Friday 19 September 2014

Reading the Classics: Manon Lescaut by Abbé Prévost

I signed up for a MOOC* called The Fiction of Relationship. Now to read a book a week for ten weeks, watch a series of short lectures and prepare a couple of assignments exploring relationships in (you've guessed it) fiction and what they might teach us about ourselves.

The first book is Manon Lescaut by Abbé Prévost. Written in 1731, Professor Weinstein of Brown University describes it as 'the quintessential story of the couple.'

Like many of us I suspect, I associate the title with the opera by Puccini. As far as the novel is concerned, I've lots to learn.

Originally written in French (I read it in translation via Project Gutenberg) the story of Manon Lescaut is told to a stranger by the Chevalier des Grieux. A young man of noble birth, he chances upon Manon and instantly falls rapturously in love with her. Though she returns his affections, her lack of breeding means the match is unsuitable in the eyes of early eighteenth century French society.

Without his family's approval, des Grieux struggles to keep Manon in the luxury she craves. He begs money from friends and wins it at cards, but she begins to take other, wealthier lovers more able to support her.

Despite Manon's infidelity, the couple conspire to be together, even as society continues to prise them apart. Des Grieux is tormented by jealousy and they endure multiple setbacks; scheming to extort money from Manon's admirers, they themselves are betrayed by their servants and thrown into prison. Escaping to New Orleans to begin afresh, Manon seems changed. Perhaps, in this simpler existence they have a chance of happiness, or will old patterns of behaviour re-emerge?

The narrative is written entirely from des Grieux's point of view, which means we don't get a very objective idea of Manon in all her complexities. Prévost suggests that des Grieux feels fine, noble emotions because he is a man of breeding, more sensitive than the common herd. But des Grieux is so besotted, that with others he is self-absorbed and deceitful, even willing to commit murder if it returns Manon to his side. Shockingly for the time, he values his all-encompassing love more highly than his abandoned vocation in the church, arguing that its fulfilment means happiness on earth, whereas with God, reward is deferred until after death.

The lectures really help to put this book into context. It is written in a pre-romantic age, when the novel as a format is neither established nor respectable. It caused a scandal, but not because of Manon's behaviour; by seeking to make a living through trading on the one thing she has of value - her looks - she is adhering to the conventions of the time. Still, she is a fallen woman and must be seen to suffer a tragic end.

It is des Grieux, with his blinkered but freely-expressed passion, who places himself outside the bounds of society where marriage is very much a transaction. Some fifty years before the French revolution, des Grieux, says Professor Weinstein, is 'a problematic hero in a degraded world'. I love that phrase and am busy trying to introduce it into conversation...

I didn't love this book though, but that may have been down to the translation; quoting in French, the Prof makes it much more fluent. That said, examining the couple and how our own identity might merge with another person's, is a fascinating introduction to a course about relationships. I'm already eagerly anticipating the next book to be studied - Jane Eyre.

*Massive Open Online Course
Images courtesy of Wikipedia and Penguin Classics. 

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