Friday, May 26, 2017

The Abbé Aubain and Mosaics by Prosper Mérimée

Exotic tales of mystery and history
Prosper Mérimée
This collection of short stories by French author Prosper Mérimée was first published in English in 1903. The 12 stories it contains were originally published in French from 1829 to 1870. The title of the collection is a bit confusing. As one might expect, “The Abbé Aubain” is the title of one of Mérimée’s short stories. Mosaics, on the other hand is the title of a collection of short fiction by Mérimée published as Mosaïque in 1833. Half of the stories in this volume come from that collection. However, there are another five stories included here that have nothing to do with the Mosaics collection. That’s an important point to note because a few of these non-Mosaics stories happen to be among the best entries in the collection.

Mérimée is probably best known for his novella Carmen (not included here), upon which the opera of the same name, composed by Bizet, is based. Mérimée is a Romanticist in style. His stories often take place in exotic settings, which he depicts with encyclopedic cultural erudition. His stories frequently contain elements of horror, and at times approach the Gothic macabre atmosphere of Edgar Allen Poe. The English-language author that Mérimée’s stories most immediately call to mind, however, is the non-Sherlock Holmes work of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, as seen in such collections as Tales of Terror and Mystery. Both Conan Doyle and Mérimée had a fascination with mysticism and the occult, and both had a keen interest in antiquities, often basing a story of mystery and suspense around an ancient statue, vase, or curio. Mérimée was such a connoisseur of artifacts, in fact, that the French government made him inspector general of historical monuments.

To be honest, I wasn’t too impressed with this collection at first. “The Abbé Aubain” is an epistolary story that is engaging enough for most of its length, but then falters with an anticlimactic conclusion, a problem that’s not unique to this entry. While Mérimée proves himself quite adept at building atmosphere and suspense, too many of the stories suffer from weak and abrupt endings. For example, in “Mateo Falcone,” perhaps the most renowned story in this volume, Mérimée goes to great lengths to develop intriguing characters while capturing the essence of Corsican country life. The story builds to a powerful and shocking climax, but then in the snap of the fingers it’s done, almost as if to say, “So what?” Next up, “The Vision of Charles XI” offers a chillingly spooky scene, then fizzles to a halt with a matter-of-fact explanation of what it symbolizes. “The Game of Backgammon” deliberately deprives the reader of an ending, as if Mérimée is taunting us. The one story from among the Mosaics selections that’s truly outstanding is “Tamango,” a thrilling and tragic drama set aboard a slave ship.

Despite its rocky start, the book redeems itself in its second half with three ingenious first-class chillers, loaded with suspense and dripping with Romantic ambience, that represent Mérimée at his best. In “The Venus of Ille,” an archaeologist goes on a sketching trip through the French region of Roussillon. In “Lokis,” a particularly superb tale, a philologist travels to a Lithuanian castle to translate a biblical text into an obscure dialect. In “The ‘Viccolo’ of Madam Lucrezia,” a young Frenchman ventures to Rome, where he becomes intimately familiar with centuries-old legends of Lucrezia Borgia. All three meet with the strange and unexpected, as does the reader who chooses to follow them. Mérimée doesn’t score a hit when every story, but when he does, one gets an enchanting thrill ride through some offbeat and arcane corners of history and art.

Stories in this collection
The Abbé Aubain 
Mateo Falcone
The Vision of Charles XI 
How We Stormed the Fort
The Game of Backgammon
The Etruscan Vase 
The Venus of Ille
The Blue Chamber
The “Viccolo” of Madam Lucrezia 

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