Mateo Falcone by Prosper Mérimée, 1833
by Prosper Mérimée, 1833
Prosper Mérimée was just 26 years old and a literary hopeful of still quite modest achievements when he published his very first short story, in the prestigious Revue de Paris, in 1829. It turned out to be a major literary event. Critics hailed its exceptional concision and the concentrated power of its spare plot, and because it was a story about Corsica, they congratulated the author on the accuracy and truth of his portrayal of the island's local color. What the critics did not know was that Mérimée had never set foot on the island of Corsica but had invented his details about Corsican topography and customs purely on the basis of reading. That reading had clearly been effective, since everyone seemed to find "Mateo Falcone" convincingly authentic. Indeed, Mérimée himself reported, when he finally did visit Corsica a decade later, that he was amazed to see how accurate he had been.
What the critics and other readers had recognized in "Mateo Falcone," we now know, was the sudden appearance of something new on the literary scene, a short story unlike anything they had seen previously, a composition so conscientiously researched and so painstakingly constructed that no superfluous detail had been allowed to intrude upon the reader's attention or to deflect the reader from following the relentless course of the action toward the cruelly inevitable denouement. In other words "Mateo Falcone" seemed driven from the first word by carefully controlled artistic principles willed by the author. In 1829 it was seen as a new kind of French short story, and almost instantly it became the standard by which subsequent French short stories would be judged. Twentieth-century scholars comparing the development of the short story in many different cultures eventually would come to the conclusion that Poe and Hawthorne in the United States and Pushkin and Gogol in Russia had arrived independently and at about the same time at the concept of an artistically controlled and thematically unified short story as invented by Mérimée. A comparison of dates, however, seemed to show that, with the publication of "Mateo Falcone" on 3 May 1829, Mérimée simply had the honor of getting into print first with a published specimen. Critical consensus today thus considers the publication of "Mateo Falcone" as a major international literary event, marking the start of the modern short story as a new literary genre.
It is useful to review briefly the elements of "Mateo Falcone" that persuaded readers in 1829 that this was indeed something new, meriting, for the first time in the long history of the short story, the implied claim that it was a genuine work of art. Structurally, Mérimée seems to have followed the principles of French classical tragedy: there is but one action toward which everything in the story tends, and it all happens in one day and in one place—the house of Mateo Falcone in the hills above Porto-Vecchio. A five-part division can be perceived in the plot, akin to the five acts of a classical tragedy: exposition of the character, family, and environment of Mateo Falcone; the fateful decision of the parents one day to leave their son in charge of their house and the arrival of the wounded bandit seeking shelter; the arrival soon after of the government soldiers and their confrontation with Mateo's son; the climactic return of Mateo and wife just as the bandit, betrayed by the son, Fortunato, is taken prisoner; and the precipitation of the family tragedy once everyone else has departed. Equally classical is the terse, stripped-down prose of the narration, with few modifiers or subordinate clauses to qualify or complicate the account of the action. Indeed, one notices that as the action grows more tense the sentences tend to get shorter, and by the end there is scarcely any narration, only the staccato exchange of speech fragments reminiscent of the stychomythia of Greek and French classical tragedy. Particularly noticeable, after the first few pages of exposition, is the almost complete disappearance of authorial intervention in the form of psychological analysis or comment. The author seems deliberately to avoid informing the reader of the emotions felt by the characters, almost effacing himself by the spare style and leaving the reader alone and helpless, forced by the momentum of events to follow the horrifying action unaided by the comfort of a narrator's voice.
While the ending is a shock, because of the utter absence of even a flicker of emotion in the prose, it is certainly not unexpected by the reader. Rather it is felt, in classical terms, as inevitable and hence a relief to the reader, now purged of the emotions of pity and fear. It is the dry, hard, disciplined prose of the concluding pages on which Mérimée particularly relies to impart to his reader the sense that his brief tale is not sordid but tragic.
Mérimée must have sensed that in "Mateo Falcone" he had somehow created a masterpiece with his first try at this literary form. Perhaps it was out of a kind of gratitude that he became almost exclusively a short story writer thereafter, in his creative work forsaking all the other forms in which he had dabbled until then. "Mateo Falcone" made its appearance in book form four years later as the proud lead piece in Mérimée's first collection of short stories, entitled Mosaic (Mosaïque). That volume, published in 1833 and frequently reprinted since, truly launched Mérimée's career as a writer.