May 27, 2016 by Jessica Palmer
Review of “L’Intertexualité chez Mérimée: l’étude des sauvages”
Department of French and Italian, Brigham Young University
Provo, UT 84602
L’Intertextualité chez Mérimée: L’étude des Sauvages. By Khama-Bassili Tolo. Birmingham: Summa, 1998. 320pp.
With the bicentennial of Mérimée’s birth quickly approaching (Sep. 2003) Mérimée scholars undoubtedly hope to see a renaissance of interest in this often overlooked and somewhat enigmatic author, critic, historian and politician. Xavier Darcos’ new biography of Mérimée published in 1998 (Flammarion) and Antonia Fonyi’s collection of articles in 1999 (Prosper Mérimée: écrivain, archéologue, historien, Droz, from a 1997 colloquium) represented the first steps in this process. “Aussi la publication de ce livre,” Fonyi writes, “s’accompagne-t-elle du voeu qu’elle puisse ranimer l’intérêt pour Mérimée, en contribuant à changer les perspectives d’approche de son oeuvre” (vii).
Given the title of the book under review, readers expect an original and insightful analysis of Mérimée’s fiction offering the new perspectives of which Fonyi writes, a study ranking along side other book-length analyses of Mérimée’s ficton by Bowman, Gans, Chabot and Dale. The direct ancestor of Tolo’s work is of course the 1981 article by Pierre Zoberman, “Mérimée et la pratique intertextuelle,” in which Zoberman highlights references to Byron and to Molière in Mérimée’s “La double méprise.” Zoberman concludes that by referencing Molière, Mérimée’s text is in fact a parody of Byronian Romanticism, and suggests that even Mérimée’s “serious” texts should be read as partly satirical.
Tolo’s study of intertext (what he calls “intertexte externe,” that is references to texts not written by Mérimée himself), however, instead of building on Zoberman’s article, does little more than repeat the same clichés that have been reiterated since the 1830s: that Mérimée is a “disciple of Voltaire,” that he was greatly influenced by Stendhal, and that as a linguist he owed a lot to the ancients.While we can blame Stendhal for linking Mérimée with Voltaire (he described Mérimée’s Chronique du règne de Charles IX as an “ouvrage plein d’esprit à la Voltaire”) such a connection does little more than make Mérimée’s works appear already outdated at the time of their composition by linking them to the 18th rather than the 19th century.
Further, Tolo’s analysis of Stendhal’s influence on Mérimée (worthy of an entire chapter, one would assume) is limited to a three page comparison of “les passions énergiques.” Such a comparison underscores Mérimée’s indebtedness to Romanticism instead of pointing out potential new readings that a more detailed intertextual study could bring. What of the two authors’ stylistic differences (i.e. one excelled at the short story while the other did not)? Did Mérimée share his mentor’s verve for political allusion and is there evidence of this, even allegorically, in Mérimée’s texts? How does Stendhal’s Italy compare to the “savage” maquis of Mérimée’s “Mateo Falcone” or to the Spain of Clara Gazul?
Finally, Tolo’s section entitled “Mérimée et les anciens” limits itself to a study of epigraphs and does little more than list them. Mérimée scholars will want to see more in conclusion than “Cela montre clairement l’étendue de la culture considérable de Mérimée” (25) or “Pour finir avec l’étude de l’épigraphe, nous constatons que celle-ci fournit un excellent indice de l’intertextualité. Bien qu’elle appartienne à l’intertextualité externe, elle n’en constitue pas moins un aspect déterminant” (36). This concluding paragraph from the section does little more than state the obvious. One wishes Tolo would spend time analyzing the connections (be they ironic or serious) between the epigraphs and the works they introduce. Why a line from a Revolutionary’s song at the beginning of Les Espagnols en Danemarck? What can one make from the apparent references to Virgil and Racine in “La Vénus d’Ille”? Tolo points out these intertextual references without ever explaining their importance or hypothesizing as to their meaning in the new context.
As for the choice of intertextual references, Tolo limits himself almost exclusively to the study of explicit ones. For example, Orso, in “Colomba” reads from Dante so Tolo cites this passage (again with very little commentary). But a more interesting reference to Dante comes at the beginning of “La Vénus d’Ille” when the narrator and his guide descend the dark hills of Southern France into the village of Ille below. And while there is no explicit mention of Dante, the implicit references are clear and could lead to more fruitful conclusions and avenues of study than do the explicit references Tolo prefers to focus on. In his discussion of the desert (a “lieu sauvage”) no mention is made of Molière’sMisanthrope despite the obvious references to Alceste’s retreat in Mérimée’s “Colomba”. And while Tolo briefly mentions Rousseau’s “bon sauvage” (282) he does not do so in relation to Mérimée’s works. Nothing is made of the way Mérimée parodies Rousseau’s “bon sauvage” in “Mateo Falcone” or in “Tamango”, for example.
The middle chapters of Tolo’s book focus on “l’intertexte interne,” that is, the links between Mérimée’s own works, specifically his treatment of the theme of the savage. Section titles range from “La musique des sauvages” to “La nourriture des sauvages” to “Le sacrifice humain.” These sections amount to lists of references in Mérimée’s texts with little or no commentary.
While readers will be disappointed with the text’s lack of commentary and analysis, Mérimée scholars will nevertheless appreciate the range of questions Tolo’s text does raise. Why the constant tension between the “civilized” and “uncivilized” worlds in Mérimée’s narratives? What is Mérimée trying to work out with these recurring tales of conversion (from “sauvage” to “civilisé”) (e.g. “Colomba”) or of failed conversion (e.g. “Carmen”, “Lokis”)? Why are Mérimée’s tales filled with such tremendously violent and seemingly “savage” episodes? One wishes that Tolo himself would answer these questions and offer a coherent interpretation of the symbolic value of “le sauvage” within the intertextual network he elucidates. He is instead content to demonstrate that of the intertextual connections in Mérimée’s work “l’isotopie du sauvage y est la plus dominante” (286).