Marguerite Yourcenar Essay - Critical Essays

Marguerite Yourcenar Long Fiction Analysis

Some of Marguerite Yourcenar’s novels have appeared in English, including A Coin in Nine Hands, Coup de Grâce, Memoirs of Hadrian, and The Abyss. A Coin in Nine Hands, first published in 1934 and extensively revised in 1959, takes place in Rome in 1933 and is thus unlike the other three novels in having (in its first version at least) a contemporary setting. It is also atypical in the number of its important characters. Coup de Grâce has only three major characters. Memoirs of Hadrian and The Abyss have large casts of secondary figures, but each is firmly centered on a singleprotagonist. A Coin in Nine Hands, in contrast, gives fairly full treatment to about a dozen characters, some of them only tenuously connected to one another. The looseness of structure that might have resulted is guarded by the concentration of the time scheme: Though the novel contains a certain amount of retrospective narrative (the past is always a concern for Yourcenar), the main action is confined to a period of about eighteen hours.

A Coin in Nine Hands

The English title of A Coin in Nine Hands refers to a unique structural feature of the novel, its tracing of the passage of a ten-lira piece from one character to another. The nine characters who handle the coin, and several others as well, are linked by a network of relationships, often casual or accidental, although none of them sees the whole pattern. The coin, though it is in itself of no great value to any of them and might seem a facile contrivance to a skeptical reader, in fact takes on considerable symbolic weight. In the afterword to the revised version of the novel, Yourcenar calls the coin “the symbol of contact between human beings each lost in his own passions and in his intrinsic solitude.” The casual or mechanical nature of many of these contacts is obvious, and the coin, belonging to anybody and finally to nobody in particular, suggests the inability of the characters to form any real bonds with others. In With Open Eyes, she offers another meaning for the coin, saying that it represents the external world, the state, all that is opposed to the intimate, secret lives of people. This meaning is also suggested by the title of the play that Yourcenar adapted from the novel, Rendre à César (pb. 1961; Render unto Caesar, 1984), an echo of Mark 12:17.

Any coin has two sides, and a symbolic coin may well be allowed several. Another meaning is suggested by the French title for the novel, Denier du rêve, literally “denarius of the dream.” The coin is associated with the characters’ dreams or illusions. The reader first sees the coin in the hand of Lina Chiari, a prostitute who received it from a man who has become a regular client since his wife deserted him. The narrator comments that although love cannot be bought, dreams can be, and adds, “The little money Paolo Farina gave Lina each week was used to create for him a welcome illusion; that is to say, perhaps the only thing in the world that does not deceive.” Lina, after learning that she must have a mastectomy, uses the coin to buy a lipstick, makes up her face, and forces a smile that gradually becomes sincere: “Party to an illusion that saved her from horror, Lina Chiari was kept from despair by a thin layer of makeup.” The storekeeper who sold her the lipstick buys votive candles to petition the Madonna for relief from his domestic problems, and the candles “maintain the fiction of a hope.” The candle vendor, learning of the sale of her childhood home in Sicily, to which she has long dreamed of returning, buys coals to light a fire to asphyxiate herself. Marcella, the seller of the coals, passes the coin to her estranged husband as payment for a gun she stole from him, with which she plans to shoot Mussolini. Her husband is in good standing with the Fascists, and she hates herself for still feeling drawn to him in spite of his politics. The gesture of paying for the gun is intended to free her from any debt to him, to purchase an illusion of independence. He, in turn, uses the coin to buy flowers for a stranger to whom he has made love in a film theater, as if to mitigate the sordidness of the encounter. The flower vendor, uneasy at having been called a miser, proves to herself that the charge is untrue by passing the coin to a man that she takes for a beggar. He is in fact a famous painter, old and frightened by increasingly frequent attacks of angina. He throws the coin into the Trevi Fountain, like those tourists who hope to return, but thinking instead that he may soon see a quite different “Eternal City.” Finally, under cover of darkness, a worker scoops up the coin with a handful of others and goes to a tavern to purchase a few hours of exaltation and oblivion in drink. Each character uses the coin to maintain a protective illusion or to soften the pain of a loss.

