Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Tuesday, December 29, 2020


 "How We Took the Redoubt" by Prosper Merimee (first published in French as L'enlevement de la redoute in Revue de Paris, 1829;  translated and reprinted in English in The Dead Leman and Other Tales From the French, edited by Andrew Lang & Paul Sylvester, 1889)

This is a twice-told story, introduced at the beginning by a narrator who tells us that an old officer, now deceased, had once told about his first experience in combat, then he repeats the story as best he can using the officer's first person narration.

The officer, a second lieutenant who had just graduated from military school at Fontainebleau, presents his credentials to the colonel of the unit, who then hands him off to a captain.  The captain is not thrilled at the raw recruit, but his lieutenant had just been killed in battle, so needs must.  The French army is battling a Russian contingent who have sheltered in the redoubt of Cheverino and are putting up a fierce defense.

There is a large red moon rising and the redoubt can bee seen outlined against its brilliance.  The men in the French army are very superstitious and a red moon means that it will cost the French many lives to take the redoubt.

The young lieutenant is brave but concerned.  As the most recent member of his force, he has absolutely no friends to fight beside him, and should he be wounded, he would be at the mercy of incompetent and uncaring doctors.  But these thoughts are put aside as the attack begins.  The Russians begin shelling the French artillery, which is located behind the French troops, so for the moment they are safe.  Eventually the Russians tire of this and begin to aim at the troops themselves.  A shell explodes near the lieutenant and a fragment takes of his hat and kills the man next to him.  The captain tells him he is lucky because having a hat shot off means that he will not be wounded for the rest of the day.  Superstition again.  The captain also says that, unlike the lieutenant, his own goose is cooked because every time the man next to him is grazed by a passing ball, he is wounded.

The French are then divided into three groups, one of which -- the one the lieutenant belongs to is to directly attack the redoubt.  As they get closer, the smoke of the battle clears and they see a solid line of Russian musketeers atop the redoubt's wall, aiming directly at them.  The French have little chance.  Almost all the French are killed, including the superstitious captain.  There is only the lieutenant and six others surviving.  The colonel draws his sword and charges over the wall, and the rest follow.  Somehow this mad attack works.  The lieutenant only remembers slashing and slashing.  about two hundred Russians are dead and fifteen have been captured, but at a great cost.  The colonel himself is mortally wounded and asks for the next in command.  With so many deaths, the lieutenant is the highest ranking officer left and takes command of the victorious troops.

This slight and very short story reminds me of a trick often used by oral storytellers.  Whenever there is a fight, the storyteller goes to great lengths to set it up but the actual fight is told quickly with very little detail.  Here, the lieutenant does not remember the actual fight but the reader is assured that it is a fierce one.  Another point to the story is how the superstitions have prevailed.  Three superstitions are repeated in the tale and all three were borne out.  

Prosper Merimee (1803-1870) was a well-known French Romanticist and was one of the pioneers of the novella, in addition to being a noted archeologist and historian.  He is probably best known for Carmen, on which the Bizet opera was based.  Among his other famous works were La Venus de L'ille and Columba.  For thirty years he was the inspector of French historical monuments and was responsible for the restoration of the facade of the Notre Dame Cathedral.  With the English writer George Sand, Merimee discovered the tapestry series known as The Lady and the Unicorn and arranged for its preservation.  Later ibn life he became associated with Napoleon III and served as an advisor to the Empress and became a Senator of the Empire, a post he virtually ignored, speaking in the chamber only three times in seventeen years.  Merimee's health had been in decline for some years when, early in September 1870, the Empire fell and a Republilc was declared.  Merimee died later that month and, in May of the following year, a mob burned Merimee's home, along with his papers and notes, because of his ties to Napolean III.

1 comment: