Prosper M̩rim̩e
Prosper M̩rim̩e; drawing by David Levine

Mérimée is a fascinating figure. He was a master of the nouvelle, a government official and an inveterate traveler, an archaeologist and a historian, a man of the world who could barely endure the world, a bachelor addicted to affairs and “infernal coquetry,” yet wretched enough, or maudlin enough, to remark—and without the irony which made his name—that there is nothing sweeter in the world than “the society of an intelligent woman of whom you are not and cannot be the lover.” “For fear of being duped,” Taine tells us, Mérimée “was mistrustful in life, in love, in learning, in art, and he was duped by his own mistrustfulness.” Prompted no doubt by Mérimée’s ghost, he adds, sardonically, in the preface to the posthumously published Lettres à une Inconnue: “But one is always duped by something.”

Temperamentally, I suppose, Mérimée comes from a long line of French philosophers and savants who suffered what Montaigne calls a crise pyrrhoninenne. The skepticism of Montaigne and Descartes, Gassendi and Bayle, though, turned inward and led them to God. Bayle, for instance, in his Dictionnaire historique et critique, slyly subverting Christian tradition, hacking at superstitions and theories bulging with “contradictions and absurdity,” became overwhelmed by doubt and bowed before the Eternal. Mérimée, however, refusing the Roman Catholicism he mocked, sought consolation in the literature of Ancient Greece. What attracted him to legend and myth was that they left, so he thought, “first causes in what is perhaps a deliberate obscurity”; they did not attempt to interpret “mysteries above our understanding.”

In Colomba, Carmen, and his other tales, a tug of war—never far, really, from a pagan past—reverberates between the sexes, or between a sister and a brother, or between Papists and Huguenots, or between the opposed representatives of “nature” and “civilization.” The settings are Spain or Corsica or West Africa or France, the historical or local color there to dazzle us, but much more to heighten the catastrophes to come. Primitive excess and worldly detachment, the super-natural and the haut monde, the outrageous and morale laïque: of these possibilities Mérimée’s characters choose one or the other, or are done in by one or the other—never Mérimée. If as a stylist he seems perhaps closest to Diderot and Voltaire, especially the Voltaire of L’Ingénu and Candide, we know that the latter always regarded himself as a tutelary figure, an Aesopian: after the dust settles the standard bearers appear. In Mérimée, a genius of a coarser, more complex age, what you get are battles without victors.

A man had better always have enemies so he doesn’t fall on his own knife. Surely that was the law of the day among so many of the post-Napoleonic salons of the Bourbons and Louis-Philippe, salons full of bankers and merchants, boorish Republicans and liberal hommes de lettres, where self-love was usually one step from self-hate, culture was soured by ennui, and relations would dim or blaze in accordance with how far you could stifle or advance another’s career. It was a law Mérimée followed, though at his own pace, with his own candor. Shrugging one’s shoulders, smirking aridly, dressing a l’anglaise, telling a smutty story with a stony face, dining at Very’s, cuckolding the unwary—these were the ways the dandyish and variable Mérimée had of scorning the world and of caricaturing himself.

Professor Raitt, in this centenary study, speaks sympathetically of Mérimée’s life as an enormous effort at self-control. His book is essentially psychological portraiture in the academic manner, a bit bland here and there, but a thoroughgoing account of a gifted and sensitive man who continually ached from an “ineradicable insecurity.” Certainly it is typical of Prosper Mérimée’s “morbidity” that, though infatuated with women all his life, he could never really be audacious with women, especially those he loved; nor could he follow his heart, or even fathom it, though a man of genuine feeling; or carve a satisfying career for himself, though one for whom no doors were closed, including those of the Elysée Palace; or, finally, fully devote himself to literature, though a born writer.

Oddly enough, as Professor Raitt points out, he seems to have had a fortunate upbringing, apparently far removed from the great gloom of guilt and respectability common to the family life of his day. Yet it may have been through the very reasonableness of his tolerant and supportive parents—both artists, but both without a trace of bohemian folly or humbug—that Mérimée’s own problems with the world began, for the nineteenth century was not reasonable and the helter-skelter hazards of men and women never circumspect. Memory is sustenance from the past and mortar for the future—one’s earliest memories most of all. And anyone who like Mérimée can honestly intimate that, though a doted upon only child, he could never really recall a single tender youthful memory not tinged with bitterness is, to one degree or another, doomed.


