Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1653
Marguerite Yourcenar 1903–1987
(Born Marguerite Antoinette Jeanne Marie Ghislaine Cleenewerck de Crayencour) Belgian-born French and American novelist, short story writer, essayist, critic, poet, dramatist, and translator.
The following entry provides an overview of Yourcenar's career. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 19, 38, and 50.
Esteemed for her magisterial literary style and classical erudition, Yourcenar was the first woman elected to the Académie Française, the highly prestigious French cultural institution established in the 1600s by Cardinal Richelieu for the perfection and preservation of the French language. Her primary artistic preoccupations included the mythology, history, and verse of ancient Greece and Rome; the nature of love and its relationship to sexuality; and the possibility of morality in the absence of myth and religion. Although she was conservative in aesthetic temperament, defying the modernist trends of the century and eschewing the social conventions of Parisian literary life, Yourcenar was a lifelong champion of civil rights, equality for women, and environmental and antinuclear causes.
Yourcenar was born into two very old, wealthy, and influential families from Belgium and France. Her mother, a native of Brussels, died ten days after giving birth. Consequently, Yourcenar was raised and educated by her father, Michel de Crayencour, a Frenchman, in Mont-Noir, Lille, and Paris. As her teacher, mentor, and sole intellectual companion, Yourcenar's father encouraged her to study the classics, to begin writing poetry, and to read French, Latin, Greek, and English literature. She wrote her first poems when she was fourteen and her first volume, Le jardin des chimères, was privately published in 1921; she later dismissed this work as possessing only "the virtue of childish simplicity." For this book, she and her father anagrammatized "Crayencour" to devise the pen name Yourcenar, which she adopted as her legal name in 1947. For most of the 1920s she and her father traveled through Europe enjoying a life devoted to literary, aesthetic, and intellectual pursuits. In 1929, after her father's death and the loss of much of her inherited fortune in the stock market crash of that year, Yourcenar published her first novel, Alexis (Alexis); this was her first work to be accepted by a commercial publisher and was her only major work that her father read. In the 1930s, she published prolifically in a variety of genres, including a critical volume on the Greek poet Pindar simply entitled Pindare (1932); a unique book of prose, poetry, and aphorisms examining various aspects of love, Feux (1938; Fires); two collections of short fiction, La mort conduit l'attelage (1934) and Nouvelles orientales (1938; Oriental Tales); and a book-length essay on dreams, Les songes et les sorts (1938). She also translated Virginia Woolf's 1931 novel The Waves into French in 1937 and two years later published her second major novel, Le coup de grâce (1939; Coup de Grâce). Able to support herself with her writing in these years, she traveled widely in Italy, Germany, and Greece; in 1937 she briefly visited the United States, where she lectured at several colleges and studied the life of the Roman emperor Hadrian (A.D. 76-138) at Yale University. Travel restrictions imposed throughout Europe during World War II forced Yourcenar back to the United States, where she worked briefly as a journalist and commercial translator before becoming a part-time instructor at Sarah Lawrence College in 1942. Her literary output was slight until 1948, when trunks containing her collected notes on Hadrian arrived from France. Inspired by these notes, Yourcenar began composing what many critics consider her greatest work, Mémoires d'Hadrien (1951; Memoirs of Hadrian). While she continued to travel extensively over the next twenty years, she and Grace Frick, her close companion and English translator, established their permanent home on Mount Desert Island, Maine, in 1950. Yourcenar's life from this time on was consumed by travel and literary projects, many of the latter involving the revision or completion of work from previous decades; notable in this regard is the 1968 novel L'oeuvre au noir (The Abyss), which is widely considered her second masterpiece. During the 1960s and 1970s she received many international literary awards and numerous honorary degrees from colleges and universities in the United States. In 1980 she became the first woman elected to the Académie Française in the three-century history of the institution whose members include writers, politicians, scholars, and scientists; in her address to the Académie she acknowledged the importance and influence of such illustrious French women writers as Germaine de Staël, George Sand, and Colette, saying that she was "accompanied by an invisible troupe of women who perhaps should have received this honor long before, so that I am tempted to stand aside to let their shadows pass." Yourcenar remained an active traveler and writer for the rest of her life, nearly completing the final volume, Quoi? L'éternite (1990), of her autobiographical trilogy known as Le labyrinthe du monde before her death at the age of 84.
Although Yourcenar produced important works in a variety of genres, her reputation rests primarily on her novels. Her first attempt in the genre, Alexis, is structured as a récit, a classical form of the French short story designed to recount, ostensibly as an aid to the examination of conscience, a significant deed or event in a concise, rapid narrative. The novel proceeds as a letter written by the title character, a talented musician finally avowing his homosexuality, to his wife, Monique, as an apologia for deserting her and their new baby, and to express his regret at having lived misleadingly with her for so long. Anticipating Memoirs of Hadrian with its epistolary form, the novel also inaugurates many of Yourcenar's signature themes, namely the artist's struggle to maintain and express his sensibilities in a hostile environment; male homosexuality; love and pleasure; and the emergence of self-identity and its relation to guilt. Coup de Grâce, which also uses the first-person récit form, examines the lives of three characters caught in romantic and political turmoil. Set in the late 1930s during the civil wars touched off by the Russian Revolution in the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, the novel is "remembered" by Eric von Lhommond, an aristocratic adventurer and romantic mercenary whose purely class-based, nonideological objections to Communism provide his pretext for participating in Europe's military conflicts. He recounts his relationships with Conrad, a young man whom he loved, and Conrad's idealistic sister Sophie, who fell in love with Eric but was rejected and finally executed by him. Coup de Grâce further develops Yourcenar's notion of love as fate and examines the abuse of power in its physical, emotional, and political forms. Critics note that the novel also presents, in the character of Eric, the prototype for Yourcenar's hallmark larger-than-life protagonist, clearly prefiguring the Hadrian of Memoirs of Hadrian and Zeno of The Abyss. As Ann M. Begley has pointed out, Yourcenar's fascination with Hadrian began when she read Gustave Flaubert's description of the emperor's era: "Just when the gods had ceased to be and the Christ had not yet come, there was a unique moment in history, between Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, when man stood alone." Memoirs of Hadrian is an epistolary novel consisting of the aging emperor Hadrian's letter to his seventeen-year-old adoptive grandson and heir, Marcus Aurelius, the purpose of which is to pass on the lessons learned in an eventful, varied life. With her stated intention of conveying the psychology of the age, Yourcenar largely avoids plot and melodrama, focusing instead on anecdotal depictions of Hadrian's career and his meditations on politics, war, art, religion, destiny, and love between and among the sexes. Yourcenar depicts Hadrian as the quintessential warrior-poet, an agnostic who has succeeded in forging a personal moral code with the support of neither ancient myth nor Christian faith. Like Hadrian, Zeno in The Abyss is a faithless man, but one whose personal understanding is achieved through lifelong study and service to the sick. Set during the sixteenth century, the novel details the divergent paths taken by Henri-Maximilian Ligre, scion of a wealthy and powerful family who seeks adventure and fame as a soldier, and his bastard cousin Zeno, a studious, metaphysically-oriented man who despises his cousin's life and devotes himself to the investigation of philosophy, alchemy, medicine, and mysticism. Portrayed in a Faustian light, Zeno's quest for an authentic life and truth is seen as heresy by the leaders of his age. The Abyss is a further examination of Yourcenar's interests in the implications of fate, emergent self-identity, and the relation of magic and philosophy.
Before the publication of Memoirs of Hadrian, Yourcenar's works received little attention outside a relatively small group of intellectual readers. Le jardin des chimères, for example, was ignored by most reviewers, but attracted the enthusiastic attention of Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, who invited Yourcenar to live in India. In general, critics have praised Yourcenar's classical writing style, the breadth of her interests, and the depth of her understanding. Others, however, have faulted what they consider her obsession with the past, the auxiliary role female characters play in her fiction, and her reluctance to discuss the personal experiences that influenced her work; this last charge is frequently raised by readers of her autobiographical trilogy Le labyrinthe du monde, which investigates and re-creates the lives of her forebears but does not focus on the events of her own life. Furthermore, at least one critic, Elaine Marks, has discerned anti-Semitic sentiments in Coup de Grâce—Marks's opinions, however, do not appear to be widely shared. Yourcenar's novels, particularly Memoirs of Hadrian and The Abyss, are widely hailed as masterpieces; scholar Anthony Levi has called them "high points in the development of the French historical novel." Begley has also noted that Yourcenar's scholarship in Hadrian is so scrupulous, and her portrait of the emperor's mind and times so accurate, that the novel is "read by historians, and … is cited in historical bibliographies dealing with Hadrian."
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 394
Le jardin des chimères (poetry) 1921
Les dieux ne sont pas morts (poetry) 1922
Alexis; ou, Le traité du vain combat [Alexis; translated and revised edition, 1984] (novel) 1929
La nouvelle Eurydice (novel) 1931
Pindare (criticism) 1932
∗Denier du rêve [A Coin in Nine Hands; translated and revised edition, 1982] (novel) 1934
La mort conduit l'attelage (novellas) 1934
Feux [Fires] (poetry and prose) 1938
Nouvelles orientales [Oriental Tales; translated and revised edition, 1985] (short stories) 1938
Les songes et les sorts (essay) 1938
†Le coup de grâce [Coup de Grâce] (novel) 1939
Mémoires d'Hadrien [Memoirs of Hadrian] (novel) 1951
‡Electre; ou, La chute des mosques (drama) 1954
Les charités d'Alcippe et autres poèmes [The Alms of Alcippe] (poetry) 1956
Sous bénéfice d'inventaire [The Dark Brain of Piranesi, and Other Essays] (essays) 1962
‡Le mystère d'Alceste, suivi de Qui n'a pas son minotaure? (dramas) 1963
§L'oeuvre au noir [The Abyss] (novel) 1968
Théâtre. 2 vols. [Plays; partial translation, 1984] (dramas) 1971
Souvenirs pieux [Dear Departed] (autobiography) 1974
Archives du nord (autobiography) 1977
La couronne et la lyre: Poèmes traduits du grec (translations and criticism) 1979
Mishima; ou, La vision du vide [Mishima: A Vision of the Void] (criticism) 1980
Les yeux ouverts; entretiens avec Matthieu Galey [With Open Eyes: Conversations with Matthieu Galey] (interviews) 1980
Anna, soror … (novella) 1981
§Comme l'eau qui coule [Two Lives and a Dream] (novellas) 1982
Le temps, ce grand sculpteur [That Mighty Sculptor, Time] (essays) 1983
La voix des choses (photographs and translations) 1987
En pèlerin et en étranger (essays) 1990
‖ Quoi? L'éternite (autobiography) 1990
∗∗Conte bleu (short stories) 1993
∗Yourcenar later reworked Denier du rêve into the play Rendre à César (published in the first volume of Théâtre).
†This novel served as the basis for the 1978 film directed by Volker Schlöndorff and written by Genevieve Dorman, Margarethe von Trotta, and Jutta Bruckner.
‡Electre; ou, la chute des mosques was translated as Electra in Plays. Qui n'a pas son minotaure? was translated as To Each His Minotaur in Plays.
§L'oeuvre au noir is based on the novella D'après Dürer, one of three in La mort conduit l'attelage (the other two are D'après Greco and D'après Rembrandt). Two of the three novellas in Comme l'eau qui coule—Un homme obscur and Une belle matinée—are based on D'après Rembrandt from La mort.
‖ Collectively these works are known as Le labyrinthe du monde.
∗∗This work contains "Conte bleu," "Le premier soir," and "Maléfice."
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SOURCE: An interview in With Open Eyes by Marguerite Yourcenar, translated by Arthur Goldhammer, Beacon Press, 1984, 271 p.
[In the following excerpt from a series of interviews conducted over many years and first published in France as Les yeux ouverts: Entretiens avec Matthieu Galey in 1980, Yourcenar discusses a number of topics, including her literary influences, some of her major works, and her thoughts on politics and feminism.]
[Yourcenar]: In the course of preparing to write Quol? l'Eternité, the third volume of Labyrinthe du monde, I had occasion recently to list some of the books I read as a child and adolescent. Two periods are sharply differentiated: the childhood influences have nothing in common with those that follow. In the end there were so many influences, they must have cancelled one another out.
To begin with, there were the fairy tales, of which I was very fond. Like any other child I attempted to act them out, for instance by walking around with a magic wand, touching it to some object, and commanding it to turn to gold. The objects may not have changed much, but it was a wonderful game.
Then there was the reading I did out loud with my father of books that he liked, such as Le trésor des humbles…. I was eleven when he read me the historical novels of Merezhkovski, which were then in vogue; that mysterious man, though somewhat effete and something of a high-society figure, just may have exerted some influence on the direction I was to take. These readings took place in our Paris apartment. I didn't understand them very well, but the books left me with the sense of a crowd that all Russian novels give, whether by Merezhkovski or Tolstoy.
I also read Shakespeare. I read all my classics in cheap editions that I purchased myself …: Racine, La Bruyère, and the rest. I remember an impression I had just after I began reading, or, rather, when I had just learned how to read and reading was still an entirely new experience for me. I must have been six-and-a-half, seven at most. It was a day when we were moving, and my father had left me alone in his bedroom while he busied himself with sealing our trunks. He had handed me a book that happened to be lying on the table: it was a novel by a woman who is completely forgotten today, whose name I happened to run across on a plaque affixed to the house she had occupied in Montpellier when I was staying in that beautiful city some years ago. Born of a good Languedocian family, Protestant I think, her name was Renée Montlaur and she wrote novels based on the Gospels and the Bible. Books of that sort were never among my favorites, but I remember that this one was set in Egypt at around the time of Christ. I barely knew where Egypt was, and I've forgotten the plot, but my eyes happened to fall on a passage in which several of the characters board a boat on the Nile at sunset. That is the impression I remember: the glint of sunlight on the Nile, when I was six or seven. And that impression stayed with me, though it took quite a while before it became an episode in Hadrian's travels through Egypt. It stuck in my memory. I'm sure it would have astonished the author of the pious novel from which I borrowed it.
[Galey]: What other French novels did you read?
In early adolescence virtually none. It was not until later, when I was almost fifteen, that I began to read everything. I read Barrès, of course. He was the man of the hour. The patriotic side of his work didn't interest me. Les déracinés (The Uprooted) struck me then as forced and artificial, and that opinion still holds. But the Barrès of La colline inspirée (The Inspired Hillside) was overwhelming, again because it combined the invisible world with another world, that of the peasant's everyday reality. I still think that it is a great book. Obviously there are slack passages, places where Barrès merely tosses off a bit of Barrès, but there are other places where he achieves the level of truly great art: the Lorraine landscapes, so wonderfully described, and especially the solitude and old age of Leopold, the magician and practitioner of occult arts, and his devotion unto death to Vintras, half fanatic and half charlatan, despite the fact that Vintras is the cause of all his woes.
Did Barrès's style have any influence on your own?
It's hard to say. Certainly not at the time of my first "major experiments," when I was twenty, and not when I was writing Alexis either. But after that, maybe a little. Overall I have had two or three periods in which I wrote in different styles, which I can pinpoint fairly accurately. The first includes my early sketches, my Pindare, written by an adolescent who knew practically nothing, the first "Hadrian," the first "Zeno," the two other short stories in La mort conduit l'attelage, first drafted when I was twenty and subsequently rewritten in a style that was, though still immature, something approaching the "free" style I finally settled on. I hope that these stories, which I wrote or, rather, rewrote in this free style from beginning to end, will soon be published. It pleases me to think that one's style improves throughout life, as one sheds the scale of imitation, simplifies, finds one's path, while the underpinnings remain, shored up or, rather, strengthened by experience.
Then came my first published attempts to write in the genre known in French as the récit, very reserved, moderate, limited in scope: this was the period of Alexis. The development of my own personal style came to a halt until I was almost twenty-five, as I attempted to get in step with contemporary literature, especially the récit form as it was being used by Gide and Schlumberger; I wanted to confine myself to a more literary, more restrained form of art, which was in fact an excellent sort of discipline.
This was followed by a reaction against Alexis. In the next period I wrote Fires and the original Coin in Nine Hands, in an ornate style that may have been influenced by Barrès but that was certainly also influenced by many others, Suarès for example and all the baroque painters and poets of Italy. And after that I think I more or less found my own voice, beginning with Hadrian.
Did your father have literary enthusiasms that he passed on to you?
He was very fond of reading and had his favorite authors, but enthusiasms, no, I think not. He loved Shakespeare and Ibsen, for instance. We read Ibsen together when I was sixteen or seventeen: he wanted to teach me to read out loud, and he conceived a sort of musical notation to mark the places where one should pause and where the voice should rise and fall. Ibsen taught me a great deal about man's total independence, as in An Enemy of the People, where the hero is the only person who sees that the town is polluted. The great nineteenth-century writers were often rebels, subversives, opponents of their age and their society, of all mediocrity. Ibsen, Nietzsche, and Tolstoy were like that, and I might add that it was with my father that I read all three.
On the other hand, my father didn't read much Balzac. Though it may appear arrogant to say so, I would even go so far as to suggest that it was I who forced him to read a part of nineteenth-century French literature. For example, I was the one who said, "Let's read La Chartreuse de Parme."
We read together a great deal, out loud. We passed the book back and forth. I would read, and when I became tired my father would spell me. He read very well, far better than I: he put much more of himself into the characters.
When did you discover Proust?
Shortly after his (i.e., Proust's) death. I must have been twenty-four or twenty-five. But my father didn't go along with me there. It was his age that refused: he hated the thought of reading the latest books. For him Proust was the incomprehensible. He preferred the Russians, of whom we were enormously fond. And Selma Lagerlöf, about whom I was later to write an essay and whom I still regard as a writer of genius.
I read him later on and admired him so much that I was virtually dumbstruck. How shall I put it? At times he took my breath away, so great did he seem. But he didn't exert much of an influence on me. His Christianity was—or at any rate seemed to me—poles apart from what mattered to me, though I was moved by the starets, Zosima. Yet I've never gone back to reread much Dostoevsky, and that's the real index of influence.
We read some French writers too, such as Saint-Simon. My father particularly liked the seventeenth-century writers. I read almost all of Saint-Simon with him. He introduced me to whole crowds of humanity, and I thought of him as the great observer of what happens and what passes by. As for style, his is so great that, unless one is a writer, one doesn't notice that he has one. His diction is admirable, but I sometimes wonder if it's because of the moment of history in which we now find ourselves that I find it particularly impressive.
And what about poets?
Poets? The seventeenth-century poets, of course, and the Renaissance poets, and Hugo. I've always liked Hugo a great deal, despite the vagaries of fashion. I recognize that at times he can be heavily rhetorical, but there are also tremendous, dazzling moments. All the other poets, Rimbaud and Apollinaire, I discovered later in life. As I wrote in the preface to Alexis, I think that young writers are quite often not particularly involved with their own age, unless they happen to belong body and soul to a "school" with its finger in the wind, which tries to anticipate or at least latch on to every change in outlook. Generally speaking, the young writer takes his nourishment from the work of preceding generations. You see this very strikingly when you study the work of the Romantics. They hark back not to their immediate predecessors but invariably to artists somewhat further back in time.
Who were your predecessors?
Oh, perhaps Yeats, Swinburne, and D'Annunzio. D'Annunzio was widely read at the time. Mainly the poems, many of them quite beautiful, which I read in Italian. I was capable of distinguishing between his novels, which are very dated, and those of his poems that have stood up well, provided, of course, that one is willing to overlook the rhetorical passages and baroque ornamentation which are as embarrassing in D'Annunzio as they are in Barrès.
Who else? Péguy? I never got very far with Péguy. I didn't like his aggressive brand of Christianity any more than I did Claudel's. Neither one really mattered to me. Baudelaire? Yes, but I didn't sample him until rather late, as a connoisseur—I read him with the eye of the professional, appraising the extraordinary perfection of the Baudelairean line. It was too late for naïve enthusiasm, so to speak.
My enthusiasm was reserved mainly for the seventeenth-century and Renaissance poets: Racine, to a lesser extent La Fontaine (it was not until much later that I came to appreciate the rhythmic beauty of La Fontaine's verse), and the English poets, especially the Metaphysicals, whom I read, of course, in the original.
If you're looking for influences, you'd probably do better to look to the philosophers. It would be impossible to overestimate Nietzsche's influence, for example: the Nietzsche not of Zarathustra but of Joyful Wisdom and Human, All Too Human, the Nietzsche who had a certain way of looking at things, from close up and at the same time from afar, a man lucid and acute as a writer yet light of touch.
What about someone like Schopenhauer? Was he important to you?
Yes, but his influence soon became confused with that of Buddhism, because basically Schopenhauer represents the earliest attempt to develop the philosophy of Buddhism in a European climate. Still, I am moved whenever I think of Mann's Thomas Buddenbrook, discouraged after a long life lived according to the conventions of his time, discovering in Schopenhauer not only the meaning of despair but also, perhaps, the utmost peace.
You seem to take a greater interest in literature than in writers.
I have always been happy to know the writers I have met, such as Cocteau, Martin du Gard, Schlumberger, and others who are still living, because knowing a writer personally allows you to make certain judgments that you couldn't make otherwise, judgments of the person rather than the work. But at bottom it's all rather illusory: such judgments add nothing as far as the work is concerned. The problem, the mystery of the work remains. Besides, I've never felt any particular desire to know writers as distinct from other people I've had the opportunity to meet.
For one thing, I always felt that I would bore other writers to death. Even today, I'm not absolutely delighted to open my door every time a young writer appears on the door-step: many have nothing to say. And then, so little goes on between two people in a half hour's conversation. Why not spend the time rereading the books of a writer you admire? The writer's solitude is profound indeed. Each writer is unique, with his own problems and his own technique, painstakingly acquired. And every writer has a life of his own. There isn't much to be gained from talking about literary subjects with writers you happen to know (or don't know, for that matter).
Broadly speaking, you're quite hostile to literary schools and coteries. I'm thinking, for example, of Gide and his friends, who read their works to one another.
I must confess that I don't understand that sort of thing. Which is not to say I'm shocked—everyone has to find a style that suits. But really, Gide's little circle gathering to read their works out loud—imagine! Think of the embarrassment, the shame, the artificiality that such meetings could engender! Gide had no reason to be astonished that Madame Gide chose that day for her dental appointment: how right she was! That manner of working I don't understand at all.
But aren't literary movements rather like the lyceum, like the Greek philosophers with their disciples? Haven't you ever been tempted to seek out someone's intellectual heritage?
I've never sought out a person whom I looked upon as a master, the way some people looked upon Gide as a master. I'll grant you that I may have gained a considerable amount from knowing certain writers, even writers whose work I don't appreciate. For example, Jaloux's work as a novelist meant nothing to me, but as a critic and simply as a person to talk to he was important, but no more, in a way, than the carpenter who lived next door. My purpose in saying this is not to disparage Jaloux. On the contrary. What is important is a lasting relationship with any person. The accent here is on lasting: I'm talking about people one sees every day, or with whom intensity of exchange makes up for periods when contact is lost. Literary groups and movements never contribute anything but wind, and plenty of it! Wind full of dross and dust.
Fires stands out in this period as an unusual book.
Yes, it was unusual from the standpoint of technique, because it's a personal monologue that is—how shall I put it?—somehow externalized, disembodied. It's not me so much as myth again, the grand vistas of human existence. Of course I'm also present, but what you have in addition is access to various possibilities, to a number of imposing images of human life.
Nearly all of the stories in the book depict characters from Greek and occasionally Christian history (there is one story about Mary Magdalene, but with the same Near Eastern setting as the others). I was traveling frequently in the Near East at this time, and the setting of all the stories is based on what I saw.
To take one example, "Léna ou le secret" is about a woman who is part of a conspiracy and who allows herself to be tortured rather than betray her coconspirators. The real tragedy, though, is that, in my presentation of the situation, she doesn't really know the group's secrets: for reasons of security she has not been told everything. Yet she won't admit, even under torture, that she doesn't know everything and isn't a full-fledged member of the group. Plutarch, it seems, took a different view of the matter: he saw the woman as the lover of one of the conspirators, fully cognizant of the plans of Harmodius and Aristogiton. But in my story, Léna, like nearly all my female characters, is both humbler and more humiliated, yet at the same time a woman in love.
Even though the story actually took place almost a century before Pericles, I present it as though it might have taken place at around the time of writing, in the Greece of 1936. When you think about Greece and the Near East, whether in the past or in the present, you see that partisan struggles of the sort described in the story have been going on continually, or nearly so. Needless to say, at the time of writing Spain was also much on my mind.
This is possibly the only book of yours in which the word "I" occasionally occurs.
No, there are brief passages in which I use "I," speaking in my own name, in my prefaces and notebooks, as for example in the notes accompanying Hadrian. I did use "I" on occasion in Fires, but in much the same way as a musician tunes his instrument before a concert. I wanted to go beyond the narrow framework of the tale and to attempt to show what lay behind it, a joyful, durable passion. Passion in many guises: love tout court as in Phèdre; love of the absolute, as in the Phaedo; love of God, as in the story of Mary Magdalene; or love of justice, as in Antigone.
The book contains almost no adjectives.
That may be fortunate, because adjectives generally play such tricks on you! When we reread the writers we admire, it's usually their adjectives that bother us. Still, adjectives are surely necessary.
The tone of the book is dry.
No, it's altogether ardent, it's truly Fires. I suppose you regard fire as a dry element. Champagne is also "dry." And as far as I know, precious gems don't exude moisture either.
Why, in discussing this book, did you say, "I hope it will never be read"?
Because people will probably mistake its nature or fail to enter into the emotions that still overwhelm me whenever I reread it. To some extent every writer has to balance the desire to be read against the desire not to be read. The same thing is also true of many poets. Otherwise they wouldn't fill their poems with so many obstacles to discourage potential readers. I put a few such obstacles into Fires—the situation lent itself to doing so. Writers have always liked to toy with enigmas. But the lines of force in Fires are quite visible. They're all related to passion, but passion tugs in many directions. Including, of course, the direction of transcendence.
What do you mean by passion? How do you distinguish it from love?
Most people see no difference, viewing passion simply as love pitched one degree higher. But it would be more accurate to say that the two emotions are close to being opposites. In passion there is a desire to satisfy oneself, to slake one's thirst, in some cases coupled with a desire to control, to dominate another person. By contrast, in love there is abnegation. When I wrote Fires I combined the two, sometimes describing love-as-abnegation, sometimes love-as-passion. Ultimately, though, passion has more to do with aggression than with abnegation. Etymologically speaking, it should be the other way around. Passion comes from a word meaning "to suffer," a passive condition, as when we speak of the "Passion" of Jesus Christ, the flagellation and crucifixion. Love, on the other hand, is an active condition.
Time also plays a part. Passions are briefer.
I suppose so, though one does find instances in history and in life of great loves that have endured, and from my point of view it is difficult to distinguish between a great love and a great passion. There are women who've managed to sustain love for difficult men for more than forty years, like Mrs. Carlyle.
Was her love reciprocated?
Reciprocity may not be very important: Laura wasn't especially preoccupied with Petrarch. His was a case of love-as-fervor, in which Laura somehow figured as an image of God. The same remark applies to Beatrice. When it comes to reciprocity in love, there is always a question of how much reciprocity, and reciprocity in what respects. Did Hugo, for example, love Juliette as much as Juliette loved Hugo? Certainly not. For two or three years, perhaps, they enjoyed what they thought of as mutual love, following which she became the great man's humble servant.
The impression one gets is that she was never uppermost in his mind except for a very brief period. Many other women must have found themselves in similar circumstances. With men, love-as-abnegation is less common, because men have always felt that there were other things in life and in the world than love.
In that case, how do you account for the fact that all literature, including your own work, revolves around this problem?
Not all my work, surely—far from it—and not all literature. Love plays only a minor role in The Abyss. In Hadrian many readers focus on the story of Antinous, which is of course a love affair, but in fact it only takes up one-fifth of the book, admittedly the most moving part. It's very important, I grant you, since it must have been very important, too, in Hadrian's life. But in no way is it typical of the book as a whole. It is possible to imagine writing Hadrian's memoirs without dealing at all with the subject of love, in which case they would describe a life incomplete to be sure but still great.
But the book would then lack its crucial radiance. And if Hadrian's story could be told without mentioning love, why does the happenstance of the emperor's meeting this Bithynian shepherd change everything?
To begin with, Antinous was probably not a shepherd (nor was he, in all probability, a slave, as we have been told). Antinous as I have tried to describe him was closer to a "middle-class" Bithynian adolescent of his day. As for the change that comes over Hadrian and what you call the episode's "radiance," I would say that both have to do with the fact that the encounter with Antinous is the only point at which Hadrian renounces his lucid self-mastery, the only point, apart from certain occult experiences, at which he feels that life transcends him. Love is a disorder in the same sense in which Thomas Mann maintained that genius is a disorder. Or, to put it another way, love is dangerous. Of course it's also a kind of happiness—fundamentally, happiness is also dangerous. Hadrian collapses when Antinous dies but later regains control of himself, after a hard struggle, by dint of what he calls "Augustan discipline." But some traits of his character very likely die forever, along with Antinous.
Even before Antinous dies, however, Hadrian had begun, I fear, to blunder quite frightfully on the subject of love. He mistakes the amount of happiness and security that he is able to bring to his young friend. He behaves quite badly toward the end of the relationship, mired as he is in a routine of business mixed with facile pleasures that makes him a rather odious and rather ordinary character. Then comes the death of his friend, when he comes close to losing his grip entirely, after which he gradually proceeds toward the patientia of his final years. I have always viewed Hadrian's story as having a sort of pyramidal shape (though few of my readers have noticed this): the slow ascent to self-possession and power; the years of equipoise followed by the brief period of intoxication, which is also the peak of his ascent; and then the collapse, the rapid descent, followed by a new beginning in the final years, when his feet are once again firmly planted on the ground; after the earlier years of exotic experience, lavish building, and suffering, Hadrian finally comes to accept Roman customs and religion.
But the death of Antinous is not the only cause of collapse in Hadrian. Hadrian gives the impression of being a man who tended to push his strength to the limit and beyond. He came quite close to collapse during the period of uncertainty surrounding the imperial succession prior to the death of Trajan and was saved only thanks to Plotina. As an old man, even after his misfortune, he needs to muster all his self-control to surmount the despair that seizes him during the war in Palestine. Then, however, it is his body that collapses as heart disease takes hold. Frightfully ill, he suffers bouts of despair that bring him within an inch of suicide. His collapse on the ship's deck after the death of Antinous was not Hadrian's only experience with an affliction affecting both body and soul.
You often assimilate love to disease.
The ancients did it before me, for the very reason that I mentioned earlier, namely, that love involves danger. I do not subscribe to the notion, common to so much of French literature, that "love" is the center of life, the center of human existence—not continuously at any rate. It may be life's nadir, rather, or its summit. Love brings good and ill alike, but it is not necessarily what matters most, or, if it is, it is something more than love, something that words lack the power to express.
The time, or rather the atmosphere of the period, must have been of some importance when you wrote Coup de Grâce in 1938. You must have sensed the imminence of war.
One would have had to have been deaf and blind not to have seen the war coming in 1938. And remember that I knew Germany fairly well and Austria even better, and that I had personally witnessed the growing anxiety in the Near East. But whenever I returned to France from either Greece or central Europe, I saw people sitting in the cafés who gave no sign of suspecting that anything was amiss.
In those days I had a very strong feeling of imminent danger, heightened by the war in Spain and by what I knew of the underside of Italian fascism. The scenes of torture in "Léna ou le secret" and Fires, along with Antigone's suicide, also in Fires, seemed almost to anticipate what history was to enact.
France seemed relatively safe. In part this had to do with life's being so agreeable there, certainly much more noticeably so than elsewhere. No one seemed to anticipate what lay ahead. But a trip on the Orient Express in those days was enough to reveal the hatred that festered in every country along the line, a clear sign that terrible things lay in store. My purpose in writing wasn't to describe the current situation, however.
With Coup de Grâce I made the discovery that it was better to work toward a certain perspective in time and space, as I tried to do by evoking the Baltic Wars of 1919–21 (which of course I had not lived through). This was already history, and I was therefore forced to deal with a specific social setting at a specific point in time, far enough in the past so that the resolution of at least some of the issues of that period could already be discerned—which for me may be the essence of what history is about.
Incidentally, the story was a true one, told to me by a friend and subsequently by the brother of the person involved, who is called Eric in the novel. The story appealed to me because it concerned a love affair involving three young people left isolated in a country devastated by war. I sensed in this situation a tragic beauty, together with a unity of place, time, and danger, as the French classic canon so wonderfully puts it. The place was Livonia, or rather Kurland, and the time that of the German putsches of 1919–21, directed against the Communist government. As for danger, there was the drama, the human drama, of three isolated young people set against the larger drama of war, poverty, and conflicting ideologies.
Eric, the main character, the voice in the monologue, looks on as the world into which he was born crumbles around him: Germany collapses in the wake of its defeat in World War I, the Baltic world collapses into chaos, and even the French world of his ancestors falls apart—because his German father was killed on the French front. Finally, the world of ideology, the foundation on which he might have built his life, collapses under him. His only bulwark against the general ruin is the castle in which he is living with his friend, Conrad, and Conrad's sister, Sophie. With the stage thus set, all that remained was to involve these three characters in the action.
I'm still quite interested in the character Sophie, who is a very generous woman, generous even to the man she loves—not as common a thing as one might think. The story ends in the book as it ended in life, in the kind of tragic incident that is inevitable in the ferocity of guerrilla warfare. But love, loyalty to a way of life, and the close bonds that unite three human beings of similar type—these are the things that count, far more than the political background.
What sort of welcome did Coup de Grâce receive, given that its main character, a German, is portrayed with a certain amount of sympathy?
Many readers liked it a great deal. A critic once told me that Eric was, for some people, the young Werther of his generation. What he had in mind was probably the character's emotional makeup, which resembles Werther's to the extent that "romanticism" is possible in this day and age. Politics is not important to Eric. He is an adventurer, as well as a champion of lost causes. At the very beginning of the book he dismisses all ideologies.
I'm sure I won't be telling you anything you don't already know if I remind you that a person who describes him or herself as apolitical generally stands politically on the right.
