18. Manon Lescaut, Abbé Prévost (1731)

I’ve always had a thing for novels about prostitutes (see Nana, City of Night, La Dame aux camélias) – quite apart from the obvious fascination of the subject matter, it just seems to lend itself very well to fiction. Manon Lescaut is the jewel in that rather tarnished crown, and it’s simultaneously the most powerful and most pitiless depiction of commercial sex. Manon herself is shameless and unashamed – she loves Des Grieux, but she’ll always follow the money. And Des Grieux, the faithful lover, is portrayed both as a hero and a fool. Every time Manon leaves him for a richer protector, he rants and raves and says he can never forgive her, then comes crawling back. Prévost leaves little doubt about why: underneath the flowery protestations, it’s sex that drives the relationship. The plot of Manon Lescaut is simple but great – especially at the end, with the lovers hounded into exile – and the narrative device (the elderly Des Grieux confessing to a stranger) frames the tragic story with chilling precision. Manon Lescaut is the stock from which so much that’s great in French literature springs, and of course it was operafied by Puccini, which makes it practically a sacred text.

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