In politics he moved coolly through the July Monarchy, the Second Republic, and the Second Empire. He appears, from time to time, to have been indispensable to the Bonaparte dynasty, a constant, if aloof, figure following the court at Fontainebleau or Versailles. Though he was later to warm to the man, Louis-Napoleon initially struck Mérimée as rather “small, with a head made for a far bigger body,” a ruler who would probably never “put himself to much trouble,” and who was, as he noted emphatically in English, “cold, distant, and self-conscious.” At an atrabilious fifty-one (the age, incidentally, when Balzac died), and already “world weary” (the recurring plaint of his letters), prodded by the Empress Eugénie, whom he had known since she was a girl, Mérimée became a senator. But that, as we learn from Professor Raitt, filled him with as much enthusiasm as when, gallantly acting on a friend’s behalf, he spent a farcical term as a “gaolbird” at the venerable fortress of Conciergerie. “I embarked on a chivalrous task on impulse,” he characteristically observes, “and that is something one should never do.”

In an era when France, reeling under her problems and changes—the shame of Waterloo, the “glorious street fighting” of 1830, the absurd scrambles of restorations and revolutions—was sending her best sons to other lands—Chateaubriand and Tocqueville to America, Stendhal to Italy, Custine to Russia—Spain became for Mérimée the perfect point of departure or release. He went there in 1830, when he was still in his twenties, and returned, more intimately, in 1845 and 1846.

Spain with her eruptive codes of honor and deliquescent sunsets, where even in the twentieth century, as Ortega found, an interest in philosophy, especially metaphysics, was thought of dubious account: it might destroy the Spanish soul—in Spain Mérimée could indulge his taste for fatalism and for what Raitt calls “the raw energy of the lower classes” and yet wear his mask of imperturbability.

Just as an earlier affair with England and English studies (another land averse to philosophy, though for a different reason: it might destroy common sense) probably sparked the youthful Mérimée’s precocious theatrical spoofs and sly “translations” of poems and ballads from the Illyrian or Serbian (two of these foxed Goethe and Pushkin), so his trips to Spain, and later to the Midi and elsewhere along the Mediterranean, inspired him to create characters and situations distinctly lacking in his own biography: the spontaneity and raggedy splendor, the heady contrasts of scenes and people where, as he has Don José remark in Carmen, “A storm is never so close in our mountains as when the sun is at its brightest.” José had been comparing the moods of his capricious Carmencita to the weather in his Basque country. Here is Mérimée, as the disinterested foreign narrator, capturing the famous eyes, “at once voluptuous and fierce,” of his heroine:

Oeil de bohémien, oeil de loup, c’est un dicton espagnol qui dénote une bonne observation. Si vous n’avez pas le temps d’aller au Jardin des Plantes pour étudier le regard d’un loup, considérez votre chat quand il guette un moineau.

Carmen, of course, is the breath-taking femme fatale, bounded by cards and spells, the flashing knife and the click of the castanets, but in Mérimée she really lives. If Don José is his most sympathetic character, Carmen, surely, is his most fetching creation. The chivalrous José bewitched by the brigand’s life, the bourgeois who as it turns out doesn’t really know the bourgeois world—again and again Carmen snaps at his scruples and his naïveté: “You’re like the dwarf,” she tells him, “who thought he was tall because he could spit a long way.”

José is not so much overpowered by a calamitous love, or even by Carmen’s rankling band of cutthroats and smugglers, as continually confounded by the rage and vulnerability his feelings lay bare. In Carmen, and in several other Mérimée tales, the sexes are reversed: the women seem steely, shrewd, venturesome; the men balk but submit. With two murders hanging over his head, José sentimentally evokes “a new life,” “another chance,” “somewhere where we shall never be parted.”

