I have just realised with horror (mainly due to that sodding place called ‘the office’) that I have only managed four posts for Paris in July so far! What better day than Bastille Day (as you can see I actually began to write this post yesterday and still didn’t manage it!) to make a mini-vow to improve my performance on the Frenchie front and review my latest read; Carmen by the brilliant Prosper Mérimée, who wrote some of the best short stories/novellas I have ever read. (La Vénus d’Ille is superbly spine-tingling).
Now, I know that this is, essentially, a teeerrribly Spanish story. The quintessential Spanish tale of blood, love and passion. However, Mérimée was born and bred in Paris and I want to extend my personal Paris in July to include France and French writers in general.
This novella was one of the few I read cover to cover during that heady-first year of university when it popped up on one of the reading lists for my French Literature course and, out of 30+ fairly bright students, not one of us realised that this fabulous story is a book first and foremost and inspired Bizet’s world-famous opera. It is a real, true classic and I think how quickly I could whip through it in the original French really betrays how perfect Mérimée’s writing is; no fluff, just purely fantastic storytelling.
We begin and end this tale with the author himself, as he recounts his travels across the wild, hot plains of Andalusia and his meeting with the mysterious fugitive Don José and his lover, Carmen. The book is split into four sections, with us travelling back in time in the third section to explore the birth and death of this passionate relationship, the story that Bizet wisely chose to focus on in his opera.
Carmen makes this story come alive. She is a sassy, smart and terribly naughty woman (naughty may be quite an understatement I suppose) who drags Don José into the outer fringes of society, partially through his decision to mix with her and her band of gitanos and partially through the trouble he lands himself in as he is driven mad by his love for this exotic, intoxicating woman. It is so so important to sympathise with the main characters of the books you are reading (something I’m failing to do with my current read, but more of that later…) and I both sympathised with poor José and wanted to be Carmen. This timeless character, who has been the inspiration for countless dramatisations of this tale weaves her spell both over her lover and over the reader. This is a wonderful portrait of this part of the world and the people who, if you ignore the Irish pubs and tacky shops of the Costa del Sol, still do inhabit it and I loved it, even more so the second time around. Top marks Mérimée.