As the foregoing sketch indicates, death is a prominent theme in the novel. Lina thinks of her impending mastectomy as a death. The attempt on Mussolini’s life is the novel’s central event, and Marcella expects that even if she succeeds she will be killed. She is right. Her most important confederate, a dissident writer named Carlo Stevo who has been deported to Lipari Island, has exerted a potent influence on her and on several other characters, too. Ironically, the reader learns halfway through the book that Stevo has been dead since before the story began. For Marcella the news is a blow, the more so since Stevo’s captors seem to have succeeded in breaking his spirit before he died. His death increases the sense of the futility of Marcella’s attempt.

The settings often reinforce the novel’s emphasis on death. The darkness in Marcella’s little bedroom is mentioned repeatedly. As she moves toward the place where she hopes to kill and knows she will be killed, the street becomes a “river of shadescarrying along in its waves inert, drowned corpses who thought they were alive.” The film theater that is the setting of the immediately succeeding chapter is a “cave full of specters,” a version of the underworld of classical myth. The films offer illusory reflections of real life so distorted that they suggest life’s opposite. Moreover, the fact that Marcella has been killed is withheld until the end of this scene. Thus, the whole chapter draws together the themes of illusion and death.

The larger setting, the Eternal City itself, is rendered with remarkable economy. There are no extended descriptions or set pieces, yet the city is vividly evoked. Moreover, Yourcenar succeeds in giving it a kind of double identity. There is the Rome of 1933 and, opening out behind it, the long vista of its past, the Rome of history. The characters, too, transcend their particular historical moments through their connections with mythological figures. The 1959 version reduces the frequency of such mythical parallels, but they are still there, giving added dimension to the characterization. Marcella, moving toward her fatal encounter, is “like a Greek woman in Hades, like a Christian one in Dante’s Inferno, carrying a burden as old as History itself.” It is not a matter of detailed correspondences in the sequence of events or in the relationships among characters, as in, for example, James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922). Rather, the mythological references arise out of particular situations and character traits. Moreover, a single character may be associated with several mythological figures and a single mythological figure with several different characters, so that the correspondences have the indefiniteness and flexibility of figures in dreams. Thus, Marcella is called Medusa, Judith, Martha, and Mary, and she resembles Electra as well (Mussolini had betrayed her father). The candle vendor sees her feeding pigeons and is reminded of a statue of Venus with her doves, but the candle vendor’s sister, a film star, is also a Venus, and a Narcissus, too. A young friend of Marcella and Stevo is also Narcissus, and he is Thanatos and Hermes as well. There is something of Antigone in the candle vendor. The old flower seller is the earth mother, while the worker who takes the coins from the fountain is a kind of Dionysus.

These parallels would be merely empty gestures, however, if the characterization were not so rich and firm in realistic terms. The dozen or so major figures are all interesting and convincing, and there are a good number of secondary ones who are brought fully to life in the space of a few paragraphs. On the whole, the most effective characterizations are of women, and the women carry the story. The novel therefore takes a special place in the body of Yourcenar’s work that is available in English, for (along with most of the prose poems in Fires) it constitutes an interesting counterbalance to her male-dominated novels. The men in A Coin in Nine Hands are often remarkable, but Marcella, Lina, the candle vendor, and the old flower seller are extraordinary.

Coup de Grâce

Coup de Grâce appeared in 1939, only about twenty years after the time of the events it describes. In spite of its modern setting, it is in a sense a historical novel. In her preface, Yourcenar cites dramatist Jean Racine’s view that “remoteness in spaceis almost the equivalent of distance in time.” The story is set in Kurland during the Baltic civil wars in the years immediately following World War I, a place and an episode that drew little attention from the rest of Europe. Because of the remoteness of its setting, the novel required patient research and an effort of imaginative projection of a kind similar to that which later went into Memoirs of Hadrian and The Abyss, though Coup de Grâce was written in a matter of weeks, while the other two took years to reach their final forms.

