A Coin in Nine Hands is a highly structured narrative based on nine apparently separate stories loosely connected by the passage of a ten lire coin from the protagonist of one tale to the next. On closer examination, it becomes clear that Marguerite Yourcenar has set up these stories quite symmetrically. The first and last stories are the shortest; both focus on insignificant men who are easily self-deluded. The second and eighth stories are slightly longer; both focus on characters who are dying and who concern themselves with the meaning of artifice and illusion. The third and seventh stories introduce two good citizens—the cosmetics merchant and the flower seller—who are both loyal to the law-and-order party and spend much of their time thinking and worrying about money. The fourth and sixth stories contrast the two daughters of Don Ruggiero, one a narcissist, the other a martyr. The fifth offers the central action of the novel: Carlo Stevo’s death and Marcella’s failed attempt to assassinate the Dictator (Benito Mussolini). These three middle chapters are by far the longest and most complex.
Each of the nine chapters can be read as a self-contained portrait of its central character. There are also a variety of connections which link the characters to one another. For example, the wife who has run away from Paolo Farina, the protagonist of chapter 1, turns out to be the same Angiola featured in chapter 6 who is the sister of Rosalia of chapter 4. Lina Chiari of chapter 2 refers to her lover, Massimo, and her doctor, Alessandro Sarte, both of whom appear prominently in chapter 5, then again later. Vanna, the daughter of the cosmetics merchant in chapter 3, is married to Carlo Stevo. Oreste, the drunken dreamer of chapter 9, is married to Attilia, the flower seller’s daughter. As for the coin itself, Paolo uses it to pay Lina, the prostitute whom he contacts to compensate for his lost Angiola. She gives it to the cosmetics merchant to buy a lipstick. He then buys a candle in church from Angiola’s sister, Rosalia, who uses it to buy embers from Marcella to heat her small apartment. Marcella gives the coin to her husband, Dr. Sarte, to pay for the gun that she has already taken from him. He uses it to buy the flowers that he hopes to give to her later that evening. The flower seller then mistakes the painter Clement Roux for a beggar and gives the coin to him out of guilt at having been tagged a miser by her priest that morning. Roux throws it in a Roman fountain, where it is collected by Oreste, a worker for the water department, who will use it to drink himself into oblivion while his wife suffers at home giving birth to their fourth child.
A Coin in Nine Hands was originally written in 1934, then extensively revised by Yourcenar during the years 1958-1959. The basic story line, characters, and relationships are essentially the same in both versions. It is the political theme in particular, and therefore the critical central chapters, that Yourcenar reinforced and further developed. The book as first published in 1934 can be seen as quite prophetic about the dangers of fascism. Marcella’s seemingly isolated and futile protest cannot help but be understood differently in the post-World War II revision.
Yourcenar joins the ranks of powerful women who have broken new grounded with her election as the first woman member of the 350-year-old French Academy. Though she did not consider herself a feminist per se, she was an ardent supporter of both the free choice...
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and the environmentalist movements of her time, and her life itself serves as an extraordinary example of female independence and assertiveness. Moreover, in her inaugural speech to the academy she graciously acknowledged the literary contributions of “the invisible troop of women,” including Madame Marie de Sévigné, Madame de Staël, George Sand, and Colette, “who should, perhaps, have received this honor much earlier.
There are few female protagonists in Yourcenar’s work; Marcella’s central role in A Coin in Nine Hands is an exception. Most of Yourcenar’s characters, whether male of female, are portrayed as complex products of their cultures and personal histories. Their relative strength as human beings, irrespective of gender, seems to depend on their ability to take responsibility for their own lives given the limitations of their existential situations. Marcella stands apart from the other characters in the novel because of her strength and honesty; she neither romanticizes her assassination attempt nor overrates her chances for success.
Like André Gide, one of her major literary mentors, Yourcenar is known for her sensitive portrayals of male homosexuality. This was clearly a topic of some personal interest to her given her forty-year-long friendship with Grace Frick, with whom she shared her love of both travel and the quiet beauty of their rural retreat on Mount Desert Island, Maine. It was because of her relationship with Frick that Yourcenar became an American citizen, a decision which proved problematic at the time of her election to the French Academy. Frick functioned as a secretary, editor, and translator, as well as a faithful companion to Yourcenar. Before they had the financial means to retire to Maine, Yourcenar helped support herself by teaching French and art history at two women’s colleges, Sarah Lawrence and Hartford College for Women, where her brilliance and perceived eccentricity must have inspired hundreds of students to pursue their own dreams of independence.
Arranged in chronological sequence while simultaneously allowing the reader access into the designated past of the primary and secondary characters, A Coin in Nine Hands is at once a disjointed chronicle as well as an intricate web of human interplay. Praised for its subtlety of language and structural inventiveness, the novel has conversely been criticized for being mechanically devised and artificial in purpose. Without question, however, Yourcenar is an effective storyteller, and her ability to maintain a pure narrative voice throughout the novel is highly admirable. Attesting to her creative abilities, Yourcenar succeeds in establishing mood and setting with an economy of descriptive exposition in much the same way as she develops characterization. In comparison to the majority of her fiction, however, A Coin in Nine Hands represents a unique departure for Yourcenar as an author. Although her attempt to address a contemporary political situation is reminiscent of other fictional efforts designed either to identify or expose the presence of evil within the framework of modern society, Yourcenar clearly demonstrates an inherent strength to transform experience into artistic expression. Through the use of extensive imagery supplemented by classical reference and mythical allusion, the novel enables Yourcenar to merge past with present, dream with reality, and fiction with history.
Horn, Pierre L. Marguerite Yourcenar. Boston: Twayne, 1985. As a part of the Twayne’s World Authors Series, Horn’s book offers a comprehensive introduction to Yourcenar’s complete oeuvre—autobiography, poetry, prose, fiction, theater, essays, and translations. He ranks her as one of the most “original” post-World War II writers, given her “independence” and “creativity.”
Howard, Joan E. From Violence to Vision: Sacrifice in the Works of Marguerite Yourcenar. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1992. Howard focuses on seven works, including A Coin in Nine Hands, in order to investigate Yourcenar’s frequent use of mythical or historical subject matter. She sees this predilection not as a turning away from the problems of her age but as an existential critique of twentieth century life.
Savigneau, Josyane. Marguerite Yourcenar: Inventing a Life. Translated by Joan E. Howard. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993. The translation of this highly rated biography by a noted French journalist is an important addition to the work available in English on Yourcenar. It provides useful information on the literary influences and personal experiences that helped to shape her work.
Tilby, Michael. “Marguerite Yourcenar.” In Beyond the Nouveau Roman: Essays on the Contemporary French Novel, edited by Michael Tilby. New York: Berg, 1990. Tilby sees Yourcenar’s work as rooted in a search for self which nevertheless transcends the individual experience to reveal the universality of human life despite “differences of time, of place and of gender.” According to Tilby, Yourcenar offers the reader a “resolutely masculine view” of the world which she herself felt privileged to enjoy.