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."