Prosper Mérimée 1803-1870
(Also wrote under the pseudonym Clara Gazul) French short story writer, dramatist, poet, critic, novelist, historian, and translator.
For further information on Mérimée's life and works, see NCLC, Vol. 6.
Mérimée is generally considered one of France's greatest short story writers. Critics contend that his insightful depictions of human nature exhibit both an emotional restraint reminiscent of Stendhal, and an economy of language and psychological detail similar to that of Gustave Flaubert. Though best known for his short stories and novellas, Mérimée excelled in many genres. His novel Chronique du règne de Charles IX (1829; 1572: A Chronicle of the Times of Charles the Ninth) attests to his interest in history and to his narrative skill, and was regarded by A. W. Raitt as "the greatest French historical novel of the Romantic Period." Mérimée's prose style, however, is perhaps best exhibited in the novella Carmen (1845), the passionate story that inspired Georges Bizet's famous opera of the same name. Mérimée's plays, which are clever imitations of Spanish dramas, are considered by many to be more successful than their models. His letters, the most renowned of which are collected in Lettres à une inconnue (1874; Letters to an Unknown), are noted for sensitively illuminating the facets of Mérimée's enigmatic personality. Mérimée also achieved recognition as a statesman and French translator of Russian literature. And, while interest in his writing has decreased somewhat in the twentieth century, critics continue to judge his various works as outstanding examples of their genres.
Born in Paris, Mérimée was raised among the artists, critics, and writers who attended his parents' literary salon. At the Lycée Napoléon, Mérimée excelled in the subjects of language and literature, and upon graduation pursued the study of law at the University of Paris. While there, he frequented the Parisian salons and met Stendhal (Marie-Henri Beyle), who later became a close friend and supporter of Mérimée's literary efforts. In 1824, Mérimée began writing articles on the Spanish theater for Le Globe, a Paris journal, and collaborated with Stendhal on a play, which was never produced. The next year Mérimée published Le théâtre de Clara Gazul, a volume of dramas that were presented as the works of Clara Gazul, a fictitious Spanish actress. Subsequently, Mérimée produced a collection of poetry entitled La guzla; ou, choix de poésies illyriques (1827). Both this and his previous work Mérimée claimed to have written in order to display "the simplicity and basic absurdity of the use of local color." Next Mérimée turned to the historical novel and published 1572: A Chronicle of the Times of Charles the Ninth. Shortly after the publication of his novel, Mérimée began a career as a public official. He served in a number of government positions throughout his lifetime, including Inspector General of Monuments and senator. His travels as a statesman provided the inspiration for the stories he wrote for the Révue de Paris between 1829 and 1845. Many of these tales were later collected and published as Mosaïque (1833) and Nouvelles (1852). During this period Mérimée produced his two well-known novellas Colomba (1841) and Carmen, both of which have since been acknowledged as masterpieces of narration. Following the publication of Carmen in 1845, Mérimée wrote little fiction until near the end of his life. He began to study the Russian language in 1848 and by 1849 had translated several tales of Alexander Pushkin. Later, Mérimée translated Nikolai Gogol's The Inspector General and Dead Souls. Little was known of Russian literature at this time in France, and Mérimée remained its principal interpreter. In 1869 Mérimée briefly returned to original fiction, composing his final stories, which were collected and published posthumously as Dernières nouvelles (1873).
The largely Spanish-inspired plays of Le théâtre de Clara Gazul were intended as parodies, and though many of Mérimée's contemporaries were duped, modern critics consider these dramas to have little enduring significance. His La guzla, a collection of ballads that were purportedly transcribed from Serbian by the bard Hyacinthe Maglanovitch, was also more of a hoax than serious literature. The novel 1572: A Chronicle of the Times of Charles the Ninth, however, displays the cynical side of Mérimée, and foreshadows the complex narrative technique that characterizes much of his later fiction, the two finest examples being the novellas Colomba and Carmen. An unpredictable tale of vengeance, Colomba follows the efforts of Orso, a young man from Corsica who discovers that his father has been murdered. Urged by his sister, Colomba, to dispose of the killers according to Corsican tradition, Orso remains unsure of his actions until he encounters the responsible bandits by chance and avenges his father's death. The title character of Carmen, a seductive femme fatale, assaults the hapless, but virtuous, Don José with her charms. Complicated by many seemingly conflicting points of view, the novella is considered an excellent specimen of narrative paradox. The brief story Mateo Falcone, contained in Mosaïque, is representative of Mérimée's largely ironic and pessimistic short fiction. It studies the tragic loneliness of Mateo Falcone, who, learning that his only son, Fortunato, has committed an act of treachery, executes the boy. The tale continues to be considered a superlative achievement in the short story form. Among his other works, Mérimée's Letters to an Unknown comprises four decades of correspondence to his close friend Jenny Dacquin. Written with wit and perception, the Letters clearly render the events and attitudes of mid-nineteenth-century France.
Though critics have principally studied and praised his short stories, Mérimée himself valued his historical writings most highly and largely disparaged his fictional works. Still, while both 1572: A Chronicle of the Times of Charles the Ninth and a later work, Histoire de Don Pédre Ier, roi de Castille (1848), are admired as masterpieces of scholarship and style, most twentieth-century observers have focused their attention on the features of Mérimée's shorter, fictional works. Carmen has remained popular throughout the twentieth century through the ballets, films, and new stagings of Bizet's opera that it has inspired. Mérimée's other works, however, are not widely read, though critics have continued to judge them positively. Commentators as diverse as Henry James and Georg Brandes have praised Mérimée's short stories, and more recent critics have lauded his narrative skills and objective prose style. While scholars rarely fault Mérimée's work, some have asserted that his abilities were essentially technical and that his work lacks emotion. However, most critics agree that Mérimée's enduring appeal lies in the objectivity and lucid precision of his prose, which V. S. Pritchett termed "crystalline, exact, apparent."