Prosper Mérimée’s (1803-1879) short novel, A Slight Misunderstanding was one of the delights of 2011, and so when I saw that Alma Classics (formerly Oneworld Classics) published a volume of this author’s short stories translated by Douglas Parmée, well, I knew I had to read it. At just over 100 pages, The Etruscan Vase and Other Stories is a slim read and includes:
The Vision of Charles XI, King of Sweden
The Etruscan Vase
The Blue Room
Those who read and loved A Slight Misunderstanding will remember the role the title played in the tragic drama that played out which involves not a slight misunderstanding (that’s a major understatement) but a huge misinterpretation of intent. Another ‘misunderstanding,’ if you will, occurs in The Etruscan Vase–a story which involves a misinterpretation of a lover’s behaviour.
The misinterpretation also occurs in the story The Blue Room. In this story two lovers elope on a train and their romantic isolation on a carriage is interrupted by an English traveller who’s carrying a bag which contains a large amount of money. The young couple, even though deep in the throes of passion, cannot help but notice the wad of cash, and they also notice a tattily-dressed young man who is apparently following the Englishman.
The train had arrived at N–.The Englishman got out first and as Léon was helping his companion to climb down from their coach without showing her legs, a man jumped down onto the platform from the next coach. He had a pale, even sallow face, hollow, bloodshot eyes and was ill shaven–often a strong indication of criminal tendencies. His clothes were clean but worn; his jacket, originally black, had gone grey at the elbows and down the back; it was buttoned right up to the chin, no doubt to hide an even more threadbare waistcoat.
Love the unshaved look observation. The shabbily-dressed man, as it turns out, is a impoverished nephew of the Englishman. The nephew wants money, and an ugly scene takes place. The young eloping couple depart for their hotel, but once again the romance is interrupted. This time it’s officers of the 3rd Chasseurs hosting an all-nighter for the 3rd Hussars right next door to the young couple’s room. Unable to sleep due to the endless noisy drinking and “ribald” stories, Léon leans out of the hotel window and notices the Englishman’s nephew suspiciously loitering in the grounds outside….
Tamango is the story of a slave uprising. Again we see the author’s delight in the ironic touch when he describes the slave quarters on the ship jammed packed with “black ivory“–the cargo the one-handed Captain Ledoux is transporting for sale on his ship named Hope (there’s that irony again). Ledoux has invented a new way of carrying cargo as Mérimée shows us with both irony and sarcasm:
With the blacks sitting with their backs to the hull in two parallel lines, there was room in all the other slave-trading vessels for people to pass through. Ledoux had the brilliant idea of using this space to put other blacks, lying at right angles to those who were sitting. In this way, his ship could hold about ten more slaves than other ships of the same size. At a pinch, he could have squeezed in a few more, but one mustn’t be inhumane. You have to have at least five feet in length and two in breadth for a black to enjoy his trip during the crossing, which might take six weeks or more. “And after all, ” Ledoux said to his shipbuilder to justify his generosity, “blacks are human beings as much as whites are.”
The story The Vision of Charles XI, King of Sweden is one of Mérimée’s earliest stories and reminiscent of Hoffman, it’s the weakest of the bunch. Rather unexpectedly, I found myself enjoying the non-fiction pieces the most. The Hanging, in which the author recalls a very real event is moving but without sentiment in its recollection of the hanging of a murderer in Spain, a majo or buck who killed a man for an insult. Mérimée notes that he “shall never forget that man,” a fine specimen who is forced by circumstance to participate in a spectacle involving a number of priests, monks, officers, a penitent and a “life-size” crucifix. The condemned man begins walking proudly but begins sinking as he approaches the gallows. This is a man whose name is lost to time, and yet Mérimée captures the moment and freezes this spectacle of punishment forever.
For this reader, the gem of the collection is H.B. which, as Douglas Parmée explains in the introduction (and thanks Alma Classics for having the translator write the intro and not one of the many celebrity intro authors who seem to not have read the book), is more or less an “obituary” of Henri Beyle, better known as Stendhal. The two men met in 1823 and they corresponded and met occasionally over a twenty-year period until Stendhal’s death in 1842. Here is a beautiful passage Mérimée wrote about his friend:
I’ve attended three pagan burials; The first of a man who’d blown out his brains. His teacher, a great philosopher, and his friends were afraid of shocking respectable public opinion and no one dared speak out. The second was of Monsieur Jacquemont, who’d forbidden any speeches or sermons. The last was Beyle’s.
There were three of us present and so unprepared that we didn’t know his last wishes. On each occasion, I felt that we had in some way been found wanting, if not towards the dead man himself, at least towards ourselves. If one of your friends dies on a journey, you feel sorry not to have wished him goodbye before he left. Departure and death require commemoration with some ceremony; there’s something solemn about it. Even if it’s only a meal, a gathering of like-minded people, something needs to be done and that is what Elpenor is asking for, not just a little patch of soil; he wants to be remembered.
In another section of the piece, Mérimée describes Beyle:
He displayed blatant contempt for the French national character and eloquently proclaimed all the faults of which our great nation, no doubt unfairly, stands accused: flippancy, thoughtlessness, irresponsibility in thought and deed–all of which he basically shared himself, to a high degree. To mention only one example of his thoughtlessness: when French Consul in Civitavecchia, he sent the French Foreign Minister a letter in cypher–enclosing the code in the same envelope.
What a marvellous tidbit about Stendhal, and one that grants us a unique glimpse into this author’s character. Mérimée appears to have loved Stendhal, and the piece is written with a strong sense of poignancy and loss. Mérimée recounts Stendhal’s opinion on Napoleon (“hard to discover,“) and ranging from thinking Napoleon “a social climber, dazzled by the false glamour of fame,” to “expressing for him an admiration verging on idolatry.” Mérimée notes his friend’s flaws and admits Stendhal’s tendency to “inconsistency.” There are some marvellous details of Stendhal’s experiences during the Russian campaigns.
But perhaps of the greatest interest is the section in which Mérimée discusses Stendhal’s views on love & women, for here, almost by default, we can pick up Mérimée’s inadvertently expressed opinions. At one point, Mérimée recalls Stendhal asking for advice regarding a countess who spoke using the familiar “voi.” Stendhal asks his friend whether or not he should rape the countess and Mérimée is all for it. Again this brought back the carriage scene in A Slight Misunderstanding, and perhaps most telling, Stendhal held the view that “any man left alone with a woman should have a go at her.” This was apparently one of his maxims, and while this was a time in which women weren’t supposed to be alone with men other than their husbands, priests and a few select male relatives, Stendhal’s attitude seems … extreme.
Concluding the volume with its stories not as fine as Mérimée’s novella, A Slight Misunderstanding, I carried away a desire to read more Stendhal, for Mérimée grants us an intriguing glimpse of a flawed yet interesting man. As Douglas Parmée says, it’s an “endearing” portrait, and I can’t think of a better term.