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||Prosper Mérimée (1803-1870)|
French dramatist, master of short story, and historian, who had an office as a state archeologist. Mérimée's most famous work is the novella Carmen (1845), a story about jealousy and unfaithfulness. It inspired Georges Bizet's world famous Opéra-Comique version from 1875. Some 50 movie adaptations have been made from the story, several of which are filmings of the opera. Along with Chateaubriand, Lamartine, Vigny, Musset, Gautier, and George Sand, Mérimée was one of the greatest names of the romantic movement in France. Passionate, destructive love was Mérimée's subject in many of his short stories, among them the symbolic 'The Pearl of Toledo'.
"Who can say whether the sun is most beautiful at dawn or at dusk? Who can tell whether the olive tree or the almond is the more beautiful? Who can tell whether Andalusia or Valencia breeds the bravest knight? What man can say who is the fairest of women? But I will tell you who is the fairest. She is Aurora de Vega, the Pearl of Toledo."
In the story the Moorish and Christian world fight about a woman. Swarthy Suzani challenges Don Guttiera to meet him in single combat about the Pearl of Toledo. "As mine I will bear her away, or by Allah, Cordova shall see me no more." Don Guttiera stops his game of chess and goes for the game of lances. She rides after him and finds Suzani laying badly wounded near the fountain of Almami. She is willing to help him when he begs her to take the lance from his chest. She trustingly approaches Suzani, but he kills her with his saber.
Prosper Mérimée was born in Paris, the son of Léonor Mérimée, an artist, and Anne Mérimée. He received law degree from the University of Paris in 1823, but he also studied Greek, Spanish, English, and Russian languages and their literature. Between 1826 and 1868 Mérimée made eighteen trips to England. Due to his interest in the Slavs, Mérimée also traveled widely in eastern Europe and Russia, and was the first interpreter of Russian literature in France. Because travelling was very difficult and costly at that time, he decided to describe the journey first in his book and then spent his royalties in verifying the accuracy of his observations. The work, La Guzla, ou choix de poésies illyriques, recueillies dans la Dalmatie, la Bosnie, la Croatie et l'Herzégovine (1827), was a great success. In 1830 he visited Spain, which became one of his principal literary sources. After a career under the ministries of navy, commerce, and the interior, he was appointed in 1833 inspector-general of historical remains in France.
Mérimée made his début as a dramatist at the age of 19 with Cromwell (1822). Théâtre de Clara Gazul (1825, 1830) were plays which he passed off as having been written by a Spanish actress, Clara Gazul. La Guzla was another literary practical joke, alleged to be translations of "Illyrian" national songs. Goethe, who eceived a signed copy in his own name, grew suspicious of its authenticity, and revealed the identity of the author. Alexandr Pushkin translated the book into Russian and published a substantial part of it for his Songs of the Western Slavs (1834). Through a mutual friend, Mérimée sought to make amends with Pushkin, saying "I am proud and ashamed at the same time to have taken him in." This incident was a prelude to Mérimée's serious interest Pushkin. "Comme il insiste peu!" said Mérimée of his light touch. On the other hand, it is possible that Pushkin, who had a wide knowledge of French literature, may have read Mérimée's tales.
Mérimée's historical play, La Jacquerie (1828, Peasant Revolt), and the novel Chronique du règne de Charles IX (1929, A Chronicle of the Reign of Charles IX), were born in the vogue of historical fiction established by Sir Walter Scott. In 1831 Mérimée began a long correspondence with a young girl Jenny Dacquin, which was published as Lettres à une inconnue (1873). With the writer George Sand he had a brief affair, giving a fictionalized account of their thyst in La Double Méprise (1833, The Double Mistake). The affair lasted but a week. "I had Mérimée last night, and it wasn't much," Sand said according to Alexandre Dumas. Henry James wrote that "I have been told that very early one cold Winter morning he perceived her, with a handkerchief on her head, lightning the fire to resume her literary tasks. He also, it appears, had nerves; the spectacle disturbed them – he himself was not thinking of getting about his labors yet awhile – and from that moment the intimacy ceased."
Mérimée's friends included Stendhal and Turgenev. Goncourt brothers disliked him, Thomas Carlyle descibed him as "smooth but utterly barren man", and Victor Hugo criticized his political loyalties. "As soon as you saw him, you sensed in him a chilliness," wrote Hippolyte Taine of Mérimée. "Especially on ceremonial occasions his features were quite impassive. Even in private, when he was telling some ridiculous story, his voice remained monotonous, utterly calm, without brilliance or vivacity..." On the other hand, the Russian writer Turgenev saw, that "behind the external show of indifference and coldness, he concealed the most affectionate of hearts..."
"'Ha! ha! you're jealous!' she retorted, 'so much the worse for you. How can you be such a fool as that? Don't you see I must love you, because I have never asked you for money?'" (in Carmen)
Carmen, a novella about Spanish Gypsy life, was first published serially in La Revue des Deux Mondes in 1845, purpoting to be non-fiction, and two years lated in an expanded book form. The work was not an immediate success, but considered in its time immoral. Carmen, inspired by Manon Lescaut (1731), Abbé Prévost's tale about amor fou, is a story within a story. Much of its Gypsy lore was derived from the work of the author, translator, linguist and traveler George Borrow (1803-1881), but in A Chronicle of the Reign of Charles IX Mérimée had also a Gypsy character, named Mila. The narrator tells how he befriended the bandit Don José. "I had no doubt that the man I was dealing with was a smuggler, or perhaps a robber. But what odds was it to me? I knew the Spanish character well enough to be quite certain that I had nothing to fear from a man who had shared food and tobacco with me. His very presence was a guarantee of protection, should we run into any troubles."