The gallant José is merely poignant; Carmen, however, has a tough, tragic allure. Her taunts, her trickery, her terrifying exuberance are founded on and swamped by an immense pessimism. She is the perpetual teller of fortunes, and what she sees, whether in the figure of the priest at the door of her house when she first meets José, or later in the hare crossing the road between his horse’s hoofs, is always her own death, and José’s as well. “It is written…me first, then you…but you will not make me yield…je ne t’aime plus; toi, tu m’aimes encore, et c’est pour cela que tu veux me tuer.” She stamps her foot, and throws away his ring in the brush, provoking her end; he digs a little grave in the wood where she always wanted to be buried, then gallops to Cordova, surrendering at the first guardhouse.


Cruelty is power, and cruel lovers among the most powerful people in the world. That, no doubt, is a popular theme of romanticism, yet Mérimée makes it unmistakably his own, not only in Carmen or La Double Méprise or La Vénus d’Ille, where, wrapped in jealousy or indifference or a clash of wills, love is always the last and fatal blow, but, in one way or another, throughout his works. Mérimée is not a voluminous writer, or particularly complex, but he understands the relation between power and love, the savagery of possession, as few other writers do. The rebellion of the slave against the master which ends in folly in Tamango; the ruthlessness of the single-minded delitto d’onore which animates Colomba and Mateo Falcone; the fanaticism of conscience or class, out of piety or greed (the St. Barthoiomew’s Day massacre in the deftly staged Chronique du règne de Charles IX; the peasants and nobles and priests at each other’s throats in La Jaquerie)—all these are variations on a single theme.

The percussive and virtuoso performer, of course, is not in Mérimée; he abhors along with the “brilliant phrase” the full range of moods and ideas; even his panoramas are fragments. He sketches a bit of Napoleon’s winter campaign, a backgammon table, a seduction in a carriage, an ambush among chestnut trees, and then lets the drama unfold, without fervor, but with absolute concision. His tales may be full of horrors, but they are always urbane, the inevitable rising over-whelmingly, performing its mischief, then moving off as perfunctorily as it came, as in the ending of Mateo Falcone, which Pater calls “perhaps the cruellest story in the world,” where the bullying, duty-driven father, after murdering his son (the beguiled boy had given away the sanctuary of a hunted man), sends off a message to his daughter’s husband inviting them “to come and live with us”—just one more bizarre act to brighten the perpetual gloom of rustic life, or life in general.

Mérimée is the raconteur of the demonic. What he says of Gogol, as quoted by Raitt, is true of himself: “The transition from what is strange to what is marvelous is imperceptible, and the reader will find himself surrounded by the fantastic before he realizes that the real world has been left far behind.” Here and there the fever goes to his head, and Mérimée can be operatic in the manner of the old-fashioned nineteenth-century librettist, yet even in his declamatory passages he rarely loses his sting. The scene where Colomba takes from a small casket the mementos of the mala morte of her father—a blood-stained shroud, two blackened bullets—and places them before Orso, her brother, is pure recitative:

Voici la chemise de votre père, Orso.” Et elle la jeta sur ses genoux.

Voici le plomb qui l’a frappé.” Et elle posa sur la chemise deux balles oxydées.

Orso, mon frère!” cria-t-elle en se précipitant dans ses bras et l’é-treignant avec force, “Orso! tu le vengeras!

Vendettas, of course, are Mérimée’s forte—that, and “men at war with the whole of society.” Though he always lived and judged at a distance, and so keeps to that distance in his tales, he seems, nevertheless, to have always been fascinated by the unbridled and the dissimulative. He scoffed at the bourgeois and patronized the exotic, but he took an enormous interest in the way things work: codes and forfeits, customs and mores. Mérimée is the anthropologist of the salon, as well as of the crude and idyllic scenes of Mediterranean life, forever trying to document an order that was falling apart or an order that could never be altered, a class in flux or rigid as rock.

Bonds that are broken, bargains fatally struck, signals that cross (the mordant last words of La Double Méprise: “Ces deux coeurs qui se méconnurent étaient peut-être faits l’un pour l’autre“): these are the typical springs of the action of Mérimée’s tales. His vendettas—and this is what saves them from melodrama—are aspects of the will, thwarted or rife; his characters may flout the conventions, but they seem to follow less the law of the self than the law of the land. They are, like Mérimée, thoroughly conservative, but with a connoisseur’s taste for revenge and discord.

