Manon LescautJanuary 8, 2013
A couple of weeks ago I finally got my brother to start reading Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey books. All it took, in the end, was sticking them all on an e-reader for him. Then I spent awhile reading bits over his shoulder on the subway until, inevitably, I succumbed and decided to reread them all in order. Except for The Five Red Herrings.
Anyway, the repeated references in Clouds of Witness prompted me to finally read Manon Lescaut, by Abbé Prévost, which I’d started in high school and gotten bored with pretty quickly. This time around I was a little bored sometimes, and more often irritated, but I had no trouble finishing it.
I’m not, honestly, sure what’s supposed to be so great about this book. Basically, this young, well-educated guy — the Chevalier des Grieux — falls in love at first sight with a young woman whose family is sending her to a nunnery. That’s Manon. She likes him, too, and they run off to Paris together, intending to get married, and then don’t. Why not, I don’t know. Everything’s cool for a while, but then they start running out of money. Basically most of the book repeats the same few incidents over and over:
• Manon and the Chevalier spend money lavishly until they just about run out of it.
• Manon and/or the Chevalier come up with an incredibly stupid plan to get money. Except that sometimes in Manon’s case the plan is only moderately stupid.
• The plan makes things worse.
• The Chevalier’s family and/or friends try to stage an intervention.
• Manon and the Chevalier are separated for a while and cry a lot.
Then, after a while Manon is deported to New Orleans — this is the 18th century, so New Orleans is basically a colection of shacks — and the Chevalier goes with her. They live as a married couple for a while but then when they actually try to get married, everything goes ridiculous again and they wander through a desert or something until Manon dies of exposure.
I hated the Chevalier. Okay, so he’s young and foolish, but he’s really stubbornly foolish. Why doesn’t he marry Manon? Why doesn’t he find some legitimate way to support her? Why doesn’t he exercise reasonable caution at any point? If he’s going to turn to crime so he can cater to Manon’s expensive tastes, why can’t he be better at it? And, finally, if he’s going to talk about how contemporary moral standards are restrictive and unfair, why can’t he recognize Manon’s behavior as not deceitful and unfaithful but unusually practical?
I mean, Manon’s not perfect either. Far from it. But the thing is, she’s extremely faithful to the Chevalier — just not physically. Every time their financial situation starts to look bad, she finds some rich man who is willing to pay her liberally for becoming his mistress. And that sounds pretty good to her, because she clearly doesn’t find sex to be a big deal, and she looks forward to being able to support herself and the Chevalier. And then he finds out about her plans and throws a fit. I mean, sure, she shouldn’t be lying to him, but reading about him yelling “Perfidious! Perfidious!” at her all the time is both painful and exhausting. And then he gets her killed. Bah, humbug.