Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Friday, June 10, 2011

Prosper Merimee: Two Stories from France in the 1830s From the Creator of Carmer

"Meteo Falcone"  (1830,  5 pages)
"Tamango" (1831, 15 pages)

Two Early 19th Century French Short Stories
by Prosper Merimee
Creator of Carmen, Intimate of an Empress

One big to me benefit of my love for short stories (which began about 15 months ago-before then I was part of the vast majority of readers who disdained them as some how unworthy of my attention)  is that I am discovering a lot of new to me writers.    I am a strong believer in "the great conversation" between authors.  ( I first learned of this idea  when I read the first edition of Clifton Fadiman's The Life Tine Reading Plan, at a pretty young age.)    Not long ago I first became aware of Issac Babel in Frank O'Connor's book The Lonely Voice:A Study of the Short Story.    This morning I was doing  a bit of research on Babel and I came across a list of writers that he advised a friend were the "must" reads of all time.   There was one writer on the list I had never heard off, Prosper Merimee (1803-1870-Paris).

Of course I Googled him right away.   His biggest literary achievement is his novella, Carmen, on which Bizet based his opera.   He also was the first to translate Turgenev into French and through this had a huge indirect influence on French Literature.    He came from an affluent family, his father was a well known painter, his grandfather a powerful attorney.   Merimee was a very social person and was a good friend and collaborator with George Sand.    His most important personal connection was the Countess of Montijo.    She became the role model for Carmen.    With Merimee on the sidelines as an advisor, her daughter married the Emperor Napoleon III and he became a friend and intimate of the court.   He was appointed to  a very high government office.   His life is really very interesting.

He also wrote a number of short stories.    He was one of the first  French practitioners of this form, I think.   (The best article I found on him was HERE and there is also the usual Wikipedia article.)    He influenced Flaubert and de Maupassant and his creation of Carmen helped create the romantic notion of Gypsies.

"Mateo Falcone"  (no translator credit is given in the web page on which I read it)
is Merimee's most famous short story.    It is set on the Island of Corsica,  not by coincidence the birth place of Napoleon.    The story plays into the idea that the natives of Corsica are rugged, self reliant, all somehow related to each other nearly  and given to violence at a small offense.   As the story opens a man, shot in the leg, is running from the police toward the country home of his cousin, Mateo Falcone.   Only Falcone's teenage son is there and he agrees to let the man hide in a haystack.    The police approach (spoiler alert) and after some discussion back and forth the boy betrays the man's location for a fancy watch.   His father arrives just as the men are getting ready to carry the captive away.   At first Mateo is glad the man has been captured as he is a known thief.     Then the captive tells him that his son betrayed him for a watch.    Mateo is deeply shamed by this as it violates all the clan style values of his culture.    In an ending that strongly echos a scene out of the old testament,  Mateo leads his son off into the woods, prays with him, then shoots him.    The final scene with Mateo and his wife, the boy's mother, is very sad and very deep.   In five pages Merimee creates a complete world for us.   Those who know O'Connor's ideas will see this story as totally fitting his theories.

"Tamango" is a fascinating very well rendered story about an evil subject, the slave  trade.    The transatlantic transportation of slaves was already illegal in many countries at this time so working on a slaver was a legal risk, leaving aside any moral concerns.    Our lead character has no such concerns.   He sets out as first mate on a slaver ship (there were special ships designed for the slave trade) from the Port of Naples.    He even makes some modifications to the ship and its methods to increase the amount of people they can deliver.   One of the most powerful parts of the story occurs when the ship's captain negotiates with an African tribal chief to buy a large number of slaves he has captured.   It was chilling to see the pure callousness of the transaction, on both ends.    During the process one of the chief's wives, who is noted as especially beautiful  (the women slaves were judged for their beauty as part of their price) so when she annoys the chief he throws her in for free.    Once she gets on ship, she is kept in the cabin of the captain and greatly offends all of the other captives by wearing French clothing.   I do not want to tell more of the plot of this story.    (It was made into a movie starring Dorothy Dandridge.)      I found this a really worth reading story and learned some interesting to me bits of information about the slave trade.

I think as of now I am not really equipped culturally to say how influential Merimee was but I think it is quite high, probably higher than I understand.    I am quite sure it reached Japan before 1920.

These and others of his works, can be read at The Project Gutenberg.   I hope to read more of his short stories and Carmen.   

These stories are worth your time.

Mel u

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have a bit of a soft spot for french authors, so I will definitely be looking up these two stories and reading them. As always you review some great reading material.