Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1842
The induction of Marguerite Yourcenar (pseudonym and anagram for her family name, Crayencour), scholar, poet, essayist, translator, and novelist, as the first woman in the French Academy, on January 22, 1981, not only placed her among those “forty immortals” but made her a representative of those other French women writers from George Sand and Mme. De Staël to Colette and Simone de Beauvoir whom the Academy has overlooked. Her induction has led to a reexamination of her works, which have long deserved more serious attention than they have been given, particularly by non-French readers. The reissue of Fires (Feux, 1936), written when she was thirty-two, is one step in that direction. Fires was originally dismissed as simply another product of the vogue for Greek classical myths adapted to modern times which yielded Jean Cocteau’s The Infernal Machine (1934), Jean Giraudoux’s La Guerre de Troie n’aura pas lieu (1935; Tiger at the Gates), Jean Anouilh’s Antigone (1942), and Jean-Paul Sartre’s Les Mouches (1943; The Flies), to name but a few examples. As Yourcenar suggests in her Preface, Fires is, indeed, a product of its period. However, it is much more than that, for it establishes the technique that marks Yourcenar’s particular gift, her fusion of the historical and the intimately personal. The establishment of her international reputation with Mémoires d’Hadrien (1951; Hadrian’s Memoirs, 1954) might not have seemed so sudden to a public familiar with Fires, which was not translated until 1957, for in Fires, although the technique is even more experimental, one can find the same distinctive combination of personal revelation with historical presence which won such acclaim for Hadrian’s Memoirs. In Fires, the “private” emotion explored is that of total, all-encompassing love and its inevitable consequences, in two forms of prose poems: first, the brief, almost aphoristic comments from a personal diary about such a love affair; second, a series of nine relatively short but brilliant narratives, many in the mode of confessio or soliloquy, of other individuals who have also been mastered by this same emotion. Since the individuals chosen are drawn from classical history and mythology, with the exception of Mary Magdalene, there is an interplay between the past and the present of the diarist. The historical retellings are full of sudden, unexpected allusions to contemporary events or devices, again underscoring the ageless universality of human nature—the same revelation that is key to both Hadrian’s Memoirs and The Abyss (1976)—regardless of the transitory trappings of civilization: Greek, Hebrew, or the French culture of the 1930’s.
Although translation, even the best, tends to undermine true poetry, the interlacing of the present into these age-old love stories is still clear and effective, jolting the reader to remember that the past is ever present. Phaedra seizes the shiny rails of the subway to help direct her way to a crowded Hell; Thetis, after seeing films which show Zeus’s intentions for Achilles, hides and disguises him; at Troy, armored trucks harvest the corpses, the third-generation army lacks morale, and Achilles’ last fight, surrounded by fields of khaki and gray, is recorded by cameras whose flashbulbs go off like machine-gun shots. Antigone needs sunglasses to protect her eyes from the glare of Thebes; Lena, who fondly remembers records and cafés, watches her lover being swept away by media photographers and a rich man’s sports car; trains and police enter Clytemnestra’s world. Sappho, the poet, is metamorphosized into a world of cheap circuses and one-night stands, a tawdry world of pornographic record albums and morphine smuggling. None of these images is outdated now, almost fifty years later, although they will be eventually. Even then, scattered as they are, they will hardly distract the future reader from the total impact of the book and its insistance on the simultaneity of the past and present, of original insights into human experience.
Still, Fires must be judged by the extent to which its form and characterizations make the reader see and feel anew. There is considerable range and depth to the individual portraits of passion; none is repetitive and each involves resonances beyond the individual character. To each individual speaker, for example, Yourcenar assigns, as a subtitle, an abstract value which emphasizes the main thrust of this particular type of love. Often, however, the subtitles are rich with multiple meanings; such is the case with “Mary Magdalene, or Salvation,” there are multiple potentials for the meaning of salvation: whose? for what? for better or worse? Many such problems are debated internally by the speaker; many are left to the reader, unsolved. Perhaps the two most powerful monologues, “Phaedra” (the shortest) and “Phaedo” (the longest), respectively link such passion with crime and its seeming opposite, wisdom. Yet Phaedra’s crime has its own sensitively explored subconscious wisdom, as does Clytemnestra’s, while Socrates’ wisdom and Phaedo’s dance support voluptuousness and pain.
Thus there is no one single truth about such all-encompassing love, chronicled by the Greeks, revered by Provençal troubadours, alluded to by Emily Dickinson as “for each ecstatic moment . . . an eternity of woe.” This single truth remains: such love invariably leads to suffering, perhaps tragedy, even death. These aspects Yourcenar underlines with motifs of secrets, lies, disguise, tears, burning fires, and blood. Such love can also lead to wisdom and creation for the few who understand. Hardly ever does it lead to happiness—for the characters or for the diarist.
