The complete text of Carmen, with footnotes and Crichtonian epilogue on the author’s studies on Romany runs to 60 pages. To make it a reasonable investment, Hesperus Press pushed it to 93 pages with the inclusion of Prosper Mérimée’s horror story ‘The Venus of Ille’ (1837), also translated by Andrew Brown. A tale of terror that proves once again how the French do love their schlock horror tropes.
I can’t find any meaningful background to the story so I’m going to devote this space to the achievements of Prosper Mérimée (1803 – 1870) himself, a remarkably accomplished and even heroic individual in the field of architecture. He served as Inspector General of Historic Monuments from 1834 to 1860. The monarchy had returned to France and they set out to protect and restore the symbols of the France overthrown by the revolution: the monarchic and religious buildings and ornaments that had been seized, stripped, melted down and vandalized by the revolutionaries. Historic France was in need of wide-scale restoration and Mérimée was perfect for the job, having an eye for quality and the patient charm and cleverness of a diplomat. There were no protective laws for historic buildings at the time – Mérimée could only fulfill his task by convincing the local authorities to maintain their unacknowledged monuments. I highly recommend this article by Julian Barnes for more detail on the subject but to encapsulate: he rediscovered the tapestries of The Lady and the Unicorn, moldering in the castle of Boussac and he saved the medieval ramparts of Avignon from demolition. He fought countless battles across the country and tirelessly promoted monument preservation. In addition he was a government worker, courtier, Russian translator, historian, ghost writer to Napoleon III and novelist, whose Carmen would inspire the greatest French opera of all time. He was an atheist who saved churches, a minor writer but a major player in French civilization, a truly remarkable man who should be far better known.
This background leads back to ‘The Venus of Ille,’ written early in his architectural career. The narrator visits a town where a statue of Venus has recently been unearthed by his host M. Alphonse de Peyrehorade. He stays for the wedding of Peyrehorade’s son and witnesses the statue wreaking terrible vengeance upon the family. When you think of Mérimée’s work and the battles he lost this story actually starts to make a lot of sense. How do you get up each morning and fight for something so many people don’t even give a damn about?
‘I just need to wish the idol goodnight,’ said the bigger of the apprentice boys, suddenly stopping.
He bent down, and doubtless picked up a stone. I saw him flex his arm, throw something, and immediately a loud clang echoed from the bronze. At the same moment the apprentice’s hand shot to his head, as he cried out in pain.
‘She’s rejected me!’ he exclaimed.
And those two scamps took to their heels in flight. It was obvious that the stone had rebounded off the metal, and had punished that young scoundrel for the outrage he had committed against the goddess.
I closed the window, laughing heartily.
‘Another vandal punished by Venus! May all the destroyers of our ancient monuments get a similar headache!’ And uttering this charitable desire, I went to sleep.
Knowing something of the author’s life gives this greater coherency and also explains his cutting portrait of provincial life and culture. I was deeply shocked to see a young man seemingly more enthusiastic about the dowry his future wife was bringing him than about her lovely eyes. Mérimée seems to feel unalloyed disgust at the lot of them. Venal, materialist, greedy, ribald, gluttonous and indifferent to any higher sentiments, the wedding party brings out nothing but a sense of distaste in the narrator and M. Alphonse de Peyrehorade masks his overweening pride (badly) with cloying humility. The only one spared from this portrait is the bride-to-be, whom the narrator pities. ‘What a shame,’ I mused as I left Puygarrig, ‘that such a likable person should be rich, and that her dowry should mean she is sought out by a man who doesn’t deserve her!’ Mérimée used this story to punish two types of people I assume he strongly disliked: the vandals of historic architecture and those who arrange marriages for profit. ‘What a hateful thing an arranged marriage is!’ I thought. ‘A mayor puts on a tricolour sash, a priest slips on a stole, and there you have it: the nicest girl in the world, married to a Minotaur! What can human beings who don’t love each other find to say at a moment like that, a moment which two real lovers would pay with their lives to obtain?’
Then there’s the horror aspect to all of this, which does start off quite well. Statues have an uncanny quality and this is effectively leveraged at the start, what with the Venus’ hand jutting out of the ground like a discoloured corpse, it breaking a man’s leg while being pulled out of the earth and its malignant stare – empty silver eyes in a blackened bronze face. The problem arrives with the end of the story, where ‘The Venus of Ille’ turns into something Hammer film studios or Roger Corman could have gladly filmed. I can actually see Corman slapping the name Berenice onto the bride and calling it another Poe adaptation.
Young Peyrehorade is challenged to a tennis match and slips his fiancée’s ring onto the statue’s finger while he competes. The fatuous idiot discovers too late that he can’t remove the ring from Venus and that night heavy footsteps ascend the stairs as Venus comes to the bridal chamber and crushes the groom to death in her iron arms! The bride goes insane, no one believes her story and the statue is later melted down for a church bell…causing the church vines to wither away. OoooOOOooohh.
Okay, if that had been made into a B movie it would probably have been a blast but that’s because I have always liked my horror movies nonthreatening. Books are another matter and I greatly prefer Stoker and Lovecraft (or even Radcliffe) over this ludicrous plotline.
It’s also strange from a propaganda point of view. Mérimée wanted to preserve ancient works so why write a story where an ancient monument brings horror and suffering to the town that dug it up? I mean, he’s not making a good case here and I certainly wouldn’t want that thing in my yard. Maybe he just figured none of the local officials would read his fictions, which he did seem to view as a recreational activity (nobody reads his monument writings anymore but at the time I suspect he was better known for his day job than his stories).
When it comes right down to it, the important thing about Prosper Mérimée was the work he did to save historic France. He didn’t save everything he set his sights on and he didn’t do it alone but he was a figurehead. As much as I love Bizet’s Carmen, this was his truly great achievement.
Mérimée died in 1870. Seventeen years later a man called Le Corbusier was born, a living instrument of the destruction of historic architecture, father of “urban planning” and all its attendant social decay, founding figure… of modernism.
That’s only one of his design abominations. There’s more!
Had Mérimée been able to see the future I think he would have wished far more than a headache on the vandals and destroyers of Europe. The picture above? That’s a monastery. My first thought was to go check and yes, Le Corbusier was an atheist. Instead of saving churches, he took revenge on them. I really don’t know what else to call that.
So I went to YouTube and typed in “modern architecture is bad” and the first thing that came up was this bloke:
Over 700,000 watched this video. There are also all kinds of internet groups tracking architectural tragedies and triumphs across the globe, calling for protection, restoration and revival and there are always local societies as well. You can find them, you can join them, you can name your son Prosper (it hasn’t charted in France since 1962) and defy the tidal wave of glass and concrete in whatever small way you can, because it isn’t permanent. A demolished tower block brings back the skyline. Prosper Mérimée would have known that.