Other literary forms

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 154

Abbé Prévost (pray-VOH) has been described as the first truly self-supporting man of letters in France. According to the Henry Harrisse edition, Prévost published more than 120 volumes during his career, including more than forty translations; histories of travel; moral and didactic tracts on various subjects of contemporary interest; and...

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Abbé Prévost (pray-VOH) has been described as the first truly self-supporting man of letters in France. According to the Henry Harrisse edition, Prévost published more than 120 volumes during his career, including more than forty translations; histories of travel; moral and didactic tracts on various subjects of contemporary interest; and more than thirty volumes of prose fiction. He also founded the literary journal Le Pour et contre, which appeared from 1733 to 1740 and was designed as a forum for the discussion of European writers. Prévost’s work was highly esteemed by some of the most acute literary commentators of his own time, but aside from Manon Lescaut, more recent French critics have regarded his work as a part of literary history rather than living literature. Among those books that are of interest to the modern reader are the novels The Dean of Killerine, The History of a Fair Greek, and Le Monde moral.

Achievements

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 603

Although Abbé Prévost was a very versatile writer who did significant work in several areas of literary endeavor, the novel Manon Lescaut is undoubtedly his masterwork and the primary reason for his reputation as an author of note. The book was an immediate success in Europe, and in spite of its suppression in France in 1733, it has always been available there, with new editions, featuring comments by popular writers, issued regularly. Manon Lescaut was translated into English the year after its publication in Amsterdam in 1733, and a new English translation has appeared every thirty years or so since then.

During the nineteenth century, the novel was the inspiration for three operas, the light and airy Manon Lecaut of Daniel-François-Esprit Auber (1856), the well-known Manon of Jules Massenet (1884), and the darkly powerful Manon Lescaut of Giacomo Puccini (1893), which is the most faithful rendition of Prévost’s work. As Alexandre Dumas, fils, remarked, “Manon is now exploited like steam or photography,” and Manon and the young Chevalier inhabit the same mythic landscape that features Romeo and Juliet and Héloïse and Abélard, among others. Guy de Maupassant’s assertion, referring to Manon Lescaut, that “no other woman was ever so completely evoked” is an example of the intensely emotional responses that the novel has drawn.

In addition to Manon Lescaut, Prévost’s other novels are an important early part of the great tradition of the European novel. LikeSamuel Richardson—whose work Prévost translated so successfully that Richardson was, for a time, more popular in France than in England—Prévost developed a language and style that defined and expressed the sensibility of an age. Jules Janin, who calls Prévost’s books “charming taleswhich, we, ungrateful, no longer read,” maintains that “in these forgotten books you find in their entirety the precious remnants of that exquisite and elegant society of Louis XIV which Prévost depicts for us and which the world is never to know again.” More than two centuries later, Prévost’s style still seems distinctive, capable of capturing in language the moral consciousness of an era and reflecting in its tone the temper and mood of an ancient culture.

While Prévost’s novels are burdened with bizarre contrivances of plot, melodramatic excess, and much repetitious and superfluous detail, the originality of their conception demonstrated for many other authors how much the novel could do. Certainly Denis Diderot, François-René de Chateaubriand, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau were influenced by Prévost’s writing, and one critic has speculated that Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Héloïse (1761) might not have been written had Prévost remained in Holland. As a testament to Prévost’s power, Alexander Vinet writes, “There are certain styles which occur only once: no one will again write like the Abbé Prévost, and Manon Lescaut is the last example of a lost style.”

Prévost was also the founder of Le Pour et contre, a journal modeled on Joseph Addison andRichard Steele’s The Spectator. Prévost presented to the French people their first really penetrating, impartial picture of England. His discussion of James Thomson’s poetry encouraged the developing Romantic revival, and his ideas on English tragedy helped to shape Voltaire’s essay on William Shakespeare. Prévost’s depiction of England is partially responsible for a radical reversal of Franco-British relations, and his open attitude toward other nations contributed to a mutuality of insight and a cross-cultural stance that formed an important part of the Romantic movement. He was one of the first writers to preach the “cosmopolitanism of genius.”

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 127

Kory, Odile A. Subjectivity and Sensitivity in the Novels of the Abbé Prévost. Montreal: Didier, 1992. Explores the psychological and moral components in Prévost’s fiction.

Miller, Nancy K. The Heroine’s Text: Readings in the French and English Novel, 1722-1782. New York: Columbia University Press, 1980. Offers persuasive interpretations of Manon Lescaut as the lodestone of Prévost’s career.

Mylne, Vivienne. “Prévost: The New Realism.” In The Eighteenth Century French Novel: Techniques of Illusion. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1965. This thirty-page essay adds considerable luster to Prévost’s influential position as purveyor of the sentimental novel.

Segal, Naomi. The Unintended Reader: Feminism and “Manon Lescaut.” New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986. Appraises critical reactions to Prévost’s novel over a two-hundred-year period.

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