Friday, February 10, 2012

Manon Lescaut by the Abbe Prevost Dexiles

"Woman With Pearl Hairdress" by Jean Francois de Neufforge

I think the Abbe Prevost best summed up his work here in the "Note By The Author" (Preface to Manon Lescaut)

If the public has found something agreeable and interesting in the history of my life, I dare promise that it will not be ill satisfied  with this addition. It will see in the conduct of M. des Grieux a terrible example of the strength of the passions. I have to paint a blind young man who turns his back on happiness to plunge of his own free will into the worst misfortunes: who with all the qualities that go to form the brightest merit, chooses an obscure and vagabond life in preference to all the advantages of fortune and of nature: who forsees his misfortunes without wishing to avoid them; who feels them and is overwhelmed by them without availing himself of the remedies which are continually offered him and which might at any moment put an end to them; in short, an ambiguous character, a mixture of virtues and vices, a perpetual contrast of good sentiments and bad actions. Such is the substance of the picture which I am about to present to the eyes of my readers.

Abbe Prevost

Though Prevost is speaking mostly of Grieux, Manon's main love throughout the novel, "an ambiguous character, a mixture of virtues and vices" could well describe Manon, the sort of anti-heroine of the story. The Story of Manon Lescaut & the Chevalier Des Grieux is perhaps not what one would call a traditional romance (ie. perfectly gorgeous man meeting girl-next-door stunner and falling in love for forever) but it is more of a realistic romance. It's messy, ugly at times. Manon is a girl you can love and hate equally for her choices. You want her to grow up, yet you feel sorry for her losing some of her innocence too early. The poor girl makes enormously bad choices in men and finances, but in the end, her end doesn't seem all that just. Somehow, in some way, she makes her self likeable despite her behavior.

artwork from an early edition of Manon Lescaut

Manon Lescaut is the story of a young French girl, Manon, who is about to be confined to a nunnery for the rest of her days, a fate she herself does not want but feels no escape from, thanks to her father.  The same day that Manon is to take her vows, the narrator of the story, Chevalier des Grieux, sees her in the street just outside of the convent walls and is immediately smitten with Manon's youthful, innocent kind of beauty. Grieux ditches his original plans of touring the area with his best friend, Tiberge, and goes after the girl, much to Tiberge's annoyance. Grieux takes his mode of transportation, sweeps Manon away from her father and the convent, carrying them away as far as they can go on their limited income. 

French carriage
photo by Jorge Barrios

As you might have guessed, this plan of Grieux's wasn't thought out all that much lol. Those crazy kids ran out of money pretty quick and Manon was returned to her family... but then he steals her away again!!  And again they run out of money. So starts the pattern of Manon running with the impulses of her heart and worrying about the rest later (a tough mode to live by but one I've certainly experienced myself!).

"Woman With A White Hat" by Jean Baptiste Greuze

The bulk of the story is Grieux's retelling of all the financial mishaps he and Manon got into in the early days of their acquaintance and romance. They travel all around France, and even parts of England, trying out different "get rich quick" schemes Manon thinks up, as well as honest, manual labor when they get really desperate. Manon's trouble stems from the fact that she loves living the good life but hates that she should ever be forced to do any sort of serious, "blue-collar" type work to get the things she wants. She wants men to fawn over her beauty and just hand her jewels and dresses in luxurious fabrics. LOL, well don't we all! No peasant wants to be a peasant but Manon refuses to believe anything other than that she must be entitled to the finest in life, though she holds no titles, no education, nothing that would recommend her to the upper classes outside of her pretty face and fun-loving disposition. Wish I could have been there to tell her that's rarely enough! It might get you in the door, so to speak, but you're going to have to have something for those uppity-ups to want to keep you around... which really only leaves one easy (and I do mean "easy") way in in that time period.... that of a mistress to men of power.

Actors from Puccini's opera adaptation of Manon Lescaut

Grieux floats in and out of her life but always comes back. Manon, I think, truly loved Grieux -- though that's part of the fun of the story, the reader getting to debate whether her actions and feelings were real or if she was just playing a part and using Grieux as a toy. Grieux didn't have endless finances so Manon secretly took up with wealthier men on the side. For a good while she kept herself and Grieux in the lap of luxury without ever really explaining to him how she was doing that. But,as these things tend to, her secret leaked out one day and after he gets over his shock a bit, Manon somehow convinces Grieux to help her set up these trysts, reasoning that them working together can only bring them more money!