Let me think a moment about that statement, which strikes me as too cut and dried to accept on its face…. What your proposition proves is simply that, for the time being, left-wing ideology is dominant over right-wing ideology, or at any rate is attempting to assert its dominance. Any minority appears apolitical to the surrounding majority. Mussolini, for example, surely looked upon any writer who did not subscribe to his imperial policy as an "apolitical" person with anarchist tendencies.
In this respect, people described as "left wing" are all too often as naïve as the early Christians, who believed that their answers had to be right and who dreamed, as true believers invariably do, that Eden was at hand—even though Eden always turns out in the end to be inaccessible, because man is imperfect and because any halfway attempt to establish perfection invariably brings violence and error in its wake.
I am not arguing that such eschatological fantasies are wrong because they are left wing; I am saying that they are wrong because, inevitably, they are distorted and turned into hollow formulas. I am utterly convinced that there is no form of government that cannot be perfect, provided that both ruler and ruled are also perfect. An ideal communist would be divine. But an enlightened monarch of the sort Voltaire desired would be equally divine. Where are they, though? A monarchy with a sublime king would be able to find sublime, perfect advisers! Show me such men. That's the error of the monarchists, if there are any monarchists left. They don't see that their king would soon call upon someone like Mr. Giscard d'Estaing or Mr. Mitterrand to serve as prime minister and that the post office would still be staffed by the same people as today, or by others just like them. And as far as I'm concerned, the capitalist technocrat who claims that by using the methods of a sorcerer's apprentice he can bring happiness to human kind is in the same boat. The old political labels have outlived their usefulness, or ought to have.
But in the period just after the Popular Front, when many writers, like Gide, Malraux, Bernanos, and even Mauriac, suddenly became "committed," what was your attitude?
One of indifference. I was spending so little time in France then that it seemed more remote to me than Spain or Greece. Of course, you're right, at that time people like Malraux were pouring forth torrents of eloquence, but I detected a certain rhetoric in that eloquence. To my mind, Malraux was never very sure of what he was doing until he discovered de Gaulle. Underneath it all, I always felt, was Les conquérants, Malraux's same old poetic anarchism.
I greatly admire Malraux in certain respects, but he never impressed me as being a convinced man. He was a great actor. In the end it all had a rather hollow ring, as one senses in Antimémoires. It's impossible to tell truth and falsehood apart in that book, and Malraux doesn't even seem to care since he can no longer tell the difference himself. In Les chênes qu'on abat (based on Malraux's conversations with de Gaulle—Trans.), it's impossible to say who's asking the questions and who's giving the answers. It's all Malraux, always and everywhere, and in many places he is indeed superb. Both his commitment to the left and his later commitment to General de Gaulle seemed a magma of words, that formed and reformed like clouds in the setting sun.
[What are your thoughts on feminism?]
I am opposed to particularism, whether it is based on nationality, religion, or species. So don't count on me to support sexual particularism either. I believe that a good woman is worth just as much as a good man, and that an intelligent woman is worth just as much as an intelligent man. That is a simple truth. If the issue is one of fighting to insure that women with qualifications equal to men receive the same pay, then I am involved in the struggle. If it is to defend a woman's right to use contraceptives, then I am an active supporter of several organizations that do just that. Even if the issue is abortion, if the man or the woman involved was for some reason unable to take appropriate steps in time, or ignorant of what those steps might be, then I am for abortion, and I am a member of a number of groups that aid women in trouble, though I should add that abortion, in my view, is always a very serious matter. However, in a world that is already overpopulated and in which poverty and ignorance are the lot of the majority, I believe that it is preferable to end a life at its inception rather than allow it to develop in shameful conditions. When it comes to education or schooling, I am of course in favor of equality between the sexes; that is self-evident. As for political rights, not only the right to vote but the right to participate in government, I am strongly in favor of equal rights for women, though I doubt that women, or men either, will be able to do much to improve the current detestable political situation unless there is a profound change in both sexes as well as in the methods of political action.
I have, on the other hand, strong objections to feminism as it now presents itself. It is usually aggressive, and aggression rarely succeeds in bringing about lasting change. Furthermore—and this will doubtless strike you as paradoxical—feminism is conformist with respect to the existing order, in that what women seem to want is the freedom and well-being of the bureaucrat who goes to work each morning briefcase in hand, or of the worker who each day punches in and out of his plant. The ideal that women wish to imitate, apparently, is that of bureaucratic, technocratic homo sapiens, and they fail to see the frustrations and dangers implicit in that ideal because, like men, they think (in this respect at any rate) in terms of immediate profit and individual "success." What is important for women, I think, is to take an as-active-as-possible role in useful causes of every description and to win respect by their competence. A century ago the English authorities showed themselves to be harsh and grudging toward Florence Nightingale and her work at the Scutari hospital, but they couldn't do without her. Every gain that women achieve in the areas of civil rights, urbanism, environmentalism, and in protecting the right of animals, children, and minorities, every victory over war and over the monstrous exploitation of science by the forces of greed and violence, is a triumph for women if not for feminism, and in any case feminism reaps the benefit. I even believe that women may be better equipped to play this role than men, because women are in day-to-day contact with the realities of life, of which many men remain comparatively ignorant.
I also find it distressing that women seem willing to play a double game. There are magazines, for example, that follow fashion (there are fashions in opinion just as there are in clothing) by publishing supposedly incendiary feminist articles, while at the same time serving up for the benefit of female readers idly flipping pages at the hairdresser's the same old photographs of pretty young girls, or rather, young girls who would be pretty if they weren't all too plainly the embodiment of some advertiser's ideal. Today's bizarre commercial psychology forces models to sulk and pout in ways that are supposedly seductive, exciting, and sensual, at times using seminude females in layouts bordering on the pornographic.
That feminists tolerate these woman-objects astonishes me. I'm also astonished that they still flock in droves to buy the latest fashions, as if fashion and elegance were the same thing, and that millions of them acquiesce, quite unwittingly to be sure, in the torture of the hundreds of animals martyred every year in tests of cosmetic products, to say nothing of the thousands of animals that suffer in traps or are clubbed to death on ice floes so that these same women can grace themselves with bloody furs. Whether those furs are bought with money earned by the women themselves in their "careers" or given as gifts by husbands or lovers has no bearing on the issue. In the United States one frequently sees advertisements that show a pretty girl smoking a cigarette with a slightly defiant air, and this image presumably induces readers of the magazine to go out and buy cigarettes, despite the warning in almost invisible fine print at the bottom of the page that smoking may cause cancer and endanger health. I think that on the day women succeed in outlawing this kind of advertising, their cause will have taken a major step forward.
Last but not least, women who use the word "men" and men who use the word "women," generally to complain about supposed flaws in the opposite sex, inspire tremendous boredom in me, as people generally do when they mumble platitudes. There are specifically "feminine" virtues that feminists pretend to disdain, though that hardly means that the virtues in question were ever shared by all women: gentleness, kindness, subtlety, delicacy—virtues so important that a man who did not at least possess a modicum of them would be a brute and not a man. There are also so-called masculine virtues, though, again, this hardly means that all men possess them: courage, endurance, physical strength, self-control—and any woman who didn't share at least some of these qualities would be a slight or spineless creature indeed. It would be lovely if these complementary virtues could be combined for the good of all concerned. But to eliminate the social and psychological differences that do exist between the sexes, however fluid and variable they may be, strikes me as a deplorable thing, on a par with all the other forces that have lately been driving mankind in the direction of dull uniformity.
Didn't you ever suffer from being a woman?
Not in the slightest, and I never wanted to be a man, nor would I have wanted to be a woman had I been born a man. Besides, what would I have gained from being a man, other than the privilege of taking a somewhat more direct part in a number of wars? To be sure, it is just this sort of advancement that the future seems to hold in store for women too.
In the Mediterranean countries, where you lived for many years, didn't you ever feel that you were "creating a scandal"?
Never, except perhaps once when I went swimming in the nude below the ruins of Selinunte and no doubt shocked several contadini who happened to pass by. But in the Mediterranean countries, you must remember, I was a foreigner, and people tolerated in foreigners what they would not tolerate in their own women.
I don't mean to imply, though, that Mediterranean women are as mistreated as they are often said to be. Quite often I saw Greek men in the villages berated by their wives because they had tarried too long in some café, drinking a metrio or poligliki with three glasses of water. I have the impression, moreover, that today's militant feminists are extrapolating from current ideas and conditions when they discuss the very low status of French women in the past. Mme Du Deffand certainly never dreamed of entering the Académie française. But she invited members of the Académie to her salon and very likely entertained them on her own terms. It is hard to think of women like Marguerite d'Angoulême, Marguerite de Navarre, and Mme Roland as having been mistreated. [In a footnote, the translator identifies these women as: "Marguerite d'Angoulême, 1492–1549, sister of King Francis I of France, poet, and patron of the arts"; "Marguerite de Navarre, known as Queen Margot, 1553–1615, daughter of King Henry II of France and wife of King Henry III of Navarre (later Henry IV of France, who repudiated their marriage); writer, poet, and patron of the arts"; and "Madame Manon Philipon Roland, 1754–1793, held a celebrated Parisian salon before being guillotined during the Reign of Terror; memoirist."] In Souvenirs pieux and Archives du Nord I portrayed three nineteenth-century women, tyrannical wives and mothers, and two of them I showed in an odious light, while the third was more attractive, a woman who even at a ripe old age still resembled a fine frigate in full sail. But it is impossible to be sure that even Reine Bieswal de Briarde always exerted a beneficial influence, since she forced her son, my grandfather, to make a rather unhappy marriage for the sake of money.
What do you think about rape?
That it is a crime, one of the most repugnant of all crimes. If I believed in the death penalty, I confess that rape is one crime to which I would be tempted to apply it. A rape can ruin a woman's life and psyche forever. In most rape cases only psychiatry can find extenuating circumstances. Occasionally, though, rapes are motivated by female sexual provocation, whether conscious or not.
That is the kind of argument put forward by the most "macho" of men.
I've never heard anything of the sort except from the lips of women: mothers, sisters, or relatives of the victim forced to conclude, against their will, that the woman was imprudent. A woman who goes hitchhiking wearing fancy clothes and make-up and half-naked besides is quite naïve if she doesn't expect the worst. Last year, a twenty-seven-year-old tourist went hitchhiking through the national park here, on roads that she must have known would be quite deserted, and got herself raped and murdered by some imbecile brute; there is no way around the fact that such want of prudence comes dangerously close to stupidity, or else involves a good deal of provocation. That of course in no way diminishes the extraordinary sadness of such a horrible end.
Sad, yes, but also revolting. A man wouldn't have run the same risk.
But he would have run others: the danger of war, of working in a mine, of doing dangerous jobs hitherto rarely open to women (I'm thinking just now of two quarry workers from this island who were buried alive in a rock slide). And above all the danger of having been brought up so vilely, so wretchedly, amidst such frustration and hatred and unsatisfied envy as to become the kind of man capable of wanting to commit a rape. Rape is the crime of a society that has been unable to resolve not so much the problem of the sexes as the problem of sexuality. Children must be taught very early in life a truth known to primitive civilizations, that coitus is a sacred act and that sexual satisfaction depends in large part on mutual tenderness and good will. (Incidentally, the rapist involved in the incident I mentioned earlier was a recidivist; it emerged that a warrant had been issued for his arrest on a charge of having bludgeoned his brother in a fit of rage.) Sensual pleasure cannot be had through violence or money or even insane love. Mutual understanding is indispensable.
But such comprehension requires equality between the sexes.
Equality doesn't mean identity.
In your books, however, you've always hidden behind men in giving your view of the world.
Hidden? The word offends me. In any event it isn't true of Fires, in which it is a woman who speaks almost the whole time. Nor is it true of A Coin in Nine Hands, in which male and female characters balance one another. Nor is it true of some of the "oriental tales" such as "Le lait de la mort" or "La veuve Aphrodissia." In Memoirs of Hadrian the object was to present a final vision of the ancient world as seen by one of its last great figures, and this had to be a person who had enjoyed supreme power, known war, traveled widely, and concerned himself as a high official with economic and political reform. History offered no woman who filled the bill; yet hidden away discreetly in the shadows Hadrian does have his female [paramour]. The woman I have in mind is not one of his young mistresses but Plotina, his counselor and friend, a woman with whom he was associated in "amorous friendship," to quote verbatim from one of the ancient chronicles. In Coup de Grâce it is Eric who has the advantage of lucidity, if only because he is the narrator, but it is Sophie who, as he says, "takes the lead," with such generosity and spirit as to dumbfound even Eric. They too are [paramours]; they understand each other to the bitter end, despite all their differences, and even in the moment of death. There are also women and young men in the life of Zeno, a character infinitely more intellectual than he is sensual, but who accepts what little life has to offer him of sensual gratification only to renounce it in the end. But he too has his discreet [paramour], the Lady of Froso, the only women who might have been his companion and shared his medical work; and Zeno can't be sure that they didn't have a son together. But it would have been impossible to convey the whole broad panorama of the sixteenth century through the Lady of Froso in her Swedish manor, just as it would have been impossible to convey the ancient world through Plotina.
If women's lives are as limited as you claim,…
[In a footnoted comment added to the manuscript sometime after the interview, Yourcenar stated: "I must take the liberty of interrupting my interviewer to protest…. A traditional woman's existence was not necessarily limited in every sense: Phaedra and Andromache (and even—why not?—Felicité in Un coeur simple) essay the infinite."]…
how do you account for the fact that there are novelists who are interested exclusively in women?
Precisely because they are women, perhaps, and interested only in themselves. If men were the same way, we would not have Virgil's Dido or Mme Bovary or Mme de Langeais or Anna Karenina. Still, when Tolstoy and Flaubert want to describe the great currents of the nineteenth century, they are forced to choose male characters: Prince André and Pierre Bezukhov for the Napoleonic period, or, to capture the social and political life of nineteenth-century France, either that rather tarnished mirror, Frédéric Moreau, or that more somber mirror, Vautrin.
Still, there have been exceptional women in history who might have inspired you.
They did inspire me in some of my essays and, as we've just been discussing, as deuteragonists in some of my books. The life of a woman of action like Florence Nightingale might have tempted me; Strachey has told her story and very well too, whatever people may say. Antigone and Mary Magdalene are sublime characters, however good or bad the poems I've written about them may be. Yet there is, in some very great men, a tendency toward complete impersonality, of which Hadrian speaks to us: "A man who reads, reflects, or plans belongs to his species rather than his sex; in his best moments he rises even above the humans." Such impersonality is much more rare, at least up to now, in even the most eminent of women.
You are a counterexample.
Even if that is true, one swallow does not a summer make.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3645
SOURCE: "Marguerite Yourcenar's Sexual Politics in Fiction, 1939," in Faith of a (Woman) Writer, edited by Alice Kessler-Harris and William McBrien, Greenwood Press, 1988, pp. 221-28.
[Johnston is an American critic and educator who has written extensively on twentieth-century history and literature. In the following essay, which was originally presented at a conference on twentieth-century women writers held at Hofstra University in the fall of 1982, she analyzes the sexual and political relationships of the three main characters in Coup de Grâce, arguing that they reflect "the European state of mind" on the brink of World War II.]
Marguerite Yourcenar, the first woman elected to the Académie Française, is a French novelist and dramatist, born in Brussels in 1903, who resides on Mount Desert Island in Maine. She published her first play in 1921; her most famous novel in the United States is Memoirs of Hadrian; she translated Virginia Woolf's The Waves in 1937; and, since her election to the "immortals," she is beginning to receive the international critical attention her large body of work deserves. Her career as a twentieth-century writer spans more than half the century.
When I consider her place in literary history, I am amazed that she has received so little attention as a writer responding to the sexual and political crises of the twentieth century. Defining "political" broadly, to include all relations of power, I find that Yourcenar's political analysis of sexuality and modern culture shapes both her characters and her narratives. Here, I would like to explore sexual politics in her 1939 novel, Coup de Grâce, which is a confessional narrative set between the two world wars.
Although her preface to the 1981 translation denies any political value in this human document, the mutual bonding of authoritarian and submissive personalities portrayed in the love triangle of Erick, Sophie, and Conrad certainly derives from a political critique of her culture. In the same preface, she implicitly acknowledges the contemporary historical relevance of her 1939 novel, by alluding to Racine's Bajazet as "a tragedy of events close to his own time but occurring in what was then the closed world of the Ottoman Empire." Yourcenar's own novel is a tragedy of events relevant to the impending second European war, but occurring two decades earlier, in 1919–20. Although she has refused to accept the concepts of "feminine discourse" or "feminine writing," her narrative nevertheless reveals that language reflects the gender-linked relations of power. The sexual identity of her narrator, Erick, shapes his "récit." Coup de Grâce calls for a radical revisioning of culturally based gender stereotypes and requires the reader to envision alternatives to passivity when faced with the threat of violence.
Yourcenar has stated that she began writing Coup de Grâce in 1938, in response to the September Munich conference, at which Daladier and Chamberlain, the French and British prime ministers, hoping by their submission to gain peace in their time, yielded to Hitler's demand to "repatriate" Germanic peoples dwelling in the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia. The conference raised questions about nationality, cultural history, and the proper response to the threat of force; Coup de Grâce demands consideration of these same three issues. The novel was published in May of 1939, after the failure of the Munich compromise was evident, but before the German invasion of Poland.
Yourcenar's historical fiction interprets the origin of the Nazi movement in the post-World War I Freikorps fighting in the Baltic against Bolshevik revolutionaries. The Baltic cross, or Swastika, those soldiers of fortune brought back to Germany symbolizes the continuity between the Baltic terror of 1919 and the threat of 1939. Like the broken string of pearls Erick carried with him as a memento of Sophie, the Baltic cross is a sign of past actions predicting and defining future character. Coup de Grâce is a contemporary historical parable, in which the events of 1919 forecast the events of 1939.
In 1939, reviewers failed to connect contemporary politics with the narrative of Yourcenar's historical novel. Edmond Jaloux, reviewing the novel in August 1939, in Les Nouvelles Littéraires, defined it as "une histoire vraie," and Jean Charpentier, in the September 1, 1939 issue of Mercure de France, noted "la vérité historique," but neither noted that Yourcenar's psychological tragedy might be relevant to France's moral dilemma of choosing submission or resistance to violent force. Her novel portrays individuals facing that dilemma, and the implications for her national culture in 1939 should have been sobering.
The narrator and principal character is Erick von Lhomond, a German soldier of fortune. In a brief preface, a third-person narrator introduces Erick in his late thirties, as he is returning wounded from fighting for Franco in Spain, specifically in the battle of Saragossa, which dates this part of the narrative in 1937. In a train station, Erick solicits unenthusiastic listeners for his Baltic war story; ominously, a nearly blind beggar also solicits the travelers, offering a tour of Pisa's famous Leaning Tower. As in Madame Bovary, the blind man's presence portends death, here the death of a culture. The narrative shifts into Erick's own voice as he tells his story, which he admits is a "text full of holes."
Erick narrates a complicated tale of terrorist war and unrequited love. An impoverished aristocrat, born too late to have fought in World War I, Erick had allied himself with the Russian aristocracy displaced by the revolution. Erick describes his participation in the Baltic civil wars and in a love triangle with a brother and a sister, Conrad and Sophie, the Count and Countess de Reval. His story encompasses the ruin of their Edenic estate, and the deaths of both Sophie and Conrad in the war.
Erick's prejudices, his cult of force, and his self-deluding revision of history resemble those of other unreliable, biased characters of twentieth-century confessional fiction. Erick and his egocentric historical narrative most closely resemble Ernst von Salomon, the popular German fascist writer, and his autobiographical novel about his participation in the Baltic civil wars, The Outlaws (Die Geächteten, 1930). Coup de Grâce also invites comparison with André Gide's The Immoralist (1902), Louis-Ferdinand Céline's Journey to the End of the Night (1932), and Gunter Grass's The Tin Drum (1962), all novels in which narrators who are paradoxically both attractive and repulsive reflect the author's critical image of his own culture. Although Yourcenar, a French woman, chose a voice that was both German and male, her portrayal of Erick does not suggest that fascism was the symptom of a national neurosis, nor that it was peculiar to German culture; instead, Yourcenar's novel analyzes the authoritarian personality by presenting Erick's confession as a case history. His brutal first-person narrative provokes the reader's active, energetic, analytical response. This interplay between reader and narrator generates an alternative to the passive acceptance of authoritarian violence.
In Yourcenar's historical parable, Sophie may represent Russia, Conrad England and France, and Erick Germany; however, Sophie, Conrad, and Erick transcend national stereotypes. Their mixed national heritage signals their role as representative Europeans of the generation that became young adults in 1919. All three were orphaned by World War I. Erick is a "Prussian with French and Baltic blood," and Conrad and Sophie are "Balt with some Russian ancestry." Separate national stereotypes dissolve in Erick's and Sophie's partial comprehension of each other, a comprehension both limited and empowered by their complex sexual relationship. Both Erick and Sophie are the age of their century; Conrad is a few years younger. Erick is not simply a proto-Fascist, but, as Carlos Baker vividly suggested [in The New York Times Book Review, 21 July 1957], "a veritable Judas-goat of a stricken continent, a bad European leading his conferees toward the coup de grâce." I agree, and wish to extend Baker's insight.
Erick is the European without roots after World War I, seeking identity in violent action. His lust for adventure is not satisfied in the Baltic civil war; throughout the 1920s and 1930s, he seeks out violent confrontations. He participates in the political agitations in central Europe which lead to Hitler's rise, and he takes part as well in the Japanese attack on Manchuria 1931–32, the Chaco war in Paraguay 1932–35, and the Spanish Civil War with Franco 1936–37. His active engagement in repressive military violence contradicts his claim to be apolitical. Although Erick asserts that fighting the Bolsheviks in 1919 was for him a "matter of caste" and not an ideological commitment, his hostility toward "Jewish money-lenders everywhere" suggests a psychological complex that, in the 1930s, was being exploited for ideological ends. As he reconstructs his past, he envisions himself as a modern Napoleon, a great leader doomed to defeat at Waterloo.
Conrad is a "disciple" of this authoritarian leader, an "aide-de-camp" to "Bonaparte." He adopts his master's views, and he relinquishes his independent opinions when ridiculed. In the context of the 1930s, Conrad represents all those individual Europeans, in France and England as well as in Germany or Italy, who docilely welcomed a strong national leader.
Conrad's "susceptibility and softness" also suggests France's and England's compliance with Germany's demand at Munich. Facing the threat of violence, they became impotent. Had Conrad survived into the 1920s, Erick contemptuously imagines he might have become "a poet cut to the pattern of T. S. Eliot or Jean Cocteau."
Speaking in 1937, Erick pictures Conrad as resembling Rembrandt's portrait of a Polish cavalier, a youth on a pale horse, his anxious face turned toward the viewer, and the comparison seems the sign of a coming apocalypse. Yourcenar perhaps foresaw the tragedy of a second European war, but her narrator Erick exploits the apocalyptic image to prepare his listeners for his account of Conrad's slow, painful death. Erick considered "putting him out of his agony," but could not deliver the coup de grâce to his friend. Wounded in the stomach, the Count de Reval spent his last hours in agony, but Erick idealizes and then immortalizes his body: "first he was like a wounded officer of the time of Charles the Twelfth, then like a medieval knight lying upon a tomb, and finally like any dying man." Erick's nostalgia for "the time of Charles the Twelfth" colors his history, in which Conrad's death, prefaced by an evocation of the lost Polish cavalier, represents the downfall of European aristocracy.
Conrad's sister, though born an aristocrat, did not seek to preserve the domination of her class. Sophie, whose name recalls Dostoyevsky's Sophia in Crime and Punishment, believes in Marxism as Sophia believes in Christianity. Sophie represents the engaged European intellectual, but her ideological commitment is linked to her experience as a woman. Amid the death and terror of civil war, Sophie had been raped by a soldier. The rape ends her privileged and protected life, but for several months longer, she remains bound to her aristocratic past through Conrad and his friend Erick, with whom she had fallen in love. Her political sympathy for the Reds, which Erick acknowledges as "the one thing she had of her own," remains steady, even against Erick's ridicule and criticism. Except in her political convictions, Sophie yields to Erick's mastery, and he manipulates "Sophie's subservience." Her submissiveness ends only after she discovers the nature of his close relationship with her brother. Then, she denounces Erick in obscenities, and responds to his calling her a streetwalker by spitting in his face. Abandoning her position as Countess de Reval and joining the workers' revolution, she acts on her convictions. Her rebellion against Erick's sadistic domination combines political and sexual liberation.
Yourcenar's portrayal of Sophie is a complex rendering of the possible responses to the threat of violence. Her irregular affair with an authoritarian figure seems to parallel Russia's changing relationship to Germany between 1917 and 1938. Sophie's early submissiveness to Erick represents Bolshevik Russia's 1917 armistice with Germany, and her later defiance suggests Russia's 1938 resistance to Hitler's demand for the partition of Czechoslovakia.
Sophie and Erick meet once more, after Conrad's death, but she refuses to submit to his mercy. She defies Erick's authority to the end. By requesting that Erick, not one of his subordinates, be her executioner, Sophie assumes the dominant role. Erick executes her as a revolutionary, and when his first shot fails to kill her, he delivers the coup de grâce.
At the end of her novel, Yourcenar chooses not to close the narrative frame, inflicting without mediation Erick's final self-justifying assertion: "One is always trapped, somehow, in dealings with women." The reader rejects his appropriation of the universal "one" and reinterprets the story just concluded.
Erick, in his self-deluding, falsely heroic narrative, seeks to intimidate his listeners into accepting his interpretation of events. He anticipates his audience's objections by admitting, "this summary that I am dishing up to you is made in retrospect, like History itself," thus claiming the authority of History for his summary. Earlier, he had asserted, "I feel too strongly that each of our actions is an absolute, a thing complete, necessary and inevitable, although unforeseen a moment before and past history the moment after," but his principle seems manufactured in retrospect to explain his executing Sophie. If Erick cannot foresee how he will act, if his violence has meaning only in retrospect, then he cannot be held responsible for killing Sophie, any more than he holds himself responsible for drunkenly taking a prostitute. The reader, however, is not trapped in Erick's persona.
Yourcenar, by forcing us to endure Erick's domineering voice, compels our active response. Her portrayal of his authoritarian personality, embodied in the form as well as the content of his confessional narrative, is so clearly defined that we recoil from it, appalled. The interplay between Erick's history and our response, guided by Sophie's acts and few words, explores the bond between domineering and submissive personalities. The tension is defined sexually, as well as politically, in terms of authority and power.
Erick's confession reveals his penchant for violence whenever his desires have been frustrated. Though he proudly rejects cruelty, his assertion unconsciously slips from killing to making love: "I preferred to deal out death without embellishment…. In the matter of love, too, I hold for perfection unadorned." His sadism is revealed as he imagines Sophie as flesh yielding equally to his knife or his lips: "the ravishing sweetness of a fruit that is ripe for the cutting, or consuming." His assertion that "Love had made her a glove in my hands" reminds us of the peculiarly cruel torture of the Letts, which Erick had earlier described to deny its attraction for him: the "Chinese Hand" involved slapping the victim "with the skin of his own hand stripped from him while he was alive." The image of a slap becomes actual when Erick slaps Sophie so forcefully that he breaks her string of pearls.
In Erick, Yourcenar offers a savage caricature that is repulsive; and yet, Erick's personality is fascinating. He is as much a victim of his cult of force as is Sophie. Erick cannot imagine himself except as a victim, "a crushed finger," or as a powerful leader, like Napoleon. He can envision Conrad as his disciple or brother, and therefore not threatening, but Sophie, in his fantasy, must be either an asexual saint or an eager whore.
He candidly admits: "Between Sophie and me an intimacy swiftly sprang up like that between victim and executioner. The cruelty was not of my making … but it is not so certain that the whole situation was not to my liking." Erick's comparison of their intimacy to "that between victim and executioner" predicts his final act, and his admission that he liked the situation is a truth that slips out, like others in his confession, as if by accident. The psychological source of his cruelty toward Sophie is his repulsion from female sexuality. He shudders just as he is about to kiss her, and at that moment recalls being terrified by a starfish thrust into his little hand by his mother. Since his fear and loathing of female genitalia are linked to his resentment of his mother's authority, his hostility toward Sophie finds expression in images of authoritative, destructive, passionate heroines.
Significantly, Erick compares Sophie to "a heroine in Ibsen utterly fed up with life." He envisions her savagely poking a fire, so she embodies for him the volatile, threatening, and self-destructive Hedda Gabler. Though Sophie cannot burn Erick's confessional narrative, he nevertheless associates her with fire. Sophie, dancing, twirls "like a flame." Asserting his mastery over her element, he notes, "Fire may be trusted, provided one knows that its law is to burn, or to die." Because her desire threatens him, he tries to stand aloof, allowing her fire to consume herself alone. Like Dido and Aeneas, Sophie and Erick take shelter together during a rainstorm, but Sophie's well-lit fire dries their clothes without kindling Erick's desire or turning him aside from his aimless career as a soldier of fortune. On their journey home from this interlude, he put his "arm round her, like a lover, to force her down beside me in a ditch," to shelter her from bullets, but he physically reasserts his mastery. The passionate Dido threw herself on a funeral pyre, but Sophie escapes.
Conrad also escapes, but only through his death. Linking his youthful docility to an inevitable decline, Erick imagines with dread an older Conrad, prey to an "insidious dissolution, like the loathsome decay of iris; those sombre flowers, though nobly shaped like a lance, die miserably in their own sticky secretion, in marked contrast to the slow, heroic dying of the rose." This extraordinary passage, with its phallic iris and its genital rose, suggests the sexual roles Erick unconsciously assigns to himself and to Conrad.
Erick describes Conrad as "pale and elated as Orestes in the opening of Racine's play," and he lovingly notes "a small scar on his lip, like a dark violet." This allusion to the opening scene of Andromache, where the dialogue between Orestes and his comrade Pylades establishes them as a couple, hints at Erick's love for Conrad; however, the allusion also recalls the violence and the entrapment of Andromache's tragic passion.
The connection between sexuality, violence, and entrapment appears in a powerful image, which Erick once consciously employs as he defines the relationship between individual actions and history: "They say that fate excels in tightening the cord round the victim's neck, but to my knowledge her special skill is to break all ties." Erick might wish all ties with his past were broken, but his narrative reveals only tightening cords. The image recurs without his explicit commentary in the pearl necklace he breaks from around Sophie's neck as he slaps her. Despite his disingenuous claim that the necklace was worthless, he carried it with him for years. The image also recurs in the torture suffered by one of Sophie's lovers: Franz von Aland, captured by the enemy, had a cord tied round his neck, and then set on fire; his body was found "with a charred wound round the neck." Two explications of this image, one political and one sexual, are connected.
German diplomats and intellectuals justified both their aggression in the First World War and their 1938 demand for the Sudetenland by depicting the German nation surrounded by hostile rivals, seeking only to break free of the encirclement. The humiliation of German defeat in 1918 fueled support for the nationalistic claims on territory in 1938–39, as a buffer against the Communist Slavs in Russia. Fear of encirclement and the humiliation of defeat combine in Erick's actions at Gourna, where his leadership in the retreat is one of the blots on his military career.
In Yourcenar's psychological portrait of Erick, we see the child feeling trapped by the mother who gave birth. The son rebels against her authority and seeks to break free of the woman's body. The trap is linked to marriage in Erick's ambiguous admission, on his return from the Gourna retreat, "perhaps I was avoiding stepping back immediately into the trap where I now consented to be caught," which alludes to his earlier assertion, "I was prepared to pledge myself to her immediately upon my return." His frantic desire to escape from encirclement by the Bolsheviks at Gourna corresponds to his fear of entrapment by Sophie. By sending Volkmar back to Sophie's estate, Erick insures that she will learn of his homosexual relationship with Conrad. Such knowledge ends Sophie's desire for Erick and releases him from the trap. The connection between the political and the sexual may be seen in Erick's final assertion: "One is always trapped, somehow, in dealings with women." The trap, piège, is a noose, a circle used to catch the victim's head.
Yourcenar's timely and sensitive evaluation of the historical and psychological roots of fascism deserves critical appreciation. She has admitted that in writing this historical novel she immersed herself in documents about the Germans fighting in the Baltic in 1919–1920, and, though she denies that the political confrontation was her subject, Coup de Grâce offers a political critique of modern culture. By defining her three characters in the context of their sexual identities and political history, she requires the reader's personal, intimate, judgment to make appropriate connections with contemporary events.
Yourcenar has stated, "In our epoch, more than in preceding epochs, politics plays a major role in our lives, whether we wish it and sense it or not. Consequently, even if we evoke a completely private adventure no more than five or ten years old, we encounter certain deeds which are already 'historical,' in the most official sense of the term, and of which we must take account." Erick's apparently open confession of his private adventure requires the reader's collaborative, close study to determine the historical significance of his affair in 1919. Looking back, the reader must evaluate Erick's authoritarian domination by force, as well as Conrad's subservience and Sophie's defiance. In her portrait of these three complex personalities, Yourcenar held a mirror up to the European state of mind in 1939.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1659
SOURCE: "Marguerite Yourcenar," in An Artificial Wilderness: Essays on 20th-Century Literature, William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1987, pp. 157-61.
[Birkerts is an American critic and educator who has won numerous awards and grants for his essays on literature. In the following essay, which was originally published in 1984, he addresses the theme of male homosexuality in Alexis and Memoirs of Hadrian.]
In her "Reflections on the Composition of Memoirs of Hadrian," Marguerite Yourcenar has described in some detail the halting yet seemingly fated progress of that book. Originally begun between 1924 and 1930, abandoned, resumed, it was abandoned again before the war, for the last time—or so the author thought then. In 1948, however, when Yourcenar was living in America, and old trunk full of papers and letters was returned to her. She tells how she seated herself in front of a fire and undertook the sad reconnaissance of her past. Letters were read and consigned to the flames, long-forgotten faces were recalled. Then: "I came upon four or five typewritten sheets, the paper of which had turned yellow. The salutation told me nothing. 'My dear Mark …' Mark … What friend or love, what distant relative was this? It was several minutes before I remembered that Mark stood here for Marcus Aurelius, and that I had in hand a fragment of the lost manuscript. From that moment there was no question but that this book must be taken up again, whatever the cost."
The long gestation bore magnificent results: the narrative, at once intimate and austere, reconstitutes with its burnished images the empire of second-century Rome. Largely on the strength of Hadrian, Yourcenar was elected to the Académie Française in 1981. She was the first woman ever thus honored.
During the period of the original drafting of Hadrian's letter to Marcus Aurelius, Yourcenar also completed the short novel Alexis (published in 1929), which appeared in English for the first time in 1984. Alexis is, like Hadrian, an epistolary self-accounting. But whereas Hadrian hoards the memories of a turbulent life against the onset of death, Alexis is little more than a congeries of hints and evasions. What Oscar Wilde called "the love that dare not speak its name" tries to come across in a low whisper.
Alexis, a successful young pianist, is writing to Monique, his aristocratic young wife, to explain his desertion. He has decided, after some agonizing (which is either genuine or pro forma—part of the trouble is that we're not sure), that he must be free to indulge his sexual preference. But this is Europe at the turn of the century, and with his refined sensibility, Alexis cannot come right out with the news. No, he constructs a lacework of hints and withholdings and coy reprimands to himself: nothing must injure the delicacy of feeling that is between them. It is of freedom that Alexis speaks, but his idiom is that of entrapment: "But, you see, I am hesitating; every word I write takes me a little further from what I wanted to express at the very outset…." One thinks recurrently of Prufrock.
The apologia begins with some muted evocations of childhood. Alexis was a solitary dreamer; he grew up in a once-fine manor in Bohemia, surrounded by the ghosts of energetic ancestors and by the tranquil affections of his mother and sisters. We are to imagine the subtle ways in which a disposition is shaped, though from time to time Alexis supplies a speculative nudge. Recalling his sister's girlhood friends, for example, he writes: "Nothing would appear to have prevented me from loving one of these girls, and perhaps you yourself find it strange that I did not…. One does not lose one's heart to what one respects, nor perhaps even to what one loves; above all, one does not lose one's heart to what resembles oneself—and it was not women I was most different from." To this he adds, bringing himself to the threshold of confession: "Monique, do you understand me?"
In time, of course, Alexis has to come to the point—a good letter, like any other prose, needs to develop in some direction. So, after endless tergiversation, he avers that there was an original incident, an initiation. Not that he is especially graphic: it happened somewhere along a road, by a hedge, with someone, somehow. He gives no name, face, or sensation. And yet we are to believe that this furtive, shameful event set him on his track. Not right away, naturally. Before he can accept himself, Alexis must suffer the lacerating cycle: penitence, denial, sudden abandoned indulgence, reaffirmed penitence. He comes to see that his marriage represents the supreme denial, and that the letter of confession is the record of his victory.
All of this could make for a fascinating narrative. The opposition of passion and the taboo has always been a source of the most irresistible tension in fiction. But this tension can neither gather nor release itself in the realm of abstraction. "I shall not describe the hallucinatory quest for pleasure," writes Alexis, "the potential mortifications, and the bitterness of a moral humiliation much worse than the sin itself…." It's exactly what he should have done. Portrayed with such detachment Alexis's escapades do not have the force of passion that, from his perspective, is their principal justification.
Yourcenar wrote Alexis when she was twenty-four. She states in the recently written preface that she has resisted the temptation to revise or modernize the book; though she obviously recognizes the radically changed social perception of the homosexual, she contends that the difficulties facing the individual are much the same. Doubtless she is right, but my guess is that few homosexuals will find confirmation or self-recognition in the maunderings of this young man. Their value is mainly historical—they tell us something about the status of the unspoken, or unspeakable, in a certain milieu at a certain time.
How very different is the gravid fullness of Hadrian (1955) or the warts-and-all portraiture of The Abyss (1976). In those novels, too, Yourcenar represents love between men—Hadrian's devotion to the young Antinous is especially moving; but in both the rendering is so robust and unconstrained that it scarcely seems we are reading about a reality long proscribed. One could argue, obviously, that both novels are historical and treat of periods less distorted by sexual repression (Rome in the early empire, Flanders in the sixteenth century). At some point, however, the psychobiographer will get restive and demand his say.
Male love, not lesbianism, is a central subject in Yourcenar's novels. And yet Yourcenar has never made any secret of her own sexual preference. Clearly she has found in male homosexual love a useful figure, one that affords certain emblematic similarities and at the same time allows her to keep artistic distance. If this is so, then it is not unreasonable to speculate that the lapse of time between Alexis and Hadrian—more than two decades—coincided with a great personal liberation, that Alexis was the projection of a crisis that had been overcome by the time Hadrian was written. Or, to put it another way, that there was a tension about sexual identity that had to be overcome in order that Hadrian could take the form it does. Yourcenar's essay on that novel has a great deal to say about the difficulty of achieving historical empathy. Nothing is said about the matter of sexual empathy, which is hardly irrelevant.
Yourcenar's imaginative transformations raise some interesting, if unanswerable, questions. Why, for instance, does she not write about lesbian love? Or, if we accept that she has a need to distance and refigure the personal, then we have to ask whether there is, in fact, a ready interchange-ability between lesbian and male homosexual love. Are the emotional and situational registers so parallel that one can stand in for the other, or is this possible only through some obscure private conversion?
Provocative though they may be, these are topics better left in the biographer's care. For us it is enough that Yourcenar in her best work is one of the great anatomists of the human psyche. The sexual disposition of Hadrian, or the philosopher Zeno in The Abyss, is less important, ultimately, than the highly kindled flux of inner life she depicts, that hovering between passion and detachment that, to a greater or lesser extent, characterizes us all.
Inseparable from this is her superb craftsmanship. Yourcenar is one of the last exponents of what used to be known, at least in France, as the "classical" prose style. Such a style aspires to lucidity and balance, a certain cool stateliness. In Yourcenar's hands it achieves a supple sensuousness as well, for she will freely modulate from the abstract to the concrete wherever appropriate. Here is Hadrian discoursing on love:
That mysterious play which extends from love of a body to love of an entire person has seemed to me noble enough to consecrate to it one part of my life. Words for it are deceiving, since the word for pleasure covers contradictory realities comprising notions of warmth, sweetness, and intimacy of bodies, but also feelings of violence and agony, and the sound of a cry. The short and obscene sentence of Poseidonius about the rubbing together of two small pieces of flesh, which I have seen you copy in your exercise books with the application of a good schoolboy, does no more to define the phenomenon of love than the cord touched by a finger accounts for the infinite miracle of sounds. Such a dictum is less an insult to pleasure than to the flesh itself, that amazing instrument of muscles, blood and skin, that redtinged cloud whose lightning is the soul.
With the passing of the classical style we have lost this kind of music. It may not be suited to the transmission of the modern sense of discord, but it embodies an element of human continuity that literature cannot easily do without.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6171
SOURCE: An interview in The Paris Review, Vol. 30, No. 106, Spring, 1988, pp. 229-49.
[Guppy is an Iranian-born writer and critic who has served as the London editor of The Paris Review. In the following interview, which was conducted in April 1987, Yourcenar discusses her life, career, and literary influences.]
I had an appointment with Marguerite Yourcenar on Saturday, November 14, 1987 at her hotel in Amsterdam. I was told that she had not arrived, that several people had been looking for her, including her driver, and that no one knew where she was. Further telephone calls to her home in Maine and to her publishers in Paris revealed that she had had a slight stroke and was recovering, and that there was no cause for concern. She did not recover, and died on December 18th. She was eighty-four.
I had first interviewed her on April 11th in London and later sent her the typescript for corrections. It had come back with a good deal of amendment, carefully written on the text and on separate sheets of paper. I was grateful that she had taken so much trouble over it, but she was still not quite satisfied and wanted to see me again, go through it with me and make sure that everything was exactly as she intended. I was happily anticipating our meeting in Amsterdam, but it was not to be. The following introduction was written after our meeting in London. I have left it in the present tense.
Marguerite Yourcenar has the ardent imagination and clear, intense blue eyes of her Flemish ancestors. The rich, many-colored subtlety of her great novels—Memoirs of Hadrian, The Abyss, Alexis, Coup de Grâce, and others—is reminiscent of their intricate tapestries, while her sublime mystical appreciation of Nature and its beauty evokes the golden age of landscape painting in the Low Countries. For years she has been considered one of France's most distinguished and original writers; yet it was not until 1981, when she was the first woman ever to "join the Immortals" and be elected to the French Academy in the four hundred years of its existence, that she was discovered by the general public.
Marguerite Yourcenar was born in 1903 into a patrician Franco-Belgian family. (Yourcenar is an anagram of her real name à particule, de Crayencour.) Her mother died of puerperal fever shortly after her birth, and she was brought up by her father, a great reader and traveler, who taught her Latin and Greek and read the French classics with her. They lived in various European countries and she learned English and Italian as well.
She published two volumes of poetry in her teens, "which are frankly oeuvres de jeunesse and never to be republished." Her two novellas, Alexis and Coup de Grâce, appeared in 1929 and 1939 respectively, during which time she lived mostly in Greece, and won her critical acclaim. In 1938 she met Grace Frick in Paris, who later "admirably translated" three of her major books. When the war came in 1939 and she could not return to Greece, she was offered hospitality in the USA by Grace Frick, "since she had not the means of living in Paris." To support herself, she took a teaching job at Sarah Lawrence College. She also began to write her masterpiece, Memoirs of Hadrian, which was published in 1954.
In 1950 Yourcenar and Frick bought a house in Mount Desert Island, off the coast of Maine, where they lived between long journeys abroad. Grace Frick died in 1979 after a long illness, but Marguerite Yourcenar still lives there, though she continues to travel extensively.
Her latest book, Two Lives and a Dream, was published recently in England, and she is now working on Le Labyrinthe du Monde, completing the autobiographical triptych which began with Souvenirs Pieux and Archives du Nord. She has just written a long essay on Borges—a lecture given recently at Harvard.
Marguerite Yourcenar's intellectual vigor and curiosity are still prodigious, despite age and an open-heart operation two years ago. She has just translated James Baldwin's The Amen Corner and Yukio Mishima's Five Modern No Plays into French, from the original English and Japanese, helped for the latter by her friend J.M. Shisagi, Mishima's executor. She was in London briefly for the publication of Two Lives and a Dream, and this interview took place at her hotel in Chelsea. She was elegantly dressed in black and white and spoke an exquisite French, with a markedly patrician accent, in a deep, mellifluous tone.
[Guppy]: You have just spent the day in Richmond; was it just to walk in the beautiful park there or for some other reason?
[Yourcenar]: Well, it had to do with the book I am writing at the moment, which is a book built entirely of memories, and in the present chapter I evoke the fourteen months I spent in England when I was twelve and we lived in Richmond. But where exactly I can't recall. I saw dozens of little houses in as many streets, all looking alike, with tiny gardens, but I couldn't tell which one was ours. It was during the first and second years of World War I, which unlike the Second World War did not drop from the sky in England—there were no bomb alerts or blitzes. I used to go for long walks in Richmond Park on fine days and to museums in London when it rained. I saw the Elgin Marbles at the British Museum and went to the Victoria and Albert frequently. I used to drop my sweet wrappings in a porcelain dragon there—I bet they're still there!
What is your new book to be called?
The French title is Quoi? L'Eternité, which is from a poem of Rimbaud's: "Quoi? L'Eternite, elle est retrouvée." The book is the third volume of my memoirs. The other two are being translated into English at the moment. There are certain words one can't translate literally, and one has to change them. For example the first volume is called Souvenirs Pieux in French, and I have translated it as Dear Departed, which conveys the same nuance of irony. The second volume is called Archives du Nord, but "the North" in another language evokes a different image: in England the North refers to Manchester, or even Scotland; in Holland it is the Fresian Isles, which has nothing to do with the North of France. So I have changed it completely, and taken the first line of a Bob Dylan song—"Blowin' in the Wind." I quote the song inside as an epigraph: "How many roads must a man walk down / Before you can call him a man?" It is very beautiful, don't you think? At least it defines well my father's life, and many lives. But to come to the present volume, I don't think "Quoi? L'Eternité" would work in English, and we will have to find another title. Among the Elizabethan poets there must be quantities of quotations about eternity, so I think I might find something there.
Let's go back to the beginning. You were very close to your father. He encouraged you to write and he published your first poems. It was a limited edition and I believe is now unobtainable. What do you think of them in retrospect?
My father had them published at his own expense—a sort of compliment from him. He shouldn't have done—they were not much good. I was only sixteen. I liked writing, but I had no literary ambitions. I had all these characters and stories in me, but I had hardly any knowledge of history and none of life to do anything with them. I could say that all my books were conceived by the time I was twenty, although they were not to be written for another thirty or forty years. But perhaps this is true of most writers—the emotional storage is done very early on.
This relates to what you once said, that "Books are not life, only its ashes." Do you still believe that?
Yes, but books are also a way of learning to feel more acutely. Writing is a way of going to the depth of Being.
From your father's death in 1929 to 1939 you only published two novellas, Alexis and Coup de Grâce, which you said were based on people you knew. Who were they?
My father loved an extraordinary woman, exceedingly free in her private life yet of an almost heroic morality. She chose to remain with her husband though her real attraction was for a man who was Alexis. As for Coup de Grâce, I can now tell you that Sophie is very close to me at twenty, and Eric, the young man ardently attached to her own brother whom she falls in love with, was someone I knew, but political problems separated us. Of course one never knows how close fictional characters are to real people. At the beginning of my memoirs I say, "L'être que j'appelle moi"—the person I call myself—which means that I don't know who I am. Does one ever?
Next came Memoirs of Hadrian which was immediately hailed as a masterpiece and became a bestseller all over the world. Why did you choose the historical novel as a genre?
I have never written a historical novel in my life. I dislike most historical novels. I wrote a monologue about Hadrian's life, as it could have been seen by himself. I can point out that this treatise-monologue was a common literary genre of the period and that others besides Hadrian had done it. Hadrian is a very intelligent man, enriched by all the traditions of his time, while Zenon, the protagonist of The Abyss (L'Oeuvre au Noir) is also very intelligent and in advance of his time—indeed of all other epochs too—and is defeated at the end. Nathanaël, the hero of the third panel, Two Lives and a Dream, is by contrast a simple, nearly uneducated man who dies at twenty-eight of tuberculosis. He is a sailor at first who becomes shipwrecked off the coast of Maine in America, marries a girl who dies of T.B., travels back to England and Holland, marries a second time a woman who turns out to be a thief and a prostitute, and is finally taken up by a wealthy Dutch family. For the first time he comes into contact with culture—listens to music, looks at paintings, lives in luxury. But he keeps a clear head and sharp eyes, because he knows that while he is listening to music in the hospital, opposite his house men and women are suffering and dying of disease. Eventually he is sent away to an island in the North and dies in peace, surrounded by wild animals and nature. The question is: how far can one go without accepting any culture? The answer is, for Nathanaël, very far, through lucidity of mind and humility of heart.
You met Grace Frick, who later translated Hadrian, in 1938. Did you move to the States straight away?
At first only for a few months. I was living in Greece then, in Athens. I came to Paris for a visit and the War broke out. I could not go back to Greece and had no money to live in Paris. Grace, with infinite kindness, asked me to come to America for a while. I thought it would be for six months, but there I still am!
What made you choose Mount Desert Island?
We had a friend who was a Professor of Theology at Yale. In 1940 he took a house in Maine while he was on sabbatical, and asked his friends to come and stay. Grace and I went to visit him, and thought that it would be nice to have a house in this still (then) peaceful island. Grace went all over the villages on horseback and became known as "the lady who is looking for a house"! There were luxury houses, sort of chalets for millionnaires, or village houses with no facilities, and nothing in between. We finally bought a simple house and modernized it, putting in central heating and a few other amenities. Did you know that Mount Desert was discovered by the French sailor and explorer Champlain? His ship developed some trouble and he had to stay there for a while to have it repaired. He named it Mount Desert, but alas it is now anything but deserted, and in summer boatloads of tourists pour in from everywhere.
One striking aspect of your work is that nearly all your protagonists have been male homosexuals: Alexis, Eric, Hadrian, Zenon, Mishima. Why is it that you have never created a woman who would be an example of female sexual deviance?
I do not like the word homosexual, which I think is dangerous—for it enhances prejudice—and absurd. Say "gay" if you must. Anyway, homosexuality, as you call it, is not the same phenomenon in a man as in a woman. Love for women in a woman is different from love for men in a man. I know a number of "gay" men, but relatively few openly "gay" women. But let us go back to a passage in Hadrian where he says that a man who thinks, who is engaged upon a philosophical problem or devising a theorem, is neither a man nor a woman, nor even human. He is something else. It is very rare that one could say that about a woman. It does happen, but very seldom; for example the woman whom my father loved was very sensuous and also in terms of her times an "intellectual," but the greatest element of her life was love, especially love for her husband. Even without reaching the high level of someone like Hadrian, one is in the same mental space, and it is unimportant whether one is a man or a woman. Can I say also that love between women interests me less, because I have never met with a great example of it.
But there are writers, like Gertrude Stein and Colette, who have tried to illuminate female homosexuality.
I do not happen to like Colette and Gertrude Stein. The latter is completely foreign to me; Colette, in matters of eroticism, often falls to the level of a Parisian concierge. You look for an example of a woman who is in love with another woman, but how is she in love? Is it an ardent passion of a few months? Or a bond of friendship over a long period? Or something in between? When you are in love you're in love—the sex of the beloved does not matter very much. What matters is the feelings, emotions, relationships between people.
Nonetheless, having portrayed Hadrian so eloquently, could you have done something similar on, say, Sappho? And you have been very discreet about your own life, with Grace Frick for example.
We must set Sappho aside, since we know next to nothing about her. As for my own life: there are times when one must reveal certain things, because otherwise things could not be said with verisimilitude. For example, as I said, Sophie's story in Coup de Grâce is based on a true incident. But I was always, as they say, "more intellectually oriented" than Sophie. And I was not raped by a Lithuanian sergeant, nor lodged in a ruined castle! As for my relationship with Grace Frick, I met her when we were both women of a certain age, and it went through different stages: first passionate friendship, then the usual story of two people living and travelling together for the sake of convenience and because they have common literary interests. During the last ten years of her life she was very ill. For the last eight years she couldn't travel and that's why I stayed in Maine during those winters. I tried to help her til the end, but she was no longer the center of my existence, and perhaps had never been. The same is true reciprocally, of course. But what is love? This species of ardor, of warmth, that propels one inexorably towards another being? Why give so much importance to the genitourinary system of people? It does not define a whole being, and it is not even erotically true. What matters, as I said, concerns emotions, relationships. But whom you fall in love with depends largely on chance.
Do you think the emphasis on the physical, sexual aspect of love is due partly to psychoanalysis? Perhaps this is what Anna Akhmatova meant when she said "Freud ruined literature."
Freud turns sexuality into a sort of metaphor, and a metaphor not quite worked out. It seems that he was a great innovator, being the first to speak of sexuality with frankness. But that does not make his theories acceptable. But he did not ruin literature—it was not in his power to do so, since literature is a very great thing. And then no one thinks of Freud in terms of his time and circumstances. He came from a poor, orthodox Jewish family, living in a little provincial town. Naturally, as a young professor, he was struck by examples of pleasure in Vienna. As a result he saw the world from this double perspective.
It is not so much his pioneering work as a doctor one questions now, but his philosophic-psychological extrapolations.
Quite so. He makes a number of extravagant extrapolations, starting from very limited, restricted and small premises. Hence its attraction for the modern world. But he was the first man to speak about sexuality with sincerity and frankness, when it was still taboo. So everyone was fascinated. But we can now say to him: Thank you for your pioneering effort, but to us it is not a new venture, nor a total discovery. As a great psychologist I prefer Jung. He was sometimes strange, but there was genius in his madness. He was more a poet and had a larger perception of human nature. In his memoirs (Memories, Dreams and Reflections) you are often confronted with the mystery of life itself. For example, his mother hatred, so strong that a table breaks itself in two when they are together! A stunning para-psychological episode or a beautiful symbol?
Is it because beyond a certain level the male-female dichotomy is irrelevant to you that you have not been interested in feminism? What has been your relationship to the feminist movement of the last few decades?
It does not interest me. I have a horror of such movements, because I think that an intelligent woman is worth an intelligent man—if you can find any—and that a stupid woman is every bit as boring as her male counterpart. Human wickedness is almost equally distributed between the two sexes.
Is that why you did not wish to be published by Virago Press in England?
I did not want to be published by them—what a name!—because they publish only women. It reminds one of ladies' compartments in nineteenth-century trains, or of a ghetto, or simply of those basements of restaurants where one is confronted by a door marked Women and another marked Men. But of course there are social differences, and geographical ones. The Muslim woman is somewhat more restricted. But even there, I have just spent the winter in Morocco, and when I saw women walking arm in arm, going to the Hammam (public baths)—a place which is not all like the Turkish baths one imagines through Ingres's pictures, and where any minute one risks one's neck, so slippery it is—well, those women often seem happier than their Parisian or New Yorker sisters. They get a lot out of their friendships. There was a Mughol princess called Jahanara, the daughter of Sultan Jahan, an admirable poet. I have found too little information concerning her, but she was initiated to Sufism by her brother, the admirable Prince Dara, assassinated in his thirties by his brother, the fanatic Aurangzarb. So you see even Muslim women could achieve eminence despite their circumstances, if they had it in them.
Because Sufism liberates them from the rigid confines of Orthodox Islam. There is another Sufi poetess, Rabe'a. She wrote most of her surviving poems with her blood when they opened her veins in a warm bath until she bled to death. At least that's the story. It was a common punishment for heretics then, and Sufis were, on and off, considered heretical.
Jahanara was not murdered, but the Sufi Master who had initiated her and her brother Dara was finally put to death.
Going back to your work, your book Fires is a series of monologues written from the point of view of women …
The impersonal narrator, who writes the small linking sentences, is also evidently a woman, but her reflections on love are genderless. There are three monologues which concern men—Achilles, Petroclus, and Phedros—and with them we are in the world of Alexis. On the other hand Phedre, Antigone, Clytemnestra, Sappho, Lena, are women, ranging from supreme greatness (Antigone) to vulgarity (Clytemnestra).
You mentioned once that what you wished to do through your work was to revive le sense du sacré. It is a common complaint that today we have lost the sense of the sacred—even those who have greatly contributed to this state of affairs complain about it! Will you expand on it a bit more, in relation to your work?
The sacred is the very essence of life. To be aware of the sacred even as I am holding this glass is therefore essential. I mean this glass has a form, which is very beautiful, and which evokes the great mystery of void and plenitude that has haunted the Chinese for centuries. Inside, the glass can serve as a receptacle, for ambrosia or poison. What matters to the Taoists is the Void. And glass was invented by someone we don't know. As I say in The Abyss, when Zenon is lying down in his monk's cell, "the dead are far away and we can't reach them, nor even the living." Who made this table? If we tried to find our how every object around us came into being we would spend our lives doing it. Everything is too far away in the past, or mysteriously too close.
To what do you attribute this loss of the sacred? Is it due, as some maintain, to the development of capitalism and its corollary, consumerism?
Certainly consumerism has a lot to answer for. One lives in a commercialized society against which one must struggle. But it is not easy. As soon as one is dealing with the media one becomes their victim. But have we really lost the sense of the sacred? I wonder! Because unfortunately in the past the sacred was intricately mixed with superstition, and people came to consider superstitious even that which was not. For example, peasants believed that it was better to sow the grain at full moon. But they were quite right: that is the moment when the sap rises, drawn by gravitation. What is frightening is the loss of the sacred in human, particularly sexual relationships, because then no true union is possible.
Perhaps this feeling for the sacred is the reason why you are particularly interested in ecology and conservation?
It is most important. The Dutch have kindly elected me to their Academy, the Erasmus Institute for the Arts and Letters. Unlike its French counterpart it includes a substantial prize, half of which one has to donate to a charity. I gave mine to the World Wildlife Organization. They protested at first, saying that the Institute was for the promotion of the Arts and Letters, not lions and birds! But I said that I would have to refuse the prize unless I could make my gift, and they accepted. How sincere are the Green and Ecology parties, and how much of it is political posturing, I simply do not know. But something has to be done before it is too late. It is almost too late already, with the acid rain destroying Europe's forests and the defoliation of the tropical forests in South America.
Talking about the Academy, you were the first woman in four hundred years to be elected to the French Academy. How did it happen? I ask this because traditionally one must make an application and go canvassing with other members. One reads heart-wrenching letters from past candidates, notably Baudelaire, begging the members to vote for them.
Poor Baudelaire! He had greatly suffered from the condemnation of some of his poems, Les Fleurs du Mal, and membership in the Academy for him could have been revenge. In my case Jean d'Ormesson wrote asking me if I would object to being nominated, without any visit or other effort on my part. I said no, finding it discourteous to refuse. I was wrong. There are a few serious and interesting Academicians; there are also, and always have been, more mediocre choices. Furthermore, the Academy, like the Figaro, where most Academicians do write, represents now a more or less strongly rightist group. I am myself neither rightist nor leftist. I did refuse to wear the Academy's uniform—my long black velvet skirt and cape were designed by St. Laurent. And of course I refused the customary gift of the sword. But I received a Hadrian coin from voluntary contributors.
Since your election to the Academy you have become much better known to the general public and lionized by the literary world. Do you mix with the Parisian literary society?
I do not know what being lionized means, and I dislike all literary worlds, because they represent false values. A few great works and a few great books are important. They are aside and apart from any "world" or "society."
I would like to go back again to the early days and talk about your influences. You have been compared to Gide by many people. Was he an influence? For example, they say that Nathanaël, the hero of your Two Lives and a Dream, is named after the one in Gide's Les Nourritures Terrestres. Is that true?
I don't like Gide very much. I find him dry and sometimes superficial. I chose Nathanaël because it is a Puritan name, and he is a young Dutch sailor from a Puritan family. Other members of the family are called Lazarus or Eli for the same reason. They are Biblical names and have no connection with Gide's book. We are very far from the state of happy inebriation presented by Gide in the Nourritures, and which is no longer possible in our time, in the face of so much madness and chaos.
But Alexis has the form of a Gidian récit …
A récit in the form of a letter is an old literary French form. I have said that the gratitude young writers felt for Gide was, to a large extent, because of his use of classical prose forms. But why choose any one in particular? There are hundreds of great books in different languages by which we all are or should be influenced.
Of course, but there are always certain affinities with various writers. Who are they in your case? Baudelaire, Racine, the Romantics?
Baudelaire certainly; and some of the Romantics. The French Middle Ages much more, and certain poets of the seventeenth century, such as Ménard, "La Belle Vieille," and many, many other poets, French and non-French. Racine up to a point, but he is such a unique case that no one can be compared to him.
Except for Britanicus all his protagonists were women: Phedre, Berenice, Nathalie, Roxane, etc …
Proust had this idea that Racine's Phedre could be identified with a man as well as a woman. But Racine's Phedre is much more French than Greek: you will see it at once if you compare her to the Greek Phedre. Her passionate jealousy is a typical theme of French literature, just as it is in Proust. That is why even in Phedre Racine had to find her a rival, Aricie, who is an insignificant character, like a bridal from a popular dress shop. In other words, love as possession, against someone. And that is prodigiously French. Spanish jealousy is quite different: it is real hatred, the despair of someone who has been deprived of his/her food. As for the Anglo-Saxon love, well, there is nothing more beautiful than Shakespeare's sonnets, while German love has produced some wonderful poetry too.
I have this theory that the French do not understand Baudelaire and never have. They speak of his rhetoric, yet he is the least rhetorical of poets. He writes like an Oriental poet—dare I say like a Persian poet?
Baudelaire is a sublime poet. But the French don't even understand Hugo, who is also a sublime poet. I have—as Malraux also did—taken titles from Hugo's verses: Le Cerveau Noir de Piranèse, and others. Whenever I am passing by Place Vendôme in Paris I recall Hugo's poem in which he is thinking of Napoleon, wondering if he should prefer "la courbe d'Hannibal et l'angle d'Alexandre au carré de César." A whole strategy contained in one line of Alexandrine! Of course there are times when Hugo is bad and rhetorical—even great poets have their off days—but nonetheless he is prodigious.
Is this what Gide meant when he said: "Victor Hugo, hélas"?
To have said "hélas" is proof of a certain smallness in Gide.
He also rejected Proust's manuscript of Swann's Way, saying, "Here is the story of a little boy who can't go to sleep"!
We were talking about jealousy: maybe Gide was jealous of Proust; or perhaps he honestly could not like the long and subjective beginning of the Temps Perdu. He was not, as we are, cognizant of Proust's whole work.
So who was a decisive influence on you in youth?
As I said in the preface to Alexis, at the time it was Rilke. But this business of influence is a tricky one. One reads thousands of books, of poets, modern and ancient, as one meets thousands of people. What remains of it all is hard to tell.
You mentioned modern poets. Which ones for example?
There is a Swedish poet whom I have never succeeded in introducing to my French friends: Gunnard Ekelof. He has written three little books called Divans, I suppose influenced by Persian poetry. And, of course, Borges, and some of Lorca's poems, and Pessoa, Apollinaire.
Talking about, Borges, what about other South American writers, the whole school of Magical Realism?
I don't like them—they are like factory products.
What about the literature of your adopted country, the United States?
I'm afraid I haven't read much. I have read a lot of things unconnected with Western literature. At the moment I am reading a huge book by a Moroccan Sufi poet, books on ecology, sagas from Iceland, and so on.
But surely you must have read writers like Henry James, Faulkner, Hemingway, Edith Wharton?
Some. There are great moments in Hemingway, for example "The Battler" or, even better, "The Killers," which is a masterpiece of the American short story. It is a tale of revenge in the underworld, and it is excellent. Edith Wharton's short stories seem to me much better than her novels. Ethan Frome, for example, is the story of a peasant of New England. In it the protagonist, a woman of the world, puts herself in his place and describes the life of these people in winter, when all the roads are frozen, isolated. It is short and very beautiful. Faulkner brings with him the true horror of the South, the illiteracy and racism of poor whites. As for Henry James, the best definition is the one by Somerset Maugham, when he said that Henry James was an alpinist, equipped to conquer the Himalayas, and walked up Beaker Street! Henry James was crushed by his stifling milieu—his sister, his mother, even his brother who was a genius but of a more philosophical and professorial kind. James never told his own truth.
You have just translated The Amen Corner, and I know that you admire James Baldwin and are a friend of his. What do you think of his work now?
Baldwin has written some admirable pages, but he does not have the courage to go to the end of his conclusions. He should have hit much harder. His life has been hard. He was one of nine children in Harlem, poor, a preacher at fifteen, a runaway at eighteen, working as a laborer, first in the Army during the War and later in the street, earning barely enough to survive. Somehow he gets to Paris where he manages to get himself incarcerated for the crime of having no fixed address and no profession. He has a drink problem now, but many American writers have had problems with drinking; perhaps it is due to the puritanism which has reigned over the American soul for so long. But at the same time, when the Americans are generous, cordial, intelligent, they are somehow more so than the Europeans. I know at least five or six Americans like that.
You are also interested in Japanese literature and your book on Mishima is considered one of the best essays on him. When did you get involved with Japan?
My interest in Japanese literature goes back to when I was about eighteen, and first discovered it through certain books. I read Mishima in French when he first appeared and found some of his work very beautiful. Later I saw that a great deal of absurdities were written about him and decided to write my book in order to present a more genuine Mishima. Now they have even made a detestable film of his life. Mrs. Mishima went to Hollywood and tried to stop it, but in vain. Four years ago I started learning Japanese, and after a while with the help of a Japanese friend translated Mishima's Five Modern No Plays into French. They are beautiful.
Traveling extensively as you do, how do you manage to write? Where do you find so much energy, and what is your work routine?
I write everywhere. I could write here, as I am talking to you. When in Maine or elsewhere, when I am traveling, I write wherever I am or whenever I can. Writing doesn't require too much energy—it is a relaxation, and a joy.
Looking back on your life, do you feel that you have had a "good" life, as the expression goes?
I don't know what a good life is. But how can one not be sad looking at the world around us at present? But there are also moments when I feel—to use a military expression my father liked—that "it is all counted as leave" (Tout ça compte dans le congé!). Happiness sometimes exists.
You are also interested in Sufism, and are planning an essay on Jahanara. What attracts you to it? I am particularly interested because I come from that tradition.
It is a philosophy which deals with the Divine as the essence of perfection, which is the Friend, and which the Buddhists seek within themselves, knowing that it comes from themselves, that liberation is from within. But I can't say that I am a Buddhist or a Sufi, or a socialist. I don't belong to any doctrine in particular. But there are spiritual affinities.
It seems crass to ask of someone as remarkably youthful and energetic as you are whether you ever think of death?
I think about it all the time. There are moments when I am tempted to believe that there is at least a part of the personality that survives, and others when I don't think so at all. I am tempted to see things as Honda does, in Mishima's last book, the one he finished the day he died. Honda, the principal character, realizes that he has been lucky enough to have loved four people, but that they were all the same person in different forms, in, if you like, successive reincarnations. The fifth time he has made a mistake and the error has cost him dearly. He realizes that the essence of these people is somewhere in the universe and that some day, perhaps in ten thousand years or more, he will find them again, in other forms, without even recognizing them. Of course, reincarnation here is only a word, one of the many possible words to stress a certain continuity. Certainly all the physical evidence points to our total annihilation, but if one also considers all the metaphysical données, one is tempted to say that it is not as simple as that.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2118
SOURCE: A review of Oriental Tales, in Comparative Literature Studies, Vol. 24, No. 3, September, 1987, pp. 302-07.
[In the following review, Czynski lauds Yourcenar's writing style and discusses Oriental Tales in relation to the development of the short story genre. Czynski also comments on some of the inadequacies he sees in Alberto Manguel's translation of the collection.]
To journey is to appropriate the world; distances hitherto descried as limitless barriers are resolved into horizons of the mind, unified therein. The journeyer may voyage in space and time: Marco Polo's Description of the World (c. 1300), Kipling's From Sea to Sea (1899), Kazantzakis' Voyage to Japan and China (1938). The journeyer may set forth within the realm of the literary imagination: James Hilton's Lost Horizon (1933), Peter Shaffer's The Royal Hunt of the Sun (1964), Endō Shūsaku's Samurai (1980; English trans., 1982). Marguerite Yourcenar's collection of ten Oriental Tales (Nouvelles orientales, 1938) is a transposition at once of both modes of journeying, exemplifying as well a unique meeting of East and West.
