover for an essentially unaltered reality
            (Human nature is constant in many ways)
                  (Prone to hating the “other” and wanting to destroy it/fear of the alien)
                         (Latent, somewhat, in peace, exacerbated by war, its continued existence made

December 16

Jerzy Kosinski, The Painted Bird (Grove, 1995 [1965])

     – Exemplar of clarity: pristine writing, nothing superfluous. Very terse.
     – Things as they are: no irony in descriptions: the horror and the motives behind it are all
       genuine and strictly “real”
           (No moral comment until very end)

Conclusions and Reflections on the Picaresque in Literature and in Life