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Prosper Mérimée (1803-1870)


French dramatist, master of short story, and historian, who had an office as a state archeologist. Mérimée's most famous work is the novella Carmen (1845), a story about jealousy and unfaithfulness. It inspired Georges Bizet's world famous Opéra-Comique version from 1875. Some 50 movie adaptations have been made from the story, several of which are filmings of the opera. Along with Chateaubriand, Lamartine, Vigny, Musset, Gautier, and George Sand, Mérimée was one of the greatest names of the romantic movement in France. Passionate, destructive love was Mérimée's subject in many of his short stories, among them the symbolic 'The Pearl of Toledo'.

"Who can say whether the sun is most beautiful at dawn or at dusk? Who can tell whether the olive tree or the almond is the more beautiful? Who can tell whether Andalusia or Valencia breeds the bravest knight? What man can say who is the fairest of women? But I will tell you who is the fairest. She is Aurora de Vega, the Pearl of Toledo."

In the story the Moorish and Christian world fight about a woman. Swarthy Suzani challenges Don Guttiera to meet him in single combat about the Pearl of Toledo. "As mine I will bear her away, or by Allah, Cordova shall see me no more." Don Guttiera stops his game of chess and goes for the game of lances. She rides after him and finds Suzani laying badly wounded near the fountain of Almami. She is willing to help him when he begs her to take the lance from his chest. She trustingly approaches Suzani, but he kills her with his saber.

Prosper Mérimée was born in Paris, the son of Léonor Mérimée, an artist, and Anne Mérimée. He received law degree from the University of Paris in 1823, but he also studied Greek, Spanish, English, and Russian languages and their literature. Between 1826 and 1868 Mérimée made eighteen trips to England. Due to his interest in the Slavs, Mérimée also traveled widely in eastern Europe and Russia, and was the first interpreter of Russian literature in France. Because travelling was very difficult and costly at that time, he decided to describe the journey first in his book and then spent his royalties in verifying the accuracy of his observations. The work, La Guzla, ou choix de poésies illyriques, recueillies dans la Dalmatie, la Bosnie, la Croatie et l'Herzégovine (1827), was a great success. In 1830 he visited Spain, which became one of his principal literary sources. After a career under the ministries of navy, commerce, and the interior, he was appointed in 1833 inspector-general of historical remains in France.

Mérimée made his début as a dramatist at the age of 19 with Cromwell (1822). Théâtre de Clara Gazul (1825, 1830) were plays which he passed off as having been written by a Spanish actress, Clara Gazul. La Guzla was another literary practical joke, alleged to be translations of "Illyrian" national songs. Goethe, who eceived a signed copy in his own name, grew suspicious of its authenticity, and revealed the identity of the author. Alexandr Pushkin translated the book into Russian and published a substantial part of it for his Songs of the Western Slavs (1834). Through a mutual friend, Mérimée sought to make amends with Pushkin, saying "I am proud and ashamed at the same time to have taken him in." This incident was a prelude to Mérimée's serious interest Pushkin. "Comme il insiste peu!" said Mérimée of his light touch. On the other hand, it is possible that Pushkin, who had a wide knowledge of French literature, may have read Mérimée's tales.

Mérimée's historical play, La Jacquerie (1828, Peasant Revolt), and the novel Chronique du règne de Charles IX (1929, A Chronicle of the Reign of Charles IX), were born in the vogue of historical fiction established by Sir Walter Scott. In 1831 Mérimée began a long correspondence with a young girl Jenny Dacquin, which was published as Lettres à une inconnue (1873). With the writer George Sand he had a brief affair, giving a fictionalized account of their thyst  in La Double Méprise (1833, The Double Mistake). The affair lasted but a week. "I had Mérimée last night, and it wasn't much," Sand said according to  Alexandre Dumas. Henry James wrote that "I have been told that very early one cold Winter morning he perceived her, with a handkerchief on her head, lightning the fire to resume her literary tasks. He also, it appears, had nerves; the spectacle disturbed them – he himself was not thinking of getting about his labors yet awhile – and from that moment the intimacy ceased."     

