Study Guide

Marguerite Yourcenar

Marguerite Yourcenar Essay - Yourcenar, Marguerite (Vol. 87)

Yourcenar, Marguerite (Vol. 87)

Introduction

Marguerite Yourcenar 1903–1987

(Born Marguerite Antoinette Jeanne Marie Ghislaine Cleenewerck de Crayencour) Belgian-born French and American novelist, short story writer, essayist, critic, poet, dramatist, and translator.

The following entry provides an overview of Yourcenar's career. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 19, 38, and 50.

Esteemed for her magisterial literary style and classical erudition, Yourcenar was the first woman elected to the Académie Française, the highly prestigious French cultural institution established in the 1600s by Cardinal Richelieu for the perfection and preservation of the French language. Her primary artistic preoccupations included the mythology, history, and verse of ancient Greece and Rome; the nature of love and its relationship to sexuality; and the possibility of morality in the absence of myth and religion. Although she was conservative in aesthetic temperament, defying the modernist trends of the century and eschewing the social conventions of Parisian literary life, Yourcenar was a lifelong champion of civil rights, equality for women, and environmental and antinuclear causes.

Biographical Information

Yourcenar was born into two very old, wealthy, and influential families from Belgium and France. Her mother, a native of Brussels, died ten days after giving birth. Consequently, Yourcenar was raised and educated by her father, Michel de Crayencour, a Frenchman, in Mont-Noir, Lille, and Paris. As her teacher, mentor, and sole intellectual companion, Yourcenar's father encouraged her to study the classics, to begin writing poetry, and to read French, Latin, Greek, and English literature. She wrote her first poems when she was fourteen and her first volume, Le jardin des chimères, was privately published in 1921; she later dismissed this work as possessing only "the virtue of childish simplicity." For this book, she and her father anagrammatized "Crayencour" to devise the pen name Yourcenar, which she adopted as her legal name in 1947. For most of the 1920s she and her father traveled through Europe enjoying a life devoted to literary, aesthetic, and intellectual pursuits. In 1929, after her father's death and the loss of much of her inherited fortune in the stock market crash of that year, Yourcenar published her first novel, Alexis (Alexis); this was her first work to be accepted by a commercial publisher and was her only major work that her father read. In the 1930s, she published prolifically in a variety of genres, including a critical volume on the Greek poet Pindar simply entitled Pindare (1932); a unique book of prose, poetry, and aphorisms examining various aspects of love, Feux (1938; Fires); two collections of short fiction, La mort conduit l'attelage (1934) and Nouvelles orientales (1938; Oriental Tales); and a book-length essay on dreams, Les songes et les sorts (1938). She also translated Virginia Woolf's 1931 novel The Waves into French in 1937 and two years later published her second major novel, Le coup de grâce (1939; Coup de Grâce). Able to support herself with her writing in these years, she traveled widely in Italy, Germany, and Greece; in 1937 she briefly visited the United States, where she lectured at several colleges and studied the life of the Roman emperor Hadrian (A.D. 76-138) at Yale University. Travel restrictions imposed throughout Europe during World War II forced Yourcenar back to the United States, where she worked briefly as a journalist and commercial translator before becoming a part-time instructor at Sarah Lawrence College in 1942. Her literary output was slight until 1948, when trunks containing her collected notes on Hadrian arrived from France. Inspired by these notes, Yourcenar began composing what many critics consider her greatest work, Mémoires d'Hadrien (1951; Memoirs of Hadrian). While she continued to travel extensively over the next twenty years, she and Grace Frick, her close companion and English translator, established their permanent home on Mount Desert Island, Maine, in 1950. Yourcenar's life from this time on was consumed by travel and literary projects, many of the latter involving the revision or completion of work from previous decades; notable in this regard is the 1968 novel L'oeuvre au noir (The Abyss), which is widely considered her second masterpiece. During the 1960s and 1970s she received many international literary awards and numerous honorary degrees from colleges and universities in the United States. In 1980 she became the first woman elected to the Académie Française in the three-century history of the institution whose members include writers, politicians, scholars, and scientists; in her address to the Académie she acknowledged the importance and influence of such illustrious French women writers as Germaine de Staël, George Sand, and Colette, saying that she was "accompanied by an invisible troupe of women who perhaps should have received this honor long before, so that I am tempted to stand aside to let their shadows pass." Yourcenar remained an active traveler and writer for the rest of her life, nearly completing the final volume, Quoi? L'éternite (1990), of her autobiographical trilogy known as Le labyrinthe du monde before her death at the age of 84.

