There is nothing more boring that having books recommended to one, unless it is someone recommending a book in a foreign language that you may have dimly heard of, but resolved never to read. Nevertheless, that is exactly what I intend to do in this article.
Earlier this week I sat through Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, watching it from row R of the amphitheatre of the Royal Opera House. I wear glasses, and am pretty short-sighted. The sounds coming from the stage were heavenly, and orchestra and cast did true justice to Puccini’s wonderful score. The look of the production rather undercut this, however, no doubt deliberately. The staging was hideous to behold, recalling the work of Jeff Koons and Ilona Staller, and the world of woman-trafficking in eastern Europe.
The novel Manon Lescaut, which first came out in 1745, at the very dawn of fiction-writing, is in fact one episode in a long book written by the Abbé Prevost entitled “Memoirs of a Gentleman of Quality retired from the world”. The story of Manon soon took on a life of its own, and is now always published as a stand alone tale. It real title, though, is “The History of Manon Lescaut and the Chevalier des Grieux”. It is a shortish novel, and very easy to read, even in the original French. And it is a delight from start to finish. It is also a good deal more subtle than Puccini’s libretto, which was the work of many hands, and which in the lost much of the spirit of the novel in endless rewritings.
The Chevalier des Grieux is a young man, not yet eighteen, of noble family enrolled in the Order of Malta, and as such vowed to chastity. He meets Manon, a girl of respectable middle class family, at an inn. She is 15 (the opera makes her 18), and on her way to a convent, where she is to take the veil, because her family think this the best way of containing her already sensual character. With the collusion of Manon’s brother, she and the Chevalier elope.
Manon is very charming indeed, and the Chevalier is smitten. His family, meanwhile hunt the young couple down, and the Chevalier is more or less kidnapped by his father to bring about a separation, and after a time is brought to his senses. He is then enrolled in a seminary; but on the occasion of his first sermon, Manon spots him, calls at the seminary parlour, and seduces him once more. And so it goes on: despite all efforts to keep him on the straight and narrow, which includes a period of imprisonment in a reformatory for debauchees, des Grieux cannot live without Manon, and even follows her to Louisiana, to which she is deported as a prostitute, and where she dies in the desert.
Des Grieux knows he is wrong to love such a girl, for Manon, though lovely, is quite without conscience. She is never faithful to him, and utterly materialistic, for she leaves him whenever he runs out of money. He ought not to love her, he knows his father has only his wellbeing in mind in trying to drag him away from her, and yet he cannot help himself. Manon, though a girl of light character, is an enchantress. This theme appears in the opera, where des Grieux several times calls Manon a “temptress”.
This moral theme, though is never quite developed in the opera. In the novel, however, when Manon dies, des Grieux breaks his sword in order to dig her a grave in the desert sand. Then he leaves her, and returns to France, and to his father. he has come to his senses. This is not really a tragedy: it is rather a liberation. Des Grieux at long last is free from his obsessive love, and can now do what he should have done long ago. He can go home.
Home is in fact the great theme of this novel, for it is the story of how our sins lead us away from home, and how, when we have finally reached the depths of degradation, we can always go home to the father who has never stopped loving us. The novel has often been branded somewhat pornographic, though it is nothing of the sort, even if it does contain a frank treatment of the theme of passion. It was written by a priest, and its ultimate source book is of course the parable of the Prodigal Son.
The current production of the opera sees it all in a post-modernist key. In the opera Manon and Des Grieux have no home to go to the are lost in the world; nor is there any real drama in the relationship between them, no hint that des Grieux has more to lose than merely his dignity.
Of course this is very much the “correct” stance for any modern work. Human beings are lost in the world, for there is no such thing as the world, merely a continuing series of delusory constructs that exit purely in our minds. Gone is the independently existing morality of the Abbe Prevost’s world; nowadays we all live in the world of Holden Caulfield, and there is no catcher in the rye. But it is this morality, essentially the morality of the Catholic Church, that makes the Abbé’s novel such a great one. It mean his story can challenge us today, rather than just telling us what we already know. That’s why one should read it. The opera is wonderful, but there is a great novel behind it too.
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