Based on Yourcenar’s earlier story, “D’après Rembrandt” (1934; after Rembrandt), “An Obscure Man,” published in the collection Comme l’eau qui coule (1982; Two Lives and a Dream, 1987), describes the life and travels of Nathanaël. In the process he steeps himself in the classics, medieval tales, and plays by William Shakespeare while living the life dictated by his surroundings, whether in the relative refinement of Europe or the wilderness of the New World. In spite, or perhaps because, of his varied experiences in these settings, he only incompletely understands life, viewing existence in impressionistic fashion, as if his thought barely touches reality. Thus the author’s recurrent theme of an absurd world in which human destiny is directed as much by chance as by free will emerges.
In Amsterdam, Nathanaël works in his uncle’s print shop, where he continues his self-teaching by reading Greek and Roman texts. He compares the societies of Greece and Rome to his and sees with despair the religious, political, social, and economic injustice of his time. Although he fully embraces the grandeur of Christian principles, he rejects dogma and conventional religion as nonsense. Such conflicts between society’s expectations and individual passions resurface repeatedly throughout Yourcenar’s work, and they are resolved in large measure as a result of the strength of the protagonist’s personality.
(The entire section is 460 words.)