Monday, 22 June 2009
More "swindling and scoundrelly trickery" please
On a friend's advice, I've decided that I won't always stick to the strictly chronological approach that I'd planned to follow for my French literature reading project. The next chronological book that I should have been reading over the weekend is The Conquest of Constantinople, but I don't want to read that until I've finished Orhan Pamuk's Istanbul, which I'm only about halfway through. Revising my original plan hasn't been so difficult for my addled brain to consider and accept, in the end, for as may be totally obvious, I'm pretty easily distracted these days.
Having abandoned all order, I picked up the French book nearest to hand which was Abbe Prevost's Manon Lescaut, first published in 1731. Prevost was apparently torn between the pleasures of religion and being a libertine and this short novel is thus at least in part autobiographical.
Manon Lescaut tells the story of Chevalier des Grieux, a teenager who, on his way to join a seminary (I think - dear gawd, I'm already forgetting the book's details!), sees a beautiful young woman (Manon) at the port and in approximately 5 minutes, abandons his family and prospects by convincing her to run away with him. The rest of the book details their pleasures, troubles, blunders, and general idiocy that (in books written in the 18th century anyway) tends to accompany extreme passion.
This novella was only 156 pages long but I have to admit that in the second half it began to drag for me. At first, I was really happy to be reading some Richardson-esque moral tale that tends more towards the lurid and sensational no matter how much the author insists it's meant to be cautionary. (Prevost, in his preface, describes Manon Lescaut as "a moral treatise entertainingly put into practice" (p. 5).)
The thing is, the lurid wasn't lurid enough and the moral not terrifying enough; I feel that the structure and writing style of Manon Lescaut were rather too bland for such visceral subject-matter - the young couple's passions were just not convincing to me, and without being caught up in their passion it's hard to think of anything but the stupidity of it all.
Mind, there were points at which I found myself really enjoying this book but I feel that overall, Prevost could have paid closer attention to what Richardson was doing - although I don't know how that's possible given that Prevost was the guy translating Pamela, etc into French during this period. Ah well. I knew I wouldn't always enjoy my reading for the French literature project, but that I would always learn something. And what I learned from Manon Lescaut is that in the 1730s, the English perhaps did morastic kink better. Sorry, Abbe!