The Creators of CARMEN: Prosper Mérimée and Georges Bizet


My recent recommitment to learning the piano led me to a passion for classical music. I have a book of simplified classic songs my late grandmother gave me. It is one of my most treasured gifts from Grandma Colleen.

I’ve been working through the pieces for a little over a month. To my delight, I came across one of my favorite songs: Habanera from the opera Carmen.

Habanera is not a difficult song to play. It’s packed with energy that keeps me awake as I’m practicing it. It makes me want to dance in a frilly skirt and sing off-key. I would venture to say Habanera is one of the songs that most people have heard in passing, even if they do not know where it is from.

There is no such thing as a coincidence, but something delightful happened last month, after I had begun practicing Habanera. I was reading the spectacular memoir The Seine by Elaine Sciolino, and she brought up composer Georges Bizet. He wrote the songs for Carmen’s opera adaptation.

Sciolino told the story of the opera’s premiere. With its sensuality and suggestive language, Carmen scandalized crowds, so its first reviews were heavy with outrage.

Those were different times, indeed.

Depressed by this cold reception of Carmen, Bizet fell victim to depression. It became so crippling that when he died, people speculated he had taken his own life. Carmen was the labor of his hard work and tears; any artist could understand the effect of scathing reviews.

That Bizet took his life appears to be a Parisian myth. In reality, Bizet had suffered from health problems throughout his life. He made a rash decision that winter to go for a swim in the Seine river. This is a bad decision because the Seine was freezing–but also because it’s dirty! After his swim, he contracted a violent fever. This induced a heart attack which led to his death on 3 June, 1875.

If only he could have known that the play would become timeless. Like Vincent van Gogh, his work was not appreciated in his lifetime.


When I had read about Georges Bizet in that chapter of The Seine, I was struck with curiosity about the man who wrote the story–the novella off of which the opera was based. 

Prosper Mérimée, born in 1805, was a French writer. He pertained to the movement of Romantic literature. Mérimée was one of the pioneers of the novella, which is defined as a short novel or a long short story. Carmen is a novella, and I finished it in a day.

Mérimée learned Russian and went on to translate the works of important writers such as Pushkin and Gogol. From 1830 to 1860, he became an inspector of French historical monuments, overseeing their preservation. This included the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris. I can only imagine his heartbreak if he could see what has become of it now!

A Still from Carmen. Source: The Guardian

Mérimée seemed destined for great things, because he also made an important discovery that would forever change the world of visual art.

Along with author George Sand, he discovered the famous tapestries known as The Lady and the Unicorn. Not only did he write Carmen, a story which become a timeless opera; he also discovered those tapestries that enchant us today!

There is so much more to the story of Carmen and her creators, but it would not fit into a blog post. I’m a history geek and I had a field day reading about these incredible men. When I read Carmen, it dawned on me that a story can take on many forms: written and musical. 

When you read intentionally, you find that underneath every great story is a greater story. History is important because it shows us what humans are capable of. Truth is indeed stranger than fiction, and the lives of these two remarkable men could pass as yarns of fiction.

Never disbelieve that there is wonder in this world: all you have to do is explore history to find it.

The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas


Though I did enjoy reading this masterpiece of French literature, The Three Musketeers was not exactly the story that I had expected. To begin with, not once in the book did the famous phrase appear: “All for one, and one for all!” Neither did there appear to be a single overarching plot. It’s a book written for people with different attention spans; it had been published in serial form over the course of two months, so it was designed to keep readers hooked like a television show.

I like books written in serial form. They require commitment to read, though; I’ve been working on The Three Musketeers for almost a month, and I’m a fast reader.

Something still felt rather off about the whole story. I blame all of the cartoon adaptations that have popped up over the years. These adaptations present children with a softened version of the story, so it is a surprise when one opens the long novel and discovers elements of darkness or sketchy behavior. Adaptations did this book no justice.

It’s about four men, sword-wielding Musketeers loyal to the King, who are willing to fight and duel almost anyone over anything (many of these things are trivial.) It features gambling, murder, infidelity, mistresses, and a great deal of bloodshed (because of trivial things.) Honor is the big virtue the book touts, but it is often portrayed in a trivial manner–comical.

We might hesitate, these days, to call such men heroes, but they are indeed the heroes of this novel. D’Artagnan, Porthos, Athos and Artemis live to protect the King and Queen, no matter what that might involve. They also protect one another, helping avenge a person who insulted a friend. Loyalty is an admirable quality, too, but some instances I felt could have been let slip.

