August 25, 2015

The Art of the Novella challenge 37: Carmen


carmenTitle: Carmen

Author: Prosper Mérimée

First published: 1903

Page count: 93

First line: I had always suspected the geographers of not knowing what they were talking about when they placed the battle-field of Munda in the country of Bastuli-Poeni, near the modern Monda, some two leagues north of Marbella.

Carmen is an old friend. I first read it a few years ago when, as a PhD student, I took a couple of undergraduate (freshman) seminar groups in what was called Literature in History – basically a course on the C20th novel and its oscillating relationship with ‘realism’; with Woolf, Nabokov and Angela Carter offering the ‘away’ tendency, and George Gissing, David Storey and Andrew Cowan the ‘towards’. Perhaps bizarrely, the module opened with Mérimée’s Carmen, given as a representative example of the modern ‘romance’ that the realistic novel was supposed to have supplanted, though of course things are more complicated than that.

The first time I read Carmen, I had already seen Bizet’s opera, which – along with Matthew Bourne’s ballet, if not a packet of Gitanes cigarettes – is likely most people’s primary means of engagement with the work. I’m not sure I’d rush to Bizet again, but I was certainly pleased to have my first thoughts about Mérimée confirmed – this is a rather different work from the more straightforwardly romantic opera, in many ways more interesting, in others far more problematic.

The obvious difference between the book and the opera is Mérimée’s frame narrative, which comes from a narrator easy enough to equate with the author himself – he certainly implies it – and in which he recounts his time spent travelling in Spain as a scholar and archaeologist. (More on this below, but please note that phenomenally dull opening sentence, above!). He tells us about his encounter first with Don José, a bandit whom he nobly saves from arrest, what with the two of them having formed an everlasting bond of friendship based on sharing food and cigars, and later with Carmen herself.

This is a brilliant moment. Our hero, having come to Cordova to examine a particular manuscript, has taken to hanging out on the high quay at dusk, where men gather to smoke and peer at the women who use the fading light to bathe naked in the river below – “a spectacle that has its merits” as he gallantly puts it. Carmen rocks up and engages him in conversation, then more or less seduces him back to her house to ‘tell his fortune’, and – though he doesn’t realise till later – steals his watch. An enraged man barges in on them and threatens to cause chaos, only of course it’s Don José, who embraces our feckless hero as a brother, rather than knocking his block off as a dupe, a rube and a letch.

When the two meet again, however, Don José is banged up in prison awaiting execution for “several murders” (cleverly, we don’t know at this point that this includes the murder of Carmen herself) and this introduces the central, embedded narrative, in which Don José recounts his life and his relationship with Carmen – which, obviously, includes events we have already heard direct from the narrator himself.

This framing narrative is a classic tactic of the novella, insofar as it sprung out of the Decameron-style portmanteau collection of tales, but the evolution of the European novel form since then means this formal device suggests two opposed readings. On the one hand, offering your tale through a narrator suggests or guarantees its authenticity (analogous to the way early English novels presented themselves as autobiographies or other non-fiction forms); on the other hand, doing so is essentially metafictional, throwing into question the veracity of what is recounted (Exhibit A: Quixote; Exhibit B: Shandy).

It’s fun to look at Carmen through the second lens, but it’s hard not to feel that Mérimée had the first in mind when writing. He knew Spain, he had researched the Gypsy community, he wanted to write about it, and the way he chose to do this was to embed a florid, melodramatic and rather fantastical romance narrative in a dull-as-arse non-fictional medium. He’d done the research, and he wanted you to know it. He even includes footnotes. A neveria is:

A café provided with an ice-house, ora rather with a store of snow. There is hardly a village In Spain which does not have its neveria.

While the line, addressed to the (French) narrator: ‘“An Englishman, no doubt?”’, gets, as gloss:

In Spain every traveller who does not carry about with him specimens of calico or silk is taken for an Englishman, Inglesito. It is the same in the East; at Chalcia I had the honour of being announced as a Mἰλορδος Φραντζεσος (French Milord).

Well, get you!

Famously, Don José’s main narrative, which ends with him handing himself in after killing Carmen, is followed by a final, fourth chapter, in which the narrator/author gives us more of his detailed knowledge about Gypsies – thus performing the neat metafictional trick of eliding the bandit’s actual death, which is entirely skipped over, whereas Carmen’s is given in lurid, teary detail by Don José.

Again, the original intention must have been to ground the more grandiloquent and fly-away aspects of the tale in the cold hard serious matter of ‘real life’, but at this distance it plays rather differently: to us (or to me at any rate) the narrator comes across as comical and pompous, overly sure of his knowledge of the world, and of the transferability of his acquired wisdom to his noble readers.

And yet for all that he is happy is regale us with his considered opinion of Carmen and her type, she is the one who robs him, just as she, by and large, gets the better of the men she comes across, from a tall, foolish English officer to a young, thrusting picador. And yet, when it comes down to the crunch, she is as disposable as any femme fatale, leaving a trail of dead men in her wake, but melodramatically choosing death at the hands of Don José rather than renounce her bullfighter, and her freedom. Hers is a tragic end, but she is not treated tragically.

As with the various duel narratives that have featured in this series, it is the relationship between the men that is paramount, rather than the woman who is at stake. In those duels, the chest-bumping and preening of two men, as they prepare to fight to the death over a woman, is more important than the woman they are supposedly willing to die for.  In Carmen, despite the novella having her name, she is a piece of moveable furniture, and her relationships with Don José and the narrator are as nothing compared to their deeper, manlier mutual respect and comprehension, forged over cigars and smoked ham, and brought to brotherly conclusion in the cells of the prison, where Don José entrusts the narrator with the most crucial of all tasks: taking a locket to a good woman in Pampelune… who? We’re not told. But… his mother? Bizet, at least, made that clearer.

Jonathan Gibbs is the author of Randall, or The Painted Grape, published by Galley Beggar Press. He tweets as @Tiny_Camels and blogs at Tiny Camels