If it had not been for Puccini’s opera, I would never have heard of Manon Lescaut. As it was, finding a copy of the novel behind the opera wasn’t easy: it was not kept on the open shelves in my public library, but locked away; and the basilisk stare with which the librarian gave me my copy left me in no doubt that this was a work of the utmost depravity.
And so, happily, it proved: a story of two randy teenagers, a novel about passionate sexual attraction that is described in terms both comprehensible and believable. Few writers evoke passion credibly. Jane Austen does (think of Wickham and Lydia, Mr Crawford and Maria), Dickens emphatically does not; our contemporaries either evoke gales of laughter or win the Literary Review Bad Sex prize. Manon Lescaut, which appeared in 1731, is one of the first novels ever written, and is the template for all subsequent portrayals of human passion. As a youngster of 19 I was enthralled; twenty-five years have passed, and I am enthralled still; no one beats the Abbé Prévost, as he is usually designated, as a chronicler of the organs a short distancebelow the human heart.
My younger self was further struck by the fact that the author was an ordained Catholic priest. Though a somewhat rackety character, he was a Benedictine monk, albeit one who spent practically no time in the cloister. His novel had the good fortune to be banned soon after publication on grounds of obscenity – surely a publicist’s dream.
The Story of the Chevalier des Grieux and Manon Lescaut, to give the book its full title, is the story the eponymous Chevalier tells ‘a gentleman of quality’ whom he meets on the road to Le Havre. Des Grieux, a young man of good family, is trailing after Manon Lescaut, his mistress, who is being transported to the New World in a convoy of convicted prostitutes. Two years later, the Chevalier returns to France, meets the gentleman again, and tells him the whole stor
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