Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Carmen & Other Stories - Prosper Mérimée

Genre: Literature & Fiction
Author:At the Edge: Tales of Power & Passion

Mérimée’s stories are a study of the juxtaposition of the primitive and the civilized. The former holds a fascination to the latter (like Mérimée's readers and Mérimée himself). The primitive is characterized by an emotional truthfulness, a raw power and a noble passion fueled by freedom, honour and revenge, all things which have been eroded and repressed in the name of higher values by civilization such as Mérimée’s 19th century France post-revolution and post the defeat of Napoleon, the emperor from Corsica. And yet the passions are want to burst forth and so they must with sometimes awe-inspiring consequences, sometimes tragic, sometimes cruel, sometimes evil. We may try to rule the passions, like reason trying to rule the heart, but in the great scheme of things, of life, love and death, civilization is naïve coldness and hypocrisy and the passions rule after all. Or so it seems. Mérimée is to fiction what Nietzsche is to philosophy, aspiring a return to ancient ideas of greatness: of the “superman”, the hero or heroine who is neither good nor bad, but “beyond good and evil”.

Mérimée’s stories are rarely original, but rather they are inspired by stories told to him, and he seeks merely to re-tell them like a historian, to preserve and augment their flavour and expound their setting and culture, which he does admirably. They have a folkloric quality. The stories are often recounted by a narrator within the story after an introductory section, thus distancing ourselves from the action, and distancing Mérimée from the telling. He is merely the vehicle of transmission. This is a classic storytelling technique, but what makes Mérimée’s style distinctive is his way of returning to the prefatory outer story at the end also to create even greater distance, which acts to deny or frustrate the story’s power and gently wake the reader back to reality. One minor drawback though is his use of technical terms and quotations from Latin, which though sometimes explained, still require frequent perusal of endnotes to better understand them. But the telling is captivating, and the characters of the noble savage or the femme fatale at the brink of civilization make for great story matter.

Carmen (1845) culminates in the story of the temptress and the bandit who loves her, the tale which inspired Bizet’s famous opera "Carmen". It was in turn based on an anecdote recounted by the Countess Montijo to Mérimée in 1830 in Madrid and grew in the intervening fifteen years with his experiences in Spain and his readings of Spanish literature, Roman history and about Gypsies.

Mateo Falcone explores the Corsican concept of honour in a dilemma between bandit and police. It has been described as “perhaps the cruelest story ever told”.

The Storming of the Redoubt describes a suicidal naval battle scene.

Tamango is reminiscent of Aphra Behn’s “Oroonoko” of the African slave dealer who is himself taken prisoner.

The Etruscan Vase is a tale of jealousy and honour of one blinded by love.

The Game of Backgammon explores themes of passion, honour and remorse.

The Venus of Ille is a supernatural tale of a black Venus statue, its demeanour both beautiful and terrifying. It was Mérimée’s favourite of all his stories.

Columba is a short book in itself and takes up half the volume. It is set in Corsica among the honourable, the vengeful and the scheming and the protagonist returning home from Europe has to walk a tightrope to assert himself among his old countrymen. His sister Columba proves to be a supremely powerful force.

Finally, Lokis (1869), written at the end of his life, is a dark love story set in the forests of Lithuania and a brilliant tale to finish the collection.

Of these, I have three favourites: Mateo Falcone for its power, Columba for its scope and Lokis for its eerie darkness. And who could forget the black Venus of Ille? If there’s any criticism I would have, it would be the slightly stereotypical nature of the characters and setting. The men tend to be either fearless academics, or civilized pawns of authority, or honourable bandits or cowardly villains, while the women tend to be either seductive and manipulative or coquettish and frivolous. But the style of narrative is so spellbinding and succinct without sinking into banality or vulgarity that one cannot help but be enthralled in the telling.

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