During the 1920s and '30s, when Marguerite Yourcenar voyaged to Greece visiting the countries bordering the Adriatic and the eastern Mediterranean, her ever-exploring mind transposed what she saw and heard into the domain of prose fiction. She pursued thus her eastward journey along the paths of folk-tale, legend, and literature, her gaze seeking out the distant horizons of India, China, and Japan. Hence, the adjective "Oriental" in the title is justified, all the more so since in French "the Orient" encompasses eastern Europe (Polish is considered a langue orientale, an "eastern tongue"), Russia, the Near East, and all the countries and seas extending as far as the Land of the Rising Sun.
Marguerite Yourcenar, a resident of Mount Desert Island, Maine, is known to English-speaking readers as the authoress of Memoirs of Hadrian, splendidly translated almost three decades ago by Grace Frick in collaboration with Ms. Yourcenar, and as the first woman writer to be elected to the Académie Française (1980). She herself has translated into French "Negro Spirituals," with commentaries, under the title Deep torrent, Dark river (1964). Her long-standing interest in Japan is especially manifest in a 125-page essay (recently translated into English) on the novelist Mishima Yukio entitled Mishima, or the Vision of Emptiness (1980).
The reproduction of a detail from a painting by Tao-chi (China, 1641–1710)—Returning Home (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)—as the central image of the dustjacket design, executed by Cynthia Krupat, is to be commended as an appropriate choice. The publisher's blurb thereon is, however, a simplification that misrepresents the nature of this recital of tales. Specifically, it is an error to state that Marguerite Yourcenar's stories "follow no established tradition."
First of all, the volume had its precedent, as Ms. Yourcenar avows in Les Yeux ouverts, in Gobineau's six Nouvelles asiatiques, published in 1876. As in the case of Gobineau's nouvelles, the majority of Ms. Yourcenar's short stories originally appeared in periodicals, hers during the years 1928–1937. Whereas Gobineau's romantic and exotic Tales of Asia are longer than the Nouvelles orientales, both collections do illustrate the genre termed nouvelle. In essence, this designates a short piece of narrative prose, occasionally enclosed within a prologue and an epilogue, the primary focus of which is a brief sequence of events undertaken, or undergone, by the principal figure or figures, rather than, as in the novel, character-development in a psychological or Bildungsroman sense. Indeed, the central character is more or less static, sketched monochromatically, and in some measure allegorical, while the events, situations, or episodes of conflict to which the narrative framework is restricted culminate in a comic, or tragic, climax that surprises even as it is seen to be the inevitable outcome of the circumstances. The inexorable unfolding of the plot-logic of Somerset Maugham's short stories is exemplary in this regard; John Barth's volume of novellas Chimera (1973) is a contemporary illustration of the genre's survival.
Secondly, Marguerite Yourcenar did indeed deliberately compose within the traditions of the nouvelle (short story) and the conte (tale), for both terms appear in her Postscript as applicable to one or another of the ten stories. The first edition of this work appeared in 1938 in the Gallimard series "La Renaissance de la Nouvelle," such designation likewise underscoring the literary lineage. Since then, the collection, augmented with a tenth story in 1978, underwent two stylistic revisions, published in 1963 and 1979. Both editions contain slightly different Postscripts offering authorial insights into the origins and themes of these culturally diverse prose-fantasias and retellings of folk and classical literature and myth. The ten stories are individually so multifariously rich and so gracefully wrought, novels-in-miniature one is tempted to say, that the delights of rereading—surprise renewed, wisdom gleaned, reflections provoked—are most devoutly, and long-lastingly, to be savoured.
"How Wang-Fo was saved" (or "spared"; the hyphen is unnecessary between the surname and the given-name), the opening piece in the recital, is a retelling of a Taoist morality-tale concerning an aged painter, Master Wang "the Buddha-aspirant" ("Fo" signifies "the Buddha"). It illustrates a certain magical dimension intrinsic to the metaphysical continuum bridging a work of art and imitated reality. It may well have been inspired by a passage in Arthur Waley's book on Chinese painting Introduction to the Study of Chinese Painting (1923) wherein Waley alludes to the T'ang dynasty painter Wu Tao-tzu (fl. early eighth century): "The Taoists have annexed [Wu] as one of their divinities and tell us that he disappeared into one of his own pictures." In like manner, master of the brush Wang Fo comes to be spared the evil designs of imperial wrath through both his art and the (post-mortem!) devotion of his faithful disciple Ling. The realm of the fantastic is thus one with the domain of the real.
The second piece introduces the reader to a Serbian folk-hero, Marko Kraljević, whose patriotic and death-defying exploits in the face of Turkish brutality reveal a singular and admirable weakness, itself a moral strength leading to more than military victory. A conquest of a different order ensues: omnia vincit amor, as Vergil has said. The ninth piece, composed in 1978, tells of Marko's fateful encounter with a formidable Old Man, he who has always vanquished Life with the relentless grip of his invisible hands.
The third is based on a mediaeval Balkan folk-ballad, as naively touching as any work of hagiography evoking the miraculous powers of motherhood.
The fourth depicts the twilight hours of Genji the Shining Prince's long day's journey into night. This account of the death of the Shining Prince was inspired, as Ms. Yourcenar informs us in Les Yeux ouverts, by her reading of Arthur Waley's majestic translation in several volumes of the greatest Japanese novel, The Tale of Genji, written in the early eleventh century by Lady Murasaki Shikibu. (It has been devotedly and masterfully translated anew by Edward Seidensticker.) The impending darkness of Genji's eternal rest is metaphorically anticipated by both his physical blindness and that of his heart, blind to the devotion of the noblewoman whose love was never truly acknowledged. In this prose-fantasia Marguerite Yourcenar has succeeded, as indeed she so intended, in portraying with poignantly drawn strokes of poetry Prince Genji's late years and last days in a manner worthy of Japan's preeminent novelist, who was, we should reiterate, an authoress. Herein Genji's death, passed over in silence by Murasaki Shikibu, incarnates a pathos surpassed only by the tragedy that darkened Ling's wedded life, told in the opening tale.
The fifth takes the reader to twentieth-century Greece where the Nereids, beauteous nymph-daughters of the sea in the pre-Homeric age, bestow upon an innocent youth the calamitous delights of courtship unsought, the euphoria of mythic misfortune. The sixth transports us to fourth-century Greece at the time of Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, whose disciple Therapion encounters the compassionate Blessed Virgin while he is engaged in the zealous pursuit, indeed persecution, of a different species of nymph, denied by him their rightful place in the divine economy. In this fantasia the authoress suggests the origin of the name of a chapel found in the Athens countryside. The seventh piece returns us to Greece of the 1920s and '30s, calling to mind the village world of Zorba the Greek. It is the retelling of a folk-anecdote which unfolds, in dramatically poised, heart-laden steps, the grim tale of primitive passions incarnate in a peasant widow whose very name, Aphrodissia, betrays her nature, if not her fate.
The eighth, set in India, retells a Hindu myth concerning the Fierce Goddess, Kali, demonic consort of Śiva, she who symbolizes the inherent discords of human nature, its broken harmonies, the spirit ever in conflict with what Tennessee Williams called, in Night of the Iguana, "the earth's obscene, corrupting love."
The tenth and closing piece concerns a Dutch portrait painter, Cornelius Berg, an embittered contemporary of Rembrandt's who comes to wish that God had never created mankind. For man the city-dweller and Naturequeller has defiled Creation's primordial beauties. The tulips cultivated by Berg's old friend symbolize an artificial paradise, insofar as they cannot obliterate awareness of all manner of ugliness and squalor brought by men into the world, robbing it thus of its blessed, pristine harmony. The recital thus opens and closes with reflections on man's possible redemption attained through a self-effacing Art. Indeed, this little book embodies such an endeavor as it proclaims that very hope.
The present translation was carried out by Alberto Manguel, apparently in collaboration with Ms. Yourcenar. Unfortunately, the original texts, having had to wait almost half a century to receive their English garb, were not, in contrast to the collaborative fruit Memoirs of Hadrian, as well outfitted as they deserved to be. Far greater justice could have been rendered to the poetic virtues of the French. The choice of English rendering is often not equal to the literary level of the original; moreover, a few clauses have been unjustifiably omitted, as well as a word or phrase here and there. Furthermore, a spontaneous dimension of storytelling is lost when car ("for") is, in all but one or two occurrences, turned into the expository "because." In several instances the word chosen is inaccurate. Chevreuil is given once as "she-goat" (ludicrously incongruous in the context), and in the second occurrence as the plural "wild deer"; in both cases it signifies the miniature and delicate "roe-deer." In the language of the King James Version, Creation is characterized as God's "handiwork," not "His handicraft" as in the translation (the French is oeuvre). In the short story about Wang Fo, the Tu addressed to the Emperor should be rendered "Thou" and "Thee," thereby maintaining the distinction between the honorific second-person singular and the informal tu ("you") uttered to the humble painter, the latter tu conveying the nuance of "lowly subject."
In the tale of Prince Genji linguistic matters are more complicated. The name Murasaki, shared by the authoress and a quasi-autobiographical character, and correctly rendered in the French as Violette, was exotically transformed into "Wisteria." This is unjustified, despite the common attribute of color: fuji is the flower (forming only part of Murasaki Shikibu's clan name, Fujiwara, "Fields-of-Wisteria"), murasaki its purple and blue-lilac hues. "Lady-of-the-Convulvulus-Pavilion" is rather stilted. The flower in question is the morning glory (asago in Japanese: lit. "Face of the dawn"; volubilis in French). Hence, "Lady-of-the-Morning-glory-Pavilion" is preferable. Chujo, a court-rank used as an appellation, should have a macron over the "u" indicating a prolonged vowel: thus, Chūjo. "Lady-Cricket-in-the-Garden" should more evocatively be "Lady-of-the-Cicada-Arbour." This late-summer insect (semi in Japanese, cigale in French) is a perennial subject of Japanese poetry, as in the haikai verse of Bashō (1644–94) wherein the short-lived insect's chirping cry, innocent of imminent death in the unrestrained vigor of its voice, bespeaks an intimation of mortality, symbolizing thus the pathos known only to humankind. By way of conclusion, then, these are not stories told just for the telling. If we seek to discern a leitmotif in this sequence of old tales poured into new wine bottles, we shall find variations of Vergil's sunt lacrimae rerum. In "How Wang-Fo was saved" the Emperor, denouncing the old master's art as a deception, exclaims (in my translation): "The world is nought but a jumble of indistinct brushstrokes cast pell-mell by an artist void of reason, and ceaselessly washed away by the purifying flow of our tears." There are, as each story testifies, tears of joy and of sorrow for what befalls us: hearts will ever be moved by the vicissitudes to which we are prey, the ills and blessings of mortality to which we are, saints and sinners, heir. Marguerite Yourcenar is a journeyer who, having appropriated the world, has transcended space and time in her noble and masterly evocations of this, our so benighted heritage.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1902
SOURCE: "Marguerite Yourcenar: 1903–1987," in Belles Lettres: A Review of Books by Women, Vol. 4, No. 1, Fall, 1988, p. 8.
[Schmidt is an American critic and educator. In the following review of With Open Eyes, A Coin in Nine Hands, and Two Lives and a Dream, she lauds Yourcenar's work.]
The date March 6, 1980, was memorable for French women writers. On that day, Marguerite Yourcenar became the first and so far only woman ever elected to the prestigious 345-year-old body of French writers, the French Academy. However, as she recounts in With Open Eyes, the informative series of conversations she had with French literary critic Matthieu Galey, she herself was publicly indifferent to membership in the academy of "Immortals."
For two contradictory reasons, Yourcenar remains an enigma to many feminists. First, she was not interested in striking a victory for women by becoming a member of the Academy, and second, she was, above all other contemporary French women writers, extremely acceptable to the French male literary establishment. At the core of any attempt by a feminist to understand Yourcenar's acceptability to that establishment, both in France and abroad, is the essential fact found in her biography that the only parent she ever knew was her father, since her mother died only days after her birth in 1903 in Brussels.
In With Open Eyes, Yourcenar sums up the father/daughter relationship in two succinct yet revealing statements: "We helped each other" and "We thought of each other as equals." Her father, Michel Crayencourt (Yourcenar is an anagram of her family name, which her father helped her invent), was a French aristocrat who welcomed his daughter into the world of male privilege. Early in her childhood, her ambition was to write something important and make an impression on people through her pen. Because of her father, she grew to believe that being female would never be a tremendous obstacle. She also shared the feeling with him that she was destined for something great. "I had a strange certainty that I was somebody."
Yourcenar was twenty-four years old when her father died. Their bond had been loving, respectful, and meaningful. He was the one who told her many stories about her mother, a highly intelligent Belgian aristocrat who read avidly, loved the classics, and, in the 1890s despite her family's disapproval, arranged to learn Greek and Latin with tutors. One can easily see how the seeds of Yourcenar's life were present in her mother's life and why loss and separation would be recurring themes in her works.
The void of never having known her mother was filled by her companion Grace Frick, an American academic whom Yourcenar met while in her early twenties. After her father's death, she found solace in their friendship and the deep bond they shared. Frick invited Marguerite to move to New York City in 1939 during an obviously troubled time in Europe, helped find their future home in 1949 on Mount Desert Island off the coast of Maine, and translated her monumental novel The Memoirs of Hadrian into English. In total, Frick and Yourcenar spent almost forty years together.
Besides the many details of Yourcenar's personal life, With Open Eyes reveals her political opinions and her views on love, racism, and feminism. She was suspicious of labels and never called herself a feminist, viewing feminism as "particularism" or a type of "racism in reverse," which is not difficult to understand from the point of view of a European who witnessed fascism firsthand. Yet she told each woman to reject the "artificial image" that society "reflects back to her" and encouraged women to be full human beings who are also women ("un être humain femme"). Furthermore, she was always in the vanguard of many issues important to feminists: the fight against nuclear power and weapons, pollution, and cruelty to animals, and the belief in ecology. She frequently sent telegrams to public officials and government agencies to support these causes: her way to be engaged in direct activism. To her, all living things were part of a greater whole, a view that was also present in her novels. Although Yourcenar never embraced feminism, she exemplified part of the diversity of female responses and experiences under patriarchal rule.
Attentive readers of Yourcenar find that she has added immensely to women's writing about being caught in a double bind. She also started her literary career addressing taboo topics such as homosexuality ("a word I find annoying"), bisexuality, and incest. She demonstrated great courage in these themes. Through development of them by her and by her protagonists of both sexes, she successfully analyzed and exposed the social structure or deconstructed the patriarchy, in current feminist terminology. She chose bisexuality and sexual "inversion" (a seventeenth-century French literary device still used in Yourcenar's time, in which females are endowed with some "male" qualities and males are endowed with some "female" qualities) as means to a solution for dealing with the reality of the human condition for both men and women in a patriarchal society. The implicit subtext in her novels sets out to solve the sexual problem, which for her was an admitted inability "to see why anyone would want to make a distinction between homosexual love and love in general." For the rest of her life, she swam against the tide in her pursuit of bisexuality as a topic of interest because she saw men as they were and did not assume that their masculinity was total and exclusive. She made the same supposition concerning femininity.
A Coin in Nine Hands was written in the 1930s while Yourcenar was living in Italy. This carefully constructed novel set in fascist Italy examines the world of male power gone mad. The presence of the dictator Mussolini looms above the lives of the characters like Big Brother in 1984. Yourcenar connected the major characters through the device of a coin passed from one to the next. This novel, begun in 1934, was revised and rewritten in 1958–59 because the author felt that the first version was too stylized and not reflective of the real and tangible misery of the period.
The antifascist hero in this novel, Carlo Stevo, never appears directly. Marcella, the proletarian heroine and one of Stevo's followers, holds political views diametrically opposed to those of her husband, Dr. Alessandro Sarte, a doctor for fascists. The couple have been estranged from the beginning of the novel. Her husband delivers the news of Stevo's death, and at first she does not believe him but later finds out it is true. Marcella then reveals her plan to kill Mussolini. She even tells him that she will use his gun, for which she exchanges some coins as a token payment. Alessandro does not believe her plan and thinks she is crazy. At this point, coins begin to forebode doom by being linked to the coins found in Judas Iscariot's pocket.
"'How alone I am,' she thought." Yourcenar purposely pointed out the extreme isolation of women in acts of courage such as the one Marcella commits: Marcella saw her target, then "fired and missed." She will be killed by the mob. Only the character Mother Dida validates her act: "She must have had courage to do a thing like that." The novel ends with images of darkness and all characters sleeping.
Unlike authors of the past, Yourcenar left ample explanations of her work. In A Coin in Nine Hands, she furnished her readers with an afterword, in which she explained why she revised this novel after being distanced from it over time. She was proud of the book because "it was one of the first French novels (maybe the very first) to confront the hollow reality behind the bloated facade of Fascism."
Two Lives and a Dream (1987) is a collection of three novellas. Nathaniel, the protagonist in An Obscure Man, is a highly sympathetic character with strong similarities to Voltaire's Candide and to Félicité in Flaubert's A Simple Heart. The novella, set in Amsterdam, opens with a flashback before Nathaniel's death. He wanders through life in an "ebb and flow" as a gentle, loyal, and sensitive man with some education in English and Latin. A picaro type of character, he flees to the New World after thinking he has killed a man in self-defense.
Sexual inversion and role reversal are used throughout. Nathaniel is thought "effeminate" because he cannot kill an animal without being ill. In the same way, Foy, one of the female characters, is characterized as working "like a man."
For Nathaniel, every living organism is connected. He becomes ill and is exiled on an island, where he faces death alone, surrounded by the sounds and wonders of nature. He has lived in harmony with nature, and he seeks his favorite place on the island to die. Some time before death, he reflects on his sense of self and identity. In summing up his character, Yourcenar notes, "nor did he particularly consider himself male in contrast with the gentle order of women."
The second novella, A Lovely Morning, is also set in Amsterdam. Lazarus, Nathaniel's twelve-year-old son from a disintegrated marriage, is the protagonist. Like his father, he is sensitive and kind. He knows about his mother's death but not his father's, and he lives in his grandmother's house, where a visitor teaches him to read, and, eventually, to act parts in plays. Lazarus is content to play different roles, both male and female, and is convincing in the latter. His life is filled with infinite possibilities through acting. The novella ends on a positive note with one of Lazarus's theatrical performances.
Anna, Soror, the most intriguing of the three novellas, focuses on Yourcenar's most taboo topic: incest. The setting is Naples in 1575. As in The Memoirs of Hadrian, Yourcenar used a French neoclassical practice of distancing herself from her own period in order to gain perspective on her characters.
The aristocrat Don Alvaro and his beautiful wife, Valentina, have two children, Anna and Miguel, who are mirror images. "One could have been mistaken for the other." Valentina contracts malaria, and as her illness worsens, an attraction builds between her children. At her deathbed, Anna and Miguel reveal their true feelings claiming, "We love each other." And Valentina replies, "I know."
Eventually they consummate their love, keeping it a secret. But Miguel dies in a naval battle, and Anna tries to deny to herself that incest ever occurred. Yet Miguel's memory lives on in her mind. Years later, on her own deathbed, she utters, "Mi amado" ("My lover"). But the nuns in the convent where she dies assume the predictable. "They thought she was speaking to God. Perhaps she was."
Throughout her career as a writer, Marguerite Yourcenar championed one taboo topic after another in her oeuvre. Among her many accomplishments were eight novels, four books of essays, three books of autobiography, four volumes of plays, four books of poetry and prose poems, and six translations, the most notable being Virginia Woolf's The Waves. Yourcenar was thus a poet, novelist, playwright, essayist, critic, translator, activist, ecologist, and citizen of the world. She was remarkable because she never ceased working. Before her death at age eighty-four in a Maine hospital, she was in the process of finishing the last volume of her autobiography, entitled Quoi? l'Éternité, or What? Eternity. That word, eternity, is her final message. Her opus will assure her place in literature as a true "Immortal."
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6602
SOURCE: "The Way It Was," in History and the Contemporary Novel, Southern Illinois University Press, 1989, pp. 31-75.
[Cowart is an American critic and educator who has written extensively on modern literature. In the following excerpt, he provides a detailed discussion of the main themes in Memoirs of Hadrian, analyzing in particular Yourcenar's re-creation of the classical world and ancient "Rome's mental life."]
The reader who would know the feel of Roman life in the second century finds in Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian an extraordinary feat of literary, spiritual, and mental archeology. Yourcenar makes the past live through her literary skill and through the exercise of an imagination disciplined by scrupulous scholarship. By focusing the novel on one man's lifelong pursuit of order, liberty, self-knowledge, and the good life, she makes his story a cultural history of politics, society, and thought in ancient Rome. She brings to life a Roman emperor almost two thousand years dead, and with him the myths, the science, the mores, the philosophy, the very consciousness of an age long past. She overcomes the disparities between ancient and modern cultural attitudes. She shows her reader the way it was.
Memoirs of Hadrian stands up well in comparison with other modern and contemporary novels set in the Roman world, including Graves's I, Claudius and Claudius the God, Broch's The Death of Virgil, Robert DeMaria's Clodia, John Williams's Augustus, Hersey's The Conspiracy, Wilder's The Ides of March, and Vidal's Julian. Yourcenar matches Williams for psychological precision, and she matches Graves for erudition. Indeed, her erudition is less eccentric, and one suspects a comment on Graves when her Hadrian hints that Suetonius—Graves's chief source for the Claudius novels—may have distorted the history he was charged with recording. Though less technically innovative than Broch, Yourcenar achieves substantially more control, precision, and economy. In her prose, finally, and in her direct sensuous apprehension of a bygone reality, she outclasses all these other writers.
Though Vidal, Williams, and Hersey all follow Yourcenar in the epistolary structure of their novels, none manages the acuteness of her psychological portrait. By casting her novel in the form of an autobiographical letter from the Emperor Hadrian to Marcus Aurelius, his adoptive grandson and a future caesar himself, she enables the reader to experience the mental life of the refined and hellenized ruler who did much to consolidate Rome's fabled status as "eternal city." Early in his letter Hadrian promises Marcus Aurelius "a recital stripped of preconceived ideas and of mere abstract principles; it is drawn wholly from the experience of one man, who is myself. I am trusting to this examination of facts to give me some definition of myself, and to judge myself, perhaps, or at the very least to know myself better before I die." Hadrian's personal goal mirrors the goal of both history and art: knowledge of the human reality. Yourcenar, through Hadrian, intimates a relationship between self-knowledge and knowledge of the past. One of the things that makes Memoirs of Hadrian a good historical novel is the interweaving in it of psychology and history, personal self-knowledge and cultural self-knowledge, the manifest psychological and spiritual rewards of the one enriched and made yet more meaningful by the other.
Hadrian offers an instructive contrast to that other aged monarch, King Lear. Lear "hath ever but slenderly known himself," as one of his vicious daughters remarks, and Shakespeare's drama demonstrates, among other things, the ramifications of such culpable and dangerous nescience. Lear's ignorance on this point reflects what seems a generalized ignorance among the characters of the play with regard to the past, or at least the civilized past, of the kingdom they inhabit. Thus no one—not even the sensible Kent—thinks to advance the argument of history against Lear's proposed division of a kingdom. Lacking both personal and collective self-knowledge, Lear and his realm easily revert or regress to a savage state—from which "history" must begin all over again.
Unlike Lear, Hadrian maintains contact with a cultural and personal past. He is a man of historical sensibility, like his imperial predecessor Claudius. But in contrast to Claudius, who could do little more than study history, Hadrian actually directs it. As Yourcenar conceives of him, he is that rarity, the thinker who can also lead.
He can also write. The emperor's prose discovers an accomplished man of letters, a modest poet, a discriminating lover of literature. He produces a shapely narrative, with well-turned paragraphs and sentences that hover at the distant periphery of epigram. Every expression combines what Chaucer calls "solas" and "sentence."
But Hadrian's stylistic virtues generate difficulties. In conferring upon her narrator these literary gifts, which complicate his task of self-examination, Yourcenar complicates her own task of historical re-creation, which depends greatly on the emperor's credibility. Hadrian aspires to candor in his narrative yet cannot help the tendency of his polished prose to gainsay all that might make him seem less than exemplary. One becomes suspicious of such an artful narrator. One notices, for example, his remarkable ability to reveal his virtues without seeming proud and his flaws without seeming vicious. At times, after all, Hadrian cloaks actions that might seem vicious or unbalanced in language so measured and reasonable as to forestall opprobrium, and only by acts of rigorous discrimination does the reader perceive a disparity between the thing reported—the endless and extravagant memorials to Antinous, say—and the elegant terms of the reporting. Throughout the narrative, in fact, Hadrian affects a tone implying passions long since banked.
The point is not that Hadrian means to deceive. One can recollect and report a violent action or a violent grief in tranquility, but sometimes one can belie an emotion's original violence by the artful language in which one describes it. The problem—it is really Yourcenar's—concerns narrative technique: how to circumscribe the tendency of a rhetorically sophisticated narrator to compromise psychological and historical accuracy. Yourcenar, the translator into French of Henry James and Virginia Woolf, handles this technical challenge with great resourcefulness. She creates in Hadrian a narrator just unreliable enough to remain human. She reports in her "Reflections on the Composition of Memoirs of Hadrian" that as her fictional emperor took on autonomous life—as the characters of a good writer properly do—she retained the necessary detachment. "At certain moments, though very seldom, it has occurred to me that the emperor was lying. In such cases I had to let him lie, like the rest of us." Thus the reader encounters Antinous, for example, "through the emperor's memories, that is to say, in passionately meticulous detail, not devoid of a few errors." Even when the emperor does not lie consciously, the ideal of psychological accuracy dictates that he make mistakes or color certain events with his own mild prejudice.
Yourcenar's refusal to make the emperor a paragon, a Roman King Arthur, argues a judicious and discriminating approach to recapturing the way it was. Though she perceives Hadrian as "a very great man," she seeks to give her readers a real person whose essential honesty and wisdom do not preclude occasional mistakes, poor judgment, and moral lapses. Her emperor, however admirable, remains a human being, subject to the distortions of character that inevitably accompany power. Thus he admits to striking Antinous; he exiles Favorinus for his sharp tongue and Juvenal for mocking a favorite actor; Suetonius he forces into retirement, and Apollodorus he has executed as part of the Servianus faction. Most shocking of all, perhaps, he drives a stylus into the eye of a contentious scribe in a fit of pique. Some readers find this last detail simply incredible—an odd lapse on the part of both author and character. Jean Blot, a French critic, complains that "this act remains impossible, unrealistic, gratuitous. The gentleman of the Memoirs is constitutionally incapable of this kind of brutality." But the inclusion of this incident is of crucial importance to balancing the insidious effects of the narrator's elegant prose. It forces the reader, in a moment of empathic mortification, to recognize other objectionable acts in their true light, acts for which allowances have perhaps too willingly been made. Between the shock value of this incident and the surprising number of dubious acts it causes to come suddenly into focus, Hadrian—and behind him Yourcenar—corrects for the tendency of good writing to neutralize confessional revelations.
Hadrian's candor regarding the number and the occasional severity of his lapses, then, has the effect of compensating for his artful presentation of them. His admissions ultimately witness to his essential honesty and integrity, for he could easily have passed over these embarrassing actions. His forthrightness in such matters makes one believe him when he disclaims the villainies imputed to him by his enemies—when, for example, he says that he did not poison his wife Sabina, that he does not prepare his own food out of fear, or that he did not order the deaths of "three intriguing scoundrels and a brute" who threatened his position after the death of Trajan. Both his real and imputed lapses, on the other hand, weigh less in the scale than his gestures of kindness and mature restraint—pardoning the slave's attempt on his life, for example, or declining the Senate's gestures of empty fawning ("the long series of honorary appellations which is draped like a fringed shawl round the necks of certain emperors"). Hadrian's civilized distaste for bloodletting, whether in the coliseum or in Parthia, would compensate for much more villainy than that with which the emperor manages to charge himself. One forgives any number of minor sins in a man who sanely turns his back on meaningless and counterproductive wars of conquest.
The emperor prefers to invest his energies in consolidating the peace and conserving the heritage of the past. As he remarks on his restoration of the tomb of Epaminondas, Hadrian feels the need "to commemorate … a time when everything, viewed at a distance, seems to have been noble, and simple, too, whether tenderness, glory, or death." He has ordered tombs, monuments, shrines, temples, and public buildings refurbished or rebuilt throughout the empire, and this work symbolizes the more abstract and awesome task of refurbishing Rome itself—its institutions, its power, its security, its ideals, its splendor, even its Hellenic pedigree. All of these had suffered under Tiberius, Caligula, Nero, and the rest of the mad or inverted or merely incompetent rulers between Augustus and Nerva.
"I have done much rebuilding. To reconstruct is to collaborate with time gone by, penetrating or modifying its spirit, and carrying it toward a longer future. Thus beneath the stones we find the secret of the springs." These remarks describe historical fiction no less than conservationism, for the author of an historical novel—this one, for example—also engages in an act of reconstruction, of collaboration with time gone by. Yourcenar seeks to uncover the vital origins of her own moribund culture. She, too, seeks the secret of the springs.
In addition to his other acts of cultural conservation, Hadrian builds libraries and orders books copied and recopied, for "each man fortunate enough to benefit to some degree from this legacy of culture seemed to me responsible for protecting it and holding it in trust for the human race." Yourcenar, herself an accomplished classical scholar, a beneficiary of Hadrian's sense of cultural responsibility, does her part to preserve and pass on the special vitality of the ancient world, to effect in some small measure the reinvigoration of a culture whose classical antecedents seem to lie in ruins. But to disinter the values of antiquity, she must first disinter a whole set of perceptions common to that world but now alien. She accomplishes this end primarily through an act of psychological reconstruction. Focusing on one man's psychological reality, she recreates the mind of Hadrian and thereby re-creates Hadrian's time as well. The reader looks into that mind as into a mirror angled to catch the light of a remote age.
Occasionally, however, the mirror reflects the age of the reader…. [A] historical novel will commonly function in one primary and one secondary mode; in this one the primary attention to the way it was does not preclude secondary reflections in a distant mirror. Thus Hadrian, with various degrees of conscious prevision, can from time to time address posterity and even show a later century its own face. He imagines at one point "a hypothetical empire governed from the West, an Atlantic world," and he sounds even more prescient when he describes the puritan work ethic and the materialistic and antlike societies of the future: "I can well imagine forms of servitude worse than our own, because more insidious, whether they transform men into stupid, complacent machines, who believe themselves free just when they are most subjugated, or whether to the exclusion of leisure and pleasures essential to man they develop a passion for work as violent as the passion for war among barbarous races. To such bondage for the human mind and imagination I prefer even our avowed slavery."
These touches alone represent mere glances toward the twentieth century, rather than an actual mirroring of the present in the past. The real mirroring is more a matter of atmosphere, for in her depiction of the autumnal civilization of Hadrian's Rome, the author invites the reader to recognize a later civilization, also past its prime. In her "Reflections on the Composition of Memoirs of Hadrian," Yourcenar explains that the novel, after a number of false starts beginning as early as the 1920s, really began to come together in her mind late in 1948, when "everything that the world … had gone through" seemed to illuminate her reading of ancient source materials on Hadrian, to cast "upon that imperial existence certain other lights and shades." She felt a special affinity with the long-dead emperor and his age, because "the fact of having lived in a world which is toppling" gave her a real appreciation of an age and a civilization that had to suffer a like dissolution of old values, old certainties, old sources of strength. "Both Plutarch and Marcus Aurelius knew full well that gods, and civilizations, pass and die. We are not the first to look upon an inexorable future."
But these features merely enhance the creation of an author whose primary energies serve the end of a faithful capturing of the past in its own unique character. Yourcenar realizes the difficulties of getting at historical truth, but she does not assume that it must therefore remain forever out of reach. In her "Reflections" on the novel she emphasizes the necessity of scrupulous research animated by an imagination capable of filling gaps with authority: "Learn everything, read everything, inquire into everything," she declares. Fill "hundreds of card notes," call before the mind's eye both people and actions, and recognize that divergent texts do not call each other into question but rather represent "different facets, or two successive stages, of the same reality, a reality convincingly human just because it is complex." She aspires to "constant participation, as intensely aware as possible, in that which has been," and she refuses "to suggest, as is too often done, that historical truth is never to be attained, in any of its aspects. With this kind of truth, as with all others, the problem is the same: one errs more or less." She recognizes that Hadrian himself seeks the truth, no less than the writer who aspires to present him accurately. True to her Roman orientation, she even invokes Pontius Pilate, whom the Western world has been conditioned to think singularly blind on the subject, as a wise man in matters of truth: "He who seeks passionately for truth, or at least for accuracy, is frequently the one best able to perceive, like Pilate, that truth is not absolute or pure."
Notwithstanding her respect for the usual kinds of historical research, Yourcenar places special emphasis on a kind of linking up with the mind of the past, and she reflects that "some five and twenty aged men, their withered hands interlinked to form a chain, would be enough to establish an unbroken contact between Hadrian and ourselves." She suggests with this figure the essential identity of history and personal memory. She elaborates by pointing out the "historical" aspects of a writer like Proust:
Those who put the historical novel in a category apart are forgetting that what every novelist does is only to interpret, by means of the techniques which his period affords, a certain number of past events; his memories, whether consciously or unconsciously recalled, whether personal or impersonal, are all woven of the same stuff as History itself…. In our day, when introspection tends to dominate literary forms, the historical novel, or what may for convenience's sake be called by that name, must take the plunge into time recaptured, and must fully establish itself within some inner world.
To know the past, this author implies, one must enter a representative mind of the past, live in that "inner world." But the attainment of such historical empathy remains problematic because of the extrinsic mental baggage accumulated over the centuries. The most cumbersome of this baggage is the set of religious and cultural assumptions intervening—and strengthened, down through the ages—between ancient Rome and today. When the Supreme Pontiff, the Vicar of Christ, supplanted the Pontifex Maximus (an event actually imagined by Hadrian), an enormous change in values took place. Julian, the fourth-century Byzantine emperor who tried, too late, to halt the Christian transformation, allegedly died murmuring "Vicisti Galilœe," and only the occasional Gibbon, who associated the rise of Christianity with the decline and fall of Rome, or Swinburne, who translated Julian's last words in the famous line "Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean," has registered the toll of Christian hegemony, given adequate expression to what the world lost by the new dispensation's displacement of the old.
