Thursday, November 23, 2006

Sober Second Thoughts on Manon

Reviewing some earlier posts, I see that I’ve been beating up on Manon Lescaut (or Manon Lescaut) lately. A few days ago I called her a loser (link). Earlier I called the book “a great soppy soap opera of a novel” (link).

Hm. Well, I won’t quite take back what I’ve said here, but I think I want to revise and extend my remarks. Set aside the operas for a moment, focus on the novel, written by the Abbé Prévost in 1731. It seems to have stayed in print continuously since its first publication, which is enough to give it a bad rap; my French paperback edition lists six other French editions currently available as of 1990. Napoleon called it a novel for door-keepers,[1] which probably didn’t help.

Yet broad popularity alone shouldn’t be an objection. Handel’s Messiah is broadly popular, and I remember reading somewhere that there were 50 productions of Shakespeare’s Tempest in the United States last summer. The fact is, Manon Lescaut is compulsively readable. Strictly speaking, it’s better classed as a novella, not a novel. At 155 pages (in the Penguin paperback) you could almost read it in a night, and if you are prepared not to be any use at work the next day, you may be tempted to do just that. For me, Manon Lescaut the kind of book that sucks you in on the first page and keeps its hold on you with a steady hypnotic gaze. Bernard Malamud's The Fixer had the same effect on me (link) --a much different novel, but the same linear intensity. Here's a bit from the first page of Manon Lescaut:

[J]ust then there appeared in the doorway a soldier, complete with bandolier and musket, and I beckoned him and asked him what all the excitement was about. ‘Oh, it’s nothing, Sir,’ he said, ‘just a dozen streetwalkers that my friends and I are taking to Havre to be shipped off to America. Some of them aren’t bad looking, either, and I suppose that’s what these yokels want to see.’ I might have left it at that and gone on my way if I had not been pulled up by the cries of an old woman who emerged from the inn wringing her hands and shouting that it was a wicked shame and enough to give anyone the horrors. ‘What’s the matter?’ I asked. ‘Oh, come and see, Sir! I tell you, it’s enough to break your heart!’ My curiosity was now thoroughly aroused…

Mine, too. Match that, Bridget Jones. Ha, didn’t think you could.[2]

[1] “Pour des portieres,” he wrote, in his Memoirs from Saint Helena. The Lire et Voir editor helpfully modernizes: “[= des concierges]. " Note that “portieres” (porters?) is in the feminine here; The New Cassell’s French Dictionary gives as an alternate definition “of an age to bear (of cows),” which probably captures the right nuance.

[2] For a more thorough account of why it is worth the bother, see the instructive introduction (by Jean Sgard) to the Penguin Paperback edition (link).

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