Marguerite Yourcenar Yourcenar, Marguerite (Vol. 87)

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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...

(The entire section is 57,053 words.)