Monday, June 9, 2014

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago. 

“MANON LESCAUT” by l’Abbe Prevost [Antoine-Francois Prevost] (first published 1731; revised version 1753; many English language translations)

            This is a story I’ve told before on this blog – how I re-read a book I first read years ago, and am surprised by my reactions to it. I re-read Joseph Conrad’s Victory [look it up on the index at right] years after I first read it as a student, and am surprised to find that my reactions are exactly what they were when I first read it. I re-read Aldous Huxley’s Eyeless in Gaza [ditto] and am surprised at the things I’d forgotten. As for George Moore’s Esther Waters [ditto], I am bemused that one inconsequential phrase was the thing that had stuck in my mind between readings.
            Rarely, however, have I found my reaction so changed as in my two widely-separated readings of l’Abbe Prevost’s Manon Lescaut or, to give it its full title, L’Histoire de Chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut. Forty years ago, this novel was a set text in the course I was doing in undergraduate French. Eight years ago, I re-read it, ahead of seeing a transcription of a New York Met production of the opera Puccini based on it. (The novel has been turned into operas by at least five eminent composers, not to mention having inspired innumerable ballet and film versions of it.)
            A bit of quick background. Antoine-Francois Prevost (1697-1763) was a scallywag
priest who left the priesthood, had at least one unhappy love affair, wrote voluminously books that are no longer remembered, had many of his works banned in Louis XV’s France and was under threat of imprisonment. Yet he managed to return to the priesthood in his late thirties and stay a priest until his death. He had spent some time in England and in his own day was as well–known in France for translating Clarissa into French, and thus introducing Richardson to France, as he was for writing Manon Lescaut. Yet it is Manon Lescaut, and Manon Lescaut alone, that has survived of his work.
This short novel began as part of a long, rambling work entitled Les Memoires et Aventures d’un Homme de Qualite qui s’est retire du Monde (Memoirs and Adventures of a Man of Quality who had Withdrawn from the World), but it was rapidly published as a separate work and has remained so ever since.
I won’t waste your time with a detailed plot summary. Enough to say that the young nobleman, the Chevalier des Grieux, who is in training to be a priest, scandalises his family by running away with the bewitching and artful young Manon Lescaut, who leads him on in many ways and (with her brother) introduces him to a life of petty crime so that they can live in relative affluence. Every so often, des Grieux’s loyal and trusting friend Tiberge tries to warn des Grieux where his life is leading him and how it may ruin him. But des Grieux pays no heed as he is smitten with, obsessed by, entangled in Manon. When, after various criminal enterprises, Manon’s luck eventually runs out, she is condemned to be transported to the French penal colony in Louisiana. Des Grieux insists on going with her. For a short while they cohabit idyllically in the new environment; but the story has a tragic ending with both of them dying in the wilderness.
The lively Manon so captivated French readers – or at least male ones - that they convinced themselves she must have been based on a real person. The critic Sainte-Beuve wrote of the novel that it was true “de cette verite qui n’a rien d’invente et qui est toute copiee sur la nature” (“with that truth which has nothing invented about it and which is completely founded on nature”). There used to be valiant attempts made by French literary historians to work out who the real Manon was, and it was assumed that Prevost was telling a disguised version of his own unhappy love life. But apparently nobody believes this any longer and the man is given credit for having an imagination.
When I read this novel at the age of nineteen or so, I remember judging the Chevalier des Grieux very harshly. I thought he was basically a booby who was easily led by a cunning young woman and easily deceived into serving her whims. His infatuation seemed to me foolish, unreasonable, self-indulgent and destructive. Manon simply didn’t deserve the high regard that he gave her and that I assumed the novelist expected us to share. She was a minx. So to me the tale was about self-immolation by means of masochism. I placed des Grieux in the same basket as stupid Don Jose before Carmen, and dopey Professor Rath before Lola Lola. I found it hard to believe that anyone thought this a great love story. At best it was a lust story.
On re-reading the novel, I found I was less inclined to condemn des Grieux. As he is all of seventeen when he first meets Manon, and as we are told she is even younger (15 or 16!), they must both be in their early twenties by the time the story ends. They are kids.
Perhaps more to the point, on reading the story again, I was more aware of Prevost’s skill in telling it mainly through des Grieux’s first-person narration. The presentation has many more ambiguities than I remembered. To put it another way, Prevost makes us fully aware of des Grieux’s self-deceptions. There is no doubt that Manon is very attractive and very good at seduction – otherwise why would so much of the plot depend on other men challenging des Grieux’s claim to her? – but even so, des Grieux fails constantly to see how expendable he is to her. She truly loves him only when she can afford to, which is perhaps a sign of the socially humbler and more desperate background she comes from.
In the course of the story des Grieux cheats at gambling for Manon; plays the pander with her while foolishly imagining that she won’t go through with selling herself; repeatedly exploits the loyal Tiberge as a convenient purse; commits murder; and knowingly deceives people with declarations of reform and good behaviour which he has no intention of keeping. In one sense, then, the story could be seen as conventionally moral. Wild and lawless love leads people to folly and crime.
Added to this, Prevost clearly shows how perverse des Grieux’s self-justifications become. In this respect, the low point is when he escapes from prison by threatening a priest with a loaded pistol. When he shoots a porter dead, he blames the priest for not opening the prison gate swiftly enough; and when he gets beyond the prison walls he blames Manon’s brother for the murder, as it was her brother who lent him the pistol! When we do wrong, it is always somebody else’s fault; or at least it is when we are about nineteen.
In fact, as I now read it, this novel is very much inhabited by an “unreliable narrator”. Prevost (aged about 34 when he first wrote it) is fully aware of des Grieux’s social and psychological immaturity, exemplified in those moments when des Grieux sincerely wants to reform…. so long as he can still have Manon.
And yet… and yet… and yet. The other side of the tale is the real fascination and promise of sex that Manon represents. It might be anti-social, destructive and immature, but there is something pure in its simplicity. And folly. Am I now reading it as a middle-aged person willing to be indulgent towards the mutual silliness of two kids? I judged them more harshly when I was a kid myself.
The straightforward, civilised, almost matter-of-fact tone of the tale’s narration reinforces rather than undermines this sense of amour fou. Yet Prevost himself is very ambiguous about that amour. And so am I.

Two irrelevant and silly footnotes:
1.) Obviously this short novel was once considered very scandalous and not polite reading for well-bred people. This could lead to its having a much racier reputation than it ever deserved. When I read Compton Mackenzie’s Edwardian blockbuster Sinister Street (1913-14), I was amused to come across a scene where an Oxford undergraduate discovers in his room a copy of Manon Lescaut, hidden there by a previous student, regards it as pornography and speculates on the motives of the previous student in having it.

2.) There were always difficulties in adapting this story into opera. When I eventually got to see that transcription of the Met opera production, members of the audience were audibly puzzled by how the last act plays out, with Manon and des Grieux dying in the American wilderness. Eliding much of the plot, which his librettists perhaps thought their audience would have known anyway, Puccini lets the music alone tell the story of what brings the two of them to the scene of their death. “Was there a shipwreck or something?”, I heard a member of the audience ask. Without knowing the novel, the last act of the opera is very confusing.

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