The Parents' Review
A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture
"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
by G. L. F.
The art of writing short stories is seldom wrought to perfection in England: I can think of few names, if of any, which could be compared with such a consummate short story writer as Prosper Merimée. It is perhaps not surprising that the French should excel in this particular branch of literature: their language lends itself to conciseness and the prose of modern writers in France is become a wonderfully polished form of expression. Circumstances have combined to make French one of the most perfect of modern languages: and in the same way, circumstances had a large control in forming the exceptional genius of Merimée.
He was born in the year 1803. That date alone is sufficient to account for much; for if we consider the work of his contemporaries, it will be found that it all bears that characteristic trace of a taste for whatever discloses human nature in its pristine condition, unfettered by any respect for what is conventional. It was the literary echo of all the wild passion which broke out during the French Revolution. Sons wrote in a frame of mind similar to that which had driven their fathers to such terrible acts. Then, after having abolished every form of respect and reverence for things seen or unseen, men began to thirst for knowledge and certainty of something: they sought instinctively to regain light by acquiring facts, undisputed facts which could be massed together, systematised and used as the foundation for a theory of existence. Like Arthur's knights, they all started in quest of one and the same object, but in many different directions; and every great French name of the century indicates the point reached in that particular branch of research—on that particular road. And it must be equally evident, even to a casual reader, that if Merimée's contemporaries all possessed one common factor, they nevertheless differed to a great or small extent from one another, according to their personal gifts and temperament: each conceived the thoughts of his generation in his peculiar way. This question is a difficult one at best, for, as Prof. Dowden points out, one is met by such perplexing cases as the coincidence of names like Pascal and Saint Simon; Euripides and Aristophanes; Shelley and Scott; Herbert Spencer and Cardinal Newman. In the present case the names of Eugène Sue, George Sand, Sainte Beuve, Alexandre Dumas, Alfred de Musset, Lamartine, Victor Hugo and Stendhal prove how diverse the personalities may be, even when the spirit of the age is common to all. They probably all felt more or less what Lamartine expressed in the following words: "Whatever the diversity of impressions which nature has implanted and still is sowing in my soul and through my soul in my writings, the basis is always a profound feeling of the divine immanence in the world, a living evidence, an intuition, more or less palpable, of the existence and working of God in and through the material creation and rational man, a firm unshakable conviction that God must be the crowning word to everything and that philosophy, poetry, religion are only manifestations more or less complete of our connection with the infinite being;—progress more or less sublime to bring us gradually near to Him who is." That was the ultimate end and aim of all their study; they longed to solve the great eternal mystery and thought that science, if sufficiently elaborated, might in time give an answer.
It was to this sceptical yet thirsting generation that Merimée belonged. His father was an artist of average talent and the author of a history of painting. His mother also painted, more particularly children's portraits: whilst working she would tell them stories to obtain a happy expression on their faces. This gift of telling seems to have been inherited from a grandmother, who wrote many stories for children. It was from his parents, then, that Merimée obtained the natural gifts of narration and painting. He was not baptized—a fact which characterises the tone of his home. It was what might be termed an artistic home; both father and mother taught the child to revere above all things virtue, art and science. But of religion in the usual acceptance of the word, there was nothing, and this doubtless confirmed the materialistic tendency of Merimée's mind. The unseen world was a nonentity to him; and as is so often the case, this absence of soul gave extra power to the mind; it has been said that there is but one tear in all his writings, and even that seems half satirical, for the readers sheds it involuntarily, feeling that he is made to sympathise with a sinner who triumphs over a virtuous person.
Few biographers of Merimée omit to make mention of the anecdote regarding the scene which is said to have taken place between him and his mother when he was quite a lad. He was begging her forgiveness for something he had done when he thought he noticed that he was being made fun of; he swore never to trust anyone again. This fear of ridicule seems to be a parasitic growth apt to develop in materialistic minds. Merimée undoubtedly was a man of exceptional talent; in some respects he was almost a genius. But if he was above the common herd and despised the world's frivolity because he realised the worthlessness of much that men think fondly of, yet, like Stendhal, he was the slave of public opinion, more especially in the world of fashion—a perfect dandy, always absolutely "correct" in his attire, punctilious to a degree. It is said that even at school he had the reputation of being a dandy, probably because he assumed English manners. His father received several English artists in his home and it was from them no doubt that Merimée first learnt to admire the English and to speak their language. All through his life he is said to have dressed and looked more like an Englishman than a Frenchman.
