Prosper Mérimée (2516 words)


Mérimée was born in Paris on 18 September 1803 as the only child in a cultivated, free-thinking, anglophile family (his father Léonor Mérimée was taught drawing at the École polytechnique). The motto he later adopted, Μεμνησο απιστειν (“Remember to be distrustful”) is revealing: he preserved a timid and sensitive nature behind an asumed aloofness and formality. A voracious reader in a range of languages (Greek, Spanish, English, later Russian), he studied law in Paris (1819-23). From the age of 20 he mixed with painters and writers in liberal and Romantic salons, becoming (1822) a friend of Stendhal (in 1850 he circulated privately a pamphlet, H. B., commemorating his personality), and published a series of innovative works which established him by 1830 as a leading figure in French Romanticism. After a trip to Spain in 1830, during which he became friendly with the Montijo family, Mérimée embarked in 1831 on a career as civil servant, seeking greater security than he could have as a writer. He showed himself a hard-working and highly competent administrator and played a key role in listing and saving much of France's architectural heritage as Inspector-General of Historical Monuments (1834-60). He travelled widely inside France and throughout Europe. The former liberal became increasingly conservative after the insurrection of June 1848. When Napoléon III married Eugénie de Montijo in 1853 he became a figure at court. His public role, official honours (he became a Senator in 1853) and his closeness to the Empire harmed his literary reputation in the eyes of many contemporaries, notably Victor Hugo. This later career included pioneering translations of Pushkin, Turgeniev, and Gogol, annotated editions of Agrippa d'Aubigné (Aventures du baron Fœneste, 1855) and Brantôme (Œuvres complètes [Complete Works], 1858-9), and historical studies, which show a predilection for violent times: the Times of Trouble in Russia, the reign of Pedro the Cruel of Castile, and for energetic individuals: Julius Caesar, the Cossack leaders Bogdan Chmielnicki and Stenka Razin, Peter the Great. His correspondence reveals a sharp and sceptical observer of contemporary reality with an acute sense of the ridiculous. His last years were marked by ill-health (asthma) and growing pessimism; he died in Cannes on 23 September 1870.

Mérimée's first works challenged literary norms in different genres while displaying elements of mystification, an ironic detachment, and a realism that keeps him from full-blooded Romanticism. The brief plays of the Théâtre de Clara Gazul [The Plays of Clara Gazul],1825, purportedly translated from the Spanish, aggressively break with conventions of French theatre in keeping with the theories of Stendhal and Hugo. Liberal and anticlerical in spirit, they mingle comic and tragic elements and accumulate poisonings, blasphemy, and suicide with direct language, abrupt changes of tone and heavily laid on local colour. The later, more authentically theatrical Le Carrosse du Saint-Sacrement ([The Coach of the Blessed Sacrament], 1829, with its actress heroine is also known through adaptations, as operetta (Offenbach's La Périchole, 1868) and film (Jean Renoir's Le Carrosse d'or [The Golden Coach], 1952). The folk ballads of La Guzla ([The Guzla], 1827, a pastiche “translation” published anonymously allegedly from the Dalmatian brigand-cum-outlaw Hyacinthe Maglanovich, evoke battles, lovers, brigands, vampires and the evil eye. La Jacquerie [The Jacquerie], 1828, adopts the dialogue form of the scène historique, echoing Shakespeare's history plays and Goethe's Götz von Berlichingen, to give a panoramic picture of a peasant revolt in fourteenth-century France. Its 36 scenes present greedy clergy, cruel nobles, pusillanimous bourgeois, savage and and naïve peasants: the work is imbued with scepticism about change, stressing the internal causes for the defeat of the Jacques.

The central event of the historical novel Chronique du règne de Charles IX [A Chronicle of the Reign of Charles IX], 1829, is the massacre St Batholomew's Day in 1572. The episodic plot follows the arrival in Paris of young Protestant Bernard de Mergy which serves as a support for a series of evocations of the times enlivened by telling detail. Bernard has an affair with a Catholic lady at court, and a duel, and escapes the massacre, but the fanaticism of both sides and the fratricidal nature of civil war are underlined in the conclusion when he kills his brother who is fighting for the King, and with whose scepticism Mérimée identifies. The overall pessimistic vision is combined with humour, and Mérimée mischievously subverts the conventions of the genre in a chapter when the narrator refuses to give portraits of great historical figures, and in a provocatively flippant close leaves it to the reader to imagine the future of Bernard and his mistress.

