Marguerite Yourcenar Yourcenar, Marguerite (Vol. 19) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 686 words.)

Stanley Cooperman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"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...

(The entire section is 504 words.)

Edwin Kennebeck

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"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...

(The entire section is 556 words.)

Frank Kermode

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 668 words.)

John L. Brown

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 244 words.)

Alexander Coleman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 173 words.)