When the narrator has met the dangerous gypsy of the title, Don José rescues him. Months later Don José is arrested and sentenced to death. He tells that as a corporal in the Spanish cavalry, he was ordered to arrest Carmen, a flirtatious Gypsy woman, for assaulting a coworker. José, who fells in love with Carmen, allows her to escape. He deserts the army, and takes up a life as a robber in the mountains of Andalusia. The smuggling band also includes Carmen's husband, Garcia le Borgne, whom José kills. Unfaithful Carmen becomes interested in Lucas, a picador and makes José insanely jealous. When she refuses to change, he kills her with a knife – she doesn't attempt to flee. The murder has no witnesses, José buries the body, and surrenders himself to the authorities. The last chapter deals with bohemian customs and language and was added in 1847 to the novella.
Georges Bizet's (1838-75) opera based on the story is
considered the composer's greatest achievement. Its famous tunes include 'Toreador's Song,' the 'Habanera,' the 'Seguidilla,'
the 'Card Song,' the 'Urchins' Chorus,' and the 'Flower Song'. The
opera premiered at the (second) Salle Favart, the home of Paris'
Opéra-Comique, on 3 March, 1875. As it is well know, the
work had a
disastrous reception: "To keep the public peace and ensure the safety
of the impressionable dragoons and toreadors who surround this woman,"
said Oscar Comettant in Le Siécle,
"she would need to be gagged, her unbridled hip-swaying brought to an
end by tying her into a straitjacket after she had had a pan of water
poured over her head." Carmen's failure hastened Bizet's early death. He died of a heart attack three months after the premiere, believing his work to be just one more failure.
When the daughter of Mérimée's friend, Countess of Montijo, became empress Eugénie of France, Merimée was admitted to the royal circle and made a senator in 1853. Mérimée's disreputable friends included Count Libri, Guglielmo Bruto Icilio Timoleone, one of the most accomplished book thieves of all time. Libri was forced to escape with his wife to England, but a host of politicians, artists, and writers defended him against accusations. In 1848 Mérimée wrote that "for me, who has always said that the love of collecting leads people to crime, Libri is the most honest of collectors, and I know of no man except Libri who would return to the libraries the books that others have stolen." Two years after Libri had been found guilty, Mérimée published in La Revue des Deux Mondes such a loud defence of his friend that the court ordered him to appear before it, accused of contempt.
Mérimée also wrote novels and short fiction, archaeological
and historical dissertations, and travel books. Colomba
(1840) was a story of revenge, La Vénus d'Ille
(1837) and Lokis, written in 1869, had fantastic elements.
Mérimée died in Cannes on September 23, 1870. Three years later Bizet
finished his opera based on the story. Its rehearsals were constantly
delayed, partly because the theatre's management were nervous of an
opera in which the heroine dies. Members of the chorus decided that
their part was physically impossible – they had to move and act as well
as sing. Carmen opened on March 3, 1875. The first performance
was a catastrophe – the audience expected to see a comic opera. Bizet's
adversities did not stop on the second night when the audience was
enthusiastic; the reviews were bad. Though the play staggered on for 48
performances, it never had a full house. However, in Vienna and
elsewhere it was well received.
From 1906 to the present day, there are nearly 100 film versions of Carmen, based either on Mérimée's novella or Bizet's opera. The first major screen treatments of the story were American. Cecil B. DeMille's film from 1915 starred the opera singer Geraldine Farrar; the vamp Theda Bara was in the title role in Raoul Walsh's production. Charles Chaplin made a parody of these two films. Ernesto Halffter (1905-1989), a friend of Manuel de Falla, wrote the score for Jacques Feyder's version of Carmen, which premièred in Paris in November 1926. Halffter used old regional themes, Andalusian themes, and there are fleeting references to Debussy, Stravinsky, de Falla, and Ravel. The overall atmosphere is more sombre than in Bizet's work.
For further reading: Merimée et son temps by P. Leon (1962); The Poetics of Merimée by R.C. Dale (1966); Prosper Merimée by Maxwell A. Smith (1974); Pushkin and Merimee as Short Story Writers by Karl-Heinz Barsch (1983); Prosper Merimée by George H. Yu (1992); The Fate of Carmen by Evlyn Gould (1996). Stories about jealousy, passion and unfaithfulness: Shakespeare's Othello (Othello kills Desdemona), Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina (Anna kills herself), Raymond Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely (Venda kills Moose Malloy). Carmen Jones (1954), film dir. Otto Preminger, screenplay by Harry Kleiner. Based on a musical comedy by Oscar Hammerstein II, taken from a comic opera by Meilhac and Halévy, based on a novel by Prosper Mérimée and produced on Broadway by Billie Rose. Players: Dorothy Dandridge, Harry Belafonte, Olga James, Pearl Bailey, Diahann Carroll. Singin voices: Le Vern Hutcherson, Marilynn Horne, Marvin Hayes, Bernice Patterson, Brock Peters, Joe Crawford. Story: Cindy Lou, visiting a parachuter factory, discovers that Carmen Jones, one of the factory girls, is after his fiancé Joe, who is going to a flying school to train as a pilot. Carmen becomes involved in a fight and Joe is obliged to escort her to Masonville jail. She persuades him to let her go and seduces him. Then she escapes and Joe is sent to prison for negligence. When he comes out of jail they are reunited. Joe follows her to Chicago. Carmen becomes bored. They quarrel and she finds solace with a boxer she knew before. Joe, desperate and jealous, strangles her. See also: George Sand.