Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century French Studies

Prosper Merimee and the Subversive "Historical" Short Story

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century French Studies

Prosper Merimee and the Subversive "Historical" Short Story

Article excerpt

Merimee scholars must frequently contend with a number of damaging stereotypes like the one Antonia Fonyi points to in her introduction to Prosper Merimee: Ecrivain, archeologue, historien. Fonyi suggests that Merimee's close association with the corridors of political power tarnished his reputation as a novelist: "De nos jours encore, on reproche a Merimee sa position sous le second Empire, sa fonction de senateur, sa place a la cour, sa proximite du pouvoir" (ix). But she quickly points out that "Les arguments ... concernent toujours l'homme, jamais l'oeuvre.... Au contraire, de 1825 a 1870, du Theatre de Clara Gazul a Djoumane ... sous tous les regimes politiques, elle se fonde sur une ferme opposition a l'ordre etabli, pire, a l'ordre tout court" (ix). Indeed, instead of weakening his writing, a close reading of Merimee's correspondence reveals an often extreme frustration with the institutions in which he worked and alludes to fiction as his outlet for making subversive social and political commentaries. (1)

Below I look carefully at the works Merimee published in 1829--specifically Chronique du regne de Charles IX, Mateo Falcone, and Tamango. My analyses will show how these three works allegorize political tensions of that year and how they represent a struggle against the dominant historical voices of the era by attempting to "reconstruct" the narrative of the revolutionary period. My reading of Mateo Falcone and Tamango will establish similarities between the crises and violence in Merimee's fiction and the social and political crises facing France in the post revolutionary era. Additionally, I show that these 1829 texts establish a pattern of subversive writing that Merimee used in his subsequent fictional works.

Despite their apparently apolitical content, Merimee felt, on the contrary, that his fictional works represented fairly blatant attacks on the power structure of his time. In December of 1829 he wrote to Mme Recamier:

   Je suis auteur de quelques mediocres ouvrages, et a ce titre
   mon nom a paru dans les journaux. Etranger toute ma vie a la
   politique, dans mes livres j'ai montre (et peut etre trop
   crument) mon opinion. J'ai pense que sous l'administration
   actuelle, accepter des fonctions quelque peu importantes
   qu'elles soient, serait n'etre pas d'accord avec moi-meme.
   (Correspondance generale 1:51)

In which of his works did he feel he offered a political opinion that was too blunt, an opinion apparently opposed to the government of Charles X? Merimee was conscious of his readership in the 1820s, that it would see parallels between any historical scenes he described and modern political situations. In a letter to his professor Joseph Lingay, Merimee pointed out the flaws and too obvious references to nineteenth-century France in his unpublished work Cromwell: "Cromwell, comme ambitieux, ne plaira a personne. Le Roi, represente bonasse comme il l'etait reellement, indignera les royalistes. Et les hommes qui se disent maintenant republicains en se laissant sabrer par des gendarmes, ne pourront aimer le fanatique et bavard Ludlow" (CG 1: 2-3). Fearful of the indignation of Royalists and of a lack of interest on the part of Liberals in 1822, Merimee destroyed his manuscript. His letter, however, clearly demonstrates that historical narrative would and should be read with contemporary France in mind.

In order to reaffirm its dominance and its legitimacy, the Restoration government of Louis XVIII and Charles X presented itself as belonging to an uninterrupted chain of monarchical rule dating to centuries before the Revolution. French History, Chateaubriand would note in 1813, was entirely up for grabs: "Il est singulier comme cette histoire de France est tout a faire et comme on ne s'en est jamais doute" (53). Darcos reminds us that historians of the Restoration and July monarchies considered the Revolution and Empire as parenthetical, temporary setbacks to the onward march of the ancien regime. …

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