Thursday, March 26, 2015

Prosper Mérimée (1803-1870)

Prosper Mérimée iPhone Case

Mérimée is one of my compensations for not being able to read French well enough to manage Balzac or Proust. His most productive period came early and did not last very long; in 1834 he was appointed Inspector of Historic Monuments and thereafter his brilliant career as a hard-working public servant meant that the literary output became fitful. But when the stories did emerge, like Carmen (1845), they were as casual and wily as ever.

Chronique du temps de Charles IX (1829)

One of the first works to show how fertile Scott's influence would prove in Europe: the effect, as usual, very different from Scott and playing on a wholly different register of ironic subtleties. A wonderfully readable book.

Mateo Falcone (1829)

The "ravins" of the topographical opening paragraph return with changed effect at the end; Mateo tells his wife that Fortunato's body lies in the ravine. The comedy of "Si vous avez tué un homme" is also changed, into the harshness concealing tenderness of "Elle est bien longue, n'importe". In the key central scene, the soldier turns the child's inherited pride this way and that until he finds a way to get what he wants. This is a perfect short story - the challenge for later writers was to achieve that perfection without resorting to such soon-exhausted extremes as filicide.

La Partie de trictrac (1830)

One of the great gambling stories. Roger's moment of dishonesty proves to have appalling consequences that he is unable to avert or undo, though he tries to give half the money back. In fact it's the Dutchman's principles, as well as his own lack of them, that destroys them both.


Le Vase Etrusque (1830)

Auguste Saint-Clair, a man whose opinions are concealed, has influenced conceptions of his author. So too Stendhal's remark: I am not too sure of his heart, but I am of his talent.  

La Double Méprise (1833)

This is an extremely wily, sinuous, story in which the reader comes to share in Julie de Chaverny's illusions; they are shattered for both reader and heroine at the same time. There's no suggestion of anything exceptional about Julie, any really amiable qualities, but she is a victim. As a presentation of the male-dominated social structure under which she suffers, it is devastating. I thought while reading it that she might have communicated better with her husband, that the marriage had become fossilized at an early stage into patterns for which she must bear partial responsibility - I still think Mérimée intends that suggestion, in the scene where she so expertly rids herself of Chaverny by entering into dressmaking details with her maid. Yet the necessary level of communication between men and women is scarcely shown to be possible. Those women who thrive in this high society do so by restricting their needs to what can be satisfied within it - Mme. Lambert, etc. Julie's need for rescue does not come into this category.

The graduated presentation of Darcy is brilliant. In a short story, imagine the author opting to tell the sideline story of Darcy's rescued woman in Constantinople not once, but twice! When Darcy tells the story about himself more circumstantially, he strips off a lot of the idealistic colouring, yet (along with Julie) we interpret this as modesty, we think Darcy is understating his good nature, comically exaggerating his irritation. In fact he is, no doubt, still idealizing himself. Then there's the famous coach-scene, later used in defence of Flaubert's Mme. Bovary. And then the heroic image of Darcy collapses, in his words immediately following, in his post-coital pipesmoking scene at home, and later in his shallow message, the one in English. I use the word "shallow" from Julie's point of view. Yet it's clear that she has to a large extent deceived herself about Darcy; he has indeed lied, but as it were automatically (remember those oh so intimate "revelations" of the two things he has always wanted...), he has not engineered the situation.

Julie has believed - a belief she has created now, not long-nurtured, that their youthful companionship, based on a common fondness for ironic médisant, implied similar ideals. Now we see that it meant nothing of the kind, but should instead have acted as a warning of what Darcy, a man, was really like.

Julie's subsequent, so-sudden demise (a high fever, spitting blood) is absurd but it doesn't spoil the story. It is like a Euripidean deus ex machina, bringing down the curtain on a web of problems that have now become too intractable to pursue. It leaves us wondering how this not uncommon train of events would have worked itself out in reality, and why this could not be shown in fiction.

Les Âmes du Purgatoire (1834)

This is Mérimée's version of the Don Juan legend. He presents it, first of all, as a descent into libertinism under the guidance of the tempter, Don Garcia. The libertinism is made coldly unattractive.Then Don Juan is converted by a terrifying vision (just as he is about to complete the ruin of a nun for whose sister's death he is already responsible) and becomes austerely devout. The story mutates into a religious hagiography of a reclaimed sinner. In view of Mérimée's lifelong atheism, the apparently complete seriousness of this exercise is unnerving. The irony has gone missing, leaving in its place an ironic vacuum.

Carmen (1845)

Mérimée's fascination with Spain invites comparison with Richard Ford's. He was there in the second half of 1830, overlapping with Ford, but unlike Ford returned in 1840 and twice more in later years (after Carmen had been published).

Bizet's great opera was produced five years after Mérimée's death. Comparisons between the two are inevitable and fascinating. In the opera Carmen has no betrothed; in the story she has, and José kills him. This José becomes thoroughly immersed in his new and violent career as a robber and smuggler. All the same, we are expected to endorse some of José's highly critical view of the woman he murders. Carmen is an effective and unscrupulous criminal operator. The two works take quite different approaches to exploiting the glamourous appeal of Bohémiens/gitanos.

Mérimée's story is in four parts. In the first part the narrator, engaged in archaeological research in the wilds of Andalucia, falls in with the notorious contrebandier Don José and connives in his escape from justice; in the second, now in Córdoba, he runs across Carmen, who steals his watch, and then re-encounters José, now portrayed as a Carmen's grumpy partner; leaves Córdoba for a few months and returns to find José awaiting garrotting for his many crimes. In the third and major part, José supplies a death-cell narrative - this is the story corresponding to the opera - ending with Carmen's death and José giving himself up to the Cordoban authorities. The fourth part, with a kind of deliberate chilliness, makes no reference to the preceding material at all, but presents the narrator's (or author's?) researches into Romany culture and dubious speculations on Romany language. It's teasingly difficult to decide if this last section is still within the fictional frame or not. Its blank contrast with the sensations stirred by the preceding part is calculated and typically Mériméesque.   


(2007)

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