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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

Return to and possess the entire and perfect jewel of Manon


_Manon Lescaut._]

[Sidenote: Its uniqueness.]

It would be a very interesting question in that study of literature--rather unacademic, or perhaps academic in the best sense only--which might be so near and is so far--whether the man is most to be envied who reads _Manon Lescaut_ for the first time in blissful ignorance of these other things, and even of what has been said of them; or he who has, by accident or design, toiled through the twenty volumes of the others and comes upon Her. My own case is the former: and I am far from quarrelling with it. But I sometimes like to fancy--now that I have reversed the proceeding--what it would have been like to dare the voices--the endless, dull, half-meaningless, though not threatening voices--of those other books--to refrain even from the appendix to the _Memoires_ as such, and never, till the _Modern Greekess_ has been dispatched, return to and possess the entire and perfect jewel of _Manon_. I used to wonder, when, for nearer five and twenty than twenty years, I read for review hundreds of novels, English and French, whether anybody would ever repeat Prevost's extraordinary spurt and "sport" in this wonderful little book. I am bound to say that I never knew an instance. The "first book" which gives a promise--dubious it may be, but still promising--and is never followed by anything that fulfils this, is not so very uncommon, though less common in prose fiction than

in poetry. The not so very rare "single-speech" poems are also not real parallels. It is of the essence of poetry, according to almost every theory, that it should be, occasionally at least, inexplicable and unaccountable. I believe that every human being is capable of poetry, though I should admit that the exhibition of the capability would be in most cases--I am sure it would be in my own--"highly to be deprecated." But with a sober prose fiction of some scope and room and verge it is different. The face of Helen; the taste of nectar; the vision of the clouds or of the sea; the passion of a great action in oneself or others; the infinite poignancy of suffering or of pleasure, may draw--once and never again--immortal verse from an exceedingly mortal person. Such things might also draw a phrase or a paragraph of prose. But they could not extract a systematic and organised prose tale of some two hundred pages, each of them much fuller than those of our average six-shilling stuff; and yet leave the author, who had never shown himself capable of producing anything similar before, unable to produce anything in the least like it again. I wonder that the usual literary busybodies have never busied themselves--perhaps they have, for during a couple of decades I have not had the opportunity of knowing everything that goes on in French literature as I once did--with Prevost, demonstrating that _Manon_ was a posthumous work of the Regent (who was a clever man), or an expression of a real passion which lay at the back of Richelieu's debauchery, or written by some unknown author from whom the Abbe bought it, and who died early, or something else of the kind.

There does not, however, appear to be the slightest chance or hope or fear (whichever expression be preferred) of the kind. Although Prevost elsewhere indulges--as everybody else for a long time in France and England alike did, save creative geniuses like Fielding--in transparently feigned talk about the origins of his stories, he was a very respectable man in his way, and not at all likely to father or to steal any one else's work in a disreputable fashion. There are no other claimants for the book: and though it may be difficult for a foreigner to find the faults of style that Gustave Planche rebukes in Prevost generally, there is nothing in the mere style of _Manon_ which sets it above the others.

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