Marguerite Yourcenar

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Yourcenar, Marguerite 1913–

Born Marguerite de Crayencour, Yourcenar is a French author known principally for her translations of the works of Henry James and Virginia Woolf into French and for her historical novels. Yourcenar's approach to unlocking the past is to provide a thorough, richly detailed account of a period and an enlightening exploration of its people. In Mémoires d'Hadrien (Memoirs of Hadrian), Yourcenar explores the Roman emperor's character with inspiration and original thought. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 69-72.)

Geoffrey Bruun

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To make [Hadrian in "The Memoirs of Hadrian"] explain himself, as Marguerite Yourcenar has done, by composing the sort of self-analytical autobiography he might have written is admittedly "a tour de force of scholarship."…

As a work of art, of psychological insight, of historical intuition, the "Memoirs of Hadrian" is an extraordinarily expert performance…. It has a quality of authenticity, of verisimilitude, that delights and fascinates. Hadrian's recollections—of riding and hunting, of the weight of a shield, of secret intrigues, of mystic elation under desert stars—induce a startling conviction of veracity and authority.

His studied detachment, his sense of singularity, his sensitivity to works of poetry and art are equally well suggested. They blended with that admiration for beautiful boys into which his starved emotions tricked him, an abnormality he sought to extenuate with the assertion that "every pleasure enjoyed with art seemed to me chaste."

Geoffrey Bruun, "Hadrian's Story as That Complex Emperor Might Have Written It," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), November 21, 1954, p. 1.

Moses Hadas

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Ancient literary critics have set down certain rules for imaginative treatments of historical episodes: they must be based on historical fact; the imagined episodes and motivation must be "such as might likely have happened" (Aristotle would say they must be truer than actual history), and the whole must be instructive and edifying. Marguerite Yourcenar has not only observed these rules in her book, "Hadrian's Memoirs," but has also followed a favorite ancient practice in putting her reconstruction in the form of an epistle, addressed by Hadrian to his adoptive grandson and eventual successor, Marcus Aurelius. The excellence of her product proves the wisdom of the ancients.

Even a reader indifferent to history and historical personages must find the Hadrian here presented a full and sensitive man well worth knowing. The early pages in which the prospect of imminent death leads him to savor the experiences and sensations of his past life are quite wonderful, regardless of the subject's time and place. But Hadrian was also a very remarkable emperor, and introduced the era Gibbon declared most Europeans would prefer to live in if given their choice; by an imagination informed and controlled by scholarship Miss Yourcenar breathes life into the enigmatic data concerning the man and communicates a vivid sense of the multifarious empire he ruled.

Conscientious as Miss Yourcenar has been in presenting the externals of the emperor and his realm, such information may after all be obtained, on higher authority if not as agreeably, in unimaginative handbooks. Her highest usefulness and greatest success is in a field beyond the range of the orthodox historian, a field to which only the imaginative writer can be adequate, but in which he frequently fails, especially if he is dealing with a non-Christian environment. What was the actual ethical and psychological climate in which these people lived and acted? How did a highly intelligent, responsible, and sensitive man regard the relations between his body and soul and between both and the universe in the period just before a sharp dualism between body and soul, between man...

(This entire section contains 686 words.)

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and eternal reality, became an unquestioned assumption? It is difficult almost to the point of impossibility to think away two millennia of a different tradition, whether we adhere to that tradition or reject it, difficult to reconstruct Hadrian's relations to his gods, his conscience, his family, his beloved Antinous, his carnal appetites, to Jews and Christians without revealing moral disapproval, however dissembled, or labored or truculent approval. Hadrian must not be made a stick with which to belabor either Christians or pagans, ascetics or libertines. Miss Yourcenar has come as near as can be to assaying Hadrian's position in these central matters in his own and not alien terms; for us, then, the unfamiliar motivations are a new increment of knowledge rather than a confirmation of existing prejudices.

