Mérimée, Prosper

views updated May 21 2018

MÉRIMÉE, Prosper

Nationality: French. Born: 28 September 1803. Education: Received law degree in 1823. Military Service: Served in the National Guard, 1831 and 1848. Career: Writer for numerous French journals, from 1820s; secretary to the minister of the navy, 1831; Maître des Requêtes, 1832-34; inspector-general of historic monuments, from 1834; held various positions in the court of Louis-Napoléon, from 1855. Member: Académie des Inscriptions, French Academy, Legion of Honor (France). Died: 23 September 1870.



Writings. 1905.

Oeuvres complètes. 1927—.

Correspondance générale. 17 vols., 1941-64.

Romans et nouvelles. 2 vols., 1967.

Théàtre, romans, nouvelles. 1978.

Short Stories

Mosaïque. 1833; as Mosaic, 1903.

La Double Méprise. 1833; as A Slight Misunderstanding, 1959.

Carmen. 1847; translated as Carmen, 1878.

Nouvelles. 1852.

Dernières nouvelles. 1873.


Chronique de règne de Charles IX. 1829; revised edition, with"1572" prefixed, 1832; as A Chronicle of the Reign of Charles IX, 1853.

Colomba. 1841; translated as Colomba, 1853.


La Guzla. 1827.


Théàtre de Clara Gazul. 1825; revised editions, 1830, 1842.

La Jacquerie, scènes féodales. 1828.

Le Carosse du Saint Sacrement. 1850.

Les Deux héritages. 1867.


Translator, The Inspector General by Gogol. 1853.


Critical Studies:

Mérimée: Heroism, Pessimism, Irony by F. P. Bowman, 1962; The Poetics of Mérimée by R.C. Dale, 1966; Mérimée by A.W. Riatt, 1970; Mérimée by Maxwell A. Smith, 1972.

* * *

A Parisian born and bred, Prosper Mérimée grew up in an artistic and literary milieu, and after taking a law degree (never used) he dabbled in the literary world with some journalistic criticism, plays, and poetry before discovering his vocation as a storyteller. At the age of 25 Mérimée composed a short historical romance in the manner of Scott, about the St. Bartholomew's massacre that took place in 1572 during the wars of religion in France. The novel was published in 1829 under the title Chronique de règne de Charles IX (Chronicle of the Reign of Charles IX).

The novel won some modest praise, but its greatest significance is that it enabled Mérimée to discover in himself the impulses that attracted him to the writing of fiction. Composing a narrative about the Renaissance expressed his fascination with times and places remote from his own, an exoticism that came to dominate his creative work. The choice of the St. Bartholomew's massacre as subject corresponded to his instinctive conviction as an artist that situations of extreme violence, whether physical, emotional, or moral, were the most likely to reveal the deepest truths of human nature. Finally, there was the bantering tone in which the novel was written, suggesting the author's refusal to take his tale very seriously and culminating in the impudent conclusion in which he invited each reader to invent his own ending, since he did not wish to impose one. This ironic mockery of his own creation, now identified as romantic irony, developed into his personal narrative manner and became his instantly recognizable signature as a storyteller.

Equipped with the literary impulses that were basic to his temperament—exoticism, a focus on violence, and ironic mockery—Mérimée seems to have decided, in 1829, that the genre that was most suited to his temperament was not the historical novel—he never wrote another one—but the conte and the nouvelle, the two short narrative forms then existing in France, both of which we now include in the short story genre. Beginning in May 1829, with a story about the exotic island of Corsica called "Mateo Falcone," Mérimée published a series of short narratives in journals of the era, one every two or three months, until well into 1830. Pleased with his results, he proceeded to revise the best narratives, arranging them in some kind of sequence and brought them out as a book in 1833 entitled Mosaïque (Mosaic), perhaps to indicate that the seven stories it contained were each unique in shape, color, and subject matter, yet they formed a harmonious whole when assembled.

