So What Are You Reading?

Reviews of Books.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Manon Lescaut

Manon Lescaut by Antoine François Prévost
Manon Lescaut is a story of a young man, the Chevalier des Grieux, and his lover, Manon Lescaut. Set in the year 1721 and first published in 1731, this story of uninhibited love and its dire consequences was both quickly banned and widely read. The novel begins when a narrator, spending the night in a small town, who sees the townspeople gathered around two large wagons loaded with women criminals who are being banished to the colony of New Orleans. Amongst this "frail sisterhood" sits Manon "whose whole air and figure seemed so ill-suited to her present condition, that under other circumstances I should not have hesitated to pronounce her a person of high birth. Her excessive grief, and even the wretchedness of her attire, detracted so little from her surpassing beauty... " Asking one of the guards about this rare beauty, the guard points to a man who has followed them from Paris, crying all the way and says that he knows her. Asked about Manon, the despondent stranger replies that he is completely in love with her and having failed at all attempts to free her, he plans to follow her to the ends of the Earth. Seeing that the stranger has no money and is in desperate need, the narrator gives him 4 gold louis-d'ors and 2 more to the lead guard, and goes on his way.
Two years later he again sees the young man, poorly dressed and walking the street of Calais, having just returned from America. Greeting him and learning he is still destitute, the narrator offers him a room for the night at the inn where he is staying. That night the stranger, who is the Chevalier des Grieux, tells the story of his tragic three year love affair with the beautiful and charming Manon Lescaut.
Manon is poor but beautiful and the 17 year old Chevalier's love for her is instantaneous and intense. He must have her, and runs off with her to Paris in spite of the disapproval of his father and brother. Losing his savings through various circumstances, he relies on the generosity of friends and his skill at gambling to support their existence. Manon, while she professes love for the Chevalier, uses her beauty and charm to attract the generosity of other men. Instead of her loose virtue turning him away, their mutual love keeps him faithful to her. Eventually they run into trouble with the law and he follows her into exile.
Told completely from his point of view, Manon's life and motives are at best poorly understood. We see her through the filter of 300 years, a translation into another language, and the eyes of a deeply infatuated young man. It is believed that the story is in part based upon an early love affair of the author Prevost.
Manon's story and the Chevalier's love for her has inspired several operas, and, 100 years later, the novel and play Camille by Alexandre Dumas. Both Manon and Camille have been made into movies again and again. I am glad that I have read the original version of this classic love story.


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