Prosper Mérimée, Carmen


Published by André Gonin (Lausanne), 1947

Illustrated with 29 colored woodcuts by Marguerite Frey-Surbeck


She is a scandal, this Carmen, who is seducing the honest Spanish officer José! A gypsy! A factory worker! Faithless, lawless but bewitching all the more. Carmen, as Prosper Mérimée created her in 1845, was completely different from the chaste maidens, sitting in their fathers' living room and waiting for someone to ask for their hand in marriage.


Just take Carmen's economic independence for a start! She makes her own living-wage and she does it in a cigar-factory. Still, she is no exploited victim but she is the master of her own fate. When she becomes an offender after an impulsive act and loses her honest work, she joins a gang of smugglers.


But most scandalous of all is her sexual liberty – as early as 1845! She sleeps with Don José to thank him for helping her to escape, only to leave him the very next morning with the explanation that they are simply not made for each other. Carmen is married to a bandit chief and loves Don José when he becomes a bandit chief. But when the latter kills her husband and wants to start a new life in America with her, Carmen leaves him for a Torero.


Carmen is the counter draft to all female virtue imaginable in the 19th century bourgeoisie. She is not endearing, not nice, not nurturing or faithful. Instead she has a radiating sexuality which draws men to her like moths are drawn to the light.

There was only one possible end for such a woman at that time: Don José stabs her on impulse and ends up on the gallows for his crime. 


Mérimée has created a female archetype with this character. His story was constantly told and retold, for instance as an opera by Georges Bizet (1875) and as a film by famous directors like Cecil B. DeMille (1915), Ernst Lubitsch (1918) and Carlos Saura (1983). Be it ice revue or ballet, Carmen has arrived in popular culture and even the most outspoken despiser of opera is able to hum at least the habanera.


This luxury edition on hand in French tells the story of Carmen illustrated by the painter Marguerite Frey-Surbeck. It was published by the Kunstverlag Gonin, founded in 1926, not to produce books but to create small complete artworks where text and image mutually support each other.


The illustrator was not chosen randomly. Marguerite Frey-Surbeck was an early advocate for female emancipation and a committed fighter for women's suffrage. As the niece of a Federal councilor, she challenged the traditions of the bourgeois society and married an artist and stayed independent at the same time. There is evidence for this in her small gesture of putting her own family name before her husband's.


Marguerite Frey-Surbeck is an example of the changing role of women since Carmen became a bestseller. But one scandal stays after all: The scandal that Carmen cannot love Don José, no matter how many sacrifices he makes for his love. Germany has recently established a new intensified law against stalkers, who follow people because they are not able to handle that very same skandalon.


Ursula Kampmann

Translated by Christina Schlögl

Signet Sunflower Foundation