Mérimée's friends included Stendhal and Turgenev. Goncourt brothers disliked him, Thomas Carlyle descibed him as "smooth but utterly barren man", and Victor Hugo criticized his political loyalties. "As soon as you saw him, you sensed in him a chilliness," wrote Hippolyte Taine of Mérimée. "Especially on ceremonial occasions his features were quite impassive. Even in private, when he was telling some ridiculous story, his voice remained monotonous, utterly calm, without brilliance or vivacity..." On the other hand, the Russian writer Turgenev saw, that "behind the external show of indifference and coldness, he concealed the most affectionate of hearts..."

"'Ha! ha! you're jealous!' she retorted, 'so much the worse for you. How can you be such a fool as that? Don't you see I must love you, because I have never asked you for money?'" (in Carmen)

Carmen, a novella about Spanish Gypsy life, was first published serially in La Revue des Deux Mondes in 1845, purpoting to be non-fiction, and two years lated in an expanded book form. The work was not an immediate success, but considered in its time immoral. Carmen, inspired by Manon Lescaut (1731), Abbé Prévost's tale about amor fou, is a story within a story. Much of its Gypsy lore was derived from the work of the author, translator, linguist and traveler George Borrow (1803-1881), but in A Chronicle of the Reign of Charles IX Mérimée had also a Gypsy character, named Mila. The narrator tells how he befriended the bandit Don José. "I had no doubt that the man I was dealing with was a smuggler, or perhaps a robber. But what odds was it to me? I knew the Spanish character well enough to be quite certain that I had nothing to fear from a man who had shared food and tobacco with me. His very presence was a guarantee of protection, should we run into any troubles."

When the narrator has met the dangerous gypsy of the title, Don José rescues him. Months later Don José is arrested and sentenced to death. He tells that as a corporal in the Spanish cavalry, he was ordered to arrest Carmen, a flirtatious Gypsy woman, for assaulting a coworker. José, who fells in love with Carmen, allows her to escape. He deserts the army, and takes up a life as a robber in the mountains of Andalusia. The smuggling band also includes Carmen's husband, Garcia le Borgne, whom José kills. Unfaithful Carmen becomes interested in Lucas, a picador and makes José insanely jealous. When she refuses to change, he kills her with a knife – she doesn't attempt to flee. The murder has no witnesses, José buries the body, and surrenders himself to the authorities. The last chapter deals with bohemian customs and language and was added in 1847 to the novella.

Georges Bizet's (1838-75) opera based on the story is considered the composer's greatest achievement. Its famous tunes include 'Toreador's Song,' the 'Habanera,' the 'Seguidilla,' the 'Card Song,' the 'Urchins' Chorus,' and the 'Flower Song'. The opera premiered at the (second) Salle Favart, the home of Paris' Opéra-Comique, on 3 March, 1875. As it is well know, the work had a disastrous reception: "To keep the public peace and ensure the safety of the impressionable dragoons and toreadors who surround this woman," said Oscar Comettant in Le Siécle, "she would need to be gagged, her unbridled hip-swaying brought to an end by tying her into a straitjacket after she had had a pan of water poured over her head." Carmen's failure hastened Bizet's early death. He died of a heart attack three months after the premiere, believing his work to be just one more failure.

When the daughter of Mérimée's friend, Countess of Montijo, became empress Eugénie of France, Merimée was admitted to the royal circle and made a senator in 1853. Mérimée's disreputable friends included Count Libri, Guglielmo Bruto Icilio Timoleone, one of the most accomplished book thieves of all time. Libri was forced to escape with his wife to England, but a host of politicians, artists, and writers defended him against accusations. In 1848 Mérimée wrote that "for me, who has always said that the love of collecting leads people to crime, Libri is the most honest of collectors, and I know of no man except Libri who would return to the libraries the books that others have stolen." Two years after Libri had been found guilty, Mérimée published in La Revue des Deux Mondes such a loud defence of his friend that the court ordered him to appear before it, accused of contempt.

Mérimée also wrote novels and short fiction, archaeological and historical dissertations, and travel books. Colomba (1840) was a story of revenge, La Vénus d'Ille (1837) and Lokis, written in 1869, had fantastic elements. Mérimée died in Cannes on September 23, 1870. Three years later Bizet finished his opera based on the story. Its rehearsals were constantly delayed, partly because the theatre's management were nervous of an opera in which the heroine dies. Members of the chorus decided that their part was physically impossible – they had to move and act as well as sing. Carmen opened on March 3, 1875. The first performance was a catastrophe – the audience expected to see a comic opera. Bizet's adversities did not stop on the second night when the audience was enthusiastic; the reviews were bad. Though the play staggered on for 48 performances, it never had a full house. However, in Vienna and elsewhere it was well received.