Even the waning of Christianity in the modern world has done little to restore an older set of attitudes or perceptions in matters spiritual. Consequently, Yourcenar must take strong measures to bring home the radically different world view of Hadrian and his age. She allows the emperor to express opinions about Jews and Christians—mere common sense to the cultivated Romans of his day—that run shockingly counter to the received views of a later age. Hadrian, nonetheless, speaks as a religious man—but a religious man in the Roman tradition of thoroughgoing religious tolerance. He has little sympathy with all forms of fanaticism and intolerance. Receiving an apologia from one "Quadratus, a bishop of the Christians," Hadrian reads it thoughtfully and concedes the value of the solace that Christianity affords to simple and poor folk.
But I was aware, too, of certain dangers. Such glorification of virtues befitting children and slaves was made at the expense of more virile and intellectual qualities; under the narrow, vapid innocence I could detect the fierce intransigence of the sectarian in presence of forms of life and of thought which are not his own, the insolent pride which makes him value himself above other men, and his voluntarily circumscribed vision.
The Christians at least render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's. The Jews, on the other hand, cultivate a really monumental intransigence. Their resistance to the rebuilding of Jerusalem leads to blood-shed on a scale that appalls and sickens the "pacifically inclined" Hadrian. The costs of the savage conflict in Palestine, as the emperor recounts them, make grim reading: "In those four years of war fifty fortresses and more than nine hundred villages and towns had been sacked and destroyed; the enemy had lost nearly six hundred thousand men; battles, endemic fevers, and epidemics had taken nearly ninety thousand of ours." Hadrian reasons that only fanatics, "sectarians so obsessed by their god that they have neglected the human," could resist the Pax Romana so long and at such cost.
Hadrian overstates the fanaticism of the Jewish rebels. As Yourcenar remarked to Patrick de Rosbo, "He is incapable of admitting … that these people do not desire the benefits of Greco-Roman civilization." He also fails to consider how zealously he and his countrymen might resist another Carthaginian invasion of Italy. But in expressing his contempt for religious absolutism, Hadrian does not, as at least one critic has hinted, become the mouthpiece for an anachronistic and monstrous anti-Semitism. To impute anti-Semitism in the modern sense to either this character or his creator implies an odd expectation that the author will impose on historical material an inappropriate modern perspective. Yourcenar, writing only a few years after the opening of the death camps and the first modern Palestinian war (1948), takes certain risks here to establish the profound difference between the way ancient Romans thought about religion and the way those influenced by the Judeo-Christian heritage think about it.
One should note, however, that Yourcenar ironically undercuts her narrator when he speaks of "leaning against the trunk of a leafless fig tree" to observe the Roman assault on Bethar, the last Jewish stronghold. The oblique reference to an earlier Jew's least sensible gesture, the cursing of the fig tree, would seem to have something to do with the senselessness of the present bloodshed. But Hadrian probably remains unaware that he has touched on a famous incident in the New Testament, an incident traditionally held to symbolize the fate of the old Judaic dispensation at the coming of a new order. According to biblical interpreters, the fig tree cursed by Christ represents the tree of Judah, inherently unripe for miracle. In Yourcenar's context, the tree no longer vital enough for the new dispensation is ironically associated with Romans and Jews alike. Both face superannuation by crescive Christianity.
The toll of the Jewish war also figures in the novel's central myth—a myth so familiar to Hadrian and his correspondent as to require little direct reference. In writing of his life as a progression from early vigor and happiness to declining health and vitality, Hadrian recapitulates the Ages of Man, and the presence of this myth in his narrative, resonant with but distanced from its Judeo-Christian and psychoanalytic congeners, provides further evidence of Yourcenar's having immersed herself in psychological givens that differ from those of her own age. Yourcenar's subtle exploitation of the myth contributes to the accuracy of her historical reconstruction, so that the reader experiences not only the events of the past but also its half-conscious mythic thinking. This mythic thinking shapes Hadrian's narrative. From his accession to power and his relationship with Antinous to the dissolution of love and peace, Hadrian follows the archetypal pattern of slow wasting established in the cosmology of Hesiod and Ovid. According to the myth, the world began in an age of Gold, then declined successively to ages of Silver, Bronze, and Iron, with attendant changes in tutelary deities. Saturn ruled in the Golden Age, Jupiter in the Silver, and lesser gods thereafter. The terrestrial environment and its human inhabitants also changed. During the Golden Age, humanity lived peacefully in a kind of perennial spring, but subsequently the climate became harsher, the human beings more warlike and knavish.
Hadrian's recollections of the years with Antinous elicit the few direct references to this myth. "When I think back on these years," he declares in the chapter entitled "Saeculum Aureum," "I seem to return to the Age of Gold." Subsequently he describes this period as "truly an Olympian height in my life. All was there, the golden fringe of cloud, the eagles, and the cupbearer of immortality." The eagles belong iconographically to Rome, over which he reigns, and to Olympian Zeus, or Jupiter, with whom he identifies, and he recognizes his cupbearer, his Ganymede, in Antinous. But according to Hesiod, such voluptuousness—Hadrian even notes the anagrammatic relationship of Roma and Amor—belongs to the Age of Silver, not the Age of Gold. Hadrian, identifying with Jupiter, is actually at one remove from the Golden Age. Ironically, the emperor fails to see that the process of decline has already begun, that his real Golden Age had slipped by during his successful defense of the Dacian frontier, his rise to power, his wise treaties, his early, judicious rule. Then was he Saturnlike, enjoying "the virgin gold of respect," untouched as yet by the passing years because Saturn, qua Kronos, is master of time.
After Saturn and Jupiter comes Mars, and with him the Age of Bronze. In this age, says Ovid, "men were of a fiercer character, more ready to turn to cruel warfare" (Metamorphoses, I). Hadrian enters his Age of Bronze in the Jewish war, which seems in the narrative to follow hard upon the death of Antinous. The emperor understands that this war, with its multiple cruelties and endless bloodshed, represents a terrible decline from what has gone before in his life and in his reign, and he begins to glimpse an elemental process at work, eroding civilization itself. In a bleak moment he catalogues the cultural slippage: "I was beginning to find it natural, if not just, that we should perish. Our literature is nearing exhaustion, our arts are falling asleep; Pancrates is not Homer, nor is Arrian a Xenophon; when I have tried to immortalize Antinous in stone no Praxiteles has come to hand. Our sciences have been at a standstill from the times of Aristotle and Archimedes; our technical development is inadequate to the strain of a long war; even our pleasure-lovers grow weary of delight."
As Hadrian himself grows weary of delight, he enters the Age of Iron and even identifies with Pluto, its grim deity. Ovid says of the Iron Age: "friend was not safe from friend, nor father-in-law from son-in-law, and even between brothers affection was rare. Husbands waited eagerly for the death of their wives, and wives for that of their husbands." Thus at the end of his narrative Hadrian speaks with greatest frankness about the hostility between himself and his wife Sabina, and almost casually he orders the execution of his brother-in-law and grandnephew, Servianus and Fuscus. He even recapitulates his identification with the various deities associated with the Ages of Man: "men … no longer compare me, as they once did, to serene and radiant Zeus, but to Mars Gradivus, god of long campaigns and austere discipline…. Of late this pale, drawn visage, these fixed eyes and this tall body held straight by force of will, suggest to them Pluto, god of shades."
More painful to Hadrian than his personal griefs are the signs by which he recognizes Rome's fate, recognizes that "catastrophe and ruin will come." The Romans restore order on one frontier after another, but gradually the defenses crumble: "I could see the return of barbaric codes, of implacable gods, of unquestioned despotism of savage chieftains, a world broken up into enemy states and eternally prey to insecurity…. Our epoch, the faults and limitations of which I knew better than anyone else, would perhaps be considered one day, by contrast, as one of the golden ages of man." Thus the myth at the heart of Memoirs of Hadrian operates on several levels: one sees it in Hadrian's life, in the decline of the Roman Empire, and, most chillingly, in the decline over the centuries from Golden antiquity to the present Age of Iron. Part of the power of this myth, like the myth of Eden and its loss, lies in its ability to capture and reflect a sense of the progressive decay that time visits on individual human beings and on nations. It even anticipates the entropic decline posited by modern physicists.
Considerations of this kind prey on the mind of the emperor at the end of his reign because he has devoted his life to the promotion and consolidation of order. Hadrian's pursuit of this ideal constitutes the most important thematic thread in the novel; the prominence of the theme reveals how fully Yourcenar understands the man and the age that she sets out to present with fidelity. She recognizes, for example, that Hadrian's love of order springs from his regard for Greek culture no less than from the Roman values he must, as Caesar, preserve and protect. As Jacques Vier has remarked [in his "L'Empereur Hadrien vu par Marguerite Yourcenar," in the April 1979 issue of Etudes Littèraires], Hadrian embodies "the perfect accord of the Greek genius and the Latin genius." Thus he delights in contributing to the dissemination of the Greek heritage, and he labors to accelerate the grafting of the older culture onto its successors. He dreams, early in his career, "of Hellenizing the Barbarians and Atticizing Rome, thus imposing upon the world by degrees the only culture which has once for all separated itself from the monstrous, the shapeless, and the inert, the only one to have invented a definition of method, a system of politics, and a theory of beauty."
Yet despite his own Hellenism, Hadrian remains a true Roman, for his vision of order goes beyond anything the Greeks ever achieved or even imagined. Alexander, after all, subjugated but did not stabilize, and The Republic, that most comprehensive Greek statement on the subject of political order, seems conceived exclusively on the scale of the city-state. Only a Roman could dream of tellus stabilita, and Hadrian, true to his heritage, wants an abiding imperial peace: "I could see myself as seconding the deity in his effort to give form and order to a world." This passion of Hadrian's extends to his most mundane imperial duties—he fosters a solid and capable civil service bureaucracy to ensure that poor rule will not undermine stability—and even to his casual observations: "Pompey, in endeavoring to bring order to this uncertain world of Asia, sometimes seemed to me to have worked more effectively for Rome than Caesar himself." But readers probably find most attractive Hadrian's refusal, in the name of greater security and order, to pursue wars of imperial expansion. "I dreamed of an army trained to maintain order on frontiers less extended, if necessary, but secure. Every new increase in the vast imperial organism seemed to me an unsound growth, like a cancer or dropsical edema which would eventually cause our death." Hadrian's Wall, the most famous relic of this enlightened attitude, survives to this day in England, an "emblem of my renunciation of the policy of conquest."
One must work to create and maintain order because it does not flourish in the natural state. Hadrian, a contemporary of the astronomer Ptolemy, seems to distinguish between sublunary and cosmic spheres. He hints at the distinction in the opening pages, where he mentions his interest in the possible meaning contained in "the random twitter of birds, or … the distant mechanism of the stars." Here the translation, presumably with the approval of Yourcenar, clarifies a point left ambiguous in the original French. Babillage, "babbling" or "chatter," becomes "random twitter," the adjective implying the disorder of the sublunary sphere. Thus in the English translation Hadrian differentiates stars and birdsong: the one is mechanical, remotely orderly, and accessible to the astronomer; the other is "random" or orderless, yielding at best problematic messages to haruspices. Sublunary life, in other words, progressing from organic to inorganic and back to organic, amounts only to a crude approximation of order, and from moment to moment life tends to wallow in disorder. Only in moments like the one in which he lies out under the Syrian stars all one night can Hadrian affirm that "disorder is absorbed in order." Elsewhere he speaks of "the order of the universe" as of something divine, a referent for all human aspirations to harmony.
But wherever one achieves order on earth, it must dissolve sooner or later into chaos. "One has always to begin over again," says Hadrian. "Nature prefers to start again from the very clay, from chaos itself, and this horrible waste is what we term natural order." Nevertheless, Hadrian remains as impressed by the human capacity to rebuild as by the tendency toward dissolution. "Catastrophe and ruin will come; disorder will triumph, but order will too, from time to time. Peace will again establish itself between two periods of war." Whatever the fate of the actual political entity he has served, the emperor reflects, the idea of Rome will survive, a beacon in the realm of the attainable ideal. "Rome would be perpetuating herself in the least of the towns where magistrates strive to demand just weight from the merchants, to clean and light the streets, to combat disorder, slackness, superstition and injustice, and to give broader and fairer interpretation to the laws. She would endure to the end of the last city built by man."
For Hadrian, the ideal of order subsumes a number of other philosophically related goals, goals definable only through a sustained inquiry into the good life. This inquiry, another part of the Greek legacy to Roman civilization, leads the emperor to reflect on the relative value of pleasure versus duty, freedom versus discipline, and the life of the senses versus the life of the mind. With remarkable lucidity he analyzes everything from his own sexuality to his official function and the sacrifices it entails. As Hadrian explores the political and ethical philosophy of the age, he completes, as it were, an inventory of his own mind, and Yourcenar, the presence behind this voice out of the remote past, completes her picture of a bygone intellectual reality.
Philosophically, Hadrian represents a curious mixture of stoic and hedonist, and here again, in the coexistence of a tropism for pleasure and a tropism for duty, one sees the rich flowing together of Greek and Roman traditions. The emperor's hedonism finds its definitive expression in a kind of polymorphous sexuality. Homosexual in the great passion of his life, he moves on the periphery of Roman tolerance, apologist for a relationship the Greeks, in an earlier age, would have viewed as natural. Yet he actually describes himself as bisexual, intimating that only the shallowness of women in second-century Rome has precluded their becoming his lovers more often. The one exceptional woman he has known, Plotina, is unavailable to him as a lover (or so Yourcenar interprets a relationship that Hadrian's enemies viewed as sexual). Nevertheless, he does encounter in her a genteel variety of hedonism, for she "leaned toward Epicurean philosophy, that narrow but clean bed whereon I have sometimes rested my thoughts." If Hadrian inclines toward embracing pleasure more frankly, he does so on reflection and on principle. In his most direct apologia for his life, the emperor rebukes the "so-called wise, who denounce the danger of habit and excess in sensuous delight, instead of fearing its absence or its loss." He replies, too, to the puritans of every age who see early pleasures requited in later sorrows: "My own felicity is in no way responsible for those of my imprudences which shattered it later on; in so far as I have acted in harmony with it I have been wise. I think still that someone wiser than I might well have remained happy till his death." He compares himself, finally, to Alcibiades, "that great artist in pleasure."
If Hadrian tends to speak of his hedonism more often and more directly than of his stoicism, one should remember that he addresses Marcus Aurelius, famous even as a youth for his sobriety and indifference to pleasure. Hadrian offers this earnest young man an eloquent paean to an alternative philosophy. But the attentive reader discovers indications of philosophical balance on the emperor's part. Part of the evidence presents itself in the composition of the imperial circle, for Hadrian keeps about him not only beautiful youths like Antinous, Celer, and Diotimus but also [as Yourcenar notes in her "Bibliographical Note" in Memoirs of Hadrian] a "circle of Platonist or Stoic philosophers" led by Chabrias. He gives further proof of philosophical duality in his arrangements for the succession. He chooses first Lucius Ceionius, a hedonist, then Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius, a brace of stoics. In fact, he obliges Antoninus to adopt Lucius's son along with Marcus Aurelius, as if to insure the continued presence of a hedonist counterweight in the succession.
The courtliness and civilized discourse of the emperor notwithstanding, one may still resist or despise some of the practices and attitudes for which he apologizes. But all resistance vanishes, at least among readers who value freedom, when Hadrian addresses himself to political questions. Yourcenar makes her narrator the spokesman for a philosophy that anticipates the reasoning of the eighteenth-century architects of political liberty in France, England, and America. Thus one hears echoes of "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness" and "Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité" when Hadrian introduces his own ringing triad of political desiderata. This triad, however, undergoes a revealing modification in the course of the narrative. Hadrian speaks first of "Humanitas, Libertas, Felicitas," but at the end, having surrendered his own personal happiness and no longer buoyed by pleasant recollections, he speaks of "humanity, liberty, and justice." The substitution of iustitia for felicitas hints at a revision dictated by sobering experience, a transition from the hedonism of youth to the stoicism of age. Humanity and liberty, on the other hand, he embraces with lifelong consistency, though fully aware of the faults of the one and the dangers of the other.
Hadrian's regard for liberty begins with his own sense of freedom and its value—a sense he calls the "one thing" that makes him "superior to most men":
[Others] fail to recognize their due liberty, and likewise their true servitude. They curse their fetters, but seem sometimes to find them matter for pride. Yet they pass their days in vain license, and do not know how to fashion for themselves the lightest yoke. For my part I have sought liberty more than power, and power only because it can lead to freedom. What interested me was not a philosophy of the free man (all who try that have proved tiresome), but a technique: I hoped to discover the hinge where our will meets and moves with destiny, and where discipline strengthens, instead of restraining, our nature.
Observations like these reveal a man who knows how "to command, and what is perhaps in the end slightly less futile, to serve." They express, according to Michel Aubrion [in "Marguerite Yourcenar ou la mesure de l'homme" in the January 1970 issue of La Revue Générale], "the whole doctrine of classicism" and provide "the key to the character and to the novel, the key, too, to the entire oeuvre of Marguerite Yourcenar, to her philosophy and to her aesthetic."
In Memoirs of Hadrian, then, the reader experiences the way it was in the Roman Empire of the second century. Yourcenar depicts Rome's pleasures, political intrigues, and wars. Most of all she depicts, in the representative and empathic mind of her narrator, Rome's mental life, and she achieves psychological mimesis of a very high order. In the act of reconstruction, according to Hadrian, one collaborates with time gone by to uncover the secret of the springs. Yourcenar reconstructs a rich classical world to uncover a spring, a source of ideas and values, that flows around many obstacles into all subsequent Western culture. In "Reflections on the Composition of Memoirs of Hadrian," she describes setting out to "do, from within, the same work of reconstruction which the nineteenth-century archaeologists have done from without," and surely Clio smiles on the result, a book in which history and fiction blend with pathos and grace.
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SOURCE: "First Person Third," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4531, February 2-8, 1990, p. 108.
[In the following review of the final volume of Yourcenar's autobiography, Quoi? L'éternité, and the essay collection En pèlerin et étranger, Taylor criticizes Yourcenar for the pretentious tone of the former—which he finds lacking in autobiographical detail—and for the uneven quality of the essays collected in the latter.]
When Marguerite Yourcenar died on December 17, 1987, she had almost finished Quoi? L'Eternité, the final volume of her autobiographical trilogy. The book had been impatiently awaited, for in the first two volumes the autobiographer, as a "character", especially as an adult character, is remarkably absent. Souvenirs pieux (1974) deals mainly with the maternal side of the author's family, and Archives du Nord (1977) concerns itself with paternal ancestors and the life of her father, Michel de Crayencour. Yourcenar had revealed that in the third volume she would evoke her own life, from her birth in 1903 until the outbreak of the First World War or perhaps even the declaration of the Second; she would write until, as she put it melodramatically, "the pen fell from [her] hands". She never intended, however, to write about the nearly fifty years—roughly two-thirds of her lifetime—during which she lived in the United States and wrote all her major works.
Quoi? L'Eternité disappoints in many ways. First, Yourcenar barely keeps her promise about examining her own life. Though she provides glimpses of herself as a child, the book once again focuses on her father. (According to Yvon Bernier, who edited the volume, Yourcenar intended to write approximately fifty more pages; presumably she would have described her father's death, then her travels in Austria, Italy and Greece just before the Second World War.) The interest of Yourcenar's family, as this third volume reveals, has its limits; and it is a strange autobiography indeed which, after three volumes, tells us almost nothing about the author's adult life.
Yourcenar would also, presumably, have completed the already engaging portrait of Jeanne de Reval. A close friend of Yourcenar's mother, Fernande de Reval (the name is fictitious), was a maternal figure to Marguerite and a mistress to Michel Crayencour during a part of the author's childhood. (Fernande died a few days after Marguerite's birth, as readers of a compelling passage of Souvenirs pieux will remember.) Though the best pages of Quoi? L'Eternité depict Michel and Jeanne's tormented relationship, the many other passages about Michel add little to the fine portrait already drawn in the preceding volumes.
Suspense and drama appear only in the final chapter, in which Egon, Jeanne's husband and a composer of avant-garde music, returns to his native Latvia and is caught up in the Russian Revolution. Yourcenar always portrays such intellectuals brilliantly, setting them squarely amid the political and philosophical upheavals of their times.
The fundamental disappointment of Quoi? L'Eternité, however, comes not from our speculations as to what Yourcenar might have written, had she lived longer; and not from our frustrated curiosity about her personal feelings or private life. Instead, it lies in the gap between the admirable philosophy underlying her innovative project and the pretentious tone that so often vitiates it. Behind the claims of self-effacement (presented with Buddhist overtones) is a moralizing, condescending narrator who uses an authorial "je" to judge others, otherwise referring to herself as "elle" or "l'enfant" or "l'enfant du Mont Noir", terms reminiscent of Goethe's overbearing "der Knabe" in Dichtung und Wahrheit. Her portraits of others are perceptive, but often lack tenderness or pity (except for those of Jeanne and her father). Her rare self-portraits lack irony, and sometimes their earnestness rings false, as when Yourcenar declares: "II y avait en moi, venu de je ne sais où, un besoin inné, non seulement de m'instruire, mais de m'améliorer, un souci passionné d'être chaque jour un peu meilleure qu'hier." Time and again she reminds her reader that she has conscientiously employed family archives—or memories of conversations with her father and other relatives—to "reconstruct" events which took place years, decades, even centuries before her birth; or while she was too young to understand what was happening or being said. At best, extraneous explanations temporarily interrupt the narrative; at worst, academic fastidiousness spoils entire passages. Elsewhere she proclaims her political opinions with the artlessness of a mere militant for ecological causes.
En pèlerin et en étranger, her posthumous collection of essays, articles and occasional pieces, is equally disappointing. The scope of Yourcenar's interests, however, as in her earlier (and superior) collections, Sous bénéfice d'inventaire (1978) and Le Temps, ce grand sculpteur (1983), is impressively displayed. Twenty-six miscellaneous texts range from a somewhat pedestrian article on Oscar Wilde, written in 1929 and (as with many other articles here) "touched up" at a much later date, to a magisterial lecture on Borges given at Harvard in 1987. There is a gentle remembrance of Virginia Woolf, whom the author met while working on her translation of The Waves. There are also several inédits; particularly enlightening is an unpublished text on that French painter whom the non-French find so difficult to admire: Poussin. Some passages in the "Carnets de notes 1942–1948" are memorable, such as one concluding with the wish that "ce voyage dans le temps aboutisse à l'extrême bord de l'éternel". Conceived as an exercise in the apprehension of time, her best historical fiction does seem to bring eternity within our grasp. Such, no doubt, was also her intention in Quoi? L'Eternité (its title taken from Rimbaud: "Elle est retrouvée! / Quoi? l'éternité. / C'est la mer mêlée / Au soleil …".) Yet most of the articles in this collection, while soundly researched and carefully written, represent honest journalistic work rather than original contributions. Running through some of them is the self-congratulatory tone of the écrivain académique Yourcenar sometimes could be, instead of the thoroughly convincing stylist of the historical novels—of Mémoires d'Hadrien, of L'Oeuvre au noir and Anna, soror. As in Quoi? L'Eternité, these occasional pieces come alive only when the author is truly absent, when Marguerite Yourcenar forgets that she is Marguerite Yourcenar.
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SOURCE: "'Getting Away with Murd(h)er': Author's Preface and Narrator's Text, Reading Marguerite Yourcenar's Coup de Grâce 'After Auschwitz,'" in The Journal of Narrative Technique, Vol. 20, No. 2, Spring, 1990, pp. 210-20.
[Marks is an American educator and critic who has written extensively on French literature, focusing mainly on the works of Colette and Simone de Beauvoir. In the following essay, she analyzes the relationship between the novel Coup de Grâce, written in 1938, and the preface Yourcenar added to it in 1962. Marks argues that the novel harbors anti-Semitic sentiments and that the preface was designed to make the reader believe they do not reflect Yourcenar's actual feelings.]
Since the early summer of 1987 the focus of my research has shifted. It began, as one might imagine, with a book, Bram Dijkstra's Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin de Siècle Culture, and the intersection of this book with two essays that I was writing. One of the essays was on the Anglo-American lesbian poet Renée Vivien, who wrote in French in the early years of the twentieth century, the other on Jean Larnac's study of French women writers from Marie de France to Colette. Idols of Perversity and my essays dealt with the effects of late-nineteenth-century antisemitic, nationalist, racist and sexist discourses on the question of "littérature féminine" and the ways in which these discourses, and the theories and ideology that nourish them, continue today. But it is the phrase "the early summer of 1987" that is the key to explaining the shift. That was the summer of the trial of Klaus Barbie in Lyon, and the summer of the first two issues of the journal Annales d'Histoire révisionniste, whose articles affirmed what a few French, North American and Swiss historians have been claiming since the late 1970s, namely that the systematic destruction of European Jews in the Nazi death camps had not taken place. It occurred to me that much of French writing "after Auschwitz" (and this simple two-word phrase has, since its initial coinage by Adorno in 1955, its own fascinating development) was obsessed with the death camps, with the complicity of the Vichy régime in the extermination of 78,000 Jews deported from France, although this had not as yet, except in the most obvious cases, been adequately analyzed. It now seems to me important not only to locate and identify sexist and antisemitic discourses in French literature and culture, but also to uncover and to contextualize the presence of this obsession, which recalls the obsession with the guillotine in nineteenth-century French texts. Thus I am involved in reading again, but from a different perspective, a certain number of narrative texts with which I have long been familiar. And "after Auschwitz" does not apply exclusively to cultural production since the end of World War II. It applies as well to texts written at any moment in the long history of French writing, texts that are today being read in the knowledge of "Auschwitz" by readers whose interpretive universe has been permanently changed by "Auschwitz" as event and as metaphor.
The reading I would like to propose involves a short novel, Coup de Grâce, published in 1939, and a preface to this novel, published twenty-three years later in 1962. Both Coup de Grâce and its preface were written by Marguerite Yourcenar, the pseudonymous anagram of Marguerite de Crayencour, the first woman to be elected to the French Academy since its creation three hundred forty-five years ago. Not all of the questions that prompted my investigation receive primary attention in this essay, but I include them because they have directed my thinking: Why did Marguerite Yourcenar find it imperative to write the 1962 preface and to insist on its being read as part of Coup de Grâce? How does the author, in the preface, blatantly manipulate the reader? What are the connections between antisemitism, racism, classism, and sexism in the preface? What kind of political agenda does the preface propose and refuse? How are these connections maintained and reinforced in the narrative? How do they work together through the selection and ordering of events, metaphors, and metonymies, as well as the narrator's first person discourse, to destroy the female protagonist by shooting her twice, the first time in the face? How can psychoanalytic and deconstructionist concepts such as the "repression of the feminine" help us to read together the silence surrounding the male narrator's homosexuality and the narrator's aversion for the mother figure and for Jews? What shall we do with the author's intentions and with her affirmations about nobles and nobility, about the "natural" antisemitism of her Baltic-Prussian-French aristocratic protagonist, and her generalizations about the behavior of women in love? How does the preface affect our reading of the narrative it now precedes? What are the connections between the "I" in the preface and the "I" in the narrative; between the ideology that permeates both preface and récit? More seriously, do the so-called "realistic" conventions of narrative inevitably reproduce stereotypes and clichés as has been claimed by leading contemporary literary and cultural theorists? What are the political and social consequences of rejecting these conventions? And finally, how might we read this first person narrative, written by a woman and narrated by an aristocratic male homosexual "after Auschwitz"? My reading will explore three levels of interpretation with which we are familiar in literary studies: the intentions of the writer-author; the ideology, or the non-conscious presuppositions that inform the text; and the unconscious of the text which we will look for in the signifiers of Coup de Grâce, primarily in the title. These signifiers, more than the overt references to Eric von Lhomond's antisemitism, will lead us linguistically and textually to some of the connections between sexism, antisemitism, and nationalism with which I began my inquiry.
In the introduction to his book Legacies of Antisemitism, Jeffrey Mehlman writes: "These pages, then, are exploratory rather than accusatory." I am aware that when dealing with questions of such a delicate and powerful nature it is almost impossible to maintain a non-judgmental tone. Although I would rather accuse the text of reproducing an antisemitic ideology than the author of being antisemitic, it is impossible, as my analysis will show, not to implicate the author and not to hold her responsible. May I remind the readers in the most general way of what was happening in Europe in 1938, the fifth year of Hitler's Third Reich, and the year Marguerite Yourcenar wrote her novel? And may I insist more precisely on books that were published in France between 1937 and 1939 in which antisemitism held the center of the page, both reflecting and reinforcing its importance in France? Two of the most significant books published during this period include Céline's violent polemic against the Jewish peril, Bagatelles pour un massacre, 1937, and Sartre's récit, "L'Enfance d'un chef," 1939, which locates antisemitism within a pre-fascist, nationalist, aesthetic sensibility.
In the Pléiade edition of her collected prose fiction, which she edited herself, Marguerite Yourcenar insists that the preface to Coup de Grâce must accompany and precede the narrative. The eight page preface, in the American edition published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and translated by Marguerite Yourcenar's companion, "compagne de vie" since 1937, Grace Frick, is a curious document. It is as if the author had wanted to present as unquestionable truths the following points: that this short novel must be read as a human and not a political document; that the protagonist is neither a sadist nor an antisemite; that this narrative belongs within the double tradition of seventeenth-century French tragedy and the Russian and French first person récit. Corneille is mentioned and his insistence on the importance of the unity of peril, as is Racine and his preface to Bajazet; Tolstoy's Kreutzer Sonata is mentioned as well as Gide's L'Immoraliste. Marguerite Yourcenar does not make the connection, however, between the protagonists in these two récits who kill their wives, and Eric von Lhomond who shoots Sophie de Reval. The preface justifies and defends Coup de Grâce in terms of the "authenticity" of the documentation (Racine does the same in the opening sentences of the preface to Bajazet), and because it places the narrative within the most prestigious literary traditions. Readers are called upon to read with care and to rectify the inevitable deformation in a first person narrative. Readers are invited to be sympathetic towards the "moral nobility" of the three protagonists. Readers are also expected to consent to generalizations in the author's preface about the behavior of women in love and the behavior of men involved in "chivalric dreams of comradeship."
In my efforts to locate as many as possible of the reviews that followed the publication of Coup de Grâce in France, Great Britain and the United States I have not found more than one or two reviews that accuse the writer of antisemitism. [In an endnote, Marks adds: "The English translation omits at least one reference to Jews that exists in the French version, suggesting that the author and the translator were conscious of possible reader reactions in the United States…."] Nevertheless, it is clearly as a response to such a charge that the preface was written. And the charge is answered, by the author, in terms of fidelity to reality and the conventions of verisimilitude. Antisemitism, she maintains in the preface, is a natural phenomenon; it is endemic to certain geographical areas and certain social groups. This is why Eric von Lhomond's narrative contains so many of the stereotypes and clichés that have developed since the Middle Ages to depict Jews: they are usurers, jewellers, furriers; omnivorous readers; obese and ugly; revolutionary and pusillanimous.
Eric von Lhomond, according to Marguerite Yourcenar's logic in the preface, is in no way responsible for his antisemitic references and allusions any more than he is responsible for the murder of Sophie de Reval. He is not presented as following orders, but rather as reproducing the language inherited from his ethnic and class positions. These forms are, in her scheme, both internalized and irrelevant. They are no more than local color, divorced from the central dramas of Coup de Grâce, which are the difficulty of narrating the past and the tragic implications of a particular amorous triangular configuration. Clearly the author is annoyed that her 1939 narrative has been misinterpreted by some readers who have made connections—unintended by the author—between the protagonist's attitudes towards his narrative, towards the past, towards women and towards Jews. She seems to suggest in the preface that what was intended as marginal description should never have become a center of critical attention.
Marguerite Yourcenar's uneasiness is revealed throughout the preface by omissions and silences about the killing of women by their husbands and lovers; by her refusal, or inability, to understand antisemitism as anything other than a class or cultural prejudice; by her resistance to making certain obvious connections between the pieces of her own narrative.
The preface to Coup de Grâce is followed by a brief, two and a half page, third person narrative that sets the stage for the first person récit. These pages give the reader abundant information: a wounded aristocratic mercenary has been fighting most recently for Franco; because of "birth and inclination," he has fought during the past fifteen years for right-wing causes in which he did not believe in Central Europe, China, South America, and Latvia; he now tells his story, in the words of the text his "interminable confession," to two comrades while waiting for a train to Germany at the station buffet in Pisa. If the mercenary's "fractured and bandaged foot" suggests Oedipus and his complex, the presence of the Leaning Tower and of "an old beggar of a coachman blind in one eye" further suggests confusions of sexual identity that reinforce the confusions of national identity and contribute to the reader's sense of a tottering phallocentric Europe. The third person narrator sustains these ambiguities by refusing to qualify Eric as belonging either to the group of "men of feeling" or to the group of "criminals." Eric von Lhomond is presented as a victim of circumstance, subject to determinants he cannot control. He will later present himself in similar fashion.
Eric von Lhomond's first person narrative, like the first person author's preface, is an ordering and a justification of events that took place fifteen years earlier, during the civil war that followed the Russian Revolution of 1917. In this section of the essay, I will focus on the representation of women and of the feminine with particular emphasis on the figure of the mother and the death (murder) of the main female character, Sophie de Reval. Four passages are central to my reading. The first is the presentation of Eric von Lhomond's mother, sandwiched between the description of the death of his father at Verdun, fighting for the Germans and killed, ironically, by an "African soldier fighting for France" and the description of his beloved friend Conrad, "a fixed point, a center a heart." "As for my mother, she was half lost in dreams; she passed her time reading Buddhist scripture, or the poems of Rabindranath Tagore." The second passage is the presentation of Sophie de Reval, Conrad's sister, which follows a four page description of Eric's adolescent paradise, a golden age spent in the company of Conrad de Reval: "As for the young girl, she did not count; she was careless about her attire, and did nothing but devour books lent to her by a young Jewish student at Riga; she had no use for boys."
Both the narrator's mother and Sophie are associated with books and their evil effects. The mother is "lost in dreams" and in another, foreign culture: Conrad's sister is initially coupled with "a young Jewish student," an equally foreign and dangerous influence. The verb "devour" will accompany Sophie throughout the text as an indication of the danger that the "feminine" poses for Eric.