Little is recorded of his school life—sure sign that he was not precocious. But at the age of seventeen he began to study in earnest, and during the next five years he acquired much valuable knowledge. He read Cervantes, Lope, Calderon, Shakespeare and Byron; from these authors he gleaned matter for thought. He studied the classics, Greek, Roman and French, and from these he acquired a means of expressing his thought. He looked upon his fellow-creatures as the most important study and learnt to know them, not only in Herodotus, Livy, Froissart, but also in society. In his spare time he studied theology, military tactics and the art of besieging towns, architecture, epigraphs, coins, magic, cooking, anything and everything. He wished to know the how and wherefore of all; he was as anxious to learn about macaroni as to trace the origin of a religion. A characteristic story is told of Merimée in this connection. He was dining one evening with Victor Hugo when a dish of macaroni was served so badly cooked that it was not fit to eat. Merimée volunteered to come another day to cook the dish for him; he turned up at the appointed time, took his coat off, donned an apron and set to work to cook the macaroni. The dish proved to be as great a success as his books.
Though Merimée received a legal education, he did not proceed to the bar or the bench; he entered public service and was attached to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and that of Commerce successively. Then he obtained the post of Inspector of Historic Monuments: it was an appointment for which he must have been thankful, for the work he did seems to prove that he was very much interested in it. His concise language and talent for painting served him admirably and he rendered much excellent service to his country by calling attention to and saving from destruction or decay many noble monuments of former ages. It was in this capacity that he undertook a mission to Spain in 1840: during his visit he met the family of the future Empress Eugénie. A few years later he was made a member of the French Academy and when the Empire was restored he became a Senator and one of the closest friends of the Emperor and Empress.
His life's work may be divided up under three headings: his first achievements were his novels, and it is by these that he is best known to the world. The exquisite art with which he told his stories and the polished form of the language led to their being translated all over Europe and used to a large extent in education as classic French. At one time he attempted to write for the stage: but he found out that he had not the peculiar touch that is required for plays and it was much against his will that he once consented to have a piece staged: it was quite a failure. At the commencement of his literary career he managed in a remarkable manner to deceive the public twice by publishing work said to be the product of another land and period, but in reality nothing but a clever imposition, the whole being his own invention. They must certainly rank with the very best literary hoaxes.
The second portion of his life may be termed the historical and archaeological portion; as I have already mentioned, the reports he drew up are as good in their way as anything he wrote, and if he had never done anything but the work connected with the historic monuments, his country would yet have much to be grateful for.
The third claim to renown is based on his famous letters, most of which were not published until after his death. In his preface to the Chronique de Charles IX he writes that he would willingly give Thucydides for some authentic memoirs by Aspasia or by a slave of Pericles. Anyone who sympathises with this sentiment must realise the full value of Merimée's letters, for they are exactly the kind of history he mentions. They are full of interesting details regarding European politics, the doings of great or common men, little incidents as well as great events. To future historians his letters will be as valuable as the memoirs of Saint Simon or the famous English "diaries." It is in these letters, which consist almost entirely of the Lettres à une Inconnue and of the letters to Panizzi, sometime librarian of the British Museum, that the true Merimée first became known to the world. It is from them that Prof. Saintsbury quotes the following story of Merimée's as being "invaluable for providing the reader with spectacles through which to read Merimée":—"Once upon a time there was a madman who thought that he possessed the Queen of China (I need not tell you that she is the loveliest princess in the world) shut up in a bottle. This possession made him very happy and he was never tired of exerting himself, that the bottle and its inhabitant might have no reason to be ashamed of him. But one day he broke the bottle, and as one cannot hope to hit upon a Princess of China twice in one's life, he, who had only been mad before, became stupid."