Major Works

Although Yourcenar produced important works in a variety of genres, her reputation rests primarily on her novels. Her first attempt in the genre, Alexis, is structured as a récit, a classical form of the French short story designed to recount, ostensibly as an aid to the examination of conscience, a significant deed or event in a concise, rapid narrative. The novel proceeds as a letter written by the title character, a talented musician finally avowing his homosexuality, to his wife, Monique, as an apologia for deserting her and their new baby, and to express his regret at having lived misleadingly with her for so long. Anticipating Memoirs of Hadrian with its epistolary form, the novel also inaugurates many of Yourcenar's signature themes, namely the artist's struggle to maintain and express his sensibilities in a hostile environment; male homosexuality; love and pleasure; and the emergence of self-identity and its relation to guilt. Coup de Grâce, which also uses the first-person récit form, examines the lives of three characters caught in romantic and political turmoil. Set in the late 1930s during the civil wars touched off by the Russian Revolution in the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, the novel is "remembered" by Eric von Lhommond, an aristocratic adventurer and romantic mercenary whose purely class-based, nonideological objections to Communism provide his pretext for participating in Europe's military conflicts. He recounts his relationships with Conrad, a young man whom he loved, and Conrad's idealistic sister Sophie, who fell in love with Eric but was rejected and finally executed by him. Coup de Grâce further develops Yourcenar's notion of love as fate and examines the abuse of power in its physical, emotional, and political forms. Critics note that the novel also presents, in the character of Eric, the prototype for Yourcenar's hallmark larger-than-life protagonist, clearly prefiguring the Hadrian of Memoirs of Hadrian and Zeno of The Abyss. As Ann M. Begley has pointed out, Yourcenar's fascination with Hadrian began when she read Gustave Flaubert's description of the emperor's era: "Just when the gods had ceased to be and the Christ had not yet come, there was a unique moment in history, between Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, when man stood alone." Memoirs of Hadrian is an epistolary novel consisting of the aging emperor Hadrian's letter to his seventeen-year-old adoptive grandson and heir, Marcus Aurelius, the purpose of which is to pass on the lessons learned in an eventful, varied life. With her stated intention of conveying the psychology of the age, Yourcenar largely avoids plot and melodrama, focusing instead on anecdotal depictions of Hadrian's career and his meditations on politics, war, art, religion, destiny, and love between and among the sexes. Yourcenar depicts Hadrian as the quintessential warrior-poet, an agnostic who has succeeded in forging a personal moral code with the support of neither ancient myth nor Christian faith. Like Hadrian, Zeno in The Abyss is a faithless man, but one whose personal understanding is achieved through lifelong study and service to the sick. Set during the sixteenth century, the novel details the divergent paths taken by Henri-Maximilian Ligre, scion of a wealthy and powerful family who seeks adventure and fame as a soldier, and his bastard cousin Zeno, a studious, metaphysically-oriented man who despises his cousin's life and devotes himself to the investigation of philosophy, alchemy, medicine, and mysticism. Portrayed in a Faustian light, Zeno's quest for an authentic life and truth is seen as heresy by the leaders of his age. The Abyss is a further examination of Yourcenar's interests in the implications of fate, emergent self-identity, and the relation of magic and philosophy.

Critical Reception

Before the publication of Memoirs of Hadrian, Yourcenar's works received little attention outside a relatively small group of intellectual readers. Le jardin des chimères, for example, was ignored by most reviewers, but attracted the enthusiastic attention of Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, who invited Yourcenar to live in India. In general, critics have praised Yourcenar's classical writing style, the breadth of her interests, and the depth of her understanding. Others, however, have faulted what they consider her obsession with the past, the auxiliary role female characters play in her fiction, and her reluctance to discuss the personal experiences that influenced her work; this last charge is frequently raised by readers of her autobiographical trilogy Le labyrinthe du monde, which investigates and re-creates the lives of her forebears but does not focus on the events of her own life. Furthermore, at least one critic, Elaine Marks, has discerned anti-Semitic sentiments in Coup de Grâce—Marks's opinions, however, do not appear to be widely shared. Yourcenar's novels, particularly Memoirs of Hadrian and The Abyss, are widely hailed as masterpieces; scholar Anthony Levi has called them "high points in the development of the French historical novel." Begley has also noted that Yourcenar's scholarship in Hadrian is so scrupulous, and her portrait of the emperor's mind and times so accurate, that the novel is "read by historians, and … is cited in historical bibliographies dealing with Hadrian."