The third passage describes a screen memory that overwhelms Eric von Lhomond during a nocturnal bombardment when Sophie, who, he tells us, is desperately in love with him, falls into his arms and he kisses her:
Most amazing of all, I accepted this gesture which she had taken nearly ten weeks to bring herself to. Now that she is dead, and that I have ceased to believe in miracles, I am glad that I kissed her lips one time at least, and her wild hair. If she were to remain like a vast country subdued by me but never possessed, I was to remember, in any case, the exact taste of her mouth that night, and the warmth of her living flesh. And if ever I could have loved Sophie utterly and simply with body and soul it was surely at that moment when we both were innocent as beings just resurrected. She was fairly throbbing against me, and no previous feminine encounter, whether with a chance pick-up, or with an avowed prostitute, had prepared me for that sudden, terrifying sweetness. Her body so yielding, yet rigid with delight, weighed in my arms almost as mysteriously as earth itself would have done had I entered some few hours before into death. I hardly know at what moment ecstasy changed into horror, releasing in me the memory of that starfish [étoile de mer in French] that Mother once forced into my hand on the beach at Scheveningen, almost provoking convulsions in me, to the consternation of the bathers. I wrenched myself from Sophie with a violence that must have seemed cruel to a body robbed of defence by felicity itself. She re-opened her eyes (they had closed) and read in my aspect something harder to bear, doubtless, than hatred or terror, for she recoiled, covering her face with her upraised arm, like a child who is slapped, and that was the last time I ever saw her actually cry.
I would like to insist on the bringing together, through the starfish, of Sophie and the narrator's mother, on the contamination of the one by the other, and on the way in which Eric's discourse blames the mother for his reactions of revulsion: "that starfish [étoile de mer] that Mother once forced into my hand." Without belaboring the obvious castration anxiety, and the fear of being devoured as well as penetrated by the maternal figure, I would like to note that the étoile de mer is connected through the text to a group of menacing marine animals whose effect is to terrify and repulse Eric von Lhomond: the octopus-like white gloved hands of a prostitute in Riga; the medusalike head of Sophie when she has curlers in her hair. More importantly still this scene is connected to a later scene in the novel when Eric, in search of Sophie, visits the home of Mother Loew, the Jewish dressmaker and midwife, in the small Jewish community in Lilienkron. Eric describes Mother Loew as an "old creature fairly drowned in her own fat," her "revolting obsequiousness blended … with truly Biblical hospitality." Eric tells us that the "old Jewess" is killed by soldiers a few weeks later, thereby placing her in the series of mutilated and tortured victims beginning with a description of the "Chinese Hand" (a special form of torture for white gloved officers) and ending with the shooting of Sophie.
The fourth passage constitutes the two final paragraphs of Coup de Grâce. Sophie has joined a group of Bolshevik militants both out of political conviction and because she had been told that her brother Conrad and Eric were lovers. When the group to which she belongs is captured, Sophie refuses to ask for mercy and will be shot along with the others. She asks to be shot by Eric:
One step more brought me so close to Sophie that I could almost have kissed her bared throat or laid a hand on her shoulder, now visibly shuddering, but by this time she was partly turned from me. She was breathing only slightly too fast; I clung to the thought that I had wanted to put an end to Conrad, and that this was the same thing. I fired, turning my head away like a frightened child setting off a torpedo on Christmas Eve. The first shot did no more than tear open the face, so that I shall never know (and it haunts me still) what expression Sophie would have had in death. On the second shot everything was over.
At first I thought that in asking me to perform this duty she had intended to give me a final proof of her love, the most conclusive proof of all. But I understood afterwards that she only wished to take revenge, leaving me prey to remorse. She was right in that: I do feel remorse at times. One is always trapped, somehow, in dealings with women.
The words "remorse"—etymologically: to bite again—and "trapped" relate this final passage to the screen memory of the starfish [étoile de mer] at the beach at Scheveningen and Sophie to the narrator's mother and to Mother Loew. Or, we might say the same thing in another way: to kill Sophie is also to kill the mothers. Sophie, as a spectacle, is disappointing in much the same way as the phallic mother disappoints. With her face half blown away there is nothing to see and to know (à voir / savoir in French). And Eric, a victim of his mother's gesture in the earlier passage is, here again, a victim, "trapped" in Sophie's desire that he be her executioner.
Eric in his narrative and Marguerite Yourcenar in her preface almost succeed in attempting to close off to the reader paths of resistance to their discourse. They almost succeed in convincing us that to judge acts accomplished in a fiction is impossible, that time, memory and the complexities of language contribute to the formation of a linguistic barrier that stands between the readers and the possibility of condemnation or praise. The non-conscious presupposition that structures Coup de Grâce is that the readers can never know what really happened in the confusions of a civil war, "the Baltic imbroglio," and between Eric, Sophie and Conrad. Eric von Lhomond appears as a precursor of the revisionist historians who claim that the Shoah—the destruction of European Jewry—never took place, that no one can ever know what really happened in the concentration camps. Two articles that appeared in February, 1989, in The New York Times, one in the book review section, the other on the editorial page, reiterate my point. In a review of Charles S. Meier's The Unmasterable Past: History, Holocaust and German National Identity, Richard J. Evans writes:
His [Mr. Meier's] concluding comments on the relation of the debate to the emergence of postmodernist historiography—in which more attention is paid to what people (including Hitler) thought and felt than to what they actually did—should be pondered by everyone who is thinking of jumping onto this particular contemporary intellectual bandwagon. (February 12, 1989)
And John G. McGarrahan, in an editorial whose title coincides with my own "Getting Away with Murder," writes about three cases in which "the brutal killing of a young girl by a sane, strong and rational man was found to be a not very serious crime…. The theme of these defenses is that it's the killer's state of mind that should determine his guilt or innocence, not his actions" (February 12, 1989).
By defending Eric von Lhomond in her 1962 preface, Marguerite Yourcenar is obliged to insist on her initial intentions and thereby to diminish the power of her narrative, the power of ideology, and the power of the reader. Her persistent denials accentuate Eric's denials and aggravate his responsibility for the killing of Sophie. Denials of the extermination of European Jews have included, among other specious arguments, one that insists on Hitler's intentions not to annihilate Jews, another that focuses on the impossibility of establishing that an event took place when there is no one who witnessed the event, and still another that attributes the fiction of the Shoah to Zionist propaganda. These denials continue to be made in the face of considerable and varied evidence. What allows me to connect Marguerite Yourcenar and Eric von Lhomond with the revisionist historians, in spite of the obvious differences between historical events and a fictional text, is the vehemence of the denials of judeophobia and the massive silencing of Jewish suffering.
There is, however, a dimension of the text beyond the author's intentions and the writer's non-conscious presuppositions. The unconscious of the text may help the readers to work against the weight of the authorial presence and against her implicit claims. If Marguerite Yourcenar and Eric von Lhomond both insist that they are outside ideology, the text of Coup de Grâce reveals that they are not. And here I am obliged to move between the French and the English versions.
The title, unchanged in translation except for the initial masculine article Le in the French, is a French expression, also used in English, to denote a finishing blow often performed as a deliverance to a dying person or animal. Usually a coup de grâce is seen as a noble gesture. Within this text, however, the signifiers coup and grâce directly relate to the body of the old Jewess, Mother Loew, whose face is described, in French as "le visage de la vieille créature noyée dans la graisse …" (an old creature fairly drowned in her own fat …). Graisse (fat or grease) is the noun corresponding to the adjectives gras, masculine, and grasse, feminine, for fatty or greasy. And cou (neck) in French is a homophone for coup (blow). Cou de grasse (neck of fat woman), through the connection with Mother Loew, becomes the repulsive, excessive flesh of women, mothers, and Jews that Eric annihilates. Le Coup de Grâce of the French title can, in consequence, also be read as a sadistic, sexist, and antisemitic act involving both matricide and genocide. [In an endnote, Marks adds: "I would not eliminate the possibility of reading the title as Cou de Grâce, 'The Neck of Grace,' Marguerite Yourcenar's companion and translator, Grace Frick. I would also like to acknowledge a suggestion made by my colleague Professor Martine Debaisieux who, having read the paper, made a connection between the sounds of the title and Coude de Grâce (Elbow of Grace). This connection is particularly interesting because the funny bone in French is sometimes referred to as le petit juif (the little Jew)."] In her prefatory attempts to get Eric von Lhomond off the hook, and in Eric von Lhomond's self-justifying discourse, the author, writer and narrator may all be read as almost "getting away with murd(h)er."
Having worked through the author's intentions, the nonconscious presuppositions, and the unconscious of the text, I would like to return to my introductory remarks and to draw some firm conclusions and some tentative observations. It would seem inevitable that between the author's stated intentions, and a reader's analysis of nonconscious presuppositions and of the unconscious of the text, there will be serious contradictions. Indeed, this reaffirms those truisms of contemporary criticism that insist on the "blindness and the insight" involved in all acts of reading, including the ones I have just performed. It would also seem inevitable that the conventions of realism as applied to the writing of fiction, in which I include Marguerite Yourcenar's claim about the "authenticity" of her récit, will result in the reproduction of a certain number of stereotypes. It is particularly difficult to avoid stereotyping and caricature in the representation of Jews. The signs of Jewishness with which most readers are familiar partake of the grotesque and the ugly. Without these signs Jews would not necessarily be recognizable. A possible solution, then, is to avoid the conventions of realism and to work against the dominant ideology by refusing representation. Another firm conclusion is that, in French literature at least, the juxtaposition of aristocrat and Jew is bound to lead to the opposition aristocrat and Jew, which may well be the basis for the more common opposition between being French and being Jewish so fundamental to the question of French identity. In this respect it might be suggested that Marguerite Yourcenar's récit depends on the binary opposition Aryan and Semite which structures so much of the antisemitic and racist discourse in France from the middle of the nineteenth century until today. Still another firm conclusion concerns the connections between antisemitism and sexism, between ideology and the representation of Jews and women both in fiction and in discourse. Within French culture, for example, the figures of "La France" and "Le Juif" provide an intriguing clue to the complex functioning of this odd couple. Because "Le Juif" is frequently portrayed as obese, with a bulbous nose and blubber lips, sexually perverse, effeminate and cowardly, radically other, there are resemblances between "le Juif" and the feminine. And because "La France" is frequently portrayed as tall, erect, brandishing a flag, leading the troops, there are, despite her often exposed breasts, resemblances between "La France" and the masculine.
More tentative observations concern the repression of the feminine in Eric von Lhomond, both his difficulty as narrator and the difficulty of the author as narrator, to acknowledge his homosexual inclinations. Eric's infatuation with Sophie's brother, Conrad, his fixation on his adolescence with Conrad as the golden age, the utopian moment that can never return, confirm an ideological position that views the present as decadent and the future as empty. It is as if this repression of the feminine within Eric were responsible both for his attitude toward the Jewish Loew family and for the shooting of Sophie. I would not venture, at this moment, even a tentative conclusion about the possible significance of this repression in the body of Marguerite Yourcenar's texts.
To conclude, my last tentative observation touches on what I referred to earlier in the essay as an obsession with the extermination camps, their explicit repression and the ways in which they are present, implicitly, through their absence. These remarks do not bear on the narrative of Coup de Grâce, which was published in 1939, but they do concern the preface of 1962. I would suggest that the author-narrator's refusal to acknowledge the presence of antisemitism in her text, thereby reaffirming through her resistance the antisemitic discourse in the preface, may be linked to the knowledge and the repression of the knowledge of "Auschwitz." It may seem as strange to other readers as it does to me, that in 1938, when Nazi Germany was already actively persecuting Jews and antisemitic tracts were being published regularly in Germany and in France, Marguerite Yourcenar should have chosen to write a story in which antisemitism is allowable because it is professed by European aristocrats. And that in 1962, when so much was known about what had happened to European Jews under National Socialism, the preface would castigate the "naïve reader" who "might make a sadist of Eric" and "would mistake for a professional anti-Semite this aristocrat whose habitual irony towards Jews is a matter of caste …" I submit that denying the importance of antisemitic discourse and its effects, and denying "Auschwitz," are inextricably related. I submit, too, that the relationship between author-narrator and narrator-character, between Marguerite Yourcenar and Eric von Lhomond, is closer than contemporary narratological theory would have us believe.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1493
SOURCE: "Remembering a World She Never Knew," in The New York Times Book Review, March 1, 1992, p. 13.
[In the following review of Dear Departed, Beaver praises Yourcenar's imaginative evocation of her mother's and father's families, describing the book as "a key to the genetic sources from which [her] consciousness derived."]
Marguerite Yourcenar never wrote an autobiography. What she had completed by the time of her death in 1987 at the age of 84 was a Tristram Shandy-like saga that opens on the day of her birth and then moves resolutely backward to embrace both her father's and her mother's families in three memorial volumes: Souvenirs Pieux, Archives du Nord and Quoi? L'Eternité. Dear Departed is a smooth English translation of Souvenirs Pieux (1974), devoted to her Belgian ancestry on her mother's side.
Instead of a self-portrait tracing the growth of her own consciousness, then, Yourcenar has supplied a key to the genetic sources from which that consciousness derived, while simultaneously allowing that consciousness (in all its adult wisdom) full play as the imaginative mediator of her text. An intimacy, intermittently acknowledged, therefore emerges, though she is at pains to hold it at arm's length. "Mildly curious" ("avec curiosité"), she admits to having set about collating the bric-a-brac of memoirs, letters, engravings, diaries, photographs, "to see what the completed puzzle will reveal." But she noted on an early draft of this translation (whose English title she chose): "It is very important that the reader not get the impression that the author is greatly or personally interested about her origins, since the whole quest is more sociological and historical than personal."
This can be taken with a pinch of salt. The quest clearly took on its own momentum. Born of a cross-border marriage between the Belgian and French nobility, Yourcenar was the child of a region stretching from Lille to Liège that defies modern borders simply as Flanders. But neglecting that ancient culture of Roman Catholic pieties and satanic mills, Yourcenar opted firmly for the aristocratic patrimony of her French father, Michel de Crayencour (whose name, approximately anagrammatized, she was to make world-famous with the publication of her Memoirs of Hadrian). For she was doubly exiled, by the loss of her mother at birth and by her loss of Belgium at around the age of 6. At the age of 12 she also had to flee France for England with her father to escape the German invasion, and she never permanently settled in Flanders again after 1918. When at last she returned for a visit in 1929, her whole Flemish past had become "merely a legend" to her. She paid a second, sustained visit to seek out her family and family estates in 1959. By that time she had further exiled herself to America, to an island off Maine.
This insistence on the impersonal, far from imparting a marmoreal coldness to the project, infuses her book with an unexpected warmth. These memories are only ironically "pious memories" in the French sense of mourning cards, inscribed with prayers, to be inserted between the pages of a missal. For here the secret sharer is her father, who alone guided her youthful years and from whom she gleaned the anecdotes and details that sustain her narrative. The warmth derives precisely from her need to fill out the magical structure of her father's memory by recovering traces of her mother's past. That task drew on all the accumulated craft of her years as a novelist. A sense of bourgeois life in the small castles of southern Belgium, at a time of rapid industrialization, is superbly conveyed. The long opening section, on the exact circumstances of her birth in Brussels in 1903, is a tour de force—detail by detail, motive for motive—of reconstruction. Dear Departed is not so very different, in essence, from Memoirs of Hadrian.
Anyone who has ever tried to sort out boxes of family effects will be astounded at what Yourcenar has achieved. For she reoccupies the past, as it were, nourishing it with her own substance to bring it alive once again. "Let us try to conjure up that house as it must have been between 1856 and 1873," she writes, and the whole Catholic household, from its newspapers to its crucifixes, is conjured up. The art is Proustian (to name one of her own literary heroes) in the intensity of this imaginative quest for a world she never knew, whose "true gods" are brilliantly summed up:
Plutus, prince of strongboxes; the god Terminus, lord of the cadastre, who takes care of boundaries; the rigid Priapus, secret god of brides, legitimately erect in the exercise of his functions; the good Lucina, who reigns over birthing chambers; and finally, pushed as far away as possible but ever-present at family funerals and devolutions of inheritance, Libitina, goddess of burials, who concludes the procession.
The joint potency of Lucina and Libitina is certainly a haunting presence here. As her 31-year-old mother had died of puerperal fever days after her birth, so her grandmother had died a year after her mother's birth ("perhaps caused by yet another, fatal pregnancy"), and her great-grandmother had died in labor in her 21st year. Yourcenar herself remained unmarried.
Like a ghost revisiting the scenes of all those tragic childbirths, she evokes the Victorian bedroom:
The bedroom in the 19th century is the Cave of Mysteries. At night, the wax of the candles and the oil of the lamps illuminate it with their flames, which waver and flicker like life itself and which are no more successful in reaching the shadowy recesses of the room than are the glimmers of our mind in elucidating all that is unknown and unexplained. Windowpanes hung with tulle and draped with velvet allow the light of day to enter only sparingly, and the breezes and scents of evening not at all…. Human fragments—baby teeth set into finger rings, bits of hair in lockets—pass the night in dresser-top trays…. The well-tucked-in bed has known the blood of deflowerings and births and the sweat of death agonies, for the fashion of going on honeymoon trips is of recent vintage and that of entering a hospital or clinic to be born or to die has yet to take hold. It is not surprising that the heavily charged atmosphere of this room should be favorable to ghosts.
There are longueurs in this family chronicle of provincial life, but the imaginative set pieces (her grandmother Mathilde slipping out of bed to attend Mass at the village church, or her "uncle" Octave paying a deathbed visit to an old relative) constantly enliven it. The weakest link is possibly the third section, devoted to Octave Pirmez (a minor but influential Belgian essayist) and his revolutionary brother Fernand (nicknamed Rémo). No doubt Yourcenar was thrilled to discover and re-create a literary ancestry in a family resolutely opposed to any hint of artistic, religious or political subversion. Here too is sounded a theme familiar from the rest of her oeuvre: that of a mysterious, veiled sexuality. For Octave was clearly what we would today call a "closet homosexual," whose youthful repressed longing for Walloon boys as they fished half-naked filled him (in his own words) with "the same emotions that the Parthenon frieze would later inspire."
This urge to turn a Belgian estate into a version of Virgilian pastoral is subtly revealed; Yourcenar's portrait of the rural eccentric as mother's boy and aristocratic Orpheus, wandering at dusk into the woods with his Guarneri violin, strikes one as authentic precisely because Pirmez so lacked the passionate or intellectual verve of exotic characters like the extravagant creator of Fonthill Abbey and author of "Vathek," William Beckford, or the even more extravagant creator of Gothic fantasies, King Ludwig II of Bavaria. The English countryside too abounded with such gloomy Victorian bachelors, high on Theocritus and the ideal of two minds uniting "in a kind of virile marriage." It needed all Yourcenar's skill to bring off a sketch of someone whose outer demeanor—and writing—verge on quite such pompous dullness.
The theme of a homosexual liaison again briefly emerges in the final section, at a boarding school run by nuns in Brussels, this time between Yourcenar's mother and a young Dutch baroness in the 1880's. It amounted to no more than a startling decline of her mother's grades and her eventual removal home. Yet for all its fine scenes from a corner of Europe more renowned for its coal mines and war graves, this first volume of her ancestral trilogy will leave Yourcenar's readers restive because she never deals with her own homosexual life. But her life, spanning the Atlantic from the Académie Française (whose first female immortal she became) to Mount Desert Island in Maine, must have seemed all too perspicuous to her. Her art flourished best in the imaginative penetration of secret places. In this final quest for an absent mother, and a largely destroyed or ruined motherland, that art was triumphantly vindicated.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 14043
SOURCE: "Rise and Fall of an Emperor: Mémoires d'Hadrien," in her From Violence to Vision: Sacrifice in the Works of Marguerite Yourcenar, Southern Illinois University Press, 1992, pp. 184-219.
[Howard is an American critic and educator who has done extensive research into Yourcenar's life and works. In the following essay, she examines the narrative structure of Memoirs of Hadrian and the life of its narrator and main character.]
Mémoires d'Hadrien was the work that, in 1951, catapulted Marguerite Yourcenar to international literary prominence. Begun and abandoned several times over the course of the preceding decades, this fictionalized autobiography of one of the last enlightened Roman emperors takes the form of a letter to Marcus Aurelius, Hadrian's eventual successor. The book was the fruit, by the author's own admission, of a certain postwar optimism regarding the future of mankind. In the speech that Yourcenar delivered upon the occasion of her induction to the Académie française in 1981 [published in En pèlerin et en étranger], she recalls her outlook during those years:
Ces années furent celles où, cherchant dans le passé un modèle resté imitable, j'imaginais comme encore possible l'existence d'un homme capable de 'stabiliser la terre', donc d'une intelligence humaine portée à son plus haut point de lucidité et d'efficacité.
Those were the years when, searching in the past for a model that remained imitable, I imagined as still possible the existence of a man capable of "stabilizing the earth," thus of a human intelligence extended to its highest point of lucidity and efficacy.
In discussing the genesis of Mémoires d'Hadrien with Matthieu Galey in Les yeux ouverts, Yourcenar is more explicit regarding the unfortunate inaccuracy of that optimism. The hope of a long-lived Pax Americana or Pax Europeana to which the establishment of the United Nations gave rise was not realized. Nor were any political geniuses forthcoming. "Il ne s'est présenté que de brillants seconds. Mais, à l'époque, j'avais la naïveté de croire que c'était encore possible"/"Only brilliant second-raters made their appearance. At the time, however, I was still naive enough to believe in the possibility of such a thing."
Given the markedly negative portrait painted by Yourcenar in Le coup de grâce of another man of arms and the degradation unto dictatorship of the 1930s Rome we have just left, one can hardly fail to be perplexed that Yourcenar should look to the hierarchical model of imperial authority in search of renewal for a war-battered world. Who could more closely resemble a Hitler or a Mussolini than an ancient Roman despot? The eminent French author and critic Michel Tournier has addressed this issue in his "Gustave et Marguerite." According to Tournier, the question raised by Mémoires d'Hadrien is whether or not it is possible to be a "good tyrant." Yourcenar's entire book, he asserts, provides an emphatically affirmative response to this question. "Il serait donc faux que le pouvoir rende fou, et que le pouvoir absolu rende absolument fou, comme semblent le prouver cent exemples historiques de Néron à Hitler en passant par Robespierre et Napoléon"/"Thus it would appear to be false that power drives one crazy, and that absolute power drives one absolutely crazy, as a hundred historical examples from Nero to Hitler by way of Robespierre and Napoleon would seem to prove." As Tournier goes on to say, Yourcenar's book recreates the twenty-one years of "imperial wisdom" that Hadrian's reign, beginning in the year A.D. 117 and ending with his death in 138, bestowed upon the citizens of the Roman Empire:
Cette sagesse se signale par l'intégration sans la moindre discordance de la sphère privée à la chose publique. Alors que les fous sanglants, que nous avons cités, menaient une politique sans contact avec leur vie d'homme ou perturbées par leurs passions personnelles, Hadrien se présente à nous comme un cosmos harmonieux où ses chasses, ses expéditions et ses amours occupent chacune leur juste place.
This wisdom distinguishes itself by integrating the private sphere with the state without the slightest discordance. Whereas the blood-soaked madmen, whom we have cited, carried out political policies bearing no relation to their life as men or perturbed by their personal passions, Hadrian presents himself to us as a harmonious cosmos in which his hunting parties, his expeditions and his loves each occupy their rightful place.
As this passage so accurately notes, the factor that distinguishes Hadrian from his destructive peers and presumptive political legatees is his capacity to integrate the personal and the private with the functions of his public office, to keep an ever-watchful eye on the human consequences of his imperial decisions. It is also this integrative facility that differentiates Hadrian from the protofascist narrator of Yourcenar's Le coup de grâce.
Madeleine Boussuges situates Hadrian with regard to the empire he governed: "Le siècle d'or des Antonins, où s'inscrit le règne de l'Empereur Hadrien, correspond à la fois à l'apogée de l'empire romain et au début de son déclin"/"The golden century of the Antonines, of which the reign of the emperor Hadrian was a part, corresponds at once to the apogee of the Roman Empire and to the beginning of its decline." The rise to a zenith and subsequent fall also characterize the structure of Yourcenar's account of Hadrian's life. During the first half of the text, the emperor climbs to dizzying heights of personal and professional success. Though seemingly irrepressible, his ascent is transformed nonetheless into decline with the sacrificial death of his beloved young companion Antinous. With this novel that inaugurates the period of her most renowned works, nearly two decades after her Athenian victims began wending their way toward Crete, sacrifice finds itself still at the center of the material—be it that of myth, that of daily life, or that of history—to which Marguerite Yourcenar devotes her creative attention.
It is a sixty-year-old Hadrian, already long afflicted by the ailing heart that will kill him two years later, who addresses the story of his life to the young man who will one day take his place. The narrator thus possesses a store of experience and wisdom that the Hadrian he narrates did not necessarily possess. Nowhere is this more evident than in the pages of reflection that open the emperor's letter to his adopted imperial grandson. Addressing topics as varied as Hadrian's health, his erstwhile hunting expeditions, and the virtues of a sound sleep, these meditations brim with benevolent sagacity. They paint a picture of a man whose acute intelligence is matched by his humaneness and form a kind of philosophical backdrop against which the story of Hadrian's life will be projected. Two themes emerge as paramount from these pages of reflection. They testify to traits of character that will play a crucial role throughout the book: Hadrian's will to maintain contact with the rudiments of life and his uncanny capacity to open himself to and partake of the Other, be that Other friend or foe.
Hadrian's nearly constant volition, much like that of Hercules in Le mystère d'Alceste, to keep in close touch with the elemental sources of life is first alluded to in a passage pertaining to the differences between Roman and Greek cuisine. The former is described as excessively rich and refined, whereas the latter is simple and better suited to the body's assimilative capacities. "J'ai goûté," affirms Hadrian,
dans tel bouge d'Egine ou de Phalère, à des nourritures si fraîches qu'elles demeuraient divinement propres, en dépit des doigts sales du garçon de taverne, si modiques, mais si suffisantes, qu elles sembiaient contenir sous la forme la plus résumée possible quelque essence d'immortalité.
In the merest hole of a place in Aegina or Phaleron I have tasted food so fresh that it remained divinely clean despite the dirty fingers of the tavern waiter; its quantity, though modest, was nevertheless so satisfying that it seemed to contain in the most reduced form possible some essence of immortality.
As is frequently the case, Hadrian's thoughts, having moved from the complicated gastronomy of Roman imperial banquets to the unadorned sufficiency of simple Greek taverns, turn subsequently to an even more primitive form of sustenance recalled from his past, that of the hunt. In this passage we learn that if the simple courses served by Greek waiters somehow suggest immortality, there is something sacramental in the sharing of the flesh of the hunt:
La viande cuite au soir des chasses avait elle aussi cette qualité presque sacramentelle, nous ramenait plus loin, aux origines sauvages des races. Le vin nous initie aux mystères volcaniques du sol, aux richesses minérales cachées: une coupe de Samos bue à midi, en plein soleil, ou au contraire absorbée par un soir d'hiver dans un état de fatigue qui permet de sentir immédiatement au creux du diaphragme son écoulement chaud, sa sure et brûlante dispersion le long de nos artères, est une sensation presque sacrée, parfois trop forte pour une tête humaine; je ne la retrouve plus si pure sortant des celliers numérotés de Rome, et le pédantisme des grands connaisseurs de crus m'impatiente. Plus pieusement encore, l'eau bue dans la paume ou à même la source fait couler en nous le sel le plus secret de la terre et la pluie du ciel.
Likewise meat cooked at night after a hunt had that same almost sacramental quality, taking us far back to the primitive origins of the races of men. Wine initiates us into the volcanic mysteries of the soil, and its hidden mineral riches; a cup of Samos drunk at noon in the heat of the sun or, on the contrary, absorbed of a winter evening when fatigue makes the warm current be felt at once in the hollow of the diaphragm and the sure and burning dispersion spreads along our arteries, such a drink provides a sensation which is almost sacred, and is sometimes too strong for the human head. No feeling so pure comes from the vintage-numbered cellars of Rome; the pedantry of great connoisseurs of wine wearies me. Water drunk more reverently still, from the hands or from the spring itself, diffuses within us the most secret salt of earth and the rain of heaven.
Like no Roman repast concocted by chefs of renown, wild game connects man to a primeval past. A cup of wine links the emperor to riches coursing through the earth like blood through veins. Simpler still, and thus more sacred, fresh water ties man to both heaven and earth. Hadrian's tendency to move from the complex to the simple, from the phenomenon at hand to its origins, displays again that same will to make contact with the real that fills his musings. Later Hadrian describes this volition as the "attention constante que j'avais toujours donnée aux moindres détails de mes actes"/"constant attention [I had always paid to] the smallest details of my acts." This unmediated connection to his world is one of the cornerstones of Hadrian's ascension to imperial eminence.
Standing beside this connectedness is Hadrian's ability to open himself to the Other. The second half of his opening reflections meditates on the question of the self and the Other, on the relations of alterity. This topic is broached first in a discussion of the seamless rapport that in earlier, more active, times had linked the emperor to his horse, Borysthenes. Though his own days as an equestrian are behind him, a vivid memory of the perfect harmony that had reigned between him and his horse continues to inform Hadrian's ability to participate viscerally in the pleasure "du cavalier et celui de la bête"/"both of horse and of rider" as he watches his aide Celer exercise the imperial mount. He still partakes in a similar way of the joys of swimming and running, though they too are forbidden him now. As the following passage suggests, there have even been times when Hadrian has tried to extend his empathic capacities beyond the realm of the human:
J'ai cru, et dans mes bons moments je crois encore, qu'il serait possible de partager de la sorte l'existence de tous, et cette sympathie serait l'une des espèces les moins révocables de l'immortalité. Il y eut des moments où cette compréhension s'efforça de dépasser l'humain, alla du nageur à la vague.
I have supposed, and in my better moments think so still, that it would be possible in this manner to participate in the existence of everyone; such sympathy would be one of the least revocable kinds of immortality. There have been moments when that comprehension tried to go beyond human experience, passing from the swimmer to the wave.
Just as Hadrian's ingestion of seared flesh, simple wines, and fresh water creates a sacred tie between him and the natural world, so too does his faculty for sympathetic engagement make it possible for him to participate meaningfully in modes of being beyond the boundaries of his own, seemingly limited, self.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the heightened state of sensual and spiritual receptivity to the Other which is love. Unlike Erick von Lhomond [the warrior character in Le coup de grâce] who closed out the Other in fear, the aging Hadrian insists on the necessity of abdicating one's masterful hold on oneself in complete surrender to the object of love:
De tous nos jeux, [l'amour] est le seul qui risque de bouleverser l'âme, le seul aussi où le joueur s'abandonne nécessairement au délire du corps. Il n'est pas indispensable que le buveur abdique sa raison, mais l'amant qui garde la sienne n'obéit pas jusqu'au bout à son dieu. L'abstinence ou l'excés n'engagent partout ailleurs que l'homme seul: sauf dans le cas de Diogène, dont les limitations et le caractère de raisonnable pis-aller se marquent d'eux-mêmes, toute démarche sensuelle nous place en présence de l'Autre, nous implique dans les exigences et les servitudes du choix.
Of all our games, love's play is the only one which threatens to unsettle the soul, and is also the only one in which the player has to abandon himself to the body's ecstasy. To put reason aside is not indispensable for a drinker, but the lover who leaves reason in control does not follow his god to the end. In every act save that of love, abstinence and excess alike involve but one person; any step in the direction of sensuality, however, places us in the presence of the Other, and involves us in the demands and servitudes to which our choice binds us (except in the case of Diogenes, where both the limitations and the merits of reasonable expedient are self-evident).
In much more graphic expression of the self-abandonment that amorous relations entail, Hadrian refers to himself some two pages later as "cloué au corps aimé comme un crucifié à sa croix"/"[n]ailed to the beloved body like a slave to a cross."
When his thoughts progress from love to sleep, the guiding thread remains the issue of the self and its relation to otherness. In a passage that seems to allude to the notions about love just evoked, Hadrian comments on the subject of sleep that: "Là, comme ailleurs, le plaisir et l'art consistent à s'abandonner consciemment à cette bienheureuse inconscience, à accepter d'être subtilement plus faible, plus lourd, plus léger, et plus confus que soi"/"There, as elsewhere, the pleasure and the art consist in conscious surrender to that blissful unconsciousness, and in accepting to be slightly less strong, less light, less heavy and less definite than our waking selves." Providing as it does the daily experience of a radical relinquishment of self, sleep also suggests to Hadrian the possibility not just of surrendering to but of being the Other. He recalls that the profound slumbers following the exhaustion of the hunt were abrupt and total departures from the confines of his normal mode of being:
Si totale était l'éclipse, que j'aurais pu chaque fois me retrouver autre, et je m'étonnais, ou parfois m'attristais, du strict agencement qui me ramenait de si loin dans cet étroit canton d'humanité qu'est moi-même. Qu'étaient ces particularités auxquelles nous tenons le plus, puisqu'elles comptaient si peu pour le libre dormeur, et que, pour une seconde, avant de rentrer à regret dans la peau d'Hadrien, je parvenais à savourer à peu près consciemment cet homme vide, cette existence sans passé?
So total was the eclipse that each time I could have found myself to be someone else, and I was perplexed and often saddened by the strict law which brought me back from so far away to reenter this narrow confine of humanity which is myself. What are those particularities upon which we lay so much store, since they count so little for us when we are liberated in sleep, and since for one second before returning, regretfully, into the body of Hadrian I was about to savor almost consciously that new existence without content and without a past?…
[The] narrator of Le coup de grâce [engages] in a desperate attempt to build barriers of difference between himself and the frightening encroachment of the Other. Mémoires d'Hadrien, on the contrary, begins with an effort to break down those barriers. It undermines thus the differences upon which the notion of hierarchy, so crucial to the masculinist mindset of an Erick von Lhomond, depends. Perhaps this is all the more remarkable inasmuch as they are also, of course, the differences upon which reposes the imperial foundation of Hadrian's power: "Endormis, Caïus Caligula et le juste Aristide se valent; je dépose mes vains et importants privilèges; je ne me distingue plus dunoir janiteur qui dort en travers de mon seuil"/"Asleep, Caius Caligula and Aristides the Just are alike; my important but empty privileges are forgotten, and nothing distinguishes me from the black porter who lies guard at my door." Whereas the narrator of Le coup de grâce seeks continually to emphasize differences in his attempt to define himself against a fearsome Otherness, Hadrian actively engages with difference in an effort to integrate himself with alterity of all kinds. The opening reflections of this fictional memoir place Hadrian in a network that connects the animals, the plants, the peoples of his realm, and the heavens, thus forging a sharp distinction between the narrating Hadrian and that other first person narrator…. Erick von Lhomond. At the same time, these pages lay the philosophical foundation for the pyramidal structure of this novel.