The title at the very least suggested Mérimée's pride in the artistic quality of his work, and the volume was indeed acclaimed for its disciplined craftsmanship throughout. The volume also displayed fully Mérimée's signature hallmarks: exotic settings (except for in "The Etruscan Vase," which is set in Paris—a rarity in Mérimée's work), thematic violence, and a wittily playful narrative voice, present even in the starkly shocking tragedy of "Mateo Falcone." The publication of Mosaic can therefore be said to have established Mérimée's public reputation as France's first unmistakably artistic and gifted practitioner of the short story form, for Mérimée had preceded his equally gifted friend, Balzac, into the short story limelight by only a few months. One can add, moreover, that, in contrast to Balzac's earliest short stories, Mosaic really determined Mérimée's future as a writer. Balzac, of course, wrote some brilliant short stories in his early years, but he made his real mark as a very great novelist, whereas Mérimée embraced the short story as his true vocation after Mosaic, and with one notable exception—the short novel Colomba published in 1841—his creative writing was restricted to the short story form for the rest of his life.

What Mérimée brought to the short story that was distinctive was a glimpse of the potential poetics that the form seemed capable of developing, making it into a separate, definable literary genre governed by rules and standards like the poem, the play, and the novel. Mérimée's principal discovery was that a story had to have a single focus, on which all of the author's creative energy had to be concentrated in a disciplined way—free of digressions and diversions of any kind—in order to achieve the full power inherent in the story material. This formal unity and firmly disciplined control can be strongly sensed by every reader in the stories of Mosaic, and that became one of the standards by which French short stories were judged after Mérimée.

Following the acclaimed publication of Mosaic, Mérimée enjoyed a richly productive decade or more as a storyteller; but he tended more to the relatively longer version of the short story, which the French often called a nouvelle to distinguish it from the more succinct conte and which it has become customary, in English, to call a novella. As early as 1833 he offered the public a mildly scandalous tale that ran nearly to a hundred pages and appeared in a separate, thin volume under the title La Double Méprise (A Slight Misunderstanding). It was at least four times as long as the longest tale in Mosaic, but it had the same unity and careful style and was, in every essential respect, a typical Mérimée short story. It enjoyed only a modest success. Nearly a dozen stories of similar dimensions followed, mostly in the 1830s and 1840s, and a scattered few came later, appearing in book form only after the author's death in 1870. Of all the stories published after 1833, the best known is certainly Carmen, first published in 1845 and definitely revised in 1847. Carmen is a powerful novella of considerable length that focuses on an unforgettably tempestuous female protagonist of peculiarly complex character: passionate, fiercely independent, yet fatalistic, who dies by the hand of a lover she has spurned. Bizet's opera of 1875 made Mérimée's tale even better known, yet it is no substitute for Mérimée's hauntingly tragic original, which creates one of the most memorable character types in all literature.

Mérimée wrote only 19 short stories in his career, but they were enough to constitute one of the most distinguished and influential bodies of work in the short story form in existence. He is a delightfully satisfying storyteller who can hold his own in any company, and he has the additional distinction, historically, of being the discoverer of the first rules of the short story genre: the rule of the unity of focus and the rule of the tightly disciplined style.

—Murray Sachs

See the essay on "Mateo Falcone."

Prosper Mérimée

views updated May 11 2018

Prosper Mérimée

The French author Prosper Mérimée (1803-1870) 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.

Further Reading

A thorough account of Mérimée's life is Alan William Raitt, xProsper Mérimée (1970). Sylvia Lyons, The Life and Times of Prosper Mérimée (1948), is good for placing Mérimée within his period. An excellent short section on his life, character, and works is in Albert J. George, Short Fiction in France, 1800-50 (1964). See also G. H. Johnstone Derwent, Prosper Mérimée: A Mask and a Face (1926). □

Mérimée, Prosper

views updated May 11 2018

Mérimée, Prosper (1803–70) French dramatist and short-story writer. He is best remembered for his historical novellas and short stories. These include the collection of short stories Mosaïque (1833), and the novellas Colomba (1841) and Carmen (1845), the latter of which is the basis for Bizet's opera.