Friday, February 15, 2008

Puzzling over Prosper Mérimée

The puzzle about Prosper Mérimée (1803-70) is why he's not read more, outside of France. He wrote Carmen (1845), the source of the opera, which keeps his name around, but I don't know how often that translates into readers. Oxford World’s Classics has kept an edition of his stories in print, so someone is reading it. More people should. Here’s the beginning and ending of the first paragraph of Carmen:

"I had always suspected that the geographers were talking nonsense when they located the site of the Battle of Munda in the territory of the Bastuli-Poeni, near present-day Monda, about two leagues north of Marbella... While waiting for my dissertation to resolve once and for all the geographical problem which is holding all learned Europe in suspense, I want to tell you a little story. It in no way prejudges the fascinating question of the site of the battle of Munda."

The narrator follows this pedantry with a story of love, madness, sex, brutal murders, Gypsies and bandits. So it turns out that Mérimée is funny. I don’t think any of the classical geography made it into Bizet’s Carmen.

Mérimée specialized in the exotic – Gypsies, slave ship revolts, Corsica, Lithuania. Sometimes his stories have supernatural elements, and sometimes just wild people. The two Corsican tales, the novella Colomba (1840) and the tiny “Mateo Falcone” (1829) are both horrible tales of revenge. Walter Pater called “Mateo Falcone” “perhaps the cruelest story in the world.” Pater was a sort of human orchid, so not a trustworthy source, but in this case he is only wrong because he apparently was not aware of certain stories of Heinrich von Kleist. Colomba, though, is completely different. Maybe a sketch is in order.

The Nevils, father and daughter are bored by Rome. The hunting is bad, and the daughter can’t find anything that all of her friends haven’t already seen and sketched.* They by chance make their way to Corsica, which promises exotic hunting and sketching, and the excitement promised by the dashing Lieutenant della Rebbia. It looks like this will be the story of outsiders confronting Romantic Coriscan culture. But there's a bit of a trick – della Rebbia, returning from the Napoleonic Wars, is actually the outsider now. The core of the book is his struggle with his sister Colomba over how to revenge his father’s death.

This story has everything. Shootouts, revenge, romance, a final shocker. It's been filmed many times in France and Italy, as early as 1918, as late as 2005. A puzzle why it's not better known in English.

* "At the Hôtel Beauveau Miss Lydia had a bitter disappointment. She had brought back with her a pretty sketch of the Pelasgic or Cyclopean gate at Segni, which she believed the artists had overlooked. However, on meeting her in Marseilles, Lady Frances Fenwich showed Lydia her album, in which, bewteen a sonnet and a dried flower, the gate in question was to be found, embellished with lavish applications of burnt sienna. Miss Lydia gave the gate at Segni to her chambermaid, and quite lost her esteem for Pelasgic edifices."


  1. Well it's very nice to come across someone posting on Merimee, who I have never before seen flagged up in blogland. I've read a lot of French lit but I must admit I've never read him. I'm most interested in his tales of the fantastic, and know I have one on my shelf to read - though I cannot remember the title. Thank you for encouraging me to go hunt it out now and shift it higher up the tbr pile.

  2. "The Venus of Ille" and "Lokis" are the two stories in the Oxford book with supernatural elements. Neither plot is original, but both are told with great verve and humor.

    I read a version of the "Venus of Ille" story just last year, but by whom? It's driving me nuts. A German Romantic, I'm pretty sure of that. It's the old "oops, I accidentally married a statue" plot. Tim Burton used the same device in Corpse Bride.

  3. This has nothing to do with this post, but we watched The Jane Austen Book Club last night. I enjoyed and decided that I must read some Jane Austen.

  4. I don't know who you were reading but odds are it *was* a German Romantic. I'm going to guess Holderlin. Maybe "Der Sandmann?" Maybe you were at the opera, and saw Zampa (ou La Fiancee de Marbre)by Louis Ferdinand Herold. It premiered in 1831 at the Opera comique. The French and the Germans have this thing about animated statues, go figure. The end of Zampa is hilarious -- it's clicking right along and then it suddenly turns into Don Giovanni...the statue of Alice shanghais the Count off to hell, and the orchestra goes nuts. The overture's nice, though.

    Hey! An actual use for my pointless, huge mental catalogue of opera libretti and plots. Thanks, Dr. Seaver and Western Civ 2!

  5. Hoffmann. E.T.A. Hoffmann is who I was thinking of, sorry about that.

  6. Must be Hoffmann, with all of his clockwork women and whatnot. Thanks for the Zampa business. I'm listening to the frothy overture now. Seaver ran an unusual Western Civ class. Great shame that I missed it.

  7. I read A Slight Misunderstanding, which I wrote up over on mine, it's nice to see someone else writing about Merimee though and you've plainly read more than I have. I'll have to dig out Colomba though, and Mateo Falcone. Marvellous stuff and that quote was just tremendous.

  8. Max, I read that post way back when, and a few minutes later discovered that none of my libraries had A Slight Misunderstanding yet. I continue to hope.

  9. I just read this morning "Columba" and "Mateo Falcone"-this is my first contact with his work-it was a quote from Isaac Babel that lead me to read him-I think he is a very strong "underground" literary influence-I liked both of these stories a lot-