Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian has often been called a historical novel, but strictly speaking it is not, since it rejects the use of local color, period dress, and period customs found, for example, in the works of Sir Walter Scott or Alexandre Dumas, père.
The novel is divided into six parts, with Latin titles taken from Hadrian’s poetry, philosophical ideas, or coins minted during his reign, and describes different phases of the emperor’s life. The narrative traces a slowly rising curve with its apex reached at the time of Hadrian’s greatest happiness, the result of his passionate love and extraordinary successes. This euphoria is followed immediately by a downward slope, at the bottom of which the emperor is overcome with doubt and despair; however, despite this depression, he courageously embarks on a new beginning. The work is addressed to Marcus Aurelius in the form of a letter, which allows for the use of the autobiographical first person favored by Yourcenar as being closest to the human voice. Knowing that his death is near, Hadrian sets down, in his most truthful manner, at risk of shocking or not being understood, the important personal and public events of his sixty-odd years, along with his meditations on politics, the arts, and the world.
Yourcenar portrays a great historical figure who, thanks to his broad humanist education and inquiring intelligence, dominated his life and times with objectivity and...
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