Mérimée, Prosper (1803–1870)

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Mérimée, Prosper (1803–1870)

Mérimée, Prosper (1803–1870), French author. Prosper Mérimée was a prose writer of the romantic period in France, important for his short stories, which mark the transition from romanticism toward the more objective works of the second half of the century.

Prosper Mérimée, a Parisian born and bred, grew up with the other French romantics. Although he shared some of their traits—a love of the exotic and the violent, for instance—his skeptical, pessimistic temperament kept him from their emotional excesses. He hid his emotional sensitivity beneath a cover of ironic objectivity. As restraint and ironic objectivity were among the principal goals of the later French realists, he stands as their precursor.

Mérimée's initial writings were entertaining frauds, published as alleged translations. A more important work under his own name, Chronique du règne de Charles IX, brought him to serious public attention in 1829. The Chronique is a historical novel, but it differs from the contemporary romantic ones in its impartial stance in recounting the Protestant and Catholic positions during the Wars of Religion in 16th-century France. True to form, Mérimée refused to provide an ending and mockingly invited his readers to invent one for themselves. Like his friend Stendhal, he feared being mocked himself and never allowed himself to appear to take any of his writings seriously, posing usually as an amateur who happened for the moment to be writing a story.

A very learned man, Mérimée was appointed inspector general of historical monuments in 1831. He performed major services by saving many ancient monuments from destruction, among others the church of St-Savin with its important 12th-century frescoes. He traveled widely through France, southern Europe, and the Near East, finding there the settings for many of his short stories (nouvelles).

Mateo Falcone (1829) and the longer Colomba (1841) and Carmen (1845) are the principal works for which Mérimée is now remembered, typical in their settings in Spain or Corsica, their portrayal of primitive passions, and their clear, concise style. Each story is a new experiment in form. The author's position remains distant, and Mérimée usually prefers the concrete to the abstract, giving a character life by a gesture or pose alone. Carmen is the source for Georges Bizet's opera (1875).

Mérimée ended his career as a writer in 1848, but he was a familiar figure at the court of the Second Empire, in part owing to his long prior acquaintance with the empress Eugénie. He was also among the first in France to appreciate Russian literature, translating Aleksandr Pushkin, Ivan Turgenev, and Nikolai Gogol.