In 1829 Mérimée published “Mateo Falcone” in the Revue de Paris, one of the reviews that were providing an outlet for short fiction (boosted by the vogue of the first French translations of E. T. A. Hoffmann); it represents the first masterpiece of the modern French short story. A series of tales followed, all evoking sudden, violent action and strong emotions with laconic concision and and eye for precise detail, and focusing on a single crisis: a brief but bloody combat in Napoleon's invasion of Russia (“L'Enlèvement de la redoute” [“The Storming of the Redoubt”]), a disturbing prophetic vision (“La Vision de Charles XI” [“The Vision of Charles XI”]), a revolt on a slaving ship (“Tamango”). Characterisation exists as a function of events. Mateo Falcone executes his only son for betraying a fugitive to the police: Mérimée reworks a traditional Corsican tale to highlight Mateo's pride, ruthlessness, and singlemindedness. The individual life seems insignificant; the stories close without moral comment: “Mateo fired, and Fortunato fell stone dead.”

Though he affected not to take seriously his “petites drôleries” (“amusements”), his fame rests on these stories witten between 1829 and 1830, and on 11 others which he wrote intermittently thereafter (“Carmen” has been filmed almost 80 times). They vary in length from half-a-dozen pages to over 150. Many draw on pre-existing material: traditional tales, historical documents, or personal material acquired in the course of his travels (“Colomba”, “Carmen”). His wide reading and first-hand observation provide local colour. We are aware of the controlling presence of the narrator's voice, whether this is a character involved in events, or an external narrator, urbane and knowledgable, who often signals his presence to the reader with ironic remarks: that of “Colomba” comments on local colour, moustaches, the English, and refers to “a former bandit friend of mine”.

The tales start with the reassuringly familiar to lead us imperceptibly into an outlandish world of gypsies and bandits, passion and magic, or seemingly impossible events: a statue coming to life, a man whose strange behaviour might be explained by his mother's rape by a bear. If there is sometimes a twist at the end of the tale, it is not the mechanical surprise sometimes associated with the short story, but an inconguous or deflating turn: the African chief Tamango, taken captive by slavers, leads a revolt that results in the deaths of the slavers, the other slaves and his own wife; he ends his life a cymbalist with a drink problem in the band of the British army in Jamaica.

They form three main but not exclusive groups. Those with exotic settings are marked by a Romantic sense of “local colour”: the differences between cultures both externally (costumes, customs) and in terms of moral codes. The fascination with the passion and energy he saw in more “primitive” societies, which is absent from the dull or hypocritical modern word, is counterbalanced by a detachment and an awareness of the dangers of these forces: what is authentic and exciting may be destructive. This admiration remains essentially aesthetic rather than moral: the narrator notes, of the ferocity of the eyes of the statue of the Venus of Ille, that “energy, even in evil passions, always arouses in us wonder and a sort of involuntary admiration”. The awareness of cultural differences is also coupled with the sense at a deeper level of constants in human nature: the vendettas of “primitive” Corsica resemble the duels of “civilised” France. The exotic setting jolts the reader out of conventional assumptions: our codes and attitudes are not the only defensible ones. “Tamango” sets in parallel savagery and civilisation. Neither shows itself in a good light: the cruelty, profiteering, and egoism of the slavers are set against the equally brutal blacks. Both white and black leaders seeks to control women and are destroyed by their passion.

The second group of tales have in common their exploitation of the fantastic: the destabilising intrusion into the everyday world of something that leaves the reader hesitating between a rational explanation that seems inadequate or implausible, and an alternative that presupposes a violation of the laws of nature. “La Vénus d'Ille” [“The Venus of Ille”], 1837, opens with a realistic and lightly comic evocation of provincial France: the Parisian narrator arrives in Ille, is welcomed by the local archaeologist, M. de Peyrehorade, full of the recent discovery of “his” Greco-Roman statue. His initial scepticism – he mocks the “superstitious” locals – is challenged by odd, then disturbing incidents, and then horror when Peyrehorade's son Alphonse is found dead on his wedding night. A rational explanation seems insufficient (an improbable act of revenge by an Aragonese muleteer, defeated in a game of tennis); the only alternative is supernatural: that the statue has come to life and crushed Alphonse. Behind the statue (whose disdainful and cruel smile is that of Carmen and Colomba) seems to lie the power of love in its most destructive form — with which the hapless Alphonse has played thoughtlessly (marrying for money, putting his wedding ring on the statue's finger whilst he plays tennis). In this story, which Mérimée considered his masterpiece, the hesitation is left unresolved; in other tales we find sometimes a reassuring explanation for a series of weird and increasingly alarming events (“Il Vicolo di madama Lucrezia”, 1846, “Djoûmane”, 1870) or are left with the only plausible explanation being rationally impossible (“Lokis”, 1869).

