Prosper Mérimée (1803-1870) was a French writer best known for Carmen, a splendid edition of which from the Limited Editions Club (LEC) being reviewed here. Mérimée was quite an accomplished man: he was fluent in five languages, he was the first translator of various works of Russian literature in France (including works from Pushkin, Gogol and Turgenev), and was an accomplished archaeologist and historian.
Mérimée wrote Carmen in 1845 and it was published in that same year. It became the basis of Bizet‘s even more famous opera Carmen. Lovers of the opera, or those who have never seen it, would do well to read the story. As stated in the LEC Monthly Letter (ML):
Those of think of the opera when they think of Carmen will be delighted with a fresh reading of Mérimée’s novel. For the opera is a bastard musical form, the librettists who create the words of our operas are seldom inspired, and so Bizet’s opera can scarcely be said to convey the power and the charm of Mérimée’s novel to its listeners.
Mérimée puts both power and charm into the writing of the novel. It is full of rich Southern skies, of inscrutable and beautiful women, of the hurly-burly of street life, of the smell of oranges and the click of swords, of fierce smoldering plot and counter-plot in an amorous, revengeful Spain.
Romanian-American writer Konrad Bercovici (1882-1961), who wrote fiction (a substantial quantity of which with gypsy themes), along with some biography, travel works and screen plays, provided an introduction for this 1941 edition from the LEC (as an interesting aside, Bercovici received payment in a settlement around a somewhat famous plagiarism lawsuit against Charlie Chaplin for Chaplin’s The Great Dictator). In the introduction, Bercovici tells of a time he was talking to band of gypsies in Spain, during which time he read four gypsy stories aloud to get their reactions. The LEC ML summarizes:
When he read from Borrow, he was greeted with scornful laughter. When he read from Gorky, he was met with shocked surprise. When he read from Cervantes, he was stopped half-through with the assurance that gypsies are not like that. But then he read from Carmen, and they were all silent to the end; they wondered that a foreigner could have known them like that.
Clearly the story is real in that it accurately represents those it portrays. While that is part of its greatness, the ML further reiterates what has made the story lasting and world-famous:
Their passions are gypsy, they are human, and their passionate humanity it is which has made the love of Carmen and Don Jose known throughout the households of the world.
I had never read Carmen before, and have to agree with the effusive praise heaped upon it in the ML. It is charming, lively and passionate indeed! The challenge for the LEC was to create an edition that would complement these traits.
In the 1930’s, the LEC directors became a fan of French born (though naturalized American and mostly active in Mexico) artist Jean Charlot (1898-1979). Charlot had, in 1933, published Picture Book, a brilliant book of thirty-two original color lithographs drawn directly onto the plates by Charlot (a work which is highly collectible and sought after today; I am not sure how long this link will be good, but here is one on eBay right now that gives a good description and pictures). When they approached him to collaborate with them on a work, Charlot suggested Carmen, which seemed a perfect idea to the LEC since:
An illustrator of anybody’s yarn is able to put fire and passion into his illustrations chiefly through the medium of color.
Charlot, in Picture Book, had certainly demonstrated his mastery of color, but also, importantly, his mastery of color lithographs. The ML talks of lithography to some extent, including:
When Alois Senefeder invented the process of lithography, in Munich in 1798, he invented a process by which an artist could draw a picture upon an especially prepared stone surface and then, by covering the surface, first with grease and then with ink, make prints directly from the surface. He could not have known that the twentieth century would witness the conversion of the process of lithography into a method by which a photographic reproduction of an artist’s drawing could be printed in endless quantities.
Importantly, the LEC ML talks up the ‘real’ lithography process, as opposed to the offset-lithography process, calling the former a “faithful production” made by the artist himself (of which illustrations made from can be “full of the special flavor and color which only the honest lithograph can be full of.“); the latter being at best a faithful reproduction done by others. Charlot was an unquestionable master of such real lithography and as such:
…has been able to make use of brilliant inks which would not survive any ordinary and reproductive process…These lithographs strike the eye with the fierce reds and the vivid blues and the passionate purples which the illustrator has used.
For Carmen, Charlot’s illustrations are sometimes five color, sometimes six, sometimes seven, and sometimes even eight! Each color requires a separate plate and a separate printing. To make the illustrations for Carmen, over two hundred plates were created and the sheets put through the presses more than two hundred times. I think you will agree, when you see the pictures below, that the result is a “faithful production”.
The type selected for the LEC Carmen was linotype Bodoni. It is used in the large 18 point size, so that “its rich black color may bravely stand up to the rich coloring of the Charlot lithographs.” The lines of type are widely separated with leads, so “that the typographic plan may be as modern in flavor as Charlot’s drawings are modern in flavor.” I have to say that I do not care much for this last design point. I find the spacing too wide to comfortably read and visually it strikes me as a bit odd.
The printing is done on a very white paper, “the whiteness of the paper tending to enhance the brilliance of the black type and of the colors in the lithographs.” The ML goes on to accurately state that the paper “has a surface which is pleasantly rough, an agreeable “tooth” when taken in the fingers.”
One interesting aspect of the design of this edition is the binding. While the spine is buckram, the boards are “gypsy silk.” Specifically, the ML says they “started with a fine heavy quality of pure silk and had printed on this silk, from wood-blocks and by hand, a brilliant pattern of bright and vivid and fierce colors.” Frankly, I am not sure what I think of the pattern, but there is no arguing it being colorful or unique!
This edition of an important, entertaining and very colorful story, illustrated and bound in an equally colorful manner, certainly belongs on your library shelf! The color lithography by Charlot is itself worth the $100-$150 this typically sells for in near fine condition (though it is tough to find one without some sunning to the spine).
About the Edition
- Planned and printed by Aldus Printers
- Introduction by Konrad Bercovici
- Translation by Lady Mary Lloyd
- Illustrated with 37 lithographs in color by Jean Charlot, some five color, some six, some seven, and some eight
- Lithographs printed by Albert Carmen in New York
- Type is linotype Bodoni, 18 point
- White paper by Worthy Paper Company watermarked with the title
- Bound in hand-blocked gypsy silk
- 8 1/2″ by 11″, 160 pages
- Limited to 1500 copies, signed by Jean Charlot
Pictures of the Edition
(All pictures on Books and Vines are exclusively provided, under fair use, to highlight and visualize the review/criticism of the work being reviewed. A side benefit, hopefully, is providing education on the historical and cultural benefits of having a healthy fine press industry and in educating people on the richness that this ‘old school approach’ of book publishing brings to the reading process. Books and Vines has no commercial stake or financial interest in any publisher, retailer or work reviewed on this site and receives no commercial interest or compensation for Books and Vines. Please note that works photographed are copyrighted by the publisher, author and/or illustrator as indicated in the articles. Permission to use contents from these works for anything outside of fair use purposes must come directly from the copyright owner and no permission is granted or implied to use photo’s or material found on Books and Vines for any purpose that would infringe on the rights of the copyright owner.)