Picaresque novel

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The picaresque novel (Spanish: "picaresca", from "pícaro", for "rogue" or "rascal") is a popular sub-genre of prose fiction which is usually satirical and depicts, in realistic and often humorous detail, the adventures of a roguish hero of low social class who lives by his wits in a corrupt society. This style of novel originated in sixteenth century Spain and flourished throughout Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It continues to influence modern literature.



The genre has Roman precedents in Petronius's fragmentary "Satyricon", and in Apuleius's "The Golden Ass". The last two, revived and widely read in renaissance Europe, are rare surviving samples of a mostly lost genre, which was highly popular in the classical world, known as "Milesian tales."

Arabic literature, which was read widely in Spain in the time of Al-Andalus and also possessed a literary tradition with similar themes, is another possible formative influence on the picaresque style. Al-Hamadhani (d.1008) of Hamadhan (Iran) is credited with inventing the literary genre of maqamat in which a wandering vagabond makes his living on the gifts his listeners give him following his extemporaneous displays of rhetoric, erudition, or verse, often done with a trickster's touch.[1] Ibn al-Astarkuwi or al-Ashtarkuni (d.1134) also wrote in the genre maqamat, comparable to later European picaresque novels.[2]

While elements of Chaucer and Boccaccio have a picaresque feel and are likely to have contributed to the style, the modern picaresque begins with Lazarillo de Tormes, which was published anonymously in Antwerp and Spain in 1554. It is variously considered either the first picaresque novel or at least the antecedent of the genre. The title character, Lazarillo, is a pícaro who must live by his wits in an impoverished country full of hypocrisy.

The autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, written in Florence beginning in 1558, also has much in common with the picaresque. Another early example is Mateo Alemán's Guzmán de Alfarache (1599), characterized by religiosity.

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