7 June 2016 by Jessica Palmer
Review of Antonia Fonyi’s Edition of Littératures, No. 51: Mérimée
Department of French and Italian
Brigham Young University
Antonia Fonyi. Littératures, No. 51: Mérimée. Toulouse, Presse Universitaires du Mirail, 2004. 156 pages devoted to Mérimée.
Since Maurice Parturier, it would be difficult to argue that anyone has done more to promote the study of Prosper Mérimée than Antonia Fonyi. One of the primary motors behind the author’s bicentennial celebration and the French Ministry of Culture website devoted to him (www.merimee.culture.fr), Fonyi has organized numerous colloquiums on Mérimée and recently created the international Mérimée Society. In her preface to Prosper Mérimée: écrivain, archéologue, historien, a 1999 collection of articles she edited, Fonyi wrote:
“De nos jours encore, on reproche à Mérimée sa position sous le second Empire, sa fonction de sénateur, sa place à la cour, sa proximité du pouvoir. . . . Mais . . . le reproche addressé à un écrivain parmi les plus intransigeant d’avoir été le représentant d’un régime corrompu n’est qu’une idée reçue, qu’une image, transmise de génération en génération depuis plus d’un siècle, et qu’il est temps d’invalider par des interprétations nouvelles: par des travaux à venir” (ix).
In her latest volume, Fonyi and her contributors set out to once again tackle theidées reçues that have shaped Mérimée studies for over a century—“sécheresse, impassibilité, perfection … immoralité, refus d’engagement, indépendance absolue” (5). Less political and more literary than in 1999, this collection succeeds in rehabilitating Mérimée the author and in recontextualizing our perceptions of his fiction.
This special edition sets out to examine several clichés present in the history of Mérimée criticism. Eric Bordas, for example, argues convincingly that Mérimée’s “style sec” has been misunderstood by some as entirely classical or, worse, as demonstrating a lack of creativity (“création de l’expression”). This misunderstanding, Bordas argues, stems from some critics’ inability to recognize the extent to which Mérimée employs free indirect discourse, allowing the voices of his characters to color his own style. In the next article, Philippe Garnier demonstrates how Pierre Trahard, Paul Léon and others misrepresented many of Mérimée’s judgments of other authors, focusing on Mérimée’s criticisms of Baudelaire and Flaubert, for example, instead of the many passages where Mérimée praised these two authors. These biographers made Mérimée’s literary judgment appear flawed by employing “les citations tronqués, les lettres omises et les amalgames” (22). Going in the other direction, Pierre Glaudes demonstrates how Barbey d’Aurevilly’s criticisms of Mérimée have been exaggerated and taken out of context. He reminds readers of Barbey’s praise for Mérimée before political conflict with Napoleon III’s government caused Barbey to turn on the author of Carmen.
Three subsequent articles analyze specific themes that appear in Mérimée’s fictional works. Florence Naugrette suggests that the originality of Mérimée’s theater lies neither in subject matter nor in plot structure. Indeed, his plays follow in many respects the conventions of vaudeville, melodrama or historical drama. Unlike these genres, however, the dénouements of Mérimée’s plays offer no moral, political or divine justifications: the narrative “est simplement tranché net par une passion humaine qui ne connaît ni Dieu ni maître” (56). Antonia Fonyi’s article examines the antithetical tension between savagery and civilization in Mérimée’s texts, demonstrating how his understanding of human nature and primeval history spill over into his fiction. Fonyi shows that those who have accused Mérimée of pessimism are in reality guilty of misunderstanding one of his fundamental philosophies: there is neither good nor evil; there is, instead, an opposition between the savage who fulfills his or her desires immediately, values freedom and does not recognize personal property, and the civilized man and woman who are bent on protecting their land and possessions and who constantly defer pleasure. When these two opposing groups come into contact (Mateo Falcone and Carmen are two of the best-known, most obvious examples), violence ensues. This study has the potential to broadly influence research on Mérimée’s fiction as well as research on his historical and biographical studies. In the last article of this sequence, a lacanian analysis titled, “Les Noces de Colomba,” Pierre Laforgue argues that Colomba symbolically weds her own brother Orso. Further, the heroine is endowed with masculine powers, enforcing the “loi-du-père” on her brother, carrying a phallic knife under her dress, a knife that must be used, as she explains to Miss Nevil, “en remontant le coup” (83).
Finally, articles that are more historical in nature reexamine Mérimée’s relationship with Corsica (Gisèle Mathieu-Castellani), his interest in the Ukraine (Michel Cadot), his invention of a genre with his Notes de voyage… (Colette Becker) and his role as Inspector of Historical Monuments (Jannie Mayer). To some extent, these articles, like those that precede them, reevaluate previous scholarship and point toward new avenues of research.
One point of criticism (and it is admittedly a self-serving one): the authors make virtually no references to any recent research published on Mérimée by North American scholars, scholars who are certainly less bound by the a priori “idées reçues” that Fonyi sets out to challenge. Admittedly there has been little produced of late (in the 2005 Nineteenth-Century French Studies Colloquium, unfortunately, not a single presentation is devoted to Mérimée), but what has been published does serve to recast Mérimée in a new light and would serve to support or deepen several of this book’s articles.
In the end, this book does successfully challenge many long-standing clichés about Mérimée that have been passed down for decades. In fact, Mérimée himself may be partly to blame for the negative treatment he received from literary critics throughout the 20th century. In his correspondence he continually downplays the value of his own fiction: “médiocres ouvrages,” “une nouvelle immorale,” “pauvre,” etc. Perhaps the critics of the past simply took Mérimée at face value. This is a mistake that in the future, thanks in part to this collection of articles and Fonyi’s work, critics will have no excuse to make.