Principal Works

Le jardin des chimères (poetry) 1921
Les dieux ne sont pas morts (poetry) 1922
Alexis; ou, Le traité du vain combat [Alexis; translated and revised edition, 1984] (novel) 1929
La nouvelle Eurydice (novel) 1931
Pindare (criticism) 1932
Denier du rêve [A Coin in Nine Hands; translated and revised edition, 1982] (novel) 1934
La mort conduit l'attelage (novellas) 1934
Feux [Fires] (poetry and prose) 1938
Nouvelles orientales [Oriental Tales; translated and revised edition, 1985] (short stories) 1938
Les songes et les sorts (essay) 1938
Le coup de grâce [Coup de Grâce]...

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Criticism

Marguerite Yourcenar with Matthieu Galey (interview date 1980)

SOURCE: An interview in With Open Eyes by Marguerite Yourcenar, translated by Arthur Goldhammer, Beacon Press, 1984, 271 p.

[In the following excerpt from a series of interviews conducted over many years and first published in France as Les yeux ouverts: Entretiens avec Matthieu Galey in 1980, Yourcenar discusses a number of topics, including her literary influences, some of her major works, and her thoughts on politics and feminism.]

[Yourcenar]: In the course of preparing to write Quol? l'Eternité, the third volume of Labyrinthe du monde, I had occasion recently to list some of the books I read as a child and adolescent. Two periods are sharply...

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Judith L. Johnston (essay date Fall 1982)

SOURCE: "Marguerite Yourcenar's Sexual Politics in Fiction, 1939," in Faith of a (Woman) Writer, edited by Alice Kessler-Harris and William McBrien, Greenwood Press, 1988, pp. 221-28.

[Johnston is an American critic and educator who has written extensively on twentieth-century history and literature. In the following essay, which was originally presented at a conference on twentieth-century women writers held at Hofstra University in the fall of 1982, she analyzes the sexual and political relationships of the three main characters in Coup de Grâce, arguing that they reflect "the European state of mind" on the brink of World War II.]

Marguerite Yourcenar, the...

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Sven Birkerts (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "Marguerite Yourcenar," in An Artificial Wilderness: Essays on 20th-Century Literature, William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1987, pp. 157-61.

[Birkerts is an American critic and educator who has won numerous awards and grants for his essays on literature. In the following essay, which was originally published in 1984, he addresses the theme of male homosexuality in Alexis and Memoirs of Hadrian.]

In her "Reflections on the Composition of Memoirs of Hadrian," Marguerite Yourcenar has described in some detail the halting yet seemingly fated progress of that book. Originally begun between 1924 and 1930, abandoned, resumed, it was abandoned again before...

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Marguerite Yourcenar with Shusha Guppy (interview date 11 April 1987)

SOURCE: An interview in The Paris Review, Vol. 30, No. 106, Spring, 1988, pp. 229-49.

[Guppy is an Iranian-born writer and critic who has served as the London editor of The Paris Review. In the following interview, which was conducted in April 1987, Yourcenar discusses her life, career, and literary influences.]

I had an appointment with Marguerite Yourcenar on Saturday, November 14, 1987 at her hotel in Amsterdam. I was told that she had not arrived, that several people had been looking for her, including her driver, and that no one knew where she was. Further telephone calls to her home in Maine and to her publishers in Paris revealed that she had had a slight...

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Konrad Czynski (review date September 1987)

SOURCE: A review of Oriental Tales, in Comparative Literature Studies, Vol. 24, No. 3, September, 1987, pp. 302-07.

[In the following review, Czynski lauds Yourcenar's writing style and discusses Oriental Tales in relation to the development of the short story genre. Czynski also comments on some of the inadequacies he sees in Alberto Manguel's translation of the collection.]

To journey is to appropriate the world; distances hitherto descried as limitless barriers are resolved into horizons of the mind, unified therein. The journeyer may voyage in space and time: Marco Polo's Description of the World (c. 1300), Kipling's From Sea to Sea...

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Joanne Schmidt (review date Fall 1988)

SOURCE: "Marguerite Yourcenar: 1903–1987," in Belles Lettres: A Review of Books by Women, Vol. 4, No. 1, Fall, 1988, p. 8.