For further reading: Merimée et son temps by P. Leon (1962); The Poetics of Merimée by R.C. Dale (1966); Prosper Merimée by Maxwell A. Smith (1974); Pushkin and Merimee as Short Story Writers by Karl-Heinz Barsch (1983); Prosper Merimée by George H. Yu (1992); The Fate of Carmen by Evlyn Gould (1996). Stories about jealousy, passion and unfaithfulness: Shakespeare's Othello (Othello kills Desdemona), Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina (Anna kills herself), Raymond Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely (Venda kills Moose Malloy). Carmen Jones (1954), film dir.  Otto Preminger, screenplay by Harry Kleiner. Based on a musical comedy by Oscar Hammerstein II, taken from a comic opera by Meilhac and Halévy, based on a novel by Prosper Mérimée and produced on Broadway by Billie Rose. Players: Dorothy Dandridge, Harry Belafonte, Olga James, Pearl Bailey, Diahann Carroll. Singin voices: Le Vern Hutcherson, Marilynn Horne, Marvin Hayes, Bernice Patterson, Brock Peters, Joe Crawford. Story: Cindy Lou, visiting a parachuter factory, discovers that Carmen Jones, one of the factory girls, is after his fiancé Joe, who is going to a flying school to train as a pilot. Carmen becomes involved in a fight and Joe is obliged to escort her to Masonville jail. She persuades him to let her go and seduces him. Then she escapes and Joe is sent to prison for negligence. When he comes out of jail they are reunited. Joe follows her to Chicago. Carmen becomes bored. They quarrel and she finds solace with a boxer she knew before. Joe, desperate and jealous, strangles her. See also: George Sand.

Selected works:

  • Cromwell, 1822
  • Le Théâtre de Clara Gazul, 1825, 1830
    - The Plays of Clara Gazul (tr. 1825)
  • La Guzla, 1827
  • La Jacquerie, 1828
  • Chronique du règne de Charles IX, 1829
    - A Chronicle of the Reign of Charles IX (translated by George Saintsbury)
    - Pariisin verihäät: historiallinen romaani Pertun-yön ajalta (suom. J. Säilä, 1898-99) / Mustalaistytön ennustus: romaani Pärttylinyön ajoilta (suom. Lauri A. Hirvensalo, 1919) / Pärttylinyö: historiallinen romaani (suom. Lauri Hirvensalo, 1937)
  • Mateo Falcone, 1829
    - Mateo Falcone (translated by Corry Cropper, 2005)
  • Le Carosse de Saint-Sacrement, 1829
    - Jean Renoir's historical film La Carrozza d'Oro / Le Carousse d'Or / The Golden Coach from 1953 is loosely based on the novel, starring Anna Magnani, Dincan Lamont, Paul Campbell, Riccardo Rioli, Jean Debucourt
  • Vision de Charles XI, 1829
    - The Vision of Charles XI (translated by Corry Cropper, 2005)
  • L'Enlèvement de la redoute, 1829
  • Tamango, 1829
    - Orjakauppias Tamango y. m. novelleja (suom. 1912)
  • L'Occasion, 1829
  • Le vase étrusque, 1830
  • Les mécontents, 1830
    - The Conspirators (translated by Paul Vaughan, 1996)
  • La partie de trictrac, 1830
    - A Game of Trictrac (translated by Corry Cropper, 2005)
  • La Double Méprise, 1833
    - The Double Mistake, in The Novels, Tales and Letters of Prosper Mérimée (ed. George Saintsbury, 1905)
  • Mosaïque, 1833
  • Les Âmes du purgatoire, 1834
    - Souls in Purgatory, in The Novels, Tales and Letters of Prosper Mérimée (ed. George Saintsbury, 1905)
  • La Vénus d'Ille, 1837
    - The Venus of Ille, in The Novels, Tales and Letters of Prosper Mérimée (ed. George Saintsbury, 1905)
  • Notes d'un voyage en Corse, 1840
  • Colomba, 1840
    - Colomba (translated by Walter J. Cobb, 1963; Edward Marielle, 1965)
    - Colomba: kertomus Korsikan oloista 1810-luvulta (suom. Kasimir Leino, 1907) / Verikosto (suom. Kasimir Leino, 1907)
  • Carmen, 1845 (basis for Bizet's famous opera)
    - Carmen (translators: Edmund H. Garrett, 1896; George Burnham Ives, 1903; Edward Manley, 1907; A. E. Johnson, 1915; Edward Marielle, 1965; Guy Chapman, 1966; Nicholas Jotcham, 1989)
    - Carmen: espanjalaisen mustalaistytön elämäntarina (suom. Kasimir Leino, 1907; Kasimir Leino teki myös väitöskirjan Prosper Mériméesta 1895) / Carmen: kertomus (suom. Reino Hakamies, 1959)
    - Film adaptations: Carmen (1915), dir. Cecil B. DeMille, starring Geraldine Farrar; Carmen (1915), dir. Raoul Walsh, starring Theda Bara; Burlesque on Carmen (1916), dir. by Charles Chaplin; Carmen (1918), dir. Ernst Lubitsch, starring Pola Negri; Carmen (1926), dir. Jacques Feyder; The Loves of Carmen (1927), dir. Raoul Walsh, starring Dolores del Rio; Carmen, la de triana (1938), dir. Florián Rey; Carmen (1943), dir. Christian-Jacque; The Loves of Carmen (1948), dir. Charles Vidor, starring Rita Hayworth; Carmen proibita (1953), dir. Giuseppe Maria Scotese; Carmen Jones (1954), dir. Otto Preminger. Black American updating of Bizet's opera, where a factory girl marries a soldier, and is strangled by him for infidelity; Carmen de Granade (1959), dir. Tulio Demicheli; Carmen di Trastevere (1962), dir. Carmine Gallone; Carmen, Baby (1967), dir. bRadley Metzger; Carmen (1983), dir. Carlos Saura, a rehearsal for the ballet Carmen parallels in real life with the drama; Prénom: Carmen (1983), dir. Jean-Luc Godard; La Tragédie de Carmen (1983), dir. Peter Brook; Carmen (1984), dir. Francesco Rosi; Carmen (2003), dir. Vicente Aranda, starring Paz Vega, Leonardo Sbaraglia, Jay Benedict
  • Histoire de Don Pèdre Ier, roi de Castille, 1848
    - The History of Peter the Cruel, King of Castile and Leon (tr. 1849)
  • Les Faux Démétrius, 1854
  • Mélanges historiques et littéraires, 1855
  • Djoûmane, 1870
    - Djoûmane, in The Novels, Tales and Letters of Prosper Mérimée (ed. George Saintsbury, 1905)
  • La chambre bleue, 1872
    - The Blue Room, in The Novels, Tales and Letters of Prosper Mérimée (ed. George Saintsbury, 1905)
  • Dernières nouvelles, 1873 (contains 'Lokis')
    - 'Lokis', in The Novels, Tales and Letters of Prosper Mérimée (ed. George Saintsbury, 1905)
  • Lettres à une autre inconnue, 1873
    - Letters to an Unknown, in The Novels, Tales and Letters of Prosper Mérimée (ed. George Saintsbury, 1905) / Prosper Mérimée's Letters to an Incognita (ed. Richard Henry Stoddard)
  • Portraits historiques et littéraires, 1874
  • Lettres à M. Panizzi 1850-70, 1881
    - Letters of Prosper Mérimée to Panizzi: Volume 1 (tr. 2008)
  • Lettres à une inconnue, 1889
  • The Writings of Prosper Merimee, with an Essay on the Genius and Achievement of the Author, 1905 (translated by George Saintsbury)
  • Oeuvres complètes, 1927-33 (12 vols., ed. P. Trahard and E. Champion)
  • Romans et nouvelles, 1932 (ed. H. Martineau)
  • Lettres de Prosper Mérimée à la Comtesse de Montijo, 1936 (2 vols.)
  • Lettres à Fanny Lagden, 1938
  • Correspondance générale, 1941-64 (17 vols.)
  • Lettres à Edward Ellice, 1963
  • Notes de voyages, présentées par Pierre-Marie Auzas, 1971
  • Tamango, Mateo Falcone, et autres nouvelles, 1983
  • Theatre: Romans et Nouvelles, 1989
  • Carmen et autres nouvelles choisies, 1999
  • Plays on Hispanic Themes, 2003 (translated and edited by Oscar Mandel)

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