Born in the Roman city of Italica, in Spain, the young Hadrian was a cousin of Trajan, successor to Nerva as emperor of Rome. Though Hadrian's own accession to this position was by no means a foregone conclusion, his rise to power was steady and swift. A succession of administrative and military appointments during Trajan's reign, each more demanding than the one before, both developed and demonstrated the qualities that would eventually secure for Hadrian the title of emperor. Despite his reputation for military prowess, it became clear even before his reign began that Hadrian would refuse to continue his predecessor's politics of conquest. He describes his first consulate as a secret, unceasing struggle "en faveur de la paix"/"on behalf of peace." The most important thing, at that time, "c'est que quelqu'un s'opposât à la politique de conquêtes, en envisageât les conséquences et la fin, et se préparât, si possible, à en réparer les erreurs"/"was that someone should be in opposition to the policy of conquest, envisaging its consequences and the final aim, and should prepare himself, if possible, to repair its errors."
Having already been chosen to administer the civil affairs of the empire during Trajan's last campaign against the Parthians, Hadrian succeeded to the throne upon his cousin's death. His reign began with the first fulfillment of that pledge to peace that he had secretly made before his advent and that would continue to guide his development as emperor:
Les négociations reprirent, ouvertement désormais; je fis répandre partout que Trajan luimême m'en avait chargé avant de mourir. Je raturai d'un trait les conquêtes dangereuses: non seulement la Mésopotamie, où nous n'aurions pas pu nous maintenir, mais l'Arménie trop excentrique et trop lointaine, que je ne gardai qu'au rang d'Etat vassal…. Je tâchai de faire passer dans les pourparlers cette ardeur que d'autres réservent pour le champ de bataille; je forçai la paix.
Negotiations were resumed, this time openly; I let it be generally understood that Trajan himself had told me to do so before he died. With one stroke of the pen I erased all conquests which might have proved dangerous: not only Mesopotamia, where we could not have maintained ourselves, but Armenia, which was too far away and too removed from our sphere, and which I retained only as a vassal state…. I tried to put into these diplomatic conversations the same ardor that others reserve for the field of battle; I forced a peace.
As trade flourishes along routes made safe by peace, the pulse of a world that has suffered the convulsions of grave illness begins to beat again its healthy rhythm. Traveling merchants exchange not only goods with their customers but also "un certain nombre de pensées, de mots, de coutumes bien à nous, qui peu à peu s'empareraient du globe plus sûrement que les légions en marche"/"a certain number of thoughts, words, and customs genuinely our own, which little by little would take possession of the globe more securely than can advancing legions."
Having made peace with his Parthian adversary, King Osroës, Hadrian then turns his attention to settling the differences between those "eternal incompatibles," the Greeks and the Jews. A week spent in the boiling heat of an Egyptian tribunal yields a subtly wrought compromise:
Il m'importait assez peu que l'accord obtenu fût extérieur, imposé du dehors, probablement temporaire: je savais que le bien comme le mal est affaire de routine, que le temporaire se prolonge, que l'extérieur s'infiltre au-dedans, et que le masque, à la longue, devient visage. Puisque la haine, la sottise, le délire ont des effets durables, je ne voyais pas pourquoi la lucidité, la justice, la bienveillance n'auraient pas les leurs. L'ordre aux frontières n'était rien si je ne persuadais pas ce fripier juif et ce charcutier grec de vivre tranquillement côte à côte.
It mattered little to me that the accord obtained was external, imposed from without and perhaps temporary; I knew that good like bad becomes a routine, that the temporary tends to endure, that what is external permeates to the inside, and that the mask, given time, comes to be the face itself. Since hatred, stupidity, and delirium have lasting effects, I saw no reason why good will, clarity of mind and just practice would not have their effects, too. Order on the frontiers was nothing if I could not persuade a Jewish peddler and a Greek grocer to live peaceably side by side.
It is with just such scrupulous attention to concrete, simple facts of everyday existence that Hadrian approaches every problem he seeks to resolve during the early years of his rule. His repeated successes are proof that his confidence in his methods is well-placed. Hadrian emphasizes the importance of maintaining contact with the elemental forces of life in the meditative pages that open this novel. This example illustrates that same kind of attention to the real in Hadrian's execution of his imperial duties.
Similarly vital to his efforts to pacify and stabilize the empire is Hadrian's ability to open himself to the Other. When, three years after the conclusion of his peace treaty with King Osroës, border incidents in the Orient threaten to erupt into full-scale war, Hadrian travels once again to the Parthian territory. He is determined to reach a negotiated, not a military, settlement that will satisfy both sides and that will last. After making the good-faith gesture of returning the Parthian king's daughter, taken hostage years before, Hadrian proceeds to hammer out with Osroës terms which both sides will be able to abide. The crux of his method is to put himself in Osroës' shoes:
Mes curieuses disciplines mentales m'aidaient à capter cette pensée fuyante: assis en face de l'empereur parthe, j'apprenais à prévoir, et bientôt à orienter ses réponses; j'entrais dans son jeu; je m'imaginais devenu Osroès marchandant Hadrien.
My peculiar mental disciplines helped me to grasp this elusive intelligence: seated facing the Parthian emperor, I learned to anticipate, and soon to direct, his replies; I entered into his game; last, I imagined myself as Osroës bargaining with Hadrian.
When Hadrian narrates these events to his adopted imperial grandson, the agreement concluded between him and his Parthian counterpart had held for fifteen years. All signs suggest that a permanent peace had been won.
It is by virtue of these skills that Hadrian's efforts during the first years of his reign meet almost invariably with success. His accomplishments are legion. He improves the plight of Roman slaves by establishing laws that protect them from common abuses. He enhances the condition of women, granting them legal rights that heretofore have been denied them. He institutes reforms in the realms of economic organization and agriculture. A unionist before the letter, Hadrian counts among his most satisfying days as emperor the one on which he persuades a group of seamen to join together in a kind of corporation. On the island of Britain he puts up a wall, proclaiming to the world that he has renounced the policy of conquest so aggressively pursued by his predecessor. In his beloved Greece, Hadrian sets about repairing the damages done by the invasions of Sulla, proceeding to double the size of Athens. As is always the case in these years of reparation and construction, Hadrian's gaze is constantly trained on the future.
Though I have contrasted the opening meditative pages of Mémoires d'Hadrien with those that follow, the chronological account of Hadrian's ascent to the pinnacle of his achievement is by no means bereft of reflection. Interspersed among the pages of Hadrian's narration are lyrical passages attesting to the depth and beauty of his vision. Under Hadrian's tutelage, Rome will be even more than a flourishing capital city. Rome will come to represent forever those ideals of justice and peace that Hadrian vows to extend to the farthest reaches of the empire:
Elle échapperait à son corps de pierre; elle se composerait du mot d'Etat, du mot de citoyenneté, du mot de république, une plus sûre immortalité. Dans les pays encore incultes, sur les bords du Rhin, du Danube, ou de la mer des Bataves, chaque village défendu par une palissade de pieux me rappelait la hutte de roseaux, le tas de fumier où nos jumeaux romains dormaient gorgés de lait de louve: ces métropoles futures reproduiraient Rome. Aux corps physiques des nations et des races, aux accidents de la géographie et de l'histoire, aux exigences disparates des dieux ou des ancêtres, nous aurions à jamais superposé, mais sans rien détruire, l'unité d'une conduite humaine, l'empirisme d'une expérience sage. Rome se perpétuerait dans la moindre petite ville où des magistrats s'efforcent de vérifier les poids des marchands, de nettoyer et d'éclairer leurs rues, de s'opposer au désordre, à l'incurie, à la peur, à l'injustice, de réinterpréter raisonnablement les lois. Elle ne périrait qu'avec la dernière cité des hommes.
She would no longer be bound by her body of stone, but would compose for herself from the words State, citizenry, and republic a surer immortality. In the countries as yet untouched by our culture, on the banks of the Rhine and the Danube, or the shores of the Batavian Sea, each village enclosed within its wooden palisade brought to mind the reed hut and dunghill where our Roman twins had slept content, fed by the milk of the wolf; these cities-to-be would follow the pattern of Rome. Over separate nations and races, with their accidents of geography and history and the disparate demands of their ancestors or their gods, we should have superposed for ever a unity of human conduct and the empiricism of sober experience, but should have done so without destruction of what had preceded us. Rome would be perpetuating herself in the least of the towns where magistrates strive to demand just weight from the merchants, to clean and light the streets, to combat disorder, slackness, superstition and injustice, and to give broader and fairer interpretation to the laws. She would endure to the end of the last city built by man.
As this and other passages demonstrate, in every project undertaken, Hadrian knows he is renewing the traditions of the past so that they will stand the test of time to come: "J'ai beaucoup reconstruit: c'est collaborer avec le temps sous son aspect de passé, en saisir ou en modifier l'esprit, lui servir de relais vers un plus long avenir; c'est retrouver sous les pierres le secret des sources"/"I have done much rebuilding. To reconstruct is to collaborate with time gone by, penetrating or modifying its spirit, and carrying it toward a longer future. Thus beneath the stones we find the secret of the springs." Like the hands-on contact with the real that is a key to Hadrian's diplomatic successes, it is here, once again, an intimate contact with the elemental that provides the foundation upon which the future foreseen is erected.
All indications suggest that Hadrian's successes will be as limitless as they are spectacular. Hadrian compares himself, so many and varied are his triumphs, to a "joueur qui gagne à tout coup"/"player who wins at every throw." It is during this period of his ascending fortunes that the emperor meets up with young Antinous. Their love will be the crowning glory of an already glorious existence.
From the very beginning, Hadrian's liaison with Antinous is shown to partake of that same adhesion to the real that plays such a crucial role in the emperor's realization of his imperial goals. Hadrian meets the Bithynian Antinous for the first time, significantly, "au bord d'une source consacrée à Pan"/"beside a spring consecrated to Pan." Perhaps it is the spring's consecration to this Greek god of forests, flocks, and shepherds that prompts Hadrian to compare Antinous, upon first catching sight of him, to "un berger au fond des bois, vaguement sensible à quelque obscur cri d'oiseau"/"some shepherd, deep in the woods, vaguely aware of a strange bird's cry." In any event, our first view of the youth, seated on the edge of the basin into which flows an underground spring, cannot but recall the early passage in which Hadrian speaks so reverently of the water that "diffuses within us the most secret salt of earth and the rain of heaven," thus heralding that privileged and sensual relation to the primordial that Antinous will incarnate in the pages to follow.
Encountered under the sign of that life-giving element, water, Antinous will also be associated time and again with the earth, with plants, or with wild animals.
Sa présence était extraordinairement silencieuse: il m'a suivi comme un animal ou comme un génie familier. Il avait d'un jeune chien les capacités infinies d'enjouement et d'indolence, la sauvagerie, la confiance. Ce beau lévrier avide de caresses et d'ordres se coucha sur ma vie.
His presence was extraordinarily silent: he followed me like some animal, or a familiar spirit. He had the infinite capacity of a young dog for play and for swift repose, and the same fierceness and trust. This graceful hound, avid both for caresses and commands, took his post at my feet.
Later on, as clouds of doom begin to gather on the horizon, Antinous' connection to the animal world, as well as to the earth and to the emperor, comes once again to the fore. It is the eve of Hadrian's dedication of the Olympieion in Athens. He enters a temple with Antinous where a sacrificial python awaits his fate:
[A]u pied de l'échafaudage, le grand python que j'avais fait chercher aux Indes pour le consacrer dans ce sanctuaire grec reposait déjà dans sa corbeille de filigrane, bête divine, emblème rampant de l'esprit de la Terre, associé de tout temps au jeune homme nu qui symbolise le Génie de l'empereur. Antinoüs, entrant de plus en plus dans ce rôle, servit lui-même au monstre sa ration de mésanges aux ailes rognées.
[A]t the foot of the scaffolding lay the great python brought from India at my order to be consecrated in this Greek sanctuary. Already reposing in its filigree basket, the divine snake, emblem of Earth on which it crawls, has long been associated with the nude youth who symbolizes the emperor's Genius. Antinous, entering more and more into that role, himself fed the monster its ration of wing-clipped wrens.
Of all the passages in which Antinous signifies the intimate contact with primary forces that stands Hadrian in such good stead over the course of his first years as emperor, none is more explicit than this one from the next-to-last segment of the "Saeculum aureum" section. As Hadrian sails with Antinous upon the Nile, he reaches over to caress his young favorite:
Ma main glissait sur sa nuque, sous ses cheveux. Dans les moments les plus vains ou les plus ternes, j'avais ainsi le sentiment de rester en contact avec les grands objets naturels, l'épaisseur des forêts, l'échine musclée des panthères, la pulsation régulière des sources.
My hand passed over his neck, under his heavy hair; thus even in the dullest or most futile moments I kept some feeling of contact with the great objects of nature, the thick growth of the forests, the muscular back of the panther, the regular pulsation of springs.
It is as if Antinous becomes the primary means whereby Hadrian keeps touch with those primordial forces that figure so importantly in the reflections with which his memoirs begin and that are so central to Hadrian's efforts to pacify, rebuild, and amplify the freedoms of the Roman empire he inherited.
Scrupulous attention to the smallest details of his reign played a role in Hadrian's spectacular imperial success. It is to his capacity for engaging in a similarly passionate physical attention to his partner that Hadrian also attributes his felicity as a lover:
Tout bonheur est un chef-d'oeuvre: la moindre erreur le fausse, la moindre hésitation l'altère, la moindre lourdeur le dépare, la moindre sottise l'abêtit. Le mien n'est responsable en rien de celles de mes imprudences qui plus tard l'ont brisé: tant que j'ai agi dans son sens, j'ai été sage. Je crois encore qu'il eût été possible à un homme plus sage que moi d'être heureux jusqu'à sa mort.
Every bliss achieved is a masterpiece, the slightest error turns it awry, and it alters with one touch of doubt; any heaviness detracts from its charm, the least stupidity renders it dull. My own felicity is in no way responsible for those of my imprudences which shattered it later on; in so far as I have acted in harmony with it I have been wise. I think still that someone wiser than I might well have remained happy till his death.
The importance of this kind of "passionate attention" to all aspects of existence has been stressed in Yourcenar's works time and time again. In "Borges ou le voyant," for example, which appears in the posthumous En pèlerin et en étranger, Yourcenar states that "Les Hindous ont raison de faire de l'Ekagrata, l'attention, l'une des plus hautes qualités mentales"/"The Hindus are right to make Ekagrata, or attention, one of the highest mental qualities." She addresses this issue as well, with specific reference to the emperor Hadrian, in her interviews with Matthieu Galey [in Les yeux ouverts]:
Ce qu'on vous recommande toujours, et ce qui est extraordinairement difficile à acquérir, c'est ce que les sages hindous appelaient l'attention, une attention qui élimine les trois quarts, les neuf dixièmes de ce que l'on croit penser, tandis qu'en réalité on ne pense pas;… C'est extrêmement difficile à réaliser: il y a toute espèce d'astuces, différentes manières d'arriver à cet état, que j'ai fait d'ailleurs décrire à Hadrien lui-même apprenant à vivre….
Generally speaking, one must try against considerable difficulty to achieve what Hindu sages describe as a state of "attentiveness," in which you get rid of three-quarters or nine-tenths of what you seem to think but really don't…. It's extremely difficult to do. There are all sorts of tricks, a whole variety of ways, for arriving at this state of attentiveness, some of which I have Hadrian describe….
In turning to the question of the sacrificial death that ravages Hadrian's world, forming the pivot of this novel's structural pyramid, we must ask to what extent it is a coincidence that that death takes place at a time when the emperor's attention, both to Antinous and to the smallest details of his acts, is at its lowest ebb.
Antinous' death puts an end to that "Age of Gold" chronicled in the fourth section of Mémoires d'Hadrien, entitled "Saeculum aureum." It does not occur without warning. Indeed a series of progressively more ominous incidents prepares the reader, if not the narrated emperor, for the impending catastrophe. Many of these involve acts, either personal or ritual, that are themselves sacrificial in nature.
The first concerns Hadrian's imperial reader, the Stoic philosopher Euphrates. Having suffered for years from a debilitating ailment, Euphrates one day requests permission from Hadrian to put an end to his misery by suicide. "Ce problème du suicide, qui m'a obsédé depuis, me semblait alors de solution facile. Euphratès eut l'autorisation qu'il réclamait"/"The problem of suicide which has obsessed me since seemed then of easy solution. Euphrates received the authorization which he sought." It was Antinous whom the emperor dispatched to bear this news to the Stoic philosopher, who killed himself the following day. The incident was a sobering one for Hadrian's favorite, who could not seem to shake it from his thoughts: "Nous reparlâmes plusieurs fois de cet incident: l'enfant en demeura assombri durant quelques jours. Ce bel être sensuel regardait la mort avec horreur; je ne m'apercevais pas qu'il y pensait déjà beaucoup"/"We talked over the incident several times; the boy remained somber for some days thereafter. This ardent young creature held death in horror; I had not observed that he already gave it much thought."
Two pages thereafter is recounted the first of several sacrificial rites to which Antinous will be witness. Hadrian recalls this event, which takes place in Phrygia, as one that formed "l'image la plus complète et la plus lucide"/"the clearest and most complete idea" of his happiness with the Bithynian youth who had come to occupy such an important place in his affections. As is frequently the case regarding the scenes of his commerce with Antinous that Hadrian recounts in these memoirs, this recollection is set in surroundings untouched by the reach of civilization, so appropriate to the just-barely-tame creature he cherishes. Hadrian had ordered a statue placed on the abandoned tomb of Alcibiades to commemorate this Greek hero who had died on this spot several centuries before. He had also made arrangements for the sacrifice of a young bull to be consumed later during the evening's festivities. The relation between Antinous and this night spent paying homage to Alcibiades is signaled early on by Hadrian's reference to its illustration of their happiness. But this is not the only link. It is surely not hard to imagine a connection between the much-traveled Alcibiades and Hadrian himself—all the more so given the former's reputation for intelligence and statesmanship. Nor is another possibility to be dismissed outright. In light of what is to come, this brief passage on a figure of the past who, in addition to his finer qualities, was also noted for his debauchery and prodigality can be read as foreshadowing an aspect of Hadrian's character that has yet to come to the fore. In any event, there can be little doubt that the site on which this first ritual sacrifice takes place is a meaningful one. Phrygia is located "sur les confins où la Grèce et l'Asie se mélangent"/"on the borderlands where Greece melts into Asia." Antinous is a Greek with Asian blood: "Antinoüs était Grec…. Mais l'Asie avait produit sur ce sang un epu âcre l'effet de la goutte de miel qui trouble et parfume un vin pur"/"Antinous was Greek…. But Asia had produced its effect upon that rude blood, like the drop of honey which clouds and perfumes a pure wine." This first in a series of ritual sacrifices is clearly linked in an intimate way to the evolving destiny of the young man from Bithynia.
I have already evoked the next sacrifice recounted by Hadrian: that of an Indian python offered up as part of the Olympieion festivities in Athens. It is upon this occasion that Hadrian remarks that his young favorite seems to be entering more and more deeply into the role of the emperor's Genius, or attendant spirit. According to the ancients, one's Genius bore the burden of presiding, for good or for ill, over one's destiny. With the perspective of hindsight, Hadrian's text hints that the prayer made by his lover within the walls of that sanctuary already contained at least the seed of the plan that he would later carry out: "Je savais que cette prière, faite pour moi, ne s'adressait qu'à moi seul, mais je n'étais pas assez dieu pour en deviner le sens, ni pour savoir si elle serait un jour ou l'autre exaucée"/"I knew that this prayer, made for me, was addressed to no one but myself, though I was not god enough to grasp its sense, nor to know if it would some day be answered." Shadows begin here to gather, and Hadrian expresses relief upon emerging from the darkness of the temple into the brightly lit Athenian streets.
From this point forward, the sacrifices leading up to that of Antinous take on a more violent character, one following fast upon the other in a kind of bloody spiral. Hadrian describes this period as one in which "la danse devient vertige, où le chant s'achève en cri"/"the dance leaves us reeling and song ends in outcry." He who had years before taken part in the savage initiation rituals connected with certain Asian mystery sects consents to attend, despite having forbidden such practices, the orgies of Cybele. They are gruesome rites of human mutilation. Hadrian's account of the event highlights the morbid fascination that the ceremony holds for the young Antinous:
j'ai vu l'affreux tourbillonnement des danses ensanglantées; fasciné comme un chevreau mis en présence d'un reptile, mon jeune compagnon contemplait avec terreur ces hommes qui choisissaient de faire aux exigences de l'âge et du sexe une réponse aussi définitive que celle de la mort, et peut-être plus atroce.
I witnessed the hideous whirling of bleeding dancers; fascinated as a kid in presence of a snake, my young companion watched with terror these men who were electing to answer the demands of age and of sex with a response as final as that of death itself, and perhaps more dreadful.
Though the "demands of age" might well seem a topic far removed from the thoughts of a still adolescent Antinous, the previous paragraph informs us that this youth, described now as brooding and melancholic, is anxiously concerned that he will shortly turn nineteen.
No sooner do the blood-spattered dancers to the orgiastic glory of Cybele come to rest than another sanguinary ritual begins. As befits the ever more rapidly spinning gyre of sacrifices into whose vortex Antinous will soon leap, this time Hadrian's companion will himself take part in the rite. Harking back to that first ritual offering of a young bull, so pointedly related to Antinous, the taurobolium takes place in a sacred cave. Its dark shadows recall those of the temple in which the boy from Bithynia voiced his prayer for the emperor's welfare, adopting the role of his Genius.
It is the emperor's Syrian host in the city of Palmyra who suggests that Antinous be initiated into the cult of Mithra, as Hadrian himself had done some years before. A rigorous religion, widespread during the second century, Mithraism exacted above all other values an unflinching loyalty among its adepts. There is no wonder, then, that Antinous embraces this chance to join the cult with such fervor. Though the emperor's youthful attraction to such passionate fraternal values and feverish ceremonies is a thing of the past, he agrees to serve as sponsor for his ardent young friend.
Mais quand je vis émerger de la fosse ce corps strié de rouge, cette chevelure feutrée par une boue gluante, ce visage éclaboussé de taches qu'on ne pouvait laver, et qu'il fallait laisser s'effacer d'elles-mêmes, le dégoût me prit à la gorge, et l'horreur de ces cultes souterrains et louches.
But when I saw his body, streaked with red, emerging from the ditch, his hair matted with sticky mud and his face spattered with stains which could not be washed away but had to be left to wear off themselves, I felt only disgust and abhorrence for all such subterranean and sinister cults.
Shortly thereafter, Hadrian issues an order forbidding his troops, which are stationed nearby, to enter the underground chamber of Mithra.
An equally disturbing and equally premonitory sacrifice takes place shortly after the bloody taurobolium of Palmyra. Its setting is the summit of Mount Casius, near Antioch, where Hadrian had often held such ceremonies during his tenure as governor of Syria. As he had done once before in order to witness the much-reputed beauty of dawn from the mountaintop, Hadrian climbs Mount Casius at night with a small group of friends. This time, however, as never before, the emperor experiences a shortness of breath that causes him to stop for a moment and lean on his young lover's shoulder. This unprecedented lapse in Hadrian's vigor is taken as a sign by Antinous that the propitiatory sacrifice that he has perhaps already planned is, in fact, more urgent than he thought.
When the imperial party has nearly reached the summit of the mountain, a thunderstorm breaks out. Both priest and sacrificial victim are struck by lightning a moment before the ceremony can begin. They die instantly. This extraordinary event is immediately seen as propitious. Witnesses proclaim that:
L'homme et le faon sacrifiés par cette épée divine s'unissaient à l'éternité de mon Génie: ces vies substituées prolongeaient la mienne. Antinoüs agrippé à mon bras tremblait, non de terreur, comme je le crus alors, mais sous le coup d'une pensée que je compris plus tard.
The man and fawn thus sacrificed by this divine sword were uniting with the eternity of my Genius; that these lives, by substitution, were prolonging mine. Antinous gripping fast to my arm was trembling, not from terror, as I then supposed, but under the impact of a thought which I was to understand only later on.
We have already seen how frequently the text associates Antinous with various animals. It is surely no coincidence that, only six pages prior to Hadrian's account of the sacrificial thunderbolt, the youth is called precisely a "jeune faon"/"young fawn." Nor can it be denied that the young man who understands himself to embody the emperor's Genius sees this incident as a significant one. Looking back on this part of his past, Hadrian views it as a decisive factor in what was so soon to take place: "L'éclair du mont Cassius lui montrait une issue: la mort pouvait devenir une dernière forme de service, un dernier don, et le seul qui restât"/"The lightning of Mount Casius had revealed to him a way out: death could become a last form of service, a final gift, and the only one which seemed left for him to give." And give it he soon would.
Having traveled first to Jerusalem, then to Alexandria, Hadrian consents to a trip to Canopus where a magician of local repute resides. Both Antinous and Lucius Ceionius, who much earlier in Hadrian's reign had been the emperor's lover for a time, accompany him. Night has fallen over Egypt, as it soon will descend upon Hadrian's life.
The predictions of the sorceress are ominous. Problems of every sort will soon beset the emperor upon whom fate has smiled for so long. Everything can be set straight, however, with a magical sacrifice that the Egyptian prophetess will be only too willing to perform. The victim of choice is an "animal familier" or "pet animal"—designations, of course, recalling similar textual references to Antinous—belonging, if possible, to the emperor. Antinous proposes a much cherished falcon that Hadrian had given him after receiving it himself from the king of Osroëne.
Several aspects of the falcon's death will presently find themselves repeated in that of young Antinous. As was seen to be the case with priest and fawn atop Mount Casius, the bird's years of earthly life will serve to extend that of Hadrian; its soul will unite with the emperor's Genius. After his death, this invisible spirit may appear before Hadrian and continue to serve him. Above all, it is important that
la victime ne se débattît pas et que la mort parût volontaire. Enduite rituellement de miel et d'essence de rose, la bête inerte fut déposée au fond d'une cuve remplie d'eau du Nil; la créature noyée s'assimilait à l'Osiris emporté par le courant du fleuve.
the victim should not struggle, and that the death should appear voluntary. Rubbed over with ritual honey and attar of roses, the animal, now inert, was placed in the bottom of a tub filled with Nile water; in drowning thus it was to be assimilated to Osiris borne along on the river's current.
With the seemingly interminable service completed, the sorceress inters the casketed bird "au bord du canal, dans un cimetière abandonné"/"at the edge of the canal, in an abandoned cemetery." A few days later, Hadrian will find his lover face down in the mud of a similar site at the edge of the same river in whose water his falcon before him had drowned.
The indelible tragedy of Antinous's death is conveyed, before the fact of its narration, in the opening words of the antepenultimate segment of "Saeculum aureum" section. In its agonized length and precision, Hadrian's remembrance of the date that his companion chose to die conveys, perhaps more vividly than any other passage, the grief that would be his from that day forth: "Le premier jour du mois d'Athyr, la deuxième année de la deux cent vingt-sixième Olympiade …"/"The first of the month of Athyr, the second year of the two hundred and twenty-sixth Olympiad …" It is the anniversary of the death of the same god, Osiris, to which Antinous's falcon had so recently been sacrificed.
The night before his death, Antinous joins Hadrian for dinner aboard Lucius's boat. He wears a robe recalling the description, from an earlier period in Hadrian's reign, of "Tellus stabilita, le Génie de la Terre pacifiée"/"Tellus Stabilita, the Genius of the Pacified Earth," represented "sous l'aspect d'un jeune homme couché qui tient des fruits et des fleurs"/"in the guise of a reclining youth who holds fruits and flowers." In a subtle reminder, on the eve of his drowning, of his role as the emperor's Genius, Antinous appears clad in a "longue robe syrienne, mince comme une pelure de fruit, toute semée de fleurs et de Chimères"/"long Syrian robe, sheer as the skin of a fruit and strewn over with flowers and chimeras." In this poetic way, we are alerted once again that Antinous is now the symbol of both a personal and an imperial ideal.
When the fatal day arrives, a ritual wailing has gone on for three days in lamentation for the drowned Osiris. Antinous' disappearance brings Hadrian and Chabrias to a chapel the old tutor once visited with the Bithynian youth. "Sur une table à offrandes, les cendres d'un sacrifice étaient encore tièdes. Chabrias y plongea les doigts, et en retira presque intacte une boucle de cheveux coupés"/"On an offering table lay ashes still warm from a sacrifice; turning them with his fingers, Chabrias drew forth a lock of hair, almost intact." In a basin near a bend in the Nile lies the body of Hadrian's young companion. Antinous, it seems, has sacrificed himself to ensure the good fortune of the man he had loved and the emperor he had worshipped. The consequences of his act, however, are thoroughly contrary to his intentions. With Antinous' death a series of events begins, both public and private, that cause Hadrian to sink, as the years wear on, to an existential nadir.
Antinous' death provides the lamentable climax to a long series of sacrifices that cannot have failed to have their effect on this impressionable youth. He was inclined, moreover, to a certain heroic romanticization of his liaison with Hadrian, as is suggested, for example, by the similarity he saw between them and the legendary Achilles and Patroclus. As we have found to be the case regarding other self-sacrifices, however, there remains a certain equivocality regarding the nature of Antinous' death to which Hadrian refers in the following passage. It affords him a horrible joy to view Antinous' death as a sacrifice made in his honor:
Mais j'étais seul à mesurer combien d'âcreté fermente au fond de la douceur, quelle part de désespoir se cache dans l'abnégation, quelle haine se mélange à l'amour. Un être insulté me jetait à la face cette preuve de dévouement; un enfant inquiet de tout perdre avait trouvé ce moyen de m'attacher à jamais à lui. S'il avait espéré me protéger par ce sacrifice, il avait dû se croire bien peu aimé pour ne pas sentir que le pire des maux serait de l'avoir perdu.
But I was the only one to measure how much bitter fermentation there is at the bottom of all sweetness, or what degree of despair is hidden under abnegation, what hatred is mingled with love. A being deeply wounded had thrown this proof of devotion at my very face; a boy fearful of losing all had found this means of binding me to him forever. Had he hoped to protect me by such a sacrifice he must have deemed himself unloved indeed not to have realized that the worst of ills would be to lose him.
What are the sources and the nature of this bitterness, this hatred, this despair? How had Antinous been so deeply wounded? Why would the beloved youth fear losing all? We must answer these questions, for Antinous' death is not merely the result of a romanticized notion of sacrifice, nor even of the desire to serve the man he loved, however fervently sincere that desire may have been. Mémoires d'Hadrien, after all, recounts Hadrian's life. And there is a sense in which Antinous' fatal gesture can be viewed as the physical enactment of another sacrificial event that had already taken place within Hadrian himself.
The two constitutive elements of Hadrian's personal happiness and political success, keeping in touch with the real and staying open to the Other, were both factors in the intimacy that developed between Hadrian and the youth from Bithynia. In fact, in his role as the emperor's Genius, Antinous comes to serve as the textual symbol of these qualities. But with the dizzying success of his every endeavor, Hadrian begins to betray the principles upon which those successes were erected.
"Peu à peu, la lumière changea"/"Little by little the light changed." The passage of time transforms the child whom Hadrian encountered on the edge of a spring into a young prince. A process of distancing begins that, however slightly at first, attenuates the intimacy of yore:
Durant les chasses organisées dans les domaines de Lucius, en Toscane, j'avais pris plaisir à mêler ce visage parfait aux figures lourdes et soucieuses des grands dignitaires, aux profils aigus des Orientaux, aux mufles épais des veneurs bar-bares, à obliger le bien-aimé au rôle difficile de l'ami.
At the hunts organized in Tuscany, in Lucius' domains, it had pleased me to place this perfect visage in among the heavy and care-laden faces of high officials, or alongside the sharp Oriental profiles and the broad, hairy faces of barbarian huntsmen, thus obliging the beloved to maintain also the difficult role of friend.
In the past, even the humblest and most anonymous of Hadrian's subjects could be assured of the emperor's passionate attention to their plight. At the height of his happiness with Antinous, however, and lost in his own fantasies,
il m'arriva d'oublier la personne humaine, l'enfant qui s'efforçait vainement d'apprendre le latin, priait l'ingénieur Décrianus de lui donner des leçons de mathématiques, puis y renonçait, et qui, au moindre reproche, s'en allait bouder à l'avant du navire en regardant la mer.
I sometimes forgot the purely human, the boy who vainly strove to learn Latin, who begged the engineer Decrianus for lessons in mathematics, then quickly gave up, and who at the slightest reproach used to take himself off to the prow of the ship to gaze broodingly at the sea.
Though the narrating Hadrian continues to protest that he loved his young companion more, rather than less, as time went by, it is increasingly clear that the figure narrated wished to disentangle himself from a commitment that weighed on him more and more heavily. Hadrian started taking other lovers; he frequented brothels. One night in Smyrna, he forced "l'objet aimé à subir la présence d'une courtisane"/"the beloved one to endure the presence of a courtesan." Antinous, whose notion of love included that of exclusivity, was nauseated by this experience.
Several pages earlier, Hadrian describes a trip to Sardinia where he and Antinous take refuge in a peasant's hut during a storm. It is a remembrance of the joy of their early years together. As his young lover helps their host prepare dinner, he reflects on his bliss: "je me crus Zeus visitant Philémon en compagnie d'Hermès. Ce jeune homme aux jambes repliées sur un lit était ce même Hermès dénouant ses sandales; Bacchus cueillait cette grappe, ou goûtait pour moi cette coupe de vin rose; ces doigts durcis par la corde de l'arc étaient ceux d'Eros"/"I felt like Zeus visiting Philemon in company with Hermes. The youth half reclining on a couch, knees upraised, was that same Hermes untying his sandals; it was Bacchus who gathered grapes or tasted for me the cup of red wine; the fingers hardened by the bowstring were those of Eros." The euphoric nature of this vision contrasts sharply with Hadrian's reaction when Antinous, some time later, engages in a similar mythification of their liaison. The emperor had journeyed to Troas. He stopped for a moment to pay his respects at Hector's tomb; Antinous, meanwhile, visited that of Patroclus. "Je ne sus pas reconnaître dans le jeune faon qui m'accompagnait l'émule du camarade d'Achille: je tournai en dérision ces fidélités passionnées qui fleurissent surtout dans les livres; le bel être insulté rougit jusqu'au sang"/"I failed to recognize in the devoted young fawn who accompanied me an emulator of Achilles' friend: when I derided those passionate loyalties which abound chiefly in books the handsome boy was insulted, and flushed crimson."