But Merimée had another side to his character, a more human and sympathetic side which always studied to conceal. Such passages as the following reveal a Merimée undreamt of by the public until the publication of the Lettres à une Inconnue: "I had not heard from you for so long that I began to grow anxious; I was haunted by an idea which I dared not mention to you. I was visiting the Arena at Nimes with the architect of the county, when I saw, about ten feet away from me, a lovely bird, a little bigger than a tom-tit; its body was grey, its wings red, black and white. It was perched on one of the corner stones and seemed to be looking fixedly at me. I interrupted the architect to ask him the name of the bird. Though a great sportsman, he said he had never seen its like before. I went up to it and it did not fly away until I was within reach of it: it went and settled a little further off, still looking at me. Wherever I went it seemed to follow me, for I saw it in many parts of the Arena. It seemed to have no companion and its flight was noiseless as that of a night-bird. Next day when I was in the Arena I saw the bird again. I had some bread with me and threw it some, but it did not heed it. It took as little notice of a large grasshopper which I caught, thinking that its beak looked as if it fed on insects. The most learned ornithologist of the neighbourhood declared that there was no such bird in the country. And when I visited the Arena for the last time, my bird still followed me wherever I went, even in to a dark narrow passage which would have scared most day-birds. It then occurred to me that the Duchess of Buckingham had seen her husband in the shape of a bird on the day of his assassination, and the though struck me that you were perhaps dead and had assumed that form to come and see me. In spite of reasoning, the foolish thought troubled me and I assure you I was very thankful to see that your letter bore the date of the day when I first saw the bird . . ."
Such things tell us that beneath the cold sceptical surface there was a sensitive, poetic, loving nature: how he must have suffered in keeping his true self always under a veil! But I cannot dwell on the letters, fascinating though they are; nor can I recommend them for indiscriminate reading. It is rather of some of his stories that I wish to say a few more words.
The shortest one is L'Enlèvement de la Redoule; a gem. It requires reading several times before the perfection of it can be fully appreciated. The closing words are particularly noteworthy. The way in which the lieutenant who joins the regiment on the eve of the battle finds himself the only officer that has survived the fight, is a typical instance of the way in which Napoleon's officers rose from the lowest to the highest ranks in the space of a short time.
Mateo Falcone is also one of the short ones. It is the story of a Corsican outlaw who kills his boy for betraying a fellow-bandit who sought shelter in his house. Mateo is what may be called a "respectable brigand." He lives unmolested by the police who are glad enough to let so formidable a man sleep in peace. The other outlaw is pursued and wounded by the police; when he seeks refuge in Mateo's house, he finds no one at home except the young son who has been left in charge. The boy hides the wounded man so skillfully that the police fail to discover him and would have had to forego their booty had not the officer tempted the boy to betray the man's whereabouts by offering him a bribe. The passage which describes him dangling the bright watch before the boy's face is perfect; the temptation is too strong and a little thumb points to the place of concealment. When the father returns, the boy is punished as the first one of the family who had ever been a traitor.
La Venus d' Ille is considered by some to be the very best. It is the story of the terrible Venus of whom English people have read in Anstey's Tinted Venus. The superstition is that a certain statue of Venus comes to life when a ring is put upon her finger. In Merimée's version he makes use of an artifice which he employed in other tales also; he leaves the mystery with two possible solutions; he does not say for certain that the statue came to life and did this or that, but he tells us that the statue inspired most people with a feeling of fear, that everything connected with it seemed doomed to mishap and that certain tragic events followed close upon the slipping of a ring on her finger; but at the same time he suggests certain matter-of-fact explanations for what might seem incredible. He leaves the reader to judge which of the two is less difficult to believe and there can be little doubt that everyone must find it easier to attribute the calamity to the statue come to life—and that is precisely what Merimée intended.
In Tamango we find one of those characters I mentioned above. Here we see human nature in its wildest and most unfettered condition; we watch the terrible results of anger, revenge, fear, hunger, as we read the story of the negro chieftain who, treacherously taken on board a French vessel, breaks free and sets his fellow-slaves at liberty, massacres the crew and then finds himself unable to manage the vessel, which has to drift at the mercy of the wind and waves, until all die of starvation save him and his wife, with whom he shares the last morsel. Sighted at last by some vessel, he was found lying unconscious near his wife's body, brought to Europe and civilised. Horrible as the subject may appear, it is deeply interesting, for it is told in a manner peculiar to Merimée. The subject fascinated him and he succeeds in fascinating us.
Of Columba I need say nothing, for this beautiful story is known in every country in which French is read. It is one of the books one reads at school, and yet can read with pleasure again and again in later years. I think the way in which this story has been repeatedly published and translated in many lands is a measure of the value of Merimée's writings. Like Tennyson, he lived to see himself a classic.
G. L. F.
Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, December 2008
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