Prosper Mérimée Essay - Critical Essays

Prosper Mérimée Long Fiction Analysis

For a Parisian born and bred, Prosper Mérimée’s most obvious distinguishing characteristic as a writer is indeed an odd and almost inexplicable one: All of his life he was irresistibly attracted to the exotic, in both setting and theme. For Mérimée, however, “exotic” seldom meant the truly remote, in location or time, but only that which was sharply different from his own familiar culture. Geographically, it would not be Asia or America that he would choose to write about, but places closer to home such as Spain and Corsica. He was an admirer of Sir Walter Scott but found the age of chivalry too remote and too demanding of specialized research for his taste as a writer. Renaissance France was historically the most remote culture he ever attempted to evoke. The one subject he seemed almost pointedly to avoid—with but two exceptions—was that of Parisian life in his own day. That subject, which had made his contemporary Honoré de Balzac so famous, seemed to have little appeal for Mérimée.

Perhaps because literature was, for him, a way of escaping from reality, he preferred, whenever he had a story to tell, to set it in any time and any place other than nineteenth century Paris. To judge by the kind of theme he tended to choose, moreover, Mérimée’s choice of an exotic setting seemed designed to make plausible, in his story, the two qualities he seemed to find most necessary: an element of the enigmatic or unexpected in human behavior, and the opportunity to shock his reader with a drama of violence, whether physical, emotional, or moral. Finally, in order for the exotic setting, the unexpected behavior, and the shock of violence to be combined in anarrative bearing the unmistakable stamp of a Mérimée creation, it was necessary for a tone of ironic detachment to be present in its telling. These traits of exoticism, violence, and irony were the hallmarks of almost all of Mérimée’s fiction and his theater, doubtless because they correspond to basic traits that we know to have marked Mérimée’s own character: the impulse toward escapism, simultaneous fascination with and fear of strong emotions, and timidity that often expressed itself as indifference, disdain, or mockery.

Mérimée’s distinctive characteristics as a creator were already fully visible in his first publication, the literary hoax that he published in 1825 under the title Le Théâtre de Clara Gazul (The Plays of Clara Gazul, 1825). At the front of the volume appeared the portrait of a haughty Spanish lady, shrouded in a black mantilla, identified as the celebrated Spanish actor and playwright Clara Gazul. Mérimée’s friends could recognize, in the stern countenance of the fiery actor, the actual features of Mérimée himself, who had posed for the fake portrait painted by a friend. The six plays presented in the volume, exaggerated dramas of passion and honor parodying the classic Spanish manner with such themes, tended to leave a stage strewn with dead bodies at the denouement and to bring down the curtain with a burlesque of the traditional Spanish “apology” asking the audience to “excuse the faults of the author.” The variety of exotic settings (from Denmark to Peru), the plots involving almost every known form of human violence, and the mocking, parodic tone that flaunted the volume’s nature as a hoax all combined to establish the identifying traits that Mérimée’s creative writing would thereafter always display.

The second hoax, published two years later and purporting to be a collection of popular ballads and folk poetry translated from the Serbian, bore the title La Guzla (1827), impudently evoking the previous hoax with its transparent anagram of the name of the invented Spanish playwright. The invented poems leaned heavily toward themes of dark passion, including that newly popular Balkan specialty, vampirism. It is hard to understand why the readers of 1827 did not recognize instantly that the author of La Guzla was also the author of The Plays of Clara Gazul, yet the historical fact is that La Guzla was a much more successful hoax than its predecessor. That very success perhaps encouraged Mérimée to trust his powers of invention enough to make his next undertaking a single, book-length narrative to which he would sign his own name. It was wholly in character for Mérimée that that narrative, conceived as a historical novel of the kind then favored by his fellow Romantics, should have focused on one of the most violent events of French history, the Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre of 1572.

A Chronicle of the Times of Charles the Ninth

The longest work of the imagination Mérimée ever composed, A Chronicle of the Times of Charles the Ninth continues to be read because of its witty style and sparkling characterizations rather than because of its depiction of real events and real people in sixteenth century France. Mérimée’s lengthy preface to the novel explicitly declines to place the accurate retelling of history at the center of his artistic concerns, arguing that it is more important to give an accurate impression of ordinary daily life by means of invented characters than to recount actual historical happenings in which the principal actors are the powerful and the famous.

In a historical novel, according to Mérimée, real events and real people should be relegated to the background and used sparingly, for verisimilitude only. In this novel, the central figures are indeed invented: Bernard Mergy, a Protestant gentleman, and his brother, Georges, a convert to Catholicism, represent the religious divisions of French society in that era. The consequences of those divisions are dramatized in the troubled love between Bernard Mergy and the Catholic countess Diane de Turgis, who excuses her own guilty passion by her constant efforts to convert her lover to the “true faith.” There are furtive glimpses of the actions of the king, Charles IX, and of the massacre’s instigator, the duc de Guise, but the reader’s attention is kept constantly riveted on the fate of the Mergy brothers and of Diane de Turgis, as it is played out against the violent backdrop of the religious wars of the period.

In spite of the intense seriousness of the events depicted, there are deft comic scenes leavening the drama at regular intervals. Mérimée’s personal interventions into the narrative—once, in the middle, to argue with his readers about a narrator’s obligation to satisfy the readers’ craving for accurate historical portraits and settings, and once, at the end, to invite the reader to imagine his (or her) own denouement, since the author has no intention of supplying one—contrive to lighten the tone of the novel and keep the reader at some emotional distance from the grim and sometimes gory drama being recounted. Indeed, so evenhanded is the depiction of the warring factions that some critics have complained of the book’s seeming failure to denounce the massacre in forthright and unambiguous terms.

Anticipating the criticism, Mérimée asserts in his preface to the novel that the massacre was a great crime even by the standards of its era, but he insists that it must be evaluated by those standards and not our higher modern ones. He goes on to note, mischievously, that the great majority of the French, in 1572, sympathized with the massacre, viewing the Huguenots as impious aliens and feeling that the destruction of heretics was God’s good work. It should be added that the actual massacre scenes in the novel are portrayed with undisguised horror, even though the general atmosphere of the wars of religion is rendered with an evident effort at neutrality.

The critical debate about the novel’s morality, however, seems beside the point inasmuch as Mérimée carefully avoided interpreting or judging history, wishing only to tell a story that would entertain without falsifying the reality of the times in which it was set. Most modern readers agree that Mérimée has succeeded in his purpose. The plot is lively and unfolds swiftly through many unexpected twists; the love story is intense and moving and is made especially memorable by the capricious and unpredictable character of Diane de Turgis, who manages to be at once passionately sinful and sincerely devout, while remaining serenely unruffled by the contradiction; the period detail is rendered sharply and vigorously, giving an excellent “feel” for the daily life of that time. These virtues more than offset the unsatisfying ending and the frequent tone of persiflage that systematically discourage any impulse on the part of readers to become emotionally involved with the characters or events. A Chronicle of the Times of Charles the Ninth ranks with Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris (1831; The Hunchback of Notre Dame, 1833) as the best of the historical romances produced by the French Romantics.

Following his success with A Chronicle of the Times of Charles the Ninth, Mérimée took to cultivating the vein of fiction, in preference to theater or poetry, publishing a series of remarkable short stories in journals in 1829 and 1830, which he then polished and arranged as a book with the artistic title Mosaïque (1833; The Mosaic, 1905), and composing two remarkable short novels that appeared at about the same time as The Mosaic, the one in 1833, the other in 1834. The earlier of the two, A Slight Misunderstanding, is a penetrating psychological study with a contemporary Parisian setting, rare...

(The entire section is 3924 words.)