We ought to bear that in mind when remembering Charles du Bos’s cutting remark: “No one ever took a more secret delight in letting people down than Mérimée.” But letting people down can also mean settling scores, paying back debts. When Mérimée’s mother died, what he lamented most was the loss of “prior duties and commitments.” These, we may suppose, were the buoys in the eddy of Mérimée’s self-interest; they sought to keep what was tumultuous from ever engulfing his heart or head. The fortuitous event, the remorseless revelation which could in a twinkling upset a lifetime’s arrangements were what he feared most, and what he experienced, late in middle age, unexpectedly and heartbreakingly, with Valentine Delessert.

Mérimée had a few early loves, and many mistresses, including, of all people, George Sand.* The drama of his life, however, was the long and looming affair with, as he jubilantly announced in 1836 when it began, “the pearl of women…happy because she loves me, very unhappy because I can’t prove my love to her as often as I should like.” Raitt calls Valentine Delessert Mérimée’s “most cherished dream”—perhaps she was, but the dream, it appears, did little to transfigure either of them. From what we know of her, at least, Valentine seems to have been about as openhearted as Mérimée himself. She had a salon and was the wife of the Prefect of Police; a bit of a coquette with an interest in politics and the arts. After a liaison which lasted on and off over a number of years, Valentine, newly engrossed in an affair with Maxime Du Camp, returned his gifts and letters in a packet, which, as Raitt states, “dazed” the importunate Mérimée. Very probably, though, Mérimée never wanted to love Valentine, only wanted her to love him. More than he would dread to be abandoned, how he must have dreaded to be used, to lose command.

No doubt, it is far easier for a woman to make a fool of a man if the man feels his manhood ultimately dependent on her. Mérimée never wanted to feel that. It is perhaps why, after a few youthful, and probably unconsciously courted, rebuffs, he chose never to marry. If most relationships are traps, as Mérimée must have sensed, things being equal, a lover is always a better escape artist than a husband or a father. Still, Valentine Delessert was the deepest love of his life, but how typical of Mérimée that he was never completely aware of this till it collapsed. With him, it was always only at the eleventh hour that he would allow himself to feel: then the age-old reserve would dissolve, reducing him to tears. For a while, he even thought of adopting “a little girl already grown to bring up”; in the end, he felt “more pity than anger,” and regarded himself “as having been above all stupid.” It has the irony of one of his tales.

In Mérimée, justice will out, but it is often of the harshest sort. It is not poetic justice or social justice, but a sardonic tracking down through village or drawing room or battleground or boudoir. Choose to be “a madman” who thinks he has “the queen of China (you know she is the fairest princess in the world) shut up in a bottle,” or choose to be a rake utterly without illusions. Whichever or whatever you choose, you will regret it. Fata viam invenient. The Fates will see to that.

If energy was the quality his friend Stendhal surprisingly thought most lacking in nineteenth-century Europe, for Mérimée, especially as he grew older, Europe with its intrigants, its industrialism, its orages de la révolution, seemed to represent nothing but energy—a seething, sacrificial, anarchic energy, forever doubling back upon itself to become, in the name of the people or commerce or empire, a “fury for order.” In the beginning he may have spoken casually of “the day of universal ruin which is drawing near,” but he began to believe it more and more. It ate at his imagination and affronted his soul.

Stendhal, the tubby bureaucrat of Milan or Rome, the self-confessed grand timide, could contemplate Renaissance art and cultivate Renaissance vigor; he could create Mina de Vanghel, the reckless Prussian heiress with the beautiful yellow hair, whose destiny “is not to shine at court or in ballrooms,” whose only spectacular moments are “listening to Mozart without any boring people around,” who later gambles at love and loses, shooting “herself through the heart” after “eight months of happiness”—a situation not too dissimilar to that of La Double Méprise, yet so different from Mérimée’s poor puzzled Julie and her miserable end; and Stendhal in 1821, racked by the latest and worst of his “great and terrible loves,” could say that it was really only the splendidly chaotic comedy of the politics of the day which kept him from blowing his head off. Mérimée had no such attachments to the world.