That’s the point of this book, though–it lauds bravery, fearlessness, loyalty and honor. It perhaps goes a little too far, but I understand that, at the time it was published, readers might have been in need of characters like these. It was published in 1844; not long before that, people had experienced the Bourbon Restoration, the fall of the first Napoleon–a time of great fear, in which wars were waged and many people were killed. Escapism has always been necessary to heal a society from a difficult time period. Maybe the French of the 1840s needed reckless, brave, outspoken heroes, people who would fight for their honor, leaders.

This, of course, is only my speculation; what is for certain is that the fall of Napoleon would have been felt for a long time after it took place, and it would have affected literature.

Of the four characters, the only Musketeer I had sympathy for from the beginning was Aramis. He is only temporarily a Musketeer; his real desire is to enter a monastery. He took up the sword on a youthful matter of honor, but reading about his theological epiphanies and his genuine conscience provided me with a welcome break from the rash duels.

Athos I also came to like, but only near the end, when more details about his past were given. He was able to keep a level head in the midst of a struggle, as opposed to young hot-blooded D’Artagnan, who does not hesitate to draw his pistol. At the age of twenty-one, D’Artagnan has not lived enough. When a tragedy takes place near the end of the novel, he does show his human side, and I sense this tragedy was the initiative for him to mature.

The brave lackeys who aided these men did not get the credit they deserved; rather, they are often treated as objects, even to be gambled away. The Musketeers are not always people worthy of admiration.

Though it was an enjoyable read, I felt that the story did not fully grip me until the final quarter, in which we see the tale from the antagonist’s point of view. Milady de Winter’s thought process is completely different from the Musketeers. For better or for worse, she is making decisions based on reason and cunning, rather than knee-jerk duels. She is by no means a good person, but her intelligent choices kept me reading. I wanted to know what she would do next.

The Musketeers–and most of the men in this novel–underestimated the clever ways in which a woman under pressure can survive.

Finally, the prose–it was so beautiful that I found myself constantly stopping to jot down a quote or two. I wish that I could read The Three Musketeers in its original French; one day, perhaps.

The Three Musketeers is the first in a series of books published by Alexandre Dumas, known as The D’Artagnan Romances. In order, the series is as follows:

  • The Three Musketeers (serialized between March and July, 1844)
  • Twenty Years After (serialized between January and August, 1845)
  • The Vicomte of Bragelonne: Ten Years Later (serialized between October 1847 and January 1850)

In addition, there have been unofficial sequels:

  • The Son of Porthos (1883) by Paul Mahalin, published under the pen name of Alexandre Dumas
  • D’Artagnan Kingmaker (1900) – supposedly based on one of Dumas’ plays
  • The King’s Passport (1925) by H. Bedford-Jones
  • D’Artagnan, the sequel to The Three Musketeers by H. Bedford-Jones

In addition is a sequel written by Dumas himself but left incomplete after seventy-seven chapters, called The Red Sphinx. This, in particular, interests me–as all unfinished classics do, such as Dickens’ Mystery of Edwin Drood and Austen’s Sanditon. Unfinished novels give a sense of the authors’ being very much alive; I’ll write more on this later.

I will certainly finish The D’Artagnan Romances, but keeping in mind that each of them is an almost month-long commitment. You can’t skim old books like these without losing sight of what makes them timeless. 

Our world is fast-paced; to read a good classic, one must be prepared to slow down.

Review: The Black Tulip


In the past month I have discovered two beautiful romance stories written by the Dumas family.

Did you know that Alexandre Dumas’ son also became a writer? Neither did I, until I read Camille and it was stated in the introduction.

It hardly seems fair that one family should produce stories so beautiful as The Black Tulip by Dumas Senior and Camille by his son, but I will talk about Camille later.

I waited a for quite while after finishing The Black Tulip before writing about it; I wanted to let it sit in my heart. Now I think that it’s time this beautiful piece of literature was talked about.

One of his lesser-known works–I had no idea about it until I found it by chance while scrolling the Kindle store–The Black Tulip has the elements of tension that make a good action novel and tragedy to give it a gothic tone.

All of this is softened, I believe, by the love story.

The object of conflict is a black tulip. I had never thought of it before, but having read Tulipomania by Mike Dash a couple of weeks later, I found out that it’s impossible for a completely black tulip to exist. The closest you can get to a black tulip is a very dark brown or purple one.

