Thursday, 29 January 2009

"Si le lecteur est scandalisé de toutes les badineries qu'il a vues dans ce livre, il fera fort bien de n'en lire pas davantage..." (Paul Scarron)

"If the reader is outraged by all the banter he has seen in this book, he would do well not to read on..."

Unfairly ignored in the English-speaking world, the seventeenth-century writer Paul Scarron is arguably one of the most important French literary figures of his century, famous for his splendid style, and for his considerable contribution to the burlesque and picaresque novel genres. He was born in Paris to a family of lawyers, clergymen and politicians in 1610, but spent much of his youth in Le Mans. There he became an abbot and worked under the bishop of Le Mans, although it seems that his monastic status did not temper his resolutely libertine lifestyle. In his late twenties he was suddenly afflicted by an unspecified crippling condition which paralysed both of his legs – an ailment which would affect him for the rest of his life. Legend has it that this was due to a naked bath he had during a local carnival.

Despite his physical suffering, his razor-sharp wit and his zest for life remained intact – he would even write ironically of his own condition on several occasion – and he returned to Paris, where he frequented literary salons and joined a coterie of intellectual friends. He devoted himself to literature and the life of modest means this entailed, and – inspired by Italian writers such as Tassoni, Lalli and Bracciolini – published his first collection of burlesque verse in 1643, before launching into epic parodies, such as Typhon (1644) and the acclaimed Virgile travesti (1648–52), a pastiche of the Aeneid. By this time the burlesque was all the rage in literary circles, producing many vulgar and inferior exponents of the genre, whilst Scarron remained a cut above the rest, both stylistically and in terms of content. He was keen to avoid light-hearted flippancy and to espouse a literary philosophy based on joie de vivre and corporeal delights in the face of the prevailing trend of austere high-minded classicism. He began to abandon verse and concentrated on prose stories and novellas, as well as plays inspired by Spanish dramatists such as Tirso de Molina, which were very much en vogue in Paris at the time.

In 1652, he married the young Françoise d’Aubigné – granddaughter of the famous French baroque poet Agrippa d’Aubigné and future mistress then wife of King Louis XIV – in order to save her from the clutches of the convent. His most influential work, the prose novel Le Roman comique, was published between 1651 and 1657 – and unfortunately he was not able to finish the third and final part of it before his death in 1660. It recounts the adventures of a troupe of itinerant actors in provincial France, masterfully weaving comic anecdotes of their amorous exploits and a love story between the one of them, Léandre, and his beloved Angélique into a rich and realistic tapestry depicting rural France. The Roman comique spawned countless picaresque novels in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and was championed in the nineteenth centuries by literary figures such as Théophile Gautier. Surely the book’s canonical importance and timeless stylistic brilliance warrants a new English translation…


  1. Here it is! and kindle Please notice the similarities between your post and the biography I translated (quite literally) from the French. I was unable to find the author's name so as to credit him/her.

  2. And...the Scarron quotation (and hence the translation) is not accurate! Check the opening of part I, Chapter 12. The mistake is repeated all over the internet.


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