Marguerite Yourcenar, born in Belgium in 1903 but reared as a French citizen, was a well-known author of French-language translations, novels, and plays. She spent her youth wandering through Europe but in mature life became known as a literary hermit, isolated on Mount Desert Island in northern Maine. Her residence in the United States, begun during World War II and followed by her adoption of American citizenship in 1947, removed her from the French intellectual scene. Yet publication in France of the best-selling novel Memoires d’Hadrien (1951; Memoirs of Hadrian, 1954) made her a celebrated author there. She traveled and gave lectures in Europe and won literary honors in France and Belgium. Her translations of Greek- and English-language works and her plays and essays had already assured her place in the literary spotlight when she published another bestselling novel, L’Oeuvre au noir (1968; The Abyss, 1976). Then, in 1980, after a hotly contested election, Yourcenar was offered membership in the Academie Francaise, the most prestigious literary honor of the French- speaking world. As the first woman elected in the 350-year history of the body, Yourcenar became a celebrity on both sides of the Atlantic, and her mythic image grew.
Josyane Savigneau, editor of the literary pages of Le Monde, first met Yourcenar during an interview in 1984. Out of the personal bonds between interviewer and author comes a literary biography that is focused on the inner life of Marguerite Yourcenar. Through records kept by Yourcenar and her companion, Grace Frick, Savigneau attempts to reconstruct the author’s life itinerary, often with greater accuracy than Yourcenar herself. Her voluminous autobiographical works include: Le Labyrin the du monde, published in two volumes (1974- 1977), Souvenirs pieux (1974; Dear De-parted, 1991), which covers the history of her mother’s family; and Archives du Nord (1977), which was devoted to her father’s side of the family, as well as Quoi?
L’Eternité (1988), an unfinished reflection on her own life.
Yourcenar rewrote her major works through the years, at times simply correcting errors or making minor changes from one edition to another, at times completely rewriting or taking themes and settings of short stories and recasting them as longer texts. This tendency to rework old material rather than create something new is a personality quirk that Savigneau explores in depth.
Yourcenar is quoted as saying that she lived with the various personages from her novels as she would live with “real” people from her daily life, understanding them
better with time. Her Memoirs of Hadrian, written as a lengthy letter from the dying emperor to the young Marcus Aurelius, is a global presentation of an individual personality, one in which Yourcenar allows her character to “lie” to his interlocutor at places where she thinks he would have lied. While writing The Abyss, she held conversations with Zeno, the central character, and wept at his death.
The tendency to identify certain characters or situations in Yourcenar’s works with the “real” people and events of her life is one to which Yourcenar herself has, at times, subscribed. Yet the rewriting and fictionalization that Yourcenar applied to her literary works inevitably skew any point-to-point relationship with real life. This same rewriting was also active in her frankly autobiographical work. Savigneau cautions the reader that in these texts, as well as her autobiographical notes and chronologies, Yourcenar rearranged and polished events and people to produce a narrative that does not always conform to objective records. Personal correspondence was cataloged, reread, and sometimes partially rewritten. When such discrepancies are pertinent, Savigneau draws the reader’s attention to them. Savigneau also cautions the reader that some conclusions on Yourcenar’s life must be provisional, since much of her correspondence is on deposit at Harvard University, sealed until the fiftieth anniversary of her death. Even with these reservations, the resulting portrait of Marguerite Yourcenar, a willful enigma who yearned to be perfectly understood, is both convincing and fascinating.
Marguerite de Crayencour was the daughter of a wandering, aristocratic playboy, Michel de Crayencour, and his second wife, who died shortly after the birth in...
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