Marguerite Yourcenar World Literature Analysis
Despite publications dating back over more than sixty years—two works of poetry appeared as early as 1921 and 1922 when she was in her late teens—public recognition came slowly for Marguerite Yourcenar. This late recognition was mainly the result of her uncompromising stylistic rigor, her complex philosophical and ethical dilemmas, and her reliance on Greek myths and figures. She deeply believed the past to be the foundation for the present, so she created themes that are both human and universal, using history to convey eternal ideas.
Although she began by writing poetry, she ultimately showed a greater affinity for fiction, since fiction allowed her flexibility in developing character, theme, and plot. Fiction also served as a means of testing established literary canons within what appeared to be a very traditional mode. Many of the ideas found in the novel Memoirs of Hadrian exist in preceding works. For instance, the novel examines weakness and failure in a world that admires strength and power, characters rejecting conventional bonds and emotions as they try to assert their individuality, and political intrusions into human affairs.
To illustrate this view of the world, Yourcenar chose a first-person narrative style especially popular in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Part memoir, part confession, part confidence, this technique, which she called “the portrait of a voice,” offers protagonists the greatest opportunity to express their thoughts, feelings, and reactions unimpaired by authorial screens and interventions. Her desire was to present the truth as the narrator sees it, without commenting in any way, since a lie can be as self-revealing as a truth. It was also her wish to grant free rein to her characters, without judging their opinions or actions. Either they are free, in which case the readers can draw their own conclusions, or the characters are being manipulated for whatever purpose, in which case they become mere puppets.
The German writer Rainer Maria Rilke influenced her early writings, among them Alexis, as revealed both in its tone and in the hesitations of the title character, Alexis, to bare his soul. French novelist André Gide’s fiction also had some impact on her book’s structure. Gide’s successful renewal of the French narrative form and his open treatment of homosexuality guided Yourcenar in selecting her particular style and subject. She decided to write her second novel, La Nouvelle Eurydice, using the same literary form and theme, although here the male-male-female triangle takes on a greater importance than it had for Alexis, who was concerned solely with the freedom to love whomever he wanted. Unlike Alexis, who willingly and neatly assumed control of his existence, Stanislas, the central character in the second novel, prefers the blurred monotony of a life endured.
Very different is A Coin in Nine Hands. The story, set in 1933 Rome, centers around the activities of a group of Italians plotting to assassinate the Fascist leader Benito Mussolini. Yourcenar describes the lives and dreams of the protagonists, whether they are involved in the conspiracy or not, in the sober manner of a seventeenth century tragedy. Indeed, the novel rigorously observes the classical rule of the three unities in action, place, and time. Through the device of a ten-lire coin passing from hand to hand the reader sees the action occurring in Rome within less than twenty-four hours.
Yourcenar portrays characters who live with the knowledge that they have lost their liberty, their vitality, their reassuring illusions. Too preoccupied to hide their own distress, too proud to act differently, they lock themselves behind solitary walls. The novel is a fascinating psychological puzzle whose pieces—the protagonists—can be considered from so many different angles the whole can never be fully assembled or understood. The characters become obscured by the complexity of their natures. Whether or not each recognizes it, the only true reality, the only permanence in an ephemeral world, is found in the unchanging nature of dreams.
Coup de Grâce shows the same purity of narration and the same density of style as Alexis. Eric, the first-person narrator, demands from life the ideal, even harsh, purity of love as well as courage and self-sacrifice. Whereas Alexis becomes gay out of veneration for women, Eric’s preference is caused much less by a love for men than by his desire to remain alone and uncommitted. Like many of Yourcenar’s heroes, he is unwilling to compromise with his emotions, often preferring the darker side of love to the blandness of mediocrity, and he sees in death a fitting end that is both a glorification and a promotion.
Yourcenar’s drama has received less acclaim from critics and public than her fictional creations. Her drama uses traditional form, and she revives ancient times without the necessary modernization of characters and response to contemporary sensibility. Her plays, however, offer another dimension to her art and a more immediate, visual presentation of her philosophical concerns and her interpretation of the human condition.
Especially known for her fictional works, Yourcenar has written numerous essays as well, which deal with a range of topics reflecting her broad intellectual curiosity. These essays too show the same incisive mind and ease of style already evident in her creative endeavors and have helped to shape her worldview. Yourcenar’s observations on different religious philosophies and her literary commentaries further illuminate understanding of her thought. Many of her essays have been republished in book form in France and are available in English translation.
Memoirs of Hadrian
First published: Mémoires d’Hadrien, 1951 (English translation, 1954; also as Hadrian’s Memoirs, 1957)
Type of work: Novel
Approaching death, the Roman emperor reminisces about the important events of his public and private...
(The entire section is 2493 words.)