Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 762
Marguerite Yourcenar (yewr-suh-NAHR) was one of the most original writers of post-World War II France and the first woman ever elected to the French Academy, whose purpose is to maintain the purity of the French language and whose members are drawn from among the best minds in French letters and science. Born Marguerite de Crayencour in Brussels, Belgium, on June 8, 1903, she was the only child of aristocratic and wealthy parents, Michel and Fernande de Crayencour. Her mother died of fever and other complications shortly after giving birth. Marguerite was reared by a series of nurses and maids as she and her father moved from Belgium to northern France to Paris.
Her father was an adventurous and unconventional man, as she lovingly and admiringly portrayed him in her 1977 autobiographical Archives du Nord (How Many Years, 1995). He loved the cosmopolitan excitement of European casino and spa towns. Also a student of literature and well read in the classics, he revealed to his daughter the beauty of French, English, Latin, and Greek masterpieces while private tutors taught her the other school subjects. Yourcenar as a result passed the baccalauréat examinations in 1919 at the early age of sixteen. Only two years later, she published Le Jardin des chimères (1921; the garden of chimeras) at her father’s expense under the pen name Marguerite Yourcenar (an incomplete anagram of her last name, which later became her legal name). This work of poetry was followed the next year by another more ambitious collection of poems, Les Dieux ne sont pas morts (1922; the gods are not dead).
The publication in 1929 of the novel Alexis: Ou, Le Traité du vain combat (Alexis, 1984) not only brought the first favorable reviews but was also followed in quick succession by other works of fiction. These novels and short stories were mostly written in the form of a confessional letter-monologue. La Nouvelle Eurydice (1931; the new Eurydice), Denier du rêve (1934; A Coin in Nine Hands, 1982), Nouvelles orientales (1938; Oriental Tales, 1985), and especially Le Coup de grâce (1939; Coup de Grâce, 1957) involve psychological studies of men in conflict with their sexuality, with life and art, and with love.
Yourcenar came to the United States on a lecture tour in 1939, but due to the onset of the war could not return to Nazi-occupied Europe. Thanks to the recommendation of the English poet Stephen Spender, she secured a part-time instructorship in French and art history at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, a position she held until 1950. She also, during this period of strife in her homeland, contributed articles and poems to émigré periodicals. At war’s end, she decided to remain in the United States, becoming an American citizen and officially changing her name to Marguerite Yourcenar in 1947. With Grace Frick, her longtime friend and cotranslator, she moved to Mount Desert Island off the coast of Maine in 1950, where she spent the rest of her life, with frequent travels throughout the United States, Canada, Europe, and Asia.
The prizewinning Mémoires d’Hadrien (1951; Memoirs of Hadrian, 1954; also translated as Hadrian’s Memoirs, 1957), a fictional first-person narrative of the great Roman emperor, was Yourcenar’s first work to become a critical and popular success. It was the dark and brooding L’uvre au noir (1968; The Abyss, 1976; also translated as Zeno of Bruges, 1994), however, written in an altogether different style, that finally brought Yourcenar fame and recognition. Eventually translated into eighteen languages, it won the coveted Prix Femina and was made into a film by André Delvaux in 1988. Between Memoirs of Hadrian and The Abyss, Yourcenar penned countless essays, plays, and translations, including an anthology of Negro spirituals entitled Fleuve profond, sombre rivière: Les Negro Spirituals (1964; wide, deep, troubled water), and followed in 1984 by Blues et gospels (blues and gospels).
Recognized for her literary contributions, Yourcenar received honorary degrees from such prestigious institutions as Harvard University and was elected as well to the Royal Academy of Belgium (1970). The recipient of numerous prizes and awards, she was also decorated with the rank of officer and later promoted to commander in the French Légion d’Honneur. Most notably, on March 6, 1980, by a vote of twenty to twelve, she became an “immortal” member of the French Academy, thereby breaking an all-male tradition dating back to 1635. Yet, above all these honors, she preferred to tend her garden, bake her bread, speak with her Yankee neighbors, fight for environmental and civil rights issues and, of course, write.
Yourcenar continued writing, mostly essays, short stories, translations, and critical studies, despite increasingly severe pulmonary illnesses, until her death in Maine on December 17, 1987.
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