George Burnham Ives

Part of The Art of the Novella

The novella that was the basis for perhaps the most popular opera of all time, Prosper Mérimée’s Carmen is the swashbuckling story of a nineteenth-century Spanish soldier who deserts his post to pursue the fiery gypsy beauty, Carmen—who is as brave as she is fickle.

The opera’s plot, it turns out, is based only on part of the larger adventure that is Carmen. The story opens, for example, with the narrator, a historian like Mérimée, researching the lost site of an ancient Roman battle on the plains of Andalusia, when he meets a notorious bandit, Don José Navarro, on the run from the law. Feeling a certain sympathy for Don José, whose face is “at once noble and fierce,” and a vicarious thrill at this brush with danger, he helps the bandit to escape.

When they next meet again, Don José is in jail in Cordova, due to be hanged for his crimes. In his last days, he tells the narrator about a wild gypsy woman he met back in Seville ...

What follows is an iconic and highly entertaining tale of doomed passion full of chases, sword fights, bullfights, smuggling, wild dancing, and more—except no mezzo-sopranos.

Prosper Mérimée was born into a family of artists in Paris in 1803. He studied law and languages in school, and in 1825, he published his first book, Le Théâtre de Clara Gazul—a purported translation of plays written by a Spanish actress and translated by one Joseph L’Estrange. He followed this up with another “translation” of a selection of folk ballads under the title La Guzla. No less a personage than Pushkin was convinced, quoting a few of the ballads in his own work. In 1834, Mérimée was appointed inspector-general of historical monuments, a job for which he was uniquely suited with his linguistic and scholarly skills. He successfully led a protest movement to save the medieval walled city of Carcassonne from destruction and, with his friend George Sand, rediscovered the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries lying neglected in a provincial château. On a journey to Spain he became friendly with the Countess of Montijo, whose daughter Eugénie would marry Napeleon III. When the emperor acceded to the throne, Mérimée was made a senator. His correspondence with such figures as Stendhal and Anthony Panizzi, the librarian of the British Museum, was legendary for its wit and intelligence, and Mérimée’s novellas on historical and supernatural themes, including Colomba and La Vénus D’Ille, are some of the finest of the romantic era. He died in 1870 in Cannes.

George Burnham Ives (18561930) also translated the work of George Sand and Honoré de Balzac.