A reconstruction of ethical motivations can only be subjective, and for the reader its validity must depend upon the credit which its creator has established in matters susceptible to objective tests. Here Miss Yourcenar's credit is very high. Not only is her understanding of character mature and perceptive, but she has exploited all available ancient evidence and has consulted the best modern scholarship. In a full Author's Note at the end of her book she lists and appraises her sources, ancient and modern, points out where she has taken liberties with chronology or dramatis personae, and explains why she felt justified in embroidering certain scraps from ancient writers as she did. When readers are likely to be incapable of judging the reliability of historical fiction the responsibility of the author is almost as great as that of textbook makers. By letting us look into her workshop Miss Yourcenar shows us how far we may accept her presentation as history and what degree of plausibility her own reconstructions can have. Her example is to be commended to all writers of historical fiction. (pp. 12-13)

Moses Hadas, "Raison d'être of a Roman Emperor," in The Saturday Review, New York (copyright © 1954 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXVII, No. 48, November 27, 1954, pp. 12-13.

Stanley Cooperman

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"Hadrian's Memoirs" is historical fiction at its best. Marguerite Yourcenar has avoided the usual hack plot and romantic baubles and produced a moving and scholarly recreation of a fascinating scene and epoch—Hadrian's Rome.

Coming after Trajan's reign of military adventures, Hadrian ruled the Roman Empire as a philosopher king, reforming its political and economic structure. Under his hand the Pax Romana flowered. The very slogan of his reign, stamped on money and carved on marble, was "Humanity, Liberty, Happiness." In Miss Yourcenar's novel, however, Hadrian emerges as a much more full-bodied character than the ideal ruler envisioned by Plato. Writing in the difficult memoir form, and placing the reader directly within the mind of Hadrian himself, the author takes us through the doubts as well as the decisions, the private jealousies and pleasures as well as the public life, of an emperor. The illusion is completely captivating; not since Robert Graves's "I, Claudius" or Thornton Wilder's "The Ides of March" has a volume of fiction reached so deeply into the blend of humanism and cruelty, decadence and power, art and economics referred to inadequately as "pagan Rome."

Miss Yourcenar recreates paganism without judging it, and many readers will find the results not altogether comfortable. Judaism and Christianity, examined entirely from Hadrian's point of view, appear as rather bloodthirsty barbarisms, hurling anathemas not so much against Roman policy, which was based on theological self-determination, as against the existence of Rome itself. But the fascination of "Hadrian's Memoirs" does not depend entirely on the impressive historical scholarship of its author. Miss Yourcenar writes beautifully as well as authoritatively…. As a result, the novel retains much of the crystal texture, wit, and sensitivity of classic prose.

Stanley Cooperman, "Hadrian's Rome," in The Nation (copyright 1954 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 179, No. 26, December 25, 1954, p. 554.

Ben Ray Redman

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"Coup de Grace" is a far less substantial book than "Hadrian's Memoirs." It is less ripe in wisdom, less mature in expression, less subtle and various in its psychological insights, less rich in narrative interest, less comprehensive in its scope.

All this may be due, in part, to the fact that in the one book the author is probing the mind of a great and fascinating Roman emperor, who inherited an empire that was a world, while in the other book she is probing the mind of a young man, unknown to history, who is shallow, egotistical, even repellent. But more important, as a key to the differences between these two works of fiction, is the fact that "Coup de Grace" … was actually written more than ten years before "Hadrian's Memoirs." During those years Marguerite Yourcenar developed greatly, and elegantly, as a literary artist.

Yet it is obvious that these "autobiographical" narratives are from the same hand, for they exhibit likenesses as well as differences. In each a man examines his life and seeks to explain himself to himself—and to others….

Erick von Lhomond, wounded in Franco's service during the Spanish Civil War, finds himself … in the railway station at Pisa, waiting … for the train that will take him back to Germany; he begins to tell the story of his experience while fighting with the White Russians against the Bolsheviks in the Baltic province of Kurland, and his story becomes a revelation of the kind of man he is.

Erick, like Hadrian, is given to restraint and understatement: when he deals with passion he does so dispassionately. His manner, like Hadrian's is grave. His story, like the Roman's has the classic virtues of sobriety and economy, and a remarkable evenness of emphasis. Indeed, the modulations of the narrative tone are hardly perceptible.

[Like Hadrian, Erick is a homosexual.] It is because Erick loves Conrad that he is unable to return the passionate love of Conrad's sister, Sophie; and it is upon the hinge of Erick's inability to love Sophie that the tragedy of "Coup de Grace" revolves….

