Oeuvres de Prosper Mérimée (French Edition)
Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century French Studies. Prosper Merimee's novel Colomba was one of the nineteenth century's first and most influential literary depictions of the Mediterranean island of Corsica and its inhabitants. Corsica had become a French possession in just one year before Napoleon Bonaparte was born in its capital city, Ajaccio but remained largely unfamiliar and inaccessible to outsiders until the s. Once steamship service was introduced, Merimee was among the first wave of intrepid French travelers who began to explore and write travelogues about this mysterious "montagne dans la mer.
In Colomba, the author purported to offer an ethnographically informed view of a society that he positioned at the margins of "civilized" Europe, and which he portrayed as operating outside its modern laws and values. The plot concerns the infamous "Corsican vendetta"--the entrenched custom of blood feuding and revenge-code violence practiced by islanders before and well beyond Corsica was taken over by the French.
Merimee's evocative descriptions of the islanders' archaic codes of honor and colorful customs fueled curiosity about Corsica in France over the course of the nineteenth century. In this article I explore how the depiction in Colomba of Corsica as an anachronistic, primitive, and undisciplined society relied significantly on Merimee's evocation of one of Corsica's oldest musico-poetic practices--the improvisation of laments for the dead performed by female singers in Corsican villages. Intimately connected to the system of vendetta on the island, this distinctly feminine medium of mourning is given voice by Merimee's heroine, Colomba, whose spontaneous lamentations are admired by native Corsicans but condemned by French authorities as well as her Europeanized brother.
My discussion will show how Merimee's Colomba sets the oral and vocal practice of women's lamentation in fatal conflict with a French post-Enlightenment culture dominated by the written word, depicting the female voice and the character of Colomba, an allegory for the island as a subversive force. To understand what is at stake in this competition between orality and literacy, I draw out similarities between Colomba and Germaine de Stael's Corinne, or Italy , which, certain readings suggest, similarly highlights the tension between feminized, oral forms of expression and the written word.
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