(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Marguerite Yourcenar is primarily known as a superb stylist who wrote in an old-fashioned, elegant French which distinguished her from the more experimental writers of her time. Much of her work involves a meticulous reconstruction of time and place based on extensive research and revision, often years later. In 1980, she became the first woman ever elected to the prestigious Académie Française (French Academy). This election brought her worldwide fame and celebrity.

Though Yourcenar is best known for her historical novel about the second century Roman emperor Hadrian, Mémoires d’Hadrien (1951; Memoirs of Hadrian, 1954), her work covers a wide diversity of genres, periods, and themes. She has translated works of Virginia Woolf and Henry James, Greek poetry, and American Negro spirituals. She has also recast folktales from around the world. The three volumes of her autobiography, Le Labyrinthe du Monde (1974, 1977, 1988), attest her love of travel and her vast erudition.

A Coin in Nine Hands is unique in Yourcenar’s work both because of its contemporary setting and political theme and because of its unusual narrative form. In a sense, the novel can be read as a series of nine separate short stories connected not only by the artificial device of a ten lire coin coincidentally passing from the protagonist of one story to the next but also by common themes and the common backdrop of Mussolini’s Rome. The protagonist of each story is, to some extent, defined by his or her attitude toward the dictatorship. Giulio Livosi, the cosmetics merchant, and Mother Dida, the flower seller, for example, both believe that the Dictator has been good for the country though bad for those who are against him. Clement Roux, the artist, on the other hand, has no use for politics, which he demeans as nothing more than noise, or rubarbara. Dr. Sarte admires Mussolini’s nation-building successes; Roux complains that the new Rome has been overly reconstructed.

The various characters’ attitudes toward Mussolini add up to a subtle critique of the regime on both moral and aesthetic grounds. Yourcenar, however, seems equally critical of the general complacency and materialisms, that make such a regime possible. What is not clear is how she intends for the reader to interpret the futility of Marcella’s assassination...

(The entire section is 974 words.)