Yet often the seemingly most unattached man is also the one most stuck in his shell. Is it any wonder Mérimée spent so much of his life—a good twenty years of it, in fact, as Inspector-General of Historical Monuments—in pursuit of the past, stumbling among medieval ruins, chatting with petty officials or petty antiquarians in petty provincial towns, moving from Avignon to Arles to Orange, salvaging abbeys and libraries and theaters and churches and castles, sheltering them, annotating them, always involved, always industrious, yet somehow thoroughly dégagé, restoring la gloire, and looking at that achievement, as he looked at all his other achievements, with the same passionless self-mockery, turning out, as he succinctly says, “obscure archaeological memoirs which are read by a handful of learned men, half of whom shrug their shoulders at them.”

After he reached forty-five, he aged more rapidly and fornicated less; he took to Turkish babouches and Oriental dressing gowns and Russian studies, to pipes and cigarettes and erotic drawings, becoming more and more the chafing bachelor, with more and more of the typical bachelor’s preoccupation with growing old, here and there the recorded thoughts not always above bathos: “Lorsque vous serez trahi à 45 ans, vous trouverez que ce que vous avez souffert à vingt ans était peu de choses.”

Yet how different Mérimée was from other bachelor authors, his contemporaries, and how unresponsive he seems to have been to them and their works. Apart from a glancing interest in Madame Bovary, Mérimée turned a cold eye on the bourgeois romanticism of Flaubert, whose misanthrophy, at least, was so close to his own; Stendhalian ardor, as we know, was always a thorn in his side; though he defended the publication of Les Fleurs du Mal, he appears to have been genuinely shaken by the perversities of the crepuscular Baudelaire. Yet there is no doubt, I think, that the obsessions and themes and nuances of these authors struck deep chords in Mérimée’s being, and that he muffled them again and again. Against his “ineradicable insecurity,” there was always the other Mérimée, iron-willed and iron-clad, self-responsive and self-caressing, who stayed away from the “truth” of his heart because he knew, deep in his bones, that the truth—whatever it was—would be grievous and wounding.

Naturally, in his historical studies, he became a master at deflating the grand theme: “Je n’aime dans l’histoire que les anecdotes.” He may have thought of himself as a “citizen of the world,” but charlatans and impostors had always appealed to his sense of a colossal depredation: La fausse Elizabeth II, Les Faux Démétrius. After 1848, even the medieval slaughterhouse of Don Pedro was, as a lesson in law and order, not to be sniffed at by the modern age. At Biarritz, five years before the Franco-Prussian War, Mérimée meets Bismarck, and allows himself to be swept off his feet. The dour chancellor, he affirms, is “a great man.”

But by then, with his growing emphysema, with his “coughing and suffocating,” Mérimée had probably lost all sense of political proportion. The statesmen he should have admired, Gladstone, whom he knew, and Disraeli, whose idealization of the Tory sensibility was really so close to his own (see Coningsby), were representatives of parliamentary government, which he had grown to hate. They resembled, moreover, the aristocratic moderation of Lafayette and Mirabeau, which the Revolution had scuttled, and which in Mérimée’s France seemed all but defunct as a political style. As a young man he had been something of a radical, even perhaps a bit of a rebel, the legend of Austerlitz, no doubt, sweet to his thoughts. But events kept changing. They taught him the folly of following any flag of the future. In the recent past, there had been the Jacobins, rhapsodic about the meanest of states, where “opulence is infamy”; after that, volte face, Napoleonic imperialism. When that went, the Bourbons returned; they were succeeded by the “bourgeois king”; he was followed by the “upstart emperor,” who concluded his wretched performance with the disaster at Sedan. What a history!

All along, of course, Mérimée must have sensed the impending debacle of Louis-Napoleon, just as all along he would secretly feel himself to be superior to most of the people of his day, especially the women with whom he was involved—and, no doubt, as a man of extraordinary diversity and talent, he was. But Mérimée lacked nobility of soul. He had been brought up without religion and had little belief in the destiny of a nation or a race, and no sense at all of the unfolding purpose of the universe—all that, we may assume, was simply tout le fatras qui traine dans les livres.

