Saturday, June 15, 2013

Abbé Prévost — ‘Manon Lescaut’

MOOCs, then. A good idea? It seems so, at first glance. The extension of university teaching into the wider, virtual world, for free, and with peer review taking the place of assessment by a tutor, seems just what the attention-atomising internet needs at this point. It’s unlikely that peer review could ever be as good as the thing it’s replacing, but that’s fine, because you wouldn’t want universities to be replaced. It’s good advertising for them, and great news for those of us with day jobs who nevertheless want to keep our brains ticking over. So I registered with Coursera a while ago, not really thinking I’d get around to taking a course, and then one came up, with an interesting reading list and premise, called ‘The Fiction of Relationship’. So far it is touchingly old school. When I last studied English at university, fifteen years ago, literary theory was in the ascendancy: authors were dead, and texts were absolute. This meant that you couldn’t read anything autobiographical into a text (what a horrible word for ‘book’), and you couldn’t study anything in translation because the translated version wasn’t the text at all (talk about throwing out the baby with the bath water). ‘The Fiction of Relationship’ is opposed to both of these hang-ups, and it’s a delight to find that the first book on the course is a) French and b) so sharply focused on one man’s ruinous passion for a woman that it’s impossible not to engage emotionally, take sides, and relate the story’s events to real life. Up yours, Barthes (I’m paraphrasing slightly from the second lecture).

I won’t say too much about the book here, as there’s a mini-essay on it due tomorrow, and I’d probably end up plagiarising myself. It reminded me a little of another eighteenth century novel, Henry Fielding’s Amelia, for the murky moral world it portrays, in which sex-as-commodity is the norm (and it’s the upper classes who are the predators, as they can afford to buy it), and for the protagonist who goes against the grain in believing in something as idealised as love. Neither Billy Booth, Amelia’s husband, nor the Chevalier des Grieux, Manon’s lover, are exactly on the ball, but from what I can remember of Amelia, Booth is not as crazily cavalier as des Grieux, who is blind to everything but Manon, and accedes to her every misguided whim, landing himself in jail twice, and killing a prison guard during one of the subsequent jailbreaks (which, weirdly, doesn’t matter at all as the novel pans out). It’s a great read, and it’s interesting, too, to find the source of Serge Gainsbourg’s song ‘Manon’, and to find that Henri-Georges Clouzou made a film based on the book in 1949, the year before The Wages of Fear. That would be worth seeing.

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