Prosper Mérimée, OUP World’s Classics
Sevillanos may treat Carmen as one of their own – a statue of her stands outside the city’s Maestranza bullring – but the dangerous gypsy seductress was actually the creation of a Frenchman, the writer, civil servant and “inspector-general of historic monuments” Prosper Mérimée, who travelled in Spain as a 26-year-old in 1830, and subsequently published four Lettres d’Espagne. His compelling novella, Carmen, inspired by a story he’d heard from the Countess Montijo, came 15 years later, but though it is fiction, its attention to detail – to geography, landscape and what its characters eat (gazpacho, bacalão) and drink (horchata, the Córdoban unfortified sherry montilla) – are more redolent of travel writing.
In one scene, Carmen and Don José go shopping for oranges, manzanilla, turrón – a kind of nougat – and the candied egg-yolk sweets known as yemas, on calle Sierpes, still the principal shopping street in Seville. You can find the house in which Carmen seduces José with her frenzied dancing on calle di Candilejo in the Barrio Santa Cruz, though the 17th-century statue of Pedro I that Mérimée describes there has been replaced. And Carmen’s employer, the vast baroque Fábrica de Tabacos that employed 12,000 women, “outside the walls, near the Guadalquivir” – close to the Alfonso XIII hotel on avenida San Fernando – is now the university.
Whereas Bizet, who never visited Spain, sets most of his opera Carmen (1875) in Seville, Mérimée broadens its location. The first-person narrator – a French traveller in search of the battlefield of Munda, “about two leagues north of Marbella” – first meets Don José Lizarrabengoa, a Basque from Navarre, by a stream in the Sierra de Cabra: “The gorge suddenly opened out to reveal a sort of natural arena, afforded perfect shade by the height of the escarpments surrounding it… A traveller could have found no more inviting spot.” We first encounter Carmen – “slight, young, good-looking [with] very large eyes” in Córdoba, when she cadges a cigarette off the narrator. And it’s at the bullring there that José’s jealousy begins to devour him; his rival for Carmen’s affections, however, is no toreador, merely a picador called Lucas. And Carmen’s death – in Merimée she is murdered not outside Seville’s plaza de toros, but in a lonely gorge – comes as less of a surprise given that José has already cut the throat of her husband, whom she’s sprung from jail in Tarifa. Ronda, Estepona, Jerez and the pueblos blancos of Gaucín and Véjer de la Frontera all figure too.
Richard Strauss regarded Bizet’s score as an exercise in perfection: “If you want to learn how to orchestrate, study the score of Carmen,” he wrote. “What wonderful economy… every note, every rest is in its proper place.” As a story, however, Mérimée’s more complex novella has the edge.