The “last courtier" - Prosper Mérimée

28 September 1803, 210 years ago, the author, historian and civil servant Prosper Mérimée was born in Paris.
“Not to take Goethe into account, for he is reasonably claimed by the century that produced him, I look only on Giacomo Leopardi, Prosper Merimee, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Walter Savage Landor the author of Imaginary Conversations, as worthy to be called masters of prose.“ (Friedrich Nietzsche)

De Champmartin’s (1797 – 1883) portrait of Prosper Mérimée

It was rather spiteful of Victor Hugo to call Mérimée the “last courtier”, not only for his dandyesque mannerisms, but for his allegedly superficial acquaintance with a tale, telling a story with a few subtle brushstrokes instead of rolling it out on a gigantic canvas like he, Hugo, did. In fact, Mérimée probably was the creator of the short story and novella in French literature. Taking full advantage of his well-educated French Norman family’s background, his interest in history and the suchness of the conditio humaine’s psychological aspects in a time when the 18th century’s scepticism had been relieved by the Romantic Revolution in all art forms, Mérimée took full advantage of prevalent tastes of the literary audience and had enjoyed a huge success with his first novella, “Mateo Falcone”, a tale of Corsican family honour that ends in tears, of course.

Combining his sombre taste with a fascination for the supernatural an a weird sense of humour, Mérimée published his own set of Illyrian tales and ballads of revenge and treachery and blood and vampires, allegedly a translation by one Joseph L’Estrange of the works of the local poet “Hyacinthe Maglanowich”, a hoax in the manner of MacPherson’s faked Scottish “Ossian” epics and equally believed to be genuine. Eastern European, especially Russian as well as Spanish influences continued to inspire him to publish more tall tales as well as to introduce Pushkin and Lermontov to France. But relating the tale of the ruffian Don José Zempranito and his ill-fated love affair with a beautiful if volatile cigar factory worker he heard in Spain made his literary fame everlasting – the story was published in 1845 as “Carmen” and inspired Bizet to compose one of the world’s best-known operas.

Prosper Mérimée's own watercolour of Carmen (1845)

In the days when the Romantic Age more and more gave way to Realism, a tendency that is clearly visible in his own texts, Mérimée was close with most of the other renowned French authors, Stendhal and he both shared a lifelong friendship, he followed his historical interests with George Sand and discovered the wonderful 15th century series of tapestries known as “The Lady and the Unicorn” in the Limousin” in his role of being inspector-general of historical monuments and made significant contributions to save the historical Cité de Carcassone and when he was elected to the  Académie française in 1844, his literary career actually was past his best already. He continued to act as a courtier indeed in the vicinity of Napoleon III and his wife Eugenie for the last twenty years of his life.

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