"In The Boudoir" by Ettore Simonetti

There is a distinct pattern throughout the story where these plots go really well at first and then fail utterly miserably. When they fail, what does Grieux do each time?? He runs to his buddy Tiberge that he left stranded in town the first time! Failed scheme after failed scheme, Grieux goes to Tiberge each time Manon gets him in trouble again or saps him of any savings he might have had. Grieux has to beg Tiberge for money or sometimes shelter... mostly money. What I found surprising was that no matter how many times this happened, no matter how many times Tiberge said "Seriously, this is the last time -- get yourself together!" , he'd always pony up more money the next time Grieux asked! That's the sort of situation where I can't decide if that makes for the most loyal, unconditionally loving friend or if you have someone that just can't learn to stop sticking their hand in the fire! Then again, Grieux says of this:

That human resolutions are liable to change has never been a matter of surprise to me: one passion gives them birth, another can destroy them. 
And then Tiberge's own response:

...the first thing I {Grieux} entreated of him {Tiberge} was to let me know if I might still look upon him as my friend, after having so justly deserved to lose his esteem and his affection. He answered me in the tenderest tones that nothing could make him renounce his friendship; that my very misfortunes, and -- if I would allow him to say so -- my faults and my disorders did but redouble his tenderness towards me; but that it was a tenderness mingled with the keenest pain such as one feels when one sees the beloved on the verge of ruin without being able to give him aid.

I don't know, that's a tough one for me. Granted, there's few things more irritating than a fair-weather friend, but shouldn't there be some cut-off? Some point where you say, "I love you but I can't let you take me down with you." ?? As a friend, if you don't set a boundary, are you really helping them or are you just enabling their bad choices? Is it heartless of me to think such a person as Grieux could use a good dose of tough love?? I've received a few doses from friends over the years and yeah, it stings at first, but it does set the senses back in order in a hurry!

"The Korin Brothers" by Mikhail Nesterov

Manon's biggest blunder in scheming involved a man referred to as "M. de G.M.", and later his son, G.M. Junior. G.M. Senior, an older, aristocratic man, is introduced to Manon and arranges to pay her a certain hefty sum of money for what is only described as "favors". By the way, there is nothing blatantly sexual (least not that I noticed) in this novel, it is only hinted at that Manon sells herself for money. Part of Manon's plan is that Grieux is to introduce himself as her cousin, or it might be brother, a relative at any rate, and a younger one at that. It's a bit of a hard sell but G.M buys into it. Manon somehow manages to keep him at bay as far as having to actually sleep with him and waits for a night when he is called away for work when she and Grieux try to gather up money and jewels, but not before attempting a quickie in G.M. bedroom! That little pause ends up being the undoing of them. G.M. comes home, understandably flips out when he figures out what's going on and swiftly has Manon locked up, but for some odd reason she's placed in the mental ward at the Common Hospital (that's what it's called in the book - I'm guessing it's another term for a general hospital). Grieux is sent to prison. 

Actors from Puccini's opera adaptation of Manon Lescaut

Grieux manages to escape from prison. Borrowing a gun from Manon's brother, and putting together some plans of his own, Grieux eventually manages to break Manon out of the hospital and does his best to "take her away from it all". They try to live a modest life with honest work and a small cottage but of course Manon gets bored with this and starts up her old tricks again soon enough. Shame is, the next man she sets her sights on to make her rich is none other than G.M. Junior. Junior, like his father, falls into infatuation with  Manon, until he too finds out he's been duped. Manon and Grieux are arrested again but work their connections magic and find a way to board a ship to America to escape persecution in France. A few rough months at sea later, they find themselves in what would become New Orleans, Louisiana. Grieux comments that " we had not been able to see the town from the sea -- it is hidden from the sea by a small hill"

Bummer for them, America doesn't hold all the hopes and answers they prayed for. I won't give away the big ending (and it's pretty dramatic) but I will give you a small teaser in saying it has something in common with this:

Grieux has an interesting way of making a girl feel special, telling Manon " 'tis a fate enviable enough for me to be unhappy with you."  Aawwww :-P

"On The Beach" by Edouard Manet

It breaks Grieux's heart to see Manon hurting (ahhh crazy, bewildering love lol) and his description of her suffering makes for a heartbreaking image. Looking back on her capture, he recalls:

Must I tell you what was the sorrowful subject of my talks with Manon during that journey, or the first impression of the sight of her when I got leave from the Guards  to draw near her waggon! Ah, words can never but half express the feelings of the heart; but imagine for yourself my poor mistress chained by the waist, seated on some handfuls of straw, her head leant despairingly against the side of the waggon, her face white and wet with streaming tears that forced their way beneath the eyelids that she kept perpentually closed. She had not even had the curiousity to open them when she heard the commotion among the Guards at the moment of our threatened attack. Her linen was soiled and disordered; her delicate hands bare to the harshness of the air; all that enchanting frame, the face that could bring back the universe to idolatry, was sunk in unutterable abandonment and despair. 

There's not a TON of action in this story, but it does serve as a sort of love lesson, the dangers of  lusting without loving, loving too hard, loving for the wrong reasons, even loving unconditionally. I think it will mean different things for different people. Manon Lescaut is an antique read but an easy read definitely looking into. As I said earlier, it's not your traditional love story but there are plenty of passages to stun you, make you nod your head in recognition, even moments where all you can say is "aaawww!" :-)

Happy Leap Year Love Month Everyone!!

"Woman With A Pearl Necklace"

**Barry, quit snickering ;-)**