In a prefatory note Madame Yourcenar says that "Coup de Grace" relates a true story, derived from the oral account of the principal character concerned," and that in it she has wished to present "a self-portrait, as it were, of a certain type of soldier of fortune; international, and such as is known in our time." What she has done, coldly, dryly, is to draw the likeness of an absolute egotist whose character has been warped by sexual inversion. In Erick we can believe; it is harder to believe in Sophie, while Conrad is only a name. Interesting as it is for its own sake, "Coup de Grace"—an almost pure example of the roman démeublé—is even more interesting as a precursor of "Hadrian's Memoirs."

Ben Ray Redman, "A Look in the Mirror," in The Saturday Review, New York (copyright © 1957 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XL, No. 29, July 20, 1957, p. 22.

Edwin Kennebeck

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[The] situation which Miss Marguerite Yourcenar has attempted to delineate, [in Coup de Grace] …, is a strange triangle formed by Erick, Sophie, who is in love with Erick, and Conrad, to whom Erick has been strongly devoted since they were young boys together. During this trio's stay at the estate, Erick encourages Sophie's admiration, although he is clearly and consciously a misogynist.

Sophie, who does not understand the futility of her love until it is too late, is the most clearly drawn of the personages in the story, and her terrible devotion provides a direct dramatic line—a line very strong and sure—a line that the reader wants to follow; it gives, in the end, some shape and finality to the story. "One is always trapped…." Miss Yourcenar has provided a deft sketch of a particular feminine quality, a kind of gentle but relentless arrogance. (p. 574)

One's first assumption might be that the "principal character" is Erick, the narrator, but I am willing to guess that the novelist's source was "Sophie"—her death in the story being one of those notes of completeness, of aesthetic inevitability, which real life generally does not provide. Whether or not this conjecture is correct, it gives, I think, some notion of the novel's peculiar proportions of dimness and clarity. (p. 575)

Edwin Kennebeck, "Strange Triangle," in Commonweal (copyright © 1957 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. LXVI, No. 23, September 6, 1957, pp. 574-75.

Marc Slonim

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"L'Oeuvre au Noir" is at the same time a study of the Renaissance and a picture of that turbulent era as seen through the eyes of a poet. Unlike most fiction on the same period, Mme. Yourcenar's novel depicts in depth all the complexity of the Renaissance, its theological disputes, military campaigns, social conflicts, the clashes between faith and science….

What gives this fateful story a singular dimension is its high intellectual content. True to the searching spirit of his times, Zenon constantly probes the destiny of man and investigates the universe; his attempts at the transmutation of elements (called "the Black Work" by alchemists) determine his mental attitudes. Yet his skepticism, his whole Weltanschauung (rendered by Mme. Yourcenar in brilliant dialogues and sophisticated meditations) have an utterly modern ring. "L'Oeuvre au Noir," written in the compact, poetic language so typical of Mme. Yourcenar, is a stirring, unusual and often disturbing experience for the contemporary reader. (p. 35)

Marc Slonim, "European Notebook: The Black Work," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1968 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 25, 1968, pp. 34-5.

The Times Literary Supplement

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A compact scrapbook of sixteenth-century Europe, L'Oeuvre au noir will delight historians of this period. Marguerite Yourcenar's vision encompasses the whole changing scene of human activity, with its violence and horror, simplicity and intrigue, the ignorance and superstition of the poor severely contrasted with the hypocrisy of the ecclesiastical and new merchant classes, at a time when the development of travel and trade was leading the way to a reawakening of the inquiring mind.

All this has been condensed with considerable skill to a novel form which, if classical in conception, is of a style no longer found in present-day novels. With ordered precision L'Oeuvre au noir is divided into three parts, the subdivisions of which correspond to stages in the travels of a fictional hero, Zénon, an alchemist-philosopher from Bruges, modelled on the lives of Erasmus and Colet among others, in his quest for "the truth". Cartesian in method, he rejects all that he has been taught in order to pursue his own inquiry from his only certainty, which is himself.

Marguerite Yourcenar would seem to be conducting a meticulous exercise in the development of the human mind once freed from the conventions and prejudices of its early environment. Her primary interest in her hero, therefore, is intellectual: thus we do not see him develop as a human being. He is denied warmth and fallibility. We do not see other characters or events through his eyes; rather he remains a distant figure for whom scenes and family ties are constructed in order to allow him an entrance so that the discourse may begin. Zénon reminds us more of those flat, clearly outlined and carefully painted figures that emerge towards the forefront of a crowded Flemish painting of the period. And, as Marguerite Yourcenar acknowledges with honesty in fourteen pages of notes on sources, these paintings, particularly those of Bosch, have indeed had much influence on her writing.

