The induction of Marguerite Yourcenar (pseudonym and anagram for her family name, Crayencour), scholar, poet, essayist, translator, and novelist, as the first woman in the French Academy, on January 22, 1981, not only placed her among those “forty immortals” but made her a representative of those other French women writers from George Sand and Mme. De Staël to Colette and Simone de Beauvoir whom the Academy has overlooked. Her induction has led to a reexamination of her works, which have long deserved more serious attention than they have been given, particularly by non-French readers. The reissue of Fires (Feux, 1936), written when she was thirty-two, is one step in that direction. Fires was originally dismissed as simply another product of the vogue for Greek classical myths adapted to modern times which yielded Jean Cocteau’s The Infernal Machine (1934), Jean Giraudoux’s La Guerre de Troie n’aura pas lieu (1935; Tiger at the Gates), Jean Anouilh’s Antigone (1942), and Jean-Paul Sartre’s Les Mouches (1943; The Flies), to name but a few examples. As Yourcenar suggests in her Preface, Fires is, indeed, a product of its period. However, it is much more than that, for it establishes the technique that marks Yourcenar’s particular gift, her fusion of the historical and the intimately personal. The establishment of her international reputation with Mémoires d’Hadrien (1951; Hadrian’s Memoirs, 1954) might not have seemed so sudden to a public familiar with Fires, which was not translated until 1957, for in Fires, although the technique is even more experimental, one can find the same distinctive combination of personal revelation with historical presence which won such acclaim for Hadrian’s Memoirs. In Fires, the “private” emotion explored is that of total, all-encompassing love and its inevitable consequences, in two forms of prose poems: first, the brief, almost aphoristic comments from a personal diary about such a love affair; second, a series of nine relatively short but brilliant narratives, many in the mode of confessio or soliloquy, of other individuals who have also been mastered by this same emotion. Since the individuals chosen are drawn from classical history and mythology, with the exception of Mary Magdalene, there is an interplay between the past and the present of the diarist. The historical retellings are full of sudden, unexpected allusions to contemporary events or devices, again underscoring the ageless universality of human nature—the same revelation that is key to both Hadrian’s Memoirs and The Abyss (1976)—regardless of the transitory trappings of civilization: Greek, Hebrew, or the French culture of the 1930’s.
Although translation, even the best, tends to undermine true poetry, the interlacing of the present into these age-old love stories is still clear and effective, jolting the reader to remember that the past is ever present. Phaedra seizes the shiny rails of the subway to help direct her way to a crowded Hell; Thetis, after seeing films which show Zeus’s intentions for Achilles, hides and disguises him; at Troy, armored trucks harvest the corpses, the third-generation army lacks morale, and Achilles’ last fight, surrounded by fields of khaki and gray, is recorded by cameras whose flashbulbs go off like machine-gun shots. Antigone needs sunglasses to protect her eyes from the glare of Thebes; Lena, who fondly remembers records and cafés, watches her lover being swept away by media photographers and a rich man’s sports car; trains and police enter Clytemnestra’s world. Sappho, the poet, is metamorphosized into a world of cheap circuses and one-night stands, a tawdry world of pornographic record albums and morphine smuggling. None of these images is outdated now, almost fifty years later, although they will be eventually. Even then, scattered as they are, they will hardly distract the future reader from the total impact of the book and its insistance on the simultaneity of the past and present, of original insights into human experience.
Still, Fires must be judged by the extent to which its form and characterizations make the reader see and feel anew. There is considerable range and depth to the individual portraits of passion; none is repetitive and each involves resonances beyond the individual character. To each individual speaker, for...
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