The record of the diarist, speaking directly of her own fires of passion, in its brevity, its occasional lyricism, its suddenly brutal confessions, both unifies the stories of the historical characters and contains its own unity. The effect is similar to that of the alternating perspective used by the young Ernest Hemingway in In Our Time (1924). In first entries, the reader is told that “there is no happy love” and “I don’t bear happiness well.” By halfway in the novel, the entries become slightly more rational: “We say mad with joy. We should say: wise with grief” or “How dull it would have been to be happy!” By the end, there is a rejection of suicide and a positive look ahead: “One can only raise happiness on a foundation of despair. I think I will be able to start building.”
Recurring images and motifs link the historical narratives. Once Thetis disguises Achilles, disguises start spreading all over the place, with no appearance to be trusted. Mary Magdalene, rejected by John on their wedding night, disguises herself as a prostitute to leave the house; Phaedo’s first “savior” turns out to be a slave trader; Phaon’s sudden appearance to Sappho in the silken robes of Attys makes Sappho run toward suicide. Lies litter the interior as well as exterior words and acts of Phaedra; of Lena and the men around her; and of Mary, whose pride will not let her tell the truth of John’s flight. Disease appears as the blood fever of the diarist, a hidden unknown leprosy within Phaedra, and a disease shared by Lena and Hipparchus. Disease links the death of loved ones with the disease of rejection and misfortune seen in Attys’ sick eyes and Sappho’s leprosy-like face. Antigone sees a cancerous plague infecting all of Thebes; Mary sees God as a leper, spreading the perversion of absolute purity and love of suffering through the world. Finally, tears telling of love flow through the book: Phaedra is relieved finally to be able to weep publicly when Theseus is reported dead. Achilles’ tears fall when Patroclus, mistaking him for a prostitute in his disguise, thrusts him away; when escaping, he sees tears and blood mixed on his face in Misandra’s mirror of the future; he is last seen sobbing over the Amazon he has just killed. Mary Magdalene comes to recognize that God loved only her tears. Phaedo first sheds tears for the beauty of Athens; later, for Socrates’ deathbed justification of his dance. Sappho has tears for her lost youth but becomes embittered over tears she refused to shed. Even Clytemnestra gives way to weeping in the bath. These motifs are all part of what Yourcenar, in her Preface, refers to as the “risks” such love holds.
Yet the tears, diseases, lies, and disguises of love, the knowing sorcerer, are all relatively minor imagery patterns when compared with the major metaphor of love, indicated by the title, the fires of the heart linked inexorably to the blood of life. This association between obsessive love, fire, and blood suggests the latent violence Yourcenar fears in such love; indeed, such fires are often indistinguishable from those of hatred or hell. Such is the case with Phaedra’s incestuous hate-love and “rape” which lead to her own death. Achilles has a similar mixture of hate and love for Thetis, Deidamia, Hector, and even Patroclus. Antigone’s deep but ambiguous feelings for her father, her brothers, Haemon, and Thebes itself finally lead to her doom, for her deepest love is Justice. Lena, whose love is Pride, endures multiple humiliations for it; finally giving up her life rather than confess that Aristogiton never loved her. Mary Magdalene’s youthful blood-red lips are aflame for John; later, her hatred is quickly transformed to the enslavement of her new love for Jesus. Covered with the blood of Jesus’ body, she is left to recognize that she has been “saved” from all happiness by her love for this God who loved only the suffering and sinful, a God attempting to make up for his Father’s mistakes. As a youth, Phaedo can scarcely distinguish between the flames of his blood and those of the besiegers and bloody ruins of his home. Through love of Socrates’ wisdom and pure ecstasies of thought, he comes to understand his love of dance and life, the inextricable existence of voluptuousness and pain, and continues his dance after and even because of Socrates’ death. Clytemnestra, who loves Agamemnon so much that in his absence she finds herself becoming him, managing the estate, having affairs, kills him only after contemplating killing Aegisthus and herself; she kills him finally just “to be noticed,” to be looked at by the man for whom she had been created. Throughout these stories blood flows from lovers’ bodies; fires consume their hearts and often their beloved. Hardly a page can be turned without the images of fire or blood confronting the reader, an emphatic poetic technique which effectively underscores the major theme.
As a work of art about a complex, universal emotion—an all-encompassing love for another—this slim book is a major study, not just for literary scholars, but for anyone, especially those who still hope to find such a love. Happiness does not come from such a love, more often tragedy does. Still, from such an experience of total commitment, loss can be gain, if the fires are survived, for fires can purify as well as destroy. Marguerite Yourcenar is, indeed, an alchemist, creating gold from the dark mysteries of human emotions, a work of beauty from suffering.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 43
Best Sellers. XLI, June, 1981, p. 111.
Book World. XI, September 6, 1981, p. 8.
Booklist. LXXVII, June, 1981, p. 1288.
Commonweal. CVIII, October 23, 1981, p. 600.
Library Journal. CVI, June 1, 1981, p. 1246.
The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVI, October 4, 1981, p. 12.
The New Yorker. LVII, August 17, 1981, p. 105.
Saturday Review. VIII, June, 1981, p. 54.
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