"Cartesian Quest," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1968; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3475, October 3, 1968, p. 23.

Arthur A. Cohen

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"The Abyss" [the title of the American edition of "L'Oeuvre au noir"] is an elaborate metaphor for the emptiness of history, the vanity of power, and the grandeur and misery of men exemplary of whom is [Zeno]….

Zeno, like the kabbalistic image of the primordial man, is body, sentience, and intelligence; however Marguerite Yourcenar has not made him an Everyman, for hers is no simple-minded allegory.

Zeno is principally a physician. Although he is a master of languages and dialects, stuffed with astronomy, mechanics, engineering, mathematics, scholastic theology and canon law, philosophy and dialectics, it is as an herbalist, doctor and surgeon that we know him…. Zeno is everywhere, but not for a long enough time to persuade us that he has roots in time or place. Zeno emerges whole, or almost whole only when he narrowly escapes the inquisitorial arm of the Holy Office (who seek him for having published scandalously heretical books) and returns in disguise to spend the later part of his life as physician in a priory of Bruges, healing quietly, doing gentle good works, being circumspect, controlling his lusts and appetites, avoiding embroilment in the designs of Spanish power in the Lowlands, skirting danger. One cannot but note that it is not Zeno of Bruges who appears to interest Marguerite Yourcenar but rather the argument of an intelligence able to parse the body in its turmoil, explore the heart in its surging, explicate the mind in the midst of its anxiety and suffering. It is argument, not imagination that marks "The Abyss"…. (p. 7)

"The Abyss," unfortunately, is not level with [Marguerite Yourcenar's] earlier achievement.

It is not only that "The Abyss" is unevenly weighted, that it moves with deliberateness and machination, coincidence being too coincidental and surprise almost wholly absent. All this would be supportable if Zeno were moving to us and we felt obliged by the authority of his presence to care for him and his destiny. The difficulty is with Zeno himself. He is throughout utterly tentative, all sic et non, on the one hand and the other: pederast, but also lover of women; vegetarian, but lest he be doctrinaire, an occasional stew; taking to flight but returning; never recanting, but never defending; sympathetic to the Church, but pliant to the Reformation; hospitable to everything except stupidity.

There is one explanation for Zeno's tentativeness that a reading of Miss Yourcenar's [works supports]…. From ancient times to our own,… Stoicism has always been a splendid doctrine for non-believers. The Stoic is tentative because nothing claims him sufficiently to warrant his attachment to life at all costs. The noble temporizings of Zeno—so often wise, eloquent, even witty—are consummated in that single act to which many Stoics gave themselves with uncharacteristic decisiveness: death by one's own hand. No surprise then that condemned to be burned alive, Zeno, with surgical finesse, cuts his arteries and bleeds to death. A noble end to a life ignoble in the least, not without its fascination, instruction, daring, but also not endowed with the magic of imagination that would have compelled us of another (not particularly preferable or enviable) century to have wanted to live longer in the time of Zeno. (p. 32)

Arthur A. Cohen, "'The Abyss'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 11, 1976, pp. 7, 32.

Frank Kermode

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The point [of The Abyss] is to create an image of a fully achieved humanity, of a man mature within the conditions of his time; unapologetic about the passions, undeceived yet never vulgarly incredulous in religion; with a deepening sense of the value of other cultures and a growing perception of historical perspective; with a skepticism recognizable as the lubricant of all intellectual achievement, yet compatible with that respect for faith which, against all the intellectual odds, kept so many adventurous minds on the Catholic side of the debate.

The object is to represent Zeno thus, as a free spirit. Scornful of dogmatic dispute … he nevertheless respects true piety as much as he detests bigotry, and cruelty…. As a free thinker, Zeno understands the most important fact about the history of thought, which is that all epochs are trapped intellectually in a net of opinion and presumption, and that thought is only important if it can escape those limits. Ideas die; "each concept collapses, eventually, to merge with its opposite, like two waves breaking against each other only to subside into the same line of white foam."…

[Alchemy] was the science of transformation, and Zeno broods long on natural instances of miraculous transformation: not least in the erotic life, and even in the movement of the bowels. He is practical—he builds mechanical looms, devises a kind of napalm, performs blood transfusions (with-out understanding why they are sometimes rejected). He is speculative—a barely credible amalgam of the philosophical interests of the period. But alchemy, combining inseparably the ideas of physical and spiritual transformation, takes precedence over all.