It was not only at the level of his intimate affairs that the emperor's relations with his world had changed. Hadrian's phenomenal imperial success had multiplied what he once calls his "chances de vertige"/"sense of vertiginous heights"—heights, one might add, from which one risks falling. Not long before Antinous' death, Hadrian and his entourage made a stop in Jerusalem, where the emperor intended to construct a new city on the ruins of the old. To be called Aelia Capitolina, it would be a modern metropolis of the Roman design that had served so well in other locations. But Jerusalem is not a location like any other. The Jews are outraged by Hadrian's plans to violate their sacred ruins; the first workers to raise a pickax are assaulted by an angry crowd. With a disregard for the local population that Hadrian has never shown before, he presses on with his project. Passionate personal attention to every single detail, in the past, has assured the success of Hadrian's endeavors. Before the walls of Jerusalem, however, he not only fails but refuses to see that he has lit a fire of hatred that will not soon be extinguished: "Je refusai de voir, sur ces tas de débris, la croissance rapide de la haine"/"I refused to see in those heaps of rubble the rapid growth of hatred." Three years after Antinous' death, Hadrian will find himself waging war against those he had so heedlessly and thoroughly offended.
He will provoke a similar, though less virulent, animosity from his subjects in Alexandria upon arriving there. In a passage of remarkable hostility, Hadrian criticizes the useless proliferation of Christian sects in that city, referring to two rival leaders as charlatans. As for the dregs of Egyptian society, they amuse themselves by cudgeling foreigners. Those of higher station find their pleasure in religious conversions.
Mais l'or est leur seule idole: je n'ai vu nulle part solliciteurs plus éhontés. Des inscriptions pompeuses s'étalèrent un peu partout pour commémorer mes bienfaits, mais mon refus d'exonérer la population d'une taxe, qu'elle était fort à même de payer, m'aliéna bientôt cette tourbe.
But gold is their only idol: nowhere have I seen more shameless importuning. Grandiose inscriptions were displayed all about to commemorate my benefactions, but my refusal to exempt the inhabitants from a tax which they were quite able to pay soon alienated that rabble from me.
The antipathy that pervades this account could be a sign of increasing arrogance on the part of the narrated Hadrian or else the mark of an impatient narrator rationalizing the mistakes of his past; perhaps both. But in any event, this passage points once again to Hadrian's failure, indeed refusal, to engage with a discontented populace in a meaningful way. Both Lucius and Antinous are subjected to the insults of a scornful people.
These incidents make only too clear that the alienation from his former self upon arriving at the summit of his powers affects Hadrian's actions as emperor in the same unfortunate way that it influences his behavior as a lover. The decline that follows the loss of Antinous will manifest itself similarly in both the personal and the professional spheres.
The section of Mémoires d'Hadrien that follows Antinous' death bears the heading "Disciplina augusta." As this title suggests, from now on it is to a rigorous discipline that Hadrian will make himself adhere. But, while self-discipline may be better than distraction, it is no substitute for that lucid and supple adhesion to the real that underlay the triumphs of a now bygone era. Nor can it restore the joy that once had been his.
Those people and places he had formerly loved are suddenly seen as despicable. Returning to Antioch, where he had governed toward the end of Trajan's reign, he calls the populace stupid, mocking, and frivolous. His plans for reform in Asia are not being properly realized; everyone's concern is for personal gain. No one, in short, can do anything right.
The intellectual pursuits that had previously given him pleasure have also gone sour:
Les trois quarts de nos exercices intellectuels ne sont plus que broderies sur le vide; je me demandais si cette vacuité croissante était due à un abaissement de l'intelligence ou à un déclin du caractère; quoi qu'il en fût, la médiocrité de l'esprit s'accompagnait presque partout d'une etonnante bassesse d'âme.
Three quarters of our intellectual performances are no more than decorations upon a void; I wondered if that increasing vacuity was due to the lowering of intelligence or to moral decline; whatever the cause, mediocrity of mind was matched almost everywhere by shocking selfishness and dishonesty.
Philosophers themselves fare no better. Once respected companions, they now are pedants who revel in malicious remarks. When Hadrian adds what he believes to be the too-long-neglected works of Hesiod and Ennius to the school curriculum, "ces esprits routiniers me prêtèrent aussitôt l'envie de détrôner Homère, et le limpide Virgile que pourtant je citais sans cesse. Il n'y avait rien à faire avec ces gens-là"/"those routine minds promptly attributed to me the desire to dethrone Homer, and the gentle Virgil as well (whom nevertheless I was always quoting). There was nothing to be done with people of that sort."
Hadrian once had been calm and even-tempered. Now he is impatient and easily angered. He indulges as well in a period of morbid suspicion. Someone, he fears, is planning to poison him. In an effort to foreclose an attack upon his life, he stoops to reading personal letters addressed to his friends. They are not amused.
These character changes may seem to be harmless enough, but such is not the case. Depicting the depths to which Hadrian sinks, and explicitly linked to the loss of his favorite, this incident concerns an imperial secretary, perverse and stubbornly set in his outmoded ways: "Ce sot m'irrita un jour plus qu'à l'ordinaire; je levai la main pour frapper; par malheur, je tenais un style, qui éborgna l'oeil droit. Je n'oublierai jamais ce hurlement de douleur, ce bras maladroitement plié pour parer le coup, cette face convulsée d'où jaillissait le sang"/"This fool irritated me one day more than usual; I raised my hand to slap him; unhappily, I was holding a style, which blinded his right eye. I shall never forget that howl of pain, that arm awkwardly bent to ward off the blow, that convulsed visage from which the blood spurted." When Hadrian asks him to fix a compensation for the harm he has been done, the only thing he wants is another right eye. The passage concludes, revealingly, thus: "Je n'avais pas voulu éborgner ce misérable. Mais je n'avais pas voulu non plus qu'un enfant qui m'aimait mourût à vingt ans"/"I had not wished to injure the wretch. But I had not desired, either, that a boy who loved me should die in his twentieth year."
Many incidents reveal the negative changes in Hadrian's outlook and person after Antinous' death. The structural symmetry of Hadrian's rise and fall shows through most clearly, however, in those contrapuntal scenes that, echoing the period of Hadrian's ascension, punctuate that of his decline. The first of these concerns the founding of a city in honor of the emperor's companion.
During his early years as ruler, Hadrian had taken great joy in the building or rebuilding of imperial cities. We have already observed the lyrical manner in which he describes constructing city after city where Roman culture will flourish. Much more than mere structures of stone, every new metropolis provides the terrain upon which the values of Humanitas, Felicitas, Libertas can take root and thrive. Here is a typical passage from "Tellus stabilita," in which Hadrian addresses the value of those "ruches de l'abeille humaine"/"human beehives" that he did his best to multiply:
Dans un monde encore plus qu'à demi dominé par les bois, le désert, la plaine en friche, c'est un beau spectacle qu'une rue dallée, un temple à n'importe quel dieu, des bains et des latrines publiques, la boutique où le barbier discute avec ses clients les nouvelles de Rome, une échoppe de pâtissier, de marchand de sandales, peut-être de libraire, une enseigne de médecin, un théâtre où l'on joue de temps en temps une pièce de Térence.
In a world still largely made up of woods, desert, and uncultivated plain, a city is indeed a fine sight, with its paved streets, its temple to some god or other, its public baths and toilets, a shop where the barber discusses with his clients the news from Rome, its pastry shop, shoestore, and perhaps a bookshop, its doctor's sign, and a theatre, where from time to time a comedy of Terence is played.
When the time comes to build Antinoöpolis, however, Hadrian's hymn to the life of the city becomes a bitter dirge:
La mort est hideuse, mais la vie aussi. Tout grimaçait. La fondation d'Antinoé n'était qu'un jeu dérisoire: une ville de plus, un abri offert aux fraudes des marchands, aux exactions des fonctionnaires, aux prostitutions, au désordre, aux lâches qui pleurent leurs morts avant de les oublier.
Death is hideous, but life is too. Everything seemed awry. The founding of Antinoöpolis was a ludicrous endeavor, after all, just one more city to shelter fraudulent trading, official extortion, prostitution, disorder, and those cowards who weep for a while over their dead before forgetting them.
Grief, of course, is no small factor in the so marked transformation of this man. It alone does not explain, however, the long, steep slope down which Hadrian continues to hurtle.
At the beginning of "Disciplina augusta," Hadrian returns to Athens, his spiritual home. Here he embarks on another endeavor that reveals the growing contrast between his present and his former selves: the rereading of history. There had once been a time when Hadrian discerned eternal order beneath the surface chaos of human events. He evokes it in connection with his initiation to the Eleusian mysteries. The Eleusis ritual, according to an earlier Hadrian, explained "chacun de nos gestes en termes de mécanique éternelle"/"each of our motions in terms of celestial mechanism." Because of these ritual practices, "J'avais entendu les dissonances se résoudre en accord; j'avais pour un instant pris appui sur une autre sphère, contemplé de loin, mais aussi de tout près, cette procession humaine et divine où j'avais ma place, ce monde où la douleur existe encore, mais non l'erreur"/"I had heard the discords resolving into harmonies; for one moment I had stood on another sphere and contemplated from afar, but also from close by, that procession which is both human and divine, wherein I, too, had my place, this our world where suffering existed still, but error was no more." In his passionate study of astronomy as well, Hadrian looked for and found laws governing the movement of the stars. Though the constellations may appear to wander aimlessly across the heavens, scientists can, in fact, predict their cycles. He sees equally orderly forces presiding over human affairs.
These are not the conclusions that emerge from Hadrian's return to the authors of history after Antinous' death: "leur oeuvre, commentée par ma propre expérience, m'emplit d'idées sombres; l'énergie et la bonne volonté de chaque homme d'Etat semblaient peu de chose en présence de ce déroulement à la fois fortuit et fatal, de ce torrent d'occurrences trop confuses pour être prévues, dirigées, ou jugées"/"their works, judged in the light of my own experience, filled me with somber thoughts; the energy and good intentions of each statesman seemed of slight avail before this flood so fortuitous and so fatal, this torrent of happenings too confused to be foreseen or directed, or even appraised." Where hidden order once had reigned, now there was naught but a fatal flood of anarchy.
And fatal indeed the flood would prove to be—most disastrously so in the campaign of Palestine. The people of Jerusalem were already opposed, as we have seen, to the reconstruction of their city. Certain insults to their faith, though inadvertent, were enough to ignite a rebellion. Revolt then turned into full-scale war. So the emperor who had devoted his life to bringing peace to his realm spent his last active years on the Judaean front.
It is a protracted, guerrilla-type war, which Hadrian's troops are ill-equipped to fight. To make matters worse, living conditions are such that disease claims almost as many soldiers' lives as does the fighting. Though the Romans eventually overcome the fierce resistance of the Jewish partisans, Hadrian counts this war among his failures: "Je ne le nie pas: cette guerre de Judée était un de mes échecs. Les crimes de Simon et la folie d'Akiba n'étaient pas mon oeuvre, mais je me reprochais d'avoir été aveugle à Jérusalem, distrait à Alexandrie, impatient à Rome"/"There is no denying it; that war in Judaea was one of my defeats. The crimes of Simon and the madness of Akiba were not of my making, but I reproached myself for having been blind in Jerusalem, heedless in Alexandria, impatient in Rome." He also notes that it was almost as if the war-torn times that had preceded his reign were beginning all over again.
This is not the only way that the Judaean campaign serves to recall that era of ascent to happiness and glory that ended on the banks of the Nile. The war provides as well the backdrop for a nocturnal meditation, symphonic in its thematic complexity, which is the last and in many ways the bleakest of those contrapuntal passages undergirding the structure of this novel.
In both "Tellus stabilita," which precedes the account of his "Age of Gold," and "Disciplina augusta," which comes after, the narrative dwells for several vivid pages on the late-night reflections of a solitary Hadrian. The first scene takes place in the Syrian desert after the emperor's successful peace negotiations with king Osroës. We have already noted his fervent passion for the stars. Upon this particular occasion, he decides to offer "aux constellations le sacrifice d'une nuit tout entière"/"sacrifice to the constellations of an entire night." Hadrian calls these dark hours of crystalline lucidity "le plus beau de mes voyages"/"the most glorious of all my voyages." It was during that same time of his life that he began to feel himself a kind of god, divine and eternal. Both the passage describing his night beneath the stars and "Tellus stabilita" come to an end with an emphatic affirmation of his part in eternity: "la nuit syrienne représente ma part consciente d'immortalité"/"the Syrian night remains as my conscious experience of immortality."
Things are turned around, however, in "Disciplina augusta." Whereas the emperor's nocturnal voyage in the Syrian desert had taken place under the sign of a recently established peace, its companion scene is set amidst the death and desolation of the Palestine campaign. Unable to sleep, Hadrian leaves his tent for a breath of fresh air. His senses are accosted instead by the stench of dysentery that emanates from the camp hospital. No night of lucidity this, with not a star in sight. The emperor who once had known himself to be a god now declares such notions null and void: "On me suppose depuis quelques années d'étranges clairvoyances, de sublimes secrets. On se trompe, et je ne sais rien"/"For some years now people have credited me with strange insight, and with knowledge of divine secrets. But they are mistaken; I have no such power." The statesman who had once believed that good could triumph over evil and do so in a manner that would last now renounces that faith:
Nos faibles efforts pour améliorer la condition humaine ne seraient que distraitement continués par nos successeurs la graine d'erreur et de ruine contenue dans le bien même croîtrait monstrueusement au contraire au cours des siècles. Le monde las de nous se chercherait d'autres maîtres; ce qui nous avait paru sage paraîtrait insipide, abominable ce qui nous avait paru beau. Comme l'initié mithriaque, la race humaine a peut-être besoin du bain de sang et du passage périodique dans la fosse funèbre.
Our feeble efforts to ameliorate man's lot would be but vaguely continued by our successors; the seeds of error and of ruin contained even in what is good would, on the contrary, increase to monstrous proportions in the course of centuries. A world wearied of us would seek other masters; what had seemed to us wise would be pointless for them, what we had found beautiful they would abominate. Like the initiate to Mithraism the human race has need, perhaps, of a periodical bloodbath and descent into the grave.
The man who once had taken the "most glorious of voyages" beneath a star-studded Syrian sky is now "irrité contre moi-même d'avoir consacré à de creuses méditations sur l'avenir une nuit que j'aurais pu employer à préparer la journée du lendemain, ou à dormir"/"provoked with myself for having devoted to hollow meditations upon the future a night which I could have employed to prepare the work of the next day, or to sleep."
It is no doubt clear by now that Hadrian's affairs, both imperial and personal, are in precipitous decline. Yet they have not reached their nadir. This they will do as a result, at least in part, of his physical health, which, over the course of the events just related, has progressively deteriorated.
We have already observed Hadrian's shortness of breath upon climbing Mount Casius for the last time. This incident was a harbinger of things to come. Just before visiting the sorceress from Canopus he experienced a brief fainting spell. At the encampment in Judaea he becomes seriously ill. A persistent nosebleed saps his strength, and, shortly thereafter, Hadrian suffers the first attack of what his doctor diagnoses as an hydropic heart. As time goes by, his sickness gets worse. The last years of Hadrian's life are spent in almost total confinement.
It is in this state of infirmity that the emperor hits bottom. He decides to put an end to his life. As fear of murder had obsessed him in a healthier time, now suicide obsesses him. Afraid he lacks the strength to stab himself to death, Hadrian implores his young doctor Iollas to provide him with a mortal toxin. Though he indignantly refuses at first, Iollas finally promises to seek out the requested dose of poison. "Je l'attendis vainement jusqu'au soir. Tard dans la nuit, j'appris avec horreur qu'on venait de le trouver mort dans son laboratoire, une fiole de verre entre les mains. Ce coeur pur de tout compromis avait trouvé ce moyen de rester fidèle à son serment sans rien me refuser"/"I awaited him in vain until evening. Late in the night I learned with horror that he had just been found dead in his laboratory, with a glass phial in his hands. That heart clean of all compromise had found this means of abiding by his oath while denying me nothing." Having fallen so far, Hadrian finally sees that his life is not his own to dispose of. He agrees to submit to the painful exigencies of his fate:
Je ne refuse plus cette agonie faite pour moi, cette fin lentement élaborée au fond de mes artères, héritée peut-être d'un ancêtre, née de mon tempérament, préparée peu à peu par chacun de mes actes au cours de ma vie. L'heure de l'impatience est passée: au point où j'en suis, le désespoir serait d'aussi mauvais goût que l'espérance. J'ai renoncé à brusquer ma mort.
I no longer refuse the death agony prepared for me, this ending slowly elaborated within my arteries and inherited perhaps from some ancestor, or born of my temperament, formed little by little from each of my actions throughout my life. The time of impatience has passed; at the point where I now am, despair would be in as bad taste as hope itself. I have ceased to hurry my death.
The next and final chapter of Mémoires d'Hadrien recounts nothing less than a renascence. It begins and continues, as had his long-ago paeon to the virtues of Rome in a brisk present tense that looks toward the future: "Tout reste à faire"/"There is still much to be done." No fewer than thirteen imperial projects are listed in rapidfire succession. These are not the only signs of renewal. Having rejected the idea of his divinity during the period of decline, Hadrian now embraces it again: "Comme au temps de mon bonheur, ils me croient dieu; ils continuent à me donner ce titre au moment même où ils offrent au ciel des sacrifices pour le rétablissement de la Santé Auguste. Je t'ai déjà dit pour quelles raisons cette croyance si bienfaisante ne me paraît pas insensée"/"As in the days of my felicity, people believe me to be a god; they continue to give me that appellation even though they are offering sacrifices to the heavens for the restoration of the Imperial Health. I have already told you the reasons for which such a belief, salutary for them, seems to me not absurd." Such prodigious powers do his subjects attribute to their emper-or-god that Hadrian finds himself curing the sick by virtue of their faith in him.
Though he is nearing the end of his life, Hadrian returns to that passionate attention to his acts that had informed his past successes. It is not by chance that the latter are recalled in this last chapter of Mémoires d'Hadrien, nor that the passage that does so highlights Hadrian's unmediated contact with his work, recalling as well his openness to alterity. These are the emperor's comments on the verses of an Alexandrian Jew who, once an adversary, is now a friend:
[J]'ai accueilli sans sarcasmes cette description du prince aux cheveux gris qu'on vit aller et venir sur toutes les routes de la terre, s'enfonçant parmi les trésors des mines, réveillant les forces génératrices du sol, établissant partout la prospérité et la paix, de l'initié qui a relevé les lieux saints de toutes les races, du connaisseur en arts magiques, du voyant qui plaça un enfant au ciel.
[W]ithout irony I welcomed that description of an elderly prince who is seen going back and forth over all the roads of the earth, descending to the treasures of the mines, reawakening the generative forces of the soil, and everywhere establishing peace and prosperity; the initiate who has restored the shrines of all races, the connoisseur in magic arts, the seer who raised a youth to the heavens.
Having lost his moorings for several long years, Hadrian succeeds at the end of his reign at reconstructing himself as, in times past, he had succeeded at rebuilding Roman cities. The footsteps of wisdom in which he follows are those of his own former self. They cut a path of fervent attachment to every aspect of the real, a path that Hadrian will walk, as in his finest moments, until his final breath is drawn. "Tâchons,"/"Let us try, if we can," he ends his lengthy letter, "d'entrer dans la mort les yeux ouverts …"/"to enter into death with open eyes …".
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2180
SOURCE: "Death and the Maiden," in The American Scholar, Vol. 62, No. 1, Winter, 1993, pp. 141-42, 144-45.
[In the following review of Dear Departed, Begley provides an introduction to Yourcenar's major themes and worldview.]
Marguerite Yourcenar's genius was such that she had at her command an extraordinary range of literary genres. Yet her oeuvre often tends to resist classification. Poetry informs all of her work, without exception. Two of her novels were awarded prizes for excellence in expository prose, and—with considerable justification—she elected to include a volume of prose poems in the collection of her fiction. It is not surprising, then, to find that Le labyrinthe du monde, which the author has called a memoir and some have labeled an autobiography, is, in reality, a three-volume chronicle of her family lineage, replete with polemical commentaries, and in which the writer scarcely appears on stage at all.
In Dear Departed, the first volume of the trilogy to be translated into English, the reader is taken back to four-teenth-century Belgium and then led swiftly forward through generations of the bourgeois aristocracy—privileged, land-owning families, pausing now and again to view and ponder those of Yourcenar's forebears who arrest her attention. The writer lingers longest, as one might suspect, on the courtship and brief marriage of her parents, "already fissured by tiny cracks," in an era when marriage was looked upon as a commercial transaction and women "took care not to know too much about conception and parturition and would not have thought they could name the organs involved. Everything that touched on the center of the body was the province of husbands, midwives and physicians."
"It is very important," Yourcenar advised Maria Louise Ascher, whose fine translation this is, "that the reader not get the impression that the author is greatly or personally interested about her origins, since the whole quest is more sociological and historical than personal." She nevertheless dwells, on the very first page, on "the hopeless tangle of incidents and circumstances which to a greater or lesser extent shape us all," and in particular on "the being I refer to as me," "that girl-child, already fixed by the space-time coordinates of the Christian era and twentieth-century Europe." One is tempted to conclude that, just as a number of her fictive characters examined past events, ostensibly for other reasons but in reality in order to come to a better understanding of who and what they were, so, too, might Yourcenar's quest have been a dual one. Contrary to the expectations of some and the wishes of many, the book does not reveal the author's own story. However, the "I," which was so carefully eliminated from much of her writings, is either present or hovering in the wings. In any case, as the protagonist of her first novel, Alexis, remarks, "It is always of oneself that one speaks."
Very little is actually recalled. Rather it is through exhaustive research and impeccable scholarship that Yourcenar, née Marguerite de Crayencour, evokes a portrait of her maternal ancestors and the era in which they lived. For this reason her "memoir" has been compared to Memoirs of Hadrian, the book that first brought her the interest and respect of American readers. Scrupulous about the authenticity of details, the novelist spent years reading what the emperor had read and written, traveling where he had traveled, touching objects he had touched. Her scholarship is so highly valued that she has had the distinction of being included in the bibliographies of historical works. To attain what she terms "inner reality," she transported herself in thought into the body and soul of Hadrian to permit him to express himself, as much as it is possible, without an authorial intermediary.
In doing so, to be sure, Yourcenar goes further than the orthodox historian is willing to tread. Always seeking the truth, she nevertheless is not opposed to letting her imagination lend her assistance. She describes a method she employed to participate in the events of the past, to permit those long departed to speak for themselves. Adapting the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius of Loyola as well as those of certain Hindu ascetics, she placed herself on the scene of events as a silent observer, emptying her mind of everything but the drama unfolding before her eyes, attaining the contemplative state of recollection in order to convey what she saw and heard in the manner of a medium.
In Dear Departed, she does not achieve the same result. Precisely because of the continual authorial intrusion, the reader is sharply aware that the I-narrator/commentator is speculating much of the time about the feelings and motivations of the constantly changing large cast of characters passing through the mind of the writer, whereas with Hadrian she lived in a kind of symbiotic relationship so intense and for so long that it approached, in her words, "controlled delirium."
As in all of Yourcenar's work, however, what absorbs thereader of this volume is her examination of the metaphysical questions that have always fascinated the "thinking reeds"—to use Pascal's metaphor—that we are: the universal fear of death and desire for immortality, the unity and indestructibility of all in matter, the tension between divine immanence and transcendence, the strangeness yet banality of life, the splendor and mystery of love, the unfathomable link between time and eternity.
Yourcenar's mother, Fernande de Cartier de Marchienne, left French Flanders with her husband, Michel de Crayencour, where they resided on his family estate, to undergo the ordeal of giving birth to her first and only child in familiar and familial surroundings. Thus it was, in 1903, that the first woman ever to have been elected to the French Academy "happened," as she liked to put it, to be born in Brussels. Ten days after giving birth, Fernande died of puerperal fever and peritonitis. And it is this drama that is first presented to the reader.
Yourcenar (the surname is a near anagram of Crayencour) was preoccupied with death, which she defined as "the supreme form of life." In an interview with a journalist, she expressed her desire to die slowly, completely conscious of the "passage," so as not to miss the "ultimate experience." It was in this spirit, she notes, that Hadrian and Zeno, the protagonist of her novel The Abyss, die—"with their eyes open." To ensure a dignified encounter with this "friend," she espoused living in constant intimacy with the thought of the inevitable.
In her study of Yukio Mishima, she quotes from a Japanese treatise: "Imagine your death every morning, and you will no longer be afraid to die." There are two kinds of people, she remarks, those who drive the thought of their death out of their minds so as to live more comfortably, and those who feel it wiser and less stressful to live while watching out for death, anticipating its sure arrival. "What some label a morbid mania," she continues, "is for others a heroic discipline." Returning to this theme in Dear Departed, Yourcenar observes: "Our love lives are public; our death seems to be conjured out of sight." In this work, as in a number of others, she expresses her admiration for those who elect to die.
The title of the French edition, Souvenirs pieux (1974), translated roughly as "devotional remembrances," refers to the small cards with prayers and sometimes pious pictures, distributed by the family of the deceased for the implied purpose of requesting the prayers of the recipients for the "dear departed." (The author also chose the title of the English edition.) In both French and English, the word pieux (pious) carries ironic overtones of conspicuous religiosity, hypocrisy, even lack of charity. The souvenirs pieux of near and distant relatives, reproduced throughout the book, function as a unifying element, adding cohesiveness to the text. They are at the same time a symbol of death and continuous creation.
Although, in With Open Eyes, Yourcenar expresses satisfaction in the rituals, imagery, and liturgy of her Catholic origins, her aversion to what she viewed as the superficial, mechanical, tepid, sometimes superstitious religious observance of her forebears—of whom only a few "make an effort to discover the meaning of Christ's tragic sacrifice"—is clearly evident in Dear Departed. Their real gods, she says, are "Plutus, prince of strongboxes; the god Terminus, lord of the cadastre, who takes care of boundaries; the rigid Priapus, secret god of brides, legitimately erect in the exercise of his functions; the good Lucina, who reigns over birthing chambers; and finally, pushed as far away as possible but ever-present at family funerals and devolutions of inheritance, Libitina, goddess of burials, who concludes the procession."
Just prior to her death, Fernande instructed her husband not to let anyone prevent "the little one" from becoming a nun if that should be her wish. The daughter, seventy-one years later, observes that, late in life and in her own fashion, she has embraced religion, but that her mother's "desire has been realized in a way she doubtless would have neither approved nor understood."
While she never renounced Christ, she preferred, she has said, the beauty and mystery of Eastern thought, espousing the concept of divine immanence over transcendence. She subscribed to a "mysticism of matter," a kind of world soul present in every particle of nature, in a continual process of birth, death, and rebirth. The narrator of her powerful short story "Anna, soror" comments: "The book of creation has two interpretations, both valid: no one knows whether everything lives only to die, or dies only to be reborn." Her eulogy to her predecessor in the French Academy is essentially a hymn to nature, in which she quotes the medieval mystic Meister Eckhart: "The stone is God, but it doesn't know that it is, and it is the lack of this knowledge that defines its nature as stone."
Setting in relief the blurred boundary she saw between beginning and end, merging present, past, and future, the author chose as an epigraph to Dear Departed the Zen koan: "What did your face look like before your father and mother met?" Where time and eternity are juxtaposed in Western thought, Yourcenar perceived a cyclical unity. In That Mighty Sculptor, Time, she declares: "There is neither past nor future, only a series of presents, a road, perpetually destroyed and rebuilt, on which we all move forward." Dear Departed ends with Fernande, presumably pregnant, reclining on a chaise longue; the writer remarks: "My face begins to take shape on the screen of time." The voyage before life, she has written, of which we know nothing, is as important as the afterlife, of which we are equally ignorant.
After the death of his wife, Michel returned to France with his infant daughter where they lived in a Europe that was still a lovely park where the privileged could stroll about as they pleased, the author notes, and where identification papers were most useful when one was calling for letters at the general delivery window. The child was educated at home by governesses and tutors. When World War I erupted, with the threat of a German invasion, they took refuge in England. After the war, the family seat having been destroyed by the Germans, father and daughter moved to the south of France. After the death of Michel, whose lineage is similarly traced in the second volume of the trilogy, Archives du nord (1977), at the end of which the infant Marguerite is not quite six weeks old, Yourcenar traveled extensively throughout Europe, giving serious consideration to settling in Greece. The last volume, Quoi? L'Eternite (1988), recounts, to a large extent, Michel's liaison with a friend who had considerable influence in the molding of the author's overview of life.
In 1939, with Europe once more in turmoil, Yourcenar accepted an invitation from Grace Frick to visit the United States. She decided to remain. With Frick, who became her lifelong companion and translator of a number of her books, she bought a house in Northeast Harbor on Mount Desert Island off the coast of Maine. This was to be her home for the rest of her life, though she continued to be a world traveler and returned many times to France.
In 1947, she became a naturalized American (taking Yourcenar as her legal name), forfeiting her French nationality. Thirty-two years later, at the suggestion of certain French notables, in order to facilitate her election to the Academie française, she petitioned to be reinstated as a French citizen. So it was that, in 1987, she died with dual citizenship. Ironically, in her heart, she was probably neither French nor American. She seemed to prefer Greek culture and liked to think of herself as kin to the universe. In With Open Eyes, she remarks: "I have several homelands, so that in one sense I belong perhaps to none." Dear Departed is at the same time a quest for roots, an examination of certain metaphysical questions, and a sustained critique of the significant cultural, political, and sociological factors of a society that, in part, spawned the author.
Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 700
Brown, John L. Review of En pèlerin et en étranger, by Marguerite Yourcenar. World Literature Today 65, No. 1 (Winter 1991): 78-9.
Brief, generally positive review of the collection of previously published essays.
―――――――. Review of Le labyrinthe du monde: Souvenirs pieux, Archives du nord, Quoi? L'éternité, by Marguerite Yourcenar. World Literature Today 66, No. 1 (Winter 1992): 89.
Brief, positive overview of Yourcenar's three-volume autobiography.
Epstein, Joseph. "Read Marguerite Yourcenar!" Commentary 74, No. 2 (August 1982): 60-5.
Appreciative introduction to Yourcenar's life and major works. Epstein begins by harshly critiquing George Steiner's 1981 New Yorker article in which he negatively assessed Yourcenar's importance and questioned the appropriateness of her induction into the Académie Française.
Farrell, Frederick C., Jr., and Farrell, Edith R. Marguerite Yourcenar in Counterpoint. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1983, 118 p.
Contains essays on some of Yourcenar's early works—including Alexis, Denier du rêve, and Feux—as well as essays that consider such issues as the role of women in her works, the relation of her essays to her fiction, and her penchant for revising and rewriting her work.
Gorman, Kay. "Fact and Fiction in Marguerite Yourcenar's Le labyrinthe du monde." Essays in French Literature, No. 23 (November 1986): 60-70.
Examines Yourcenar's literary technique in the first two volumes of her autobiography, Souvenirs pieux and Archives du nord. The essay contains many untranslated quotations from the original French.
―――――――. "Marguerite Yourcenar's Encounter with a Feminist Critic." Journal of the Australasian Universities Language and Literature Association 73 (May 1990): 59-73.
Disputes the major points made by Georgia H. Shurr in her Marguerite Yourcenar: A Reader's Guide, arguing that "Shurr consistently confuses author, narrator and fictional characters" in her search for autobiographical clues in Yourcenar's works. "Unlike most modern critics," Gorman adds, "Shurr seems to think that there is a 'true' reading of a text, and that autobiographical detail gives some privileged access to it."
Langhorne, Elizabeth. "Bridging East and West." The Virginia Quarterly 63, No. 3 (Summer 1987): 521-28.
Examines and positively reviews Mishima, or the Vision of the Void and Two Lives and Dream.
Rutledge, Harry C. "Marguerite Yourcenar: The Classicism of Feux and Memoires d'Hadrien." Classical and Modern Literature 4, No. 2 (Winter 1984): 87-99.
Argues that both Feux and Memoires d'Hadrien are "significant contributions to the present-day vitality of the classical tradition." The essay contains many untranslated quotations from the original French.
Sarnecki, Judith Holland. Review of Conte bleu, by Marguerite Yourcenar. The French Review 68, No. 4 (March 1995): 756-57.
Laudatory review of Conte bleu praising the volume's cohesiveness and focus on gender stereotypes. Sarnecki states: "Fans of Yourcenar's elegant prose will delight in finding new texts to savor, while newcomers to her work will discover many of the themes developed at greater length in [her] masterpieces."
Shurr, Georgia H. Marguerite Yourcenar: A Reader's Guide. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1987, 150 p.
Feminist study of Yourcenar's major works.
Steiner, George. "Ladies' Day," The New Yorker LVII, No. 26 (17 August 1981): 104-06.
Negative review of Fires and generally unfavorable assessment of Yourcenar's career.
Straus, Dorothea. "Petite Plaisance." Partisan Review LVI, No. 3 (Summer 1989): 370-73.
Reminiscence of meeting Yourcenar at her home while she worked on her critical study of Yukio Mishima.
Taylor, John. "Waiting for Hadrian." The Georgia Review XLII, No. 1 (Spring 1988): 147-51.
Appreciation and personal reminiscence of Yourcenar's life and work.
Weightman, John. "Twilight in Flanders." The New York Review of Books XXXIX, Nos. 1-2 (16 January 1992): 30-3.
Detailed review of Dear Departed, which, though he finds it an interesting and entertaining depiction of "the twilight of a social class," he deems ultimately disappointing in its lack of information and insight into its author.
Wineapple, Brenda. "Digging Up the Family Plot." The Women's Review of Books IX, No. 6 (March 1992): 12-13.
Positive review and analysis of Dear Departed.
Cismaru, Alfred. "Marguerite Yourcenar: The Final Interview." Michigan Quarterly Review XXXI, No. 1 (Winter 1992): 96-103.
Yourcenar discusses her reputation and her thoughts on literature and aging. The interview was conducted a few months before she died, and at the time she was recovering from open-heart surgery.
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