The civil war makes a fitting background for this story of three people locked in a close and ultimately destructive relationship by feelings that—in two of them at least—oscillate unpredictably between love and repulsion. The story (which the author says she heard from “one of the best friends of the principal person concerned”) is told in the first person by Erick von Lhomond, a soldier of fortune with a penchant for lost causes. He is a Prussian with some French and Baltic blood. His best friend, Conrad de Reval, is a Balt with some Russian ancestry. There is between them a physical similarity so close that they are often mistaken for brothers. Erick has chosen to limit his experiences with women to commerce with the least respectable of them; his strongest inclinations are homosexual. The circumstances of thenarrative (Erick is telling his story to two auditors met by chance in a train station) preclude his dwelling on the nature of his bond with Conrad; in any case, homosexuality is not the main issue in the novel, and Conrad is the least important of the three main characters. The central conflict is between Erick and Conrad’s sister, Sophie.

As a young officer, Erick joins a German volunteer corps supporting the White Russians against the Bolsheviks in Estonia and Kurland. Conrad turns up, and the two are posted to Kratovitsy, Conrad’s family estate, which had been briefly occupied by the Reds. There Sophie falls in love with her brother’s friend. The mixture of bloodlines in Erick and in Sophie suggests their conflicting emotions, and their relationship develops in a pattern of ironic oscillations that reflect the uncertainties of the political struggle.

Because Erick resembles her brother, Sophie’s attraction to him seems to involve a kind of transference of an unconscious incestuous impulse. Sophie and Conrad also resemble each other, a fact that complicates Erick’s response to the girl. When she confesses her love to Erick, he is stunned, but they develop an intimacy “like that between victim and executioner”—a simile that foreshadows the novel’s conclusion. His attitude toward her fluctuates between insolence and tenderness, and “when she began to mean more to me, I suppressed the tenderness.” He comes to see her as an adversary whom, in a “show of bravado,” he treats as a friend. In an attempt to arouse his jealousy, she turns to promiscuous relations with other soldiers. He remains indifferent to these activities as long as it is obvious to him that she has no pleasure in them.

The turning point in their relationship comes one night when Erick sees a light in Sophie’s window during an air attack. He goes to her room and rebukes her for endangering the lives of everyone in the house, but then he himself leads her out onto the balcony. The language and imagery of this scene in which the two perversely court death is full of references to love and sexual consummation as well as to physical cruelty and death. They embrace, but then, in a characteristically abrupt reversal, Erick’s “ecstasy changed into horror,” and what Sophie sees in his expression makes her recoil, “covering her face with her upraised arm, like a child who is slapped.”

In reaction, Sophie takes a new lover, Volkmar, and this time her choice upsets Erick. As Sophie’s resentment of Erick begins to outweigh her love for him, his jealousy, ironically, increases. When she ostentatiously kisses Volkmar at a party, Erick slaps her in public, and the ground of their relationship shifts again, for she comes to his door later that night. For fear of waking Conrad, Erick does not admit her, but he finds himself considering marriage to her.

Volkmar tells Sophie of Erick’s homosexuality, and she leaves Kratovitsy after a brief but painful confrontation with Erick. Her sympathies have long been with the Bolsheviks, and she sets out to join them, wearing men’s clothing provided by the mother of the young man who had converted her to the Red side.

Erick conceals from Conrad his role in Sophie’s departure. Conrad’s love for his sister turns to hatred, and he begins to believe that she had long been spying on their band for the Reds. Yourcenar underlines this reversal with one of those paradoxes that are a feature of her gnomic style. Erick says that the brother and sister grew to be complete strangers “such as only two members of the same family can manage to become.” In this novel, hatred grown out of love is the strongest kind, just as a civil war is often the bitterest of wars.

It is not long after Sophie’s flight that Erick summarizes the political developments that are weakening the anti-Bolshevist cause and comments, “Europe was betraying us.” The public events thus seem to reflect the personal situation. They are forced to abandon Kratovitsy. Erick is in command. Conrad is killed in a skirmish with some Cossack cavalry and is thus spared the next engagement, in which Erick’s troop captures Sophie with a small band of Bolshevik soldiers. Neither side is taking prisoners. In a final interview, Sophie rejects with indifference Erick’s efforts to find a way to save her. Here and in the final scene, the language and certain gestures repeat the love theme in inextricable conjunction with its opposite, as had been the case in the scene on the balcony. The next morning, after the other prisoners have been shot by the butcher from Kratovitsy, who now serves as executioner for the troop, Sophie’s turn comes....

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