"The Abyss," which provides the title not only of the novel but of its most important chapter, is an alchemical term;… the Work in its dark stage, which is "the most difficult phase of the alchemist's process, the separation and dissolution of substance." It is the moment when the base metal is reduced to a formless chaos so that the spirit of the higher may enter it; but it represents also the moment of the mind freeing itself of "all forms of routine and prejudice." So the novel is about the dark transformation of its hero into a higher kind of man. The alchemists also called this stage the "ruining" of the Work, and it is out of some kind of ruin that intellectual greatness comes.

All this Work, this transformation of the mind, goes on in the alembic of history; its fires are the fires of war and judicial murder. The torments of Tridentine Catholicism and institutionalized Protestantism are compounded by plague epidemics and the weapons of the military. Zeno moves about a stricken world, a scientist and a physician, at once welcome and suspect. His fame grows. We are asked to see his career in relation to that of one of his kinsmen, a soldier-poet, enjoying unspeculatively his active life (this is the least satisfactory element in the novel)….

The Abyss is readable enough as a story, but the story merely serves Mme. Yourcenar's obsessive theme, the maturation of a full man; this time a Hadrian without political power, and in an age nobody would call golden. Such a man transcends his age, and being a new man can see what danger his purely intellectual power may hold for the future; for the connection between science and cruelty will not easily be broken. (p. 8)

[Zeno] is the second deity in this author's cult of the full man, endlessly inquiring, ever skeptical, considerate of the body as of the spirit, of the future as well as the present…. The Abyss is a considerable achievement; years of passionate scholarship and long dedication to an ideal of humanity as limited, yet in the end expressed, by history, went to its making. The author deserves her special place in the story. (pp. 8, 10)

Frank Kermode, "A Successful Alchemist," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1976 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XXIII, No. 16, October 14, 1976, pp. 6, 8, 10.

John L. Brown

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Marguerite Yourcenar, in the second volume of Le labyrinthe du monde, a family history begun with Souvenir pieux, reaffirms her position as one of the outstanding writers of her generation. Souvenirs pieux concerned the maternal side of her family. In Archives du nord, she turns to the paternal branch.

In an introductory chapter Yourcenar traces the geographical and historical development of Flanders, the stage on which her human drama is set. She has a great historian's gift for conveying the sense of "the immensity of time" and an artist's gift for expressing, in a prose that never falters, man's amazement and despair as he confronts it. She discovers the first traces of her paternal family…. Their vicissitudes reflect the agitated history of Flanders during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. By the nineteenth century, when documents become more numerous, the human actors in the drama move to center stage. (pp. 588-89)

The masterpiece in the family gallery, however, is the portrait of [Michel, the father of the author]….

The complex personality of Michel dominates the book. Gambler, lover of women and of poetry, he left a deep and enduring impression on his young daughter, who shared his later life…. Archives du nord reveals once again Yourcenar's art in fusing the gifts of the historian, the memorialist and the creative writer. (p. 589)

John L. Brown, "French: 'Le labyrinthe du monde'," in World Literature Today (copyright 1978 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 52, No. 4, Autumn, 1978, pp. 588-89.

Alexander Coleman

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[Sous bénéfice d'inventaire, a collection of essays shows] Yourcenar's historical imagination as being quite unrelated to any kind of literary archeology. In her essay on Thomas Mann she demonstrates how Mann was directly related to a tradition of hermetic thought in the West, or as she puts it, a representative of "the left wing of traditional humanism."… The volume includes among other pieces a superb essay on the Historia Augusta and a critical presentation of the work of Constantine Cavafy.

All in all, Sous bénéfice d'inventaire reminds us once again of the depth and probing brilliance of Yourcenar's imagination, and moreover makes us take the greatest amount of caution before labeling such an extraordinary writer as "merely" a "historical novelist." Such labels are both convenient and highly destructive. An open-minded reader will discover in all Yourcenar's writings a luminous and keenly magisterial intelligence. (pp. 646-47)

Alexander Coleman, "Essays: 'Sous bénéfice d'inventaire'," in World Literature Today (copyright 1979 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 53, No. 4, Autumn, 1979, pp. 646-47.


Marguerite Yourcenar World Literature Analysis


Yourcenar, Marguerite (Vol. 87)