Prosper Mérimée 1803-1870
(Also wrote under the pseudonym Clara Gazul) French short-story and novella writer, dramatist, poet, critic, novelist, historian, and translator.
The following entry presents criticism of Merimee's short fiction works from 1989 through 2002.
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 fiction, Mérimée excelled in many genres, including drama, historical novels, and translation. Yet commentators maintain that it is his short stories and novellas that most strikingly portray his concise, detached prose style and exemplify his greatest achievements.
Born in Paris, Mérimée was raised among the artists, critics, and writers who attended his parents' literary salon. At the Lycée Napoléon, Mérimée demonstrated proficiency in languages and literature, and upon graduation pursued law at the University of Paris. Instead of studying, however, he frequented the Parisian salons, where he met the French author Stendhal, who became a close friend and supporter. In 1824 Mérimée began writing articles on the Spanish theater for Le Globe, a Paris journal. The next year Le theater de Clara Gazul (1925; The Plays of Cara Gazul) appeared, a volume of dramas written by Mérimée but presented as the works of a Spanish actress. Similarly, in 1827, he published La gazula, a collection of ballads that were purportedly transcribed from Serbian by Hyacinthe Maglanovitch. Between the years 1829 and 1830 Mérimée published short stories in periodicals, which formed the core of his early efforts in the short fiction genre and were later collected in book form as Mosaïque (1833). In 1831 Mérimée gained employment as a civil servant and by 1834 was appointed Inspector General of Historical Monuments, a position that satisfied his interests in antiquities and travel. As inspector general and later as a senator under Napoleon III and Empress Eugénia, Mérimée journeyed throughout France, southern Europe, and the Near East, gathering material for both his fictional and historical writings. During the mid-1860s his health declined, and he began spending winters in Cannes, where he wrote his final short stories. He died of emphysema and heart failure on September 23, 1870.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Mérimée's first attempt at the short-story form, “Mateo Falcone,” combines detached narration, concise description, local color, and poignant, though limited characterization to delineate how a Corsican father's devotion to family honor drives him to kill his only beloved son for betraying the family's name. Another of his early stories that utilizes local color is “Tamango,” an ironic yet realistic depiction of the West African slave trade. In this take, Mérimée satirizes both civilized humanity and the myth of the noble savage through the actions of the central character, African chief Tamango. Critics note that “Mateo Falcone” and “Tamango,” though powerful narratives, present relatively simple character types, whereas another short story, “Le vase étrusque,” is built upon a more complex character that many commentators liken to Mérimée himself. Through the sensitive, sympathetic portrayal of Saint-Clair, a man driven by jealousy toward his tragic death, critics observe that Mérimée successfully delineated the complex nature and motives of a character type unique in his writings. “La Vénus d'Ille” (“The Venus d'Ille”), inspired by the myth of Venus, mixes Mérimée's characteristic verisimilitude with the supernatural, marking a new phase in his short fiction. The narrator of this tale, a Parisian intellectual interested in archeology, lends credibility to an otherwise fantastic story of an ancient statue of Venus that becomes animated after having been unearthed in a Pyrenean village. The statue bears an inscription that the narrator translates as “beware if she loves you,” although few villagers heed this warning. Later, a young man carelessly places his fiancée's wedding ring on the statue's finger, but when he attempts to remove the ring, the statue closes its fingers on it. In the end, the statue fatally crushes the bridegroom in an embrace on his wedding night.
Carmen (1845) is considered Mérimée's best-known work of short fiction. Some critics have commented that the eponymous character of this popular work provides a human counterpart to the statue in “The Venus d'Ille.” Mérimée's fascination and appreciation of Mediterranean culture is engagingly apparent in the vibrant Spanish setting of this frame novella in which an archeologist encounters Don José, a soldier turned bandit who relates the tragic story of his passion for the free-spirited gypsy Carmen. Mérimée's prose style is strikingly exhibited in this narrative, which incorporates the archeologist's ironic perspective with Don José's sincere confession of Carmen's murder. Atypical in this work is Don José's colorful and metaphorical speech, so unlike the impersonal tone of Mérimée's more sophisticated narrators. One of his final stories, “Lokis,” concerns a Lithuanian woman who is purportedly raped by a bear and later gives birth to a son, Szémioth, who exhibits bearish tendencies. Eventually, Szémioth kills his bride on their wedding night, and she is found with teeth marks on her neck. Similar to “The Venus d'Ille,” the subject matter of “Lokis” involves the destructive capacities of unleashed passion; only in this later take, Mérimée seems also to focus on a primitive animal force that is a component of even the most civilized human beings.
Although interest in Mérimée's work has declined in the years since his death, Carmen has remained popular in the twentieth century through the ballets, films, and new productions of Bizet's opera that it has inspired. In the past, commentators as diverse as Henry James and George Brandes praised Mérimée's short stories and historical works, and more recent critics laud his narrative skills and objective prose style. Many critics also concur that Mérimée's last works attest to his unfailing narrative skill, as well as evidence a renewed creative power in his later years. While scholars rarely fault his work, some have asserted that his abilities are 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.