Gil Blas isn’t the first picaresque novel, but it’s one of the genre’s most famous examples; it’s a novel that at one point in history was on the bookshelf of every good reader, and it has been featured in allusions across literature for centuries after its publication between 1715 and 1735.
Gil Blas is the name of a Spanish boy born to a poor stablehand and a chambermaid. He’s educated by his uncle before leaving to attend a university, but on the way his journey is interrupted by a band of robbers, and his picaresque adventures begin. Blas embarks on a series of jobs, challenges, advances, setbacks, romances, and fights on his path through life, ultimately continuing to rise in station thanks to his affability and quick wit. On his way he encounters many different kinds of people, both honest and dishonest, as well as many different social classes. Blas’ series of breezy, episodic adventures give Lesage an opportunity to satirize every stratum of society, from the poor, to doctors, the clergy, writers and playwrights, the rich, and even royalty.
Though Lesage wrote in French, Gil Blas is ultimately a Spanish novel in nature: Blas himself is Spanish, and his adventures take place in Spain. The details Lesage wrote into the novel were so accurate that some accused him of lifting from earlier works, like Marcos de Obregón by Vicente Espinel; others even accuse it of being written by someone else, arguing that no Frenchman could know so much detail about Spanish life and society.
Despite any controversy, Gil Blas was translated into English by Tobias Smollett in 1748. His translation was so complete that it became the standard translation up to the modern day.