Prosper Mérimée was the only child of a comfortable middle-class couple, both of whom were artists by profession and freethinking republicans in outlook. Growing up in Paris, and in such a family, Mérimée came naturally by his attraction to the arts and his inveterate skepticism about religion, politics, and human behavior. The influence of that family atmosphere was also largely responsible for the central paradox of Mérimée’s personality: the profoundly sensitive and romantic soul who concealed his tender response to the world under a public mask of ironic wit and cold detachment.
There is an oft-told anecdote about Mérimée, that at the age of only five years—feeling so humiliated by his mother’s laughter when he begged her forgiveness, on his knees, for some trivial misbehavior—he vowed on the spot never to expose himself again to the mockery of others; this illustrates clearly the origins of that public mask of insensitivity in the atmosphere of his childhood. Yet it was, on the whole, a happy childhood, and Mérimée’s relationship with his parents was always a positive and affectionate one. His parents carefully nurtured both his artistic and his intellectual interests, seeing him through his legal studies while introducing him to the social circles frequented by painters, writers, and scholars. Mérimée never used his training in the law directly, but it undoubtedly helped him gain entry into the government circles where he eventually made his career.
His legal studies completed, the young Mérimée devoted himself at first to the literary life, producing some journalism, some works for the theater, and a tribute to Scott in the form of a historical romance—all activities...
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Prosper Mérimée was the son of a wealthy art professor and painter; his mother was well known for her own work in the arts as a child-portraitist. Therefore, early in his life, Mérimée was surrounded not only by the arts but also by the atmosphere in which art thrives: There were constant discussions and arguments among friends, an intermingling of art forms, and, above all, an acknowledgment of the art of living. Like his close friend Stendhal, he lived through the Romantic period in France without ever becoming too deeply involved himself, although some of his plays show discernible tendencies to cater to the public’s taste of the moment. For many Romantics, art was a game, and in this sense Mérimée excelled: His first publications were elaborate put-ons. Le Théâtre de Clara Gazul (1825; the theater of Clara Gazul) purported to be a collection of plays by a Spanish actress and enjoyed great success in Paris. Two years later, Mérimée published La Guzla (an anagram of Gazul), a collection purporting to be translations into French of Balkan ballads and folk songs; his techniques were so sophisticated that Alexander Pushkin translated the collection into Russian and published it in his own country before the hoax became known. The success of these anonymous works as well as of others confirmed to Mérimée that his true artistic talent lay in the development of shorter fiction since the genre permitted him to exploit his quick wit,...
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Prosper Mérimée (may-ree-may), born in Paris in 1803, was not the greatest French writer of the nineteenth century. However, he was certainly one of the most versatile. Oddly, it was his lack of dedication that gave him his importance. At a time when writers tended to take themselves (and to be taken) very seriously, and when the murky seas of Germanic Romanticism threatened to inundate the level plain of Gallic thought, Mérimée stood indifferently on his own personal promontory, observant, uncommitted, and completely dry. He began his literary career with two of the most thorough hoaxes ever perpetrated on a reading public and ended it with a tale designed to shock the ladies of the Empress Eugénie’s court.
Mérimée could afford to be indifferent. Despite his claim that he wrote Carmen because he was in need of a new pair of pants, Mérimée never had to rely on his pen for financial support or for prestige. His success in the novel and the short story was but one of his many accomplishments. He was also a lawyer, a public official important enough in his position as inspector general of public monuments to be retained through two great changes in power (the end of the Bourbon Restoration in 1830 and the abdication of Louis-Philippe in the revolution of 1848) and to be made a senator under Louis-Napoleon, a painter of some talent, a lover of some notoriety, an authority on Russian literature, a member of the French Academy, and a mentor and friend of the empress of the French.
His father was Léonor Mérimée, a highly regarded academic...
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