Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 974
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 attempt: Is it a heroic act or fundamentally an absurd one? Several interpretations are offered by the novel’s main characters. Dr. Sarte calls her “crazy” for an act that will undoubtedly have very different consequences than she intends: “Tomorrow the newspapers will praise his courage in the face of danger. They’ll stiffen the regulations against some poor devils who will pay for your grand gesture. . . . A few foreigners will be kicked out.” Massimo essentially agrees with this assessment, knowing that he will be one of those foreigners deported. Both understand the act to be a kind of suicide, yet both admire Marcella’s courage and stubbornness in proceeding despite the odds. Massimo would also like to believe that such a gratuitous act can in some way “bring down the set behind the smoke.” In reality, Marcella ends up killing an innocent young boy and being beaten to death herself, much as Dr. Sarte had predicted. She explains her action as that of a nurse doing “dirty work,” but her thoughts reveal a more complex motivation—revenge for the humiliation that Mussolini has caused both her father and her mother. The narrator describes Marcella as a “proletarian heroine” whose action, because it was “inevitable,” “had a right to be absurd, like all things in life.” Yourcenar seems to be saying that, despite its futility, such an action has an authenticity and beauty too often lacking in the modern world.
The novel ends with an incident which may be an indirect comment on the ultimate irrelevance of Marcella’s gratuitous act. In the last pages, a drunken Oreste Marinunzi passes out “happy as a dead man” as he dreams of being a great dictator who doubles salaries, wins a war, and thus earns his place in the sun forever. Oreste is typical of most of the characters in the novel, each of whom has troubles—unhappy marriages, money problems, illness. Real human contact, when it occurs, seems at best furtive or fleeting. In this grim world, the characters save themselves from despair with the help of dreams and illusions.
Perhaps the novel’s most persistent theme is the way in which people lie to themselves. The novel opens with a portrait of Paolo Farina, who misses “not the wife he had lost but the mistress she had never been” and then pays a prostitute to create for him the “illusion” that he is “still” loved in a way that he never was. The second chapter shows the reader how this same prostitute, Lina Chiari, distracts herself from the reality of her breast cancer by applying a thin layer of makeup so that she can still feel attractive when she looks in the mirror. The most extreme examples of confusing the worlds of illusion and reality come in the two chapters depicting Angiola Fides and her father, Don Ruggiero. Ruggiero has reared his daughters on a decaying Sicilian estate where he mesmerizes them with stories of buried archaeological treasures and practices “exquisite refinements,” though he seldom washes. He ends up in a mental institution, his precious estate Gemera sold at public auction. Angiola, after a series of relationships that includes her marriage to Paolo Farina, becomes a successful film star who cannot distinguish between the characters that she plays and her own life. Angiola dresses up to worship her image on screen, an illusion which literally makes her heart beat. The novel’s major metaphor is life as theater; each character is depicted as an actor, the most successful and dangerous of whom is clearly the Dictator himself.
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