Captivating the Orient: The Marquis De Renoncour's Turkish Adventure

By Young, Paul J. | Philological Quarterly, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Captivating the Orient: The Marquis De Renoncour's Turkish Adventure


Young, Paul J., Philological Quarterly


The marquis de Renoncour plays perhaps the most important "supporting role" in the history of eighteenth-century French literature. Renoncour's cameo appearance is so subtle, however, that many forget that he is in fact the invisible interlocutor of des Grieux's tale in the Histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut. Indeed, although it is his first-person narrative that opens the tale of a young nobleman driven to ruin by love, fate and passion--"Je suis oblige de faire remonter mon lecteur au temps de ma vie ou je rencontrai pour la premiere fois le Chevalier des Grieux. Ce rut environ six mois avant mon depart pour l'Espagne" (1)--the last word falls to des Grieux, the marquis having been long forgotten by most readers.

Manon's tale, however, is simply the last work in the seven-volume Memoires et aventures d'un homme de qualite, the first volumes of which were published in 1728, which the marquis narrates. (2) These memoirs offer the fictive autobiography of the marquis de Renoncour (the "man of condition" mentioned in the title) and describe the trajectory that leads this young nobleman, after extensive travel, to retire to a religious retreat in order to "pouvoir retrouver la paix du coeur, dans les exercises d'une vie douce et tranquille" (3) (212). Although most Prevost scholarship has focused on Manon Lescaut, giving a rare nod to the Memoires as a whole, I would like to focus on a pivotal book in the man of condition's story. (4) I will examine Book Four of the Memoires, which concerns itself entirely with the marquis' ten-year exile and enslavement in Turkey during the period 1689-1699.

In Book Three the marquis, having lost his fortune in France following the contestation of his inheritance, finds himself in Vienna, where he is eager to "servir l'Empereur contre les infideles" (120). Renoncourjoins the Imperial forces in the fight against the Ottoman Empire, and is dispatched to Vidin, in northwestern Bulgaria. After a series of military victories, and the retreat of the Turks, the Imperial army retires for the winter. The marquis, left behind, soon finds himself in a bloody skirmish with Ottoman forces. At the end of a battle in which the Imperial troops are vastly outnumbered, the marquis is taken prisoner and transported to Sofia as the slave of one Elid Ibezu. From Sofia, the narrator travels to Adrianople (now Edirne, at the conjunction of modern-day Turkey, Bulgaria and Greece), and finally westward to Amasya, where he will settle in his master's home there. Book Four opens with Renoncour's first day of captivity, and recounts the marquis' "Turkish adventure," a decade-long period of enslavement, during which he will tutor his master's children, translate Fenelon's Telemaque into Turkish, marry his master's daughter, and manage to serve effectively as a de-facto ambassador of French culture to the Ottoman Empire in the latter years of the seventeenth century.

It appears that despite the narrator's enslavement in Book Four, Prevost has created a character that is much more captivating than captive. The marquis' noble birth, education, and numerous talents obscure his status as a slave, procuring for him a remarkable freedom of movement. This "captive" will be able to exert a long-lasting influence on Turkish culture, both regionally (in Amasya), as well as nationally. Prevost's representation of this de-facto ambassador, who effortlessly spreads French culture and French literature to a receptive Turkish public, offers some important differences from Prevost's source material, as well as from the actual difficulties endured by the French envoys to the Porte, as Louis XIV's correspondence to them indicates. Through a close reading of Prevost's text, an analysis of his source material for the Memoires, and an examination of historical documents that reveal France's diplomatic difficulties with the Ottoman Empire, I will argue that the ease with which the marquis fulfills his unofficial ambassadorship presents for the reader an Orientalist fantasy in which France is able to exercise a kind cultural "colonization" within the Ottoman Empire.

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