In contrast a third group of contemporary Parisian tales — “Le Vase étrusque” [“The Etruscan Vase”], 1830, “Arsène Guillot” (1844), “La Double Méprise” [“A Slight Misunderstanding”], 1833 — turn on the lack of openness and honesty in contemporary society, where hypocrisy, self-deception, and vanity can destroy a life. In “La Double Méprise” Julie de Chaverney, irritated with her husband and marriage, convinces herself that she has always loved a young diplomat returned from abroad. She takes Darcy for the hero of a novel and retrospectively reinvents her feelings for him; picking her up in his carriage after hers has crashed, he takes her for a woman in search of a brief adventure; and she gives herself to a man for whom she had only felt a fleeting attraction in the past, and met again only a few hours earlier. Desperate at the “méprise”, she leaves Paris for Nice to find her mother and dies en route of a fever. In “Arsène Guillot” the devout Mme de Piennes persuades herself that her concern is to lead the courtesan Arsène Guillot to renunciation and repentance, and to save the soul of the engaging Max de Salligny, one of Arsène's previous lovers; but we guess that she visits the dying Arsène to see Max. Mme de Piennes is prey to pride, jealousy, and self-delusion, whereas the “fallen” Arsène embodies remorse, lucidity, and self-sacrifice. Mérimée felt sympathy for the poetry and intensity of simple faiths and superstitions, but subversively shows religion in contemporary France reinforcing the vanity and self-deception that leads to adultery.

In all three types of story something inexplicable or uncontrolled lies at the heart of the story. Mérimée's original Carmen differs from that of Bizet's opera in that she is seen through the eyes of two men: the infatuated Don José, and the historian (the initial narrator) to whom José relates his relationship with the gypsy. In consequence she remains elusive. In the nineteenth century she was variously interpreted as a thief and common prostitute, or a diabolical temptress, or as the embodiment of passion and freedom, even a feminist heroine. Subsequently Don José was seen as the central figure, but interpreted equally variously as truthful and sympathetic in his account of his downfall, or gullible, or deceiving both himself and the listener to whom he constantly appeals for sympathy by not understanding his own character and misrepresenting Carmen as a femme fatale. His retrospective account of his relationship with the gypsy — how he is led to kill a lieutenant, desert his regiment, lead a life as smuggler, and finally kill her out of possessive jealousy — can be read as a means of exculpating himself – he glosses over his own lack of self-control and tendency to violence – and blaming Carmen. This perspective is further complicated by the fascination of the French archaeologist-historian for a world of bandits, sexual liberty, and magic that he sees embodied in Carmen and her lover. The “real” nature of Carmen remains enigmatic; we do not know what impulse causes her to throw a flower at Don José. Chance and disruptive or unstable feelings are likewise at the centre of the Parisian tales. In “Lokis” Count Szémioth, who knows the power of his bear-like instincts, asks the pastor and the doctor how one can explain “the duality or the duplicity of our nature”, the fact that we can contemplate acts that our rational self abhors. They can find no satisfactory answer. The scepticism about civilisation and human control in the face of a quirky fate, chance, or instinct is something that Mérimée merely notes wryly. His scepticism denied him any belief in God, but equally any alternative nineteenth-century confidence in Science and Progress.

In his presentation of these recurrent themes, Mérimée sets up ironic tensions through his style and choice of witnesses. Sceptical or puritanical academics are confronted by passion and violent death in exotic surroundings (“Lokis”, “La Vénus d'Ille”). An English Colonel and his niece are caught up in a Corsican vendetta (“Colomba”). A calm and measured style records tersely and dispassionately the appalling events evoked, with an eye for bizarre or incongruous detail. Crucial events of life and death pass with shocking rapidity. Mérimée combines narrative control with a sense of human destiny that escapes the individual's control.

Mérimée remains a gripping but sceptical storyteller suspicious of the power of fiction. In “La Partie de trictrac” [“The Game of Backgammon”], 1830, Lieutenant Roger cheats at backgammon in a key game; his losing opponent commits suicide; Roger's life is destroyed by knowing how trivial was his motive for cheating. This story is told on a becalmed boat by the Captain who is interrupted by the sighting of whales. Roger dies, but we never learn how: storytelling passes the time, but only when there is nothing better to do. At the end of “Carmen” the older narrator, who now sees gypsies not as fascinating individuals but ethnological and philological specimens, sems to mock the futility of all story-telling by quoting a Romany proverb: “Keep your mouth closed and the flies won't get in.”

Citation: Cogman, Peter. "Prosper Mérimée". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 30 June 2003 [, accessed 23 October 2020.]

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