[Schmidt is an American critic and educator. In the following review of With Open Eyes, A Coin in Nine Hands, and Two Lives and a Dream, she lauds Yourcenar's work.]

The date March 6, 1980, was memorable for French women writers. On that day, Marguerite Yourcenar became the first and so far only woman ever elected to the prestigious 345-year-old body of French writers, the French Academy. However, as she recounts in With Open Eyes, the informative series of conversations she had with French literary critic Matthieu Galey, she...

(The entire section is 1902 words.)

David Cowart (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "The Way It Was," in History and the Contemporary Novel, Southern Illinois University Press, 1989, pp. 31-75.

[Cowart is an American critic and educator who has written extensively on modern literature. In the following excerpt, he provides a detailed discussion of the main themes in Memoirs of Hadrian, analyzing in particular Yourcenar's re-creation of the classical world and ancient "Rome's mental life."]

The reader who would know the feel of Roman life in the second century finds in Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian an extraordinary feat of literary, spiritual, and mental archeology. Yourcenar makes the past live through her literary skill and...

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John Taylor (review date 2-8 February 1990)

SOURCE: "First Person Third," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4531, February 2-8, 1990, p. 108.

[In the following review of the final volume of Yourcenar's autobiography, Quoi? L'éternité, and the essay collection En pèlerin et étranger, Taylor criticizes Yourcenar for the pretentious tone of the former—which he finds lacking in autobiographical detail—and for the uneven quality of the essays collected in the latter.]

When Marguerite Yourcenar died on December 17, 1987, she had almost finished Quoi? L'Eternité, the final volume of her autobiographical trilogy. The book had been impatiently awaited, for in the first two volumes the...

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Elaine Marks (essay date Spring 1990)

SOURCE: "'Getting Away with Murd(h)er': Author's Preface and Narrator's Text, Reading Marguerite Yourcenar's Coup de Grâce 'After Auschwitz,'" in The Journal of Narrative Technique, Vol. 20, No. 2, Spring, 1990, pp. 210-20.

[Marks is an American educator and critic who has written extensively on French literature, focusing mainly on the works of Colette and Simone de Beauvoir. In the following essay, she analyzes the relationship between the novel Coup de Grâce, written in 1938, and the preface Yourcenar added to it in 1962. Marks argues that the novel harbors anti-Semitic sentiments and that the preface was designed to make the reader believe they do not reflect Yourcenar's...

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Harold Beaver (review date 1 March 1992)

SOURCE: "Remembering a World She Never Knew," in The New York Times Book Review, March 1, 1992, p. 13.

[In the following review of Dear Departed, Beaver praises Yourcenar's imaginative evocation of her mother's and father's families, describing the book as "a key to the genetic sources from which [her] consciousness derived."]

Marguerite Yourcenar never wrote an autobiography. What she had completed by the time of her death in 1987 at the age of 84 was a Tristram Shandy-like saga that opens on the day of her birth and then moves resolutely backward to embrace both her father's and her mother's families in three memorial volumes: Souvenirs Pieux,...

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Joan E. Howard (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "Rise and Fall of an Emperor: Mémoires d'Hadrien," in her From Violence to Vision: Sacrifice in the Works of Marguerite Yourcenar, Southern Illinois University Press, 1992, pp. 184-219.

[Howard is an American critic and educator who has done extensive research into Yourcenar's life and works. In the following essay, she examines the narrative structure of Memoirs of Hadrian and the life of its narrator and main character.]

Mémoires d'Hadrien was the work that, in 1951, catapulted Marguerite Yourcenar to international literary prominence. Begun and abandoned several times over the course of the preceding decades, this fictionalized...

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Ann M. Begley (review date Winter 1993)

SOURCE: "Death and the Maiden," in The American Scholar, Vol. 62, No. 1, Winter, 1993, pp. 141-42, 144-45.

[In the following review of Dear Departed, Begley provides an introduction to Yourcenar's major themes and worldview.]

Marguerite Yourcenar's genius was such that she had at her command an extraordinary range of literary genres. Yet her oeuvre often tends to resist classification. Poetry informs all of her work, without exception. Two of her novels were awarded prizes for excellence in expository prose, and—with considerable justification—she elected to include a volume of prose poems in the collection of her fiction. It is not surprising, then, to find...

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