A ‘black tulip’; source

In this novel the main character, Cornelius, is a tulip-fancier during the tulip boom of Holland–a period of history in with a single bulb bred in a unique way would have been worth thousands to the tulip obsessed.

A contest is announced: there is a great money reward for anyone who can raise a black tulip, jet-black, not dark brown or purple. Cornelius is a genius with his tulips; he manages to raise three bulbs he claims will produce black tulips.

Before he can plant any of them to see if he has succeeded, he is arrested on suspicion of having betrayed the Prince of Orange.

a dark purple ‘black tulip’; source

Cornelius takes his precious tulip bulbs with him to prison as he awaits his fate.

Here he meets the jailor’s daughter, Rosa, and–suspecting that he will be put to death–he gives her the bulbs, telling her to turn them in as her own work and claim the money.

But he is not executed; the Prince takes pity on him and instead sends him away to a prison fortress for life.

Cornelius is in jail for a long time, wondering what became of Rosa and his tulip bulbs. One shudders to think of the boredom and loneliness he felt, locked away in a cell while innocent.

In his desperation for company, he uses some of the moldy bread given to him in order to attract some pigeons that will keep him company. He despairs; we can feel his despair. However, it won’t last forever.

“I’d rather have ten soldiers to guard than a single scholar.”

― Alexandre Dumas, The Black Tulip

Rosa’s father is appointed as jailor in the same prison where Cornelius is trapped. Rosa comes with him, and she has brought with her Cornelius’ treasures–the three tulip bulbs, unharmed and full of potential life.

This, reader, is where I could not put the book down: Cornelius tells Rosa how to grow a tulip, instructs her on the ideal soil to use and how much light the bulb needs, and together they raise one of the flowers from its bulb.

The imagery! I wanted to cry as they fell in love with prison bars between them, yet raised a live flower because of their collaboration. It reminded me that bars cannot stop love. 

I will not tell you how the story ends, only that it is worth reading this book because their love story is so beautiful.

I encourage you to look at the obscure classics, those books that might have been lost in time; you will find gems, and in some of them, such as The Black Tulip, you will find true love.

The Belly of Paris by Emile Zola


The Belly of Paris is a unique, fast-paced novel about justice, revolution, and hunger. It is the third book in a 20-part series titled Les Rougon-Macqyart. The series examines two branches of a family: the respectable (legitimate) side, and the disreputable (illegitimate.)

The third installment follows Florent Quenu, a French convict who escaped exile in French Guiana after six years of imprisonment due to a false accusation. The novel opens with a scene after his return to Paris; in the scene, his unconscious body is found on a road by a merchant on her way to a marketplace called Les Halles.

61bziDAYLCL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_At once we feel pity for this man who is broken and lost in the world. He spends a great deal of time reminiscing on his horrific escape and the journey back home. Only when he acquires a job and independence does he find his personality, and in it we see how anger has blackened his heart. He wants to revolt against the government.

Quoting a paragraph from the novel, Florent is convinced that “it was his calling to avenge his thinness against this city that had grown fat while those who defended justice starved in exile, he was a self-appointed avenger, and he dreamed of rising up, right in Les Halles, and crushing this regime of drunks and gluttons.”

To understand Florent’s political motives, it is necessary to know about the author. Emile Zola was a major figure in the political liberalization of France. His views led him to become a controversial man, especially after the publication of his political article, J’acusse. The article called for exoneration of the falsely accused army officer Alfred Dreyfus. Following the backlash, Zola was persecuted for libel; he was forced to escape to England to avoid imprisonment.

The oddest thing about The Belly of Paris is its description. Zola can make the gloomiest scenes comical with his descriptions of food. Vegetables, cheese, beef–all are used to set the mood for good times and bad. What a character eats is a major element in describing their personalities–class and wealth are shown by whether they eat fresh sausage and cheese for dinner, or are forced to beg for leftovers.

The beautiful fruits were on display, delicately arranged with the roundness of their cheeks, half-hidden in the baskets like faces of beautiful children, partly concealed by leaves. The peaches were especially beautiful, peaches from Montreuil with clear, soft skin like northern girls’ and yellow sunburned peaches from the Midi, tanned like Provençal women. The apricots lying in moss had the amber glow of sunset shining on dark-haired girls.

Zola wanted to write a novel where the city of Paris herself was a character; in this book, he did a fantastic job. With poignant characters and backstories, he plays with readers’ emotions, blurring the line between right and wrong. One day I hope to read all twenty books and see the character of Paris as seen by one of the boldest authors of his time.