I’ve been waffling for a couple of days about what I want to say about this collection of short stories by 19th-century author Prosper Mérimée (and translated from the French by Nicholas Jotcham). When I think back on the stories, I find myself liking them. They take some satisfying turns and a couple offer nice little jolts of horror or shock. But the experience of reading them was not so great. I mostly blame the poor attention span and exhaustion that has come with starting a new job. My brain just wasn’t with-it enough to really appreciate these stories as I was reading them.
But it’s not just me that’s the problem. The stories have some qualities that make them harder to follow than perhaps they could have been. For example, many of them take a long time to get going. The longest story, the novella-length “Columba,” does not even introduce its title character until 20 pages in, and the story is deadly dull until them. The vengeful Columba breathes life into the narrative (by bringing death, but still…). Similarly, “Carmen” holds off on introducing its title character for 12 pages. Instead, we get a story of an archaeologist’s encounter with a bandit. In this case, the warm-up is pretty exciting, so I can’t complain about the delay.
Both Carmen and Columba are examples of powerful and passionate women who lead the men around them astray. Then, of course, there’s the creepy Venus of Ille, from what may be my favorite story in the collection. Many of the stories are concerned with being driven too much by passion. When people let their feelings and impulses guide them, things do not end well—and things generally don’t end well in these stories. And it’s not just women who lead men astray. People get drawn into all sorts of alliances and disputes that doom them. A little boy might transgress against his family honor by helping (or not helping) a thief. A lover lets accusations and jealousy get the better of him. A soldier goes to war.
A couple of the stories, my favorites in the collection, “The Venus of Ille” and “Lokis” delve into the supernatural. Most, however, focus on the real world and on human codes of conduct. Rules of honor are significant, and Mérimée seems to have a conflicted relationship with these rules as following them so often leads to tragedy. Yet flouting the rules, as the gypsy Carmen does, is not good either. How to navigate society’s expectations is a big question in these stories.
And then there’s the very odd story, “Tamango,” which the introduction describes as “a piece of abolitionist propaganda.” I’m not sure that I see it that way, but it may be my modern sensibilities kicking in. It’s the tale of a slave ship, which Mérimée describes in a way that seems like joking but serves to reveal shocking facts about the conditions on these ships. There, it might serve the abolitionist cause. But the story has a comic tone that feels a little too much like making fun of the enslaved people, especially once they gain the upper hand and are unable to do anything to save themselves. Still, Mérimée acknowledges their humanity, which is more than many did at the time.
I wish now that I’d read these stories when my mind was a little better able to focus, as I might have enjoyed the experience of them more. I could have set them aside but momentum took over, and I read them all, wishing I were having more fun with them. (The exhaustion made choosing something different to read difficult as well.) Looking back, I think they are sometimes overlong, but most are clever with some pleasingly dark twists, which I do often love in a short story.