With the Germans storming Paris, Mérimée on his deathbed scribbled a hysterical letter to a friend: “I bleed from the wounds of these fools of Frenchmen, I weep at their humiliations, and, however ungrateful and absurd they may be, I still love them.” Again he shed tears. Again, at the eleventh hour, what was dear to him revealed itself. But it was too late. Compare Mérimée’s words with those of Vigny, writing during the 1830 uprising, the soldier and poet and aristocrat, another déplacé, with his “servitude et grandeur militaires” far more removed from things than Mérimée had ever been, and yet irresistibly involved:

I have gotten my old uniform ready. If the King calls out all the officers, I shall go…. And his cause is a bad one; he is in his childhood, as is all his family: a childhood which does not understand the present time…. Why have I felt that I owe this death?…It’s silly. He would know neither my name nor my death. But when I was still a child, my father made me kiss the cross of Saint-Louis, at the time of the Empire; superstition, political superstition, rootless, puerile, an old prejudice of feudal fidelity, of attachment to one’s family, a kind of vassalage, the parenthood of seigneur to serf. But how could I not go tomorrow morning if he calls all of us? I served the king for thirteen years. That word: king—what does it mean? And to leave my old mother and my young wife who depend on me! But I shall leave them, it’s quite wrong, but it is necessary.

What Oscar Wilde could joke about in palmier days (“Really, if the lower orders don’t set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them?”) is now a knocking fact: the lower classes, surely, are as corrupt as the upper classes have ever been, and there seems no redeeming order in sight. From such an age or ages, what we produce as worldly types are usually either hypermoralists à la Savonarola (Fidel, for instance, is a Savonarola with a cigar), or those who, like Mérimée, while so much a part of the events of the day, seem so distinctly estranged from them, bleak and brooding and bored, lamenting that “whatever happens, liberty is lost,” and eventually not even lamenting that.

Mérimée must certainly have known that people are rarely moved by reason. When they are, as with Robespierre, it becomes the reverse of reason: fanaticism. What sways people is power, and what makes power is faith. You have to have a monolithic belief in a creed or an idea to take and hold power. Skeptical inquiring minds rarely make for leaders—so much the worse, perhaps, for the world.

Think of Mérimée, then, in his later years, with his white hair and gray eyes and flat voice, sitting with the Empress Eugénie and her little circle in the stuffy drawing room at Saint Cloud, reading aloud what was to be his last work of art, Lokis, that peculiarly affecting horror story of a cultivated and idealistic young man who on his wedding night murders his young bride. Professor Raitt takes the tale to be a probing of the unconscious, Mérimée attempting to get at our “latent animal nature.” It is that, but also, more deeply, I believe, a parable, unwitting or not, of the corrosiveness of political power and political illusions, as Mérimée came to know them again and again, regime after regime, culminating finally in the flight of Eugénie to England and the crowning of Wilhelm at Versailles. There, fifty or so years later, Clemenceau broke Germany’s back, avenging Sedan.

Mérimée left no heirs. Henry James honored him in an interesting essay, but went to school elsewhere. Nietzsche admired the dry style of Carmen, but preferred the opera. The characterization of the flamboyant Duchess Josiana in L’Homme qui rit probably owes somewhat to Mérimée, but that would have afforded him little pleasure as he always thought Hugo a glorified yarn-spinner. Here and there, bits of his style or sensibility surface in Louÿs or Maugham or Montherlant. Though he altered the short story and the nouvelle, though he stands as a landmark in the history of French literature, predictably he seems stringently set apart. I think of him as a man compulsively careful of his own interests, yet chronically backing off from the main chance. A rentier of the spirit, never an entrepreneur.

If Mérimée could help it, he would keep himself to himself under all circumstances, and he sought to help it by limiting his emotional and creative responses as tightly as possible. These limits, happily, led to his glory. There is always something of the poet in Mérimée, not the poet’s soul, at which he would have hooted, but the genius of the poet at distilling effects. He sees and paints with the utmost constancy and precision. It is rare that anything ever drifts in Mérimée’s prose. Ironic, of course, since, in his life or in his age, no one could have been more adrift….

Qui n’a pas l’esprit de son age
De son age a tout le malheur.

This Issue

July 1, 1971