Saturday, June 12, 2010
Carmen & other stories - Prosper Merimee
I’m not an opera fan but there are a few operas that are just out there in the atmosphere & if you listen to music at all, you can’t help absorbing some of the music. Carmen by Bizet is one of those operas. I knew the plot &, as I mentioned yesterday, I know the Toreador song, although I’ve never seen the opera or, until now, read the story on which it’s based. Prosper Merimee was a 19th century French author who is acknowledged as one of the early masters of the short story. I read Carmen as part of my 19th century bookgroup’s exploration of the books behind the operas but I was drawn in to read the other stories in this collection from OUP.
Carmen is the classic portrait of a femme fatale. Set in Spain, it’s the story of a young soldier, Don Jose, who falls under the spell of the Gypsy girl, Carmen. He is fascinated by Carmen’s beauty & boldness &, when she is arrested, he allows her to escape. He neglects his duties &, after he kills another soldier in a fight, he goes on the run with Carmen, becoming a smuggler. Don Jose is totally in thrall to Carmen by this time so he’s devastated to discover that she is married & has convinced the jail’s surgeon to release her husband. Garcia joins the smugglers & he & Don Jose circle each other warily. Carmen is the leader of the gang. She moves freely between the town & their hideout, bringing food, money & intelligence.
When Carmen goes to Gibraltar to organize a deal, the smugglers become worried when they hear no news. It is decided that Don Jose, disguised as a fruit seller, will go to Gibraltar to look for her. He finds Carmen installed as the mistress of an aristocratic English officer. She’s planning to dupe him out of his money &, in the process, rid herself of Garcia by allowing him to be exposed to the officer’s gunfire when they attempt the robbery. Don Jose is revolted by this cold-blooded scheme but he is tormented by Carmen’s scornful taunts & comes up with his own plan. He invites Garcia to play cards, accuses him of cheating & kills him in a fight. Don Jose claims Carmen as his romi (the Romany word for wife) & threatens to kill her if she is unfaithful. The scene is set for the climax of the story.
In just 50pp, Merimee tells an enthralling story full of action. Don Jose tells his story to a traveller, a scholar travelling through Spain in search of antiquities who has had his own encounter with Carmen in the opening chapter. Carmen is a fascinating woman & it’s easy to see why Don Jose is in thrall to her, in spite of her cruelty & her inconstancy. There can only be one end to a relationship like theirs.
The other stories in the collection are equally interesting. Colomba is a novella about revenge & family honour on the island of Corsica. Colomba herself is another strong woman in the style of Carmen, but her strength comes from her sense of family pride & obligation as she tries to force her brother to avenge the murder of their father. Mateo Falcone is also a tale of honour & pride set on Corsica where a father exacts a terrible price when his honour is compromised. The Storming of the Redoubt is about an incident during the Napoleonic wars in Russia. Tamango is a violent story of a revolt among a group of African slaves on a ship taking them to the plantations.
The Etruscan Vase is a story of love & jealousy among rich & idle young men in Paris. This was perhaps my favourite story, it reminded me of Maupassant’s Bel-Ami. A young man becomes suspicious of his mistress, a beautiful young widow, when he notices her fondness for a vase that was the gift of a man he despises. Could she have loved this other man? He veers between love & jealousy, suspicion & belief until the tragic ending. The Game of Backgammon is the story of the remorse of a young man when he does something dishonourable that poisons his life.
The Venus of Ille is a spookily supernatural tale of a very lifelike statue of the goddess. Lokis is probably the least successful story, set in Lithuania. It was written in Merimee’s old age & examines again his favourite theme of the dangers of passion & the connection between love & death in the mythic story of a man who is the offspring of a woman & a bear.
I really am becoming fascinated by short stories. I think I’ve read more this year than I ever have before. I’ve been lucky in my discoveries of Helen Simpson & now Merimee & I’ve enjoyed reading more stories by Hardy & Daphne Du Maurier. I’ve also just been inspired by Desperate Reader’s review of Elizabeth Taylor’s collection of stories, The Blush, (another book I've had on the tbr shelves since 1994), to get that down from the tbr shelves as well.