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.)
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.
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 and eternal reality, became an unquestioned assumption? It is difficult almost to the point of impossibility to think away two millennia of a...
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