Ever since the publication in English in 1954 of Marguerite Yourcenar’s 1951 novel Memoirs of Hadrian, this French novelist has maintained a high reputation among American and British readers, but until the growth of her more general popularity in the 1980’s, many of her other representative works were not available in translation. Thanks to her continuing popularity, however, many of her earlier works, such as Alexis (1929) and Coup de Grâce (1939), have been made available in English. Of all these earlier books, however, none has found a more enthusiastic welcome than her Oriental Tales (published in France in 1938 as Nouvelles orientales). The charm, wit, and learning of these stories, as well as the particular combination of literary techniques involved in composing them, give them a special place not only in her own work but also in the history of modern French letters.
The ten stories collected here were not originally written to be read or linked together. A helpful postscript by the author indicates both general sources and a list of the various magazines and journals where they first appeared in 1928 over a period of more than a decade. The word “oriental” as used in the title reflects an older European usage of the word and one that may not be familiar to American readers, who may well anticipate a collection of stories from Korea, China, and Japan. Here the term is taken to refer to any area that lies east of Europe. “How Wang-fo Was Saved” is set in China and “The Last Love of Prince Genji” in Japan, for example, but “Marko’s Smile” takes place in Montenegro in Yugoslavia, “Kali Beheaded” in a mythic India, and “Aphrodissa the Widow” in modern Greece. What links the stories together is rather the similarity in literary method by which the stories are retold. The reader can take considerable pleasure in observing the same congruence of perception and imagination applied to an extraordinarily wide variety of subject matter.
To some extent, most of the stories involve adaptation of older literary materials. Although the author does not indicate her precise sources, the reader’s sense that the tales represent an art consciously and lovingly constructed from art is always strong, giving the prose something of the effect of a musical theme and variations. There is a tonality in the texture of virtually all the stories that suggests that, while these fables and legends could well have been reconstructed using quite a different set of elements that doubtless defined the contours of the original, Yourcenar has chosen to emphasize one particular set of possibilities to bring into relief some special element that drew her to the tale in the first place, perhaps an erotic or ironic possibility. This multilayered effect gives a density, an almost archetypal quality, to the best of these stories, suggesting as it does a richness that confirms the poetic truth of the narrative.
“How Wang-fo Was Saved” recounts the last hours in the life of a Han dynasty painter so skillful in evoking a realistic reproduction of nature in his works that the emperor of China, learning of the world through a selection of the artist’s paintings, becomes disillusioned to find actual life less exciting than the art he once loved. To gain his revenge, the emperor decides to blind the artist but first demands that he finish an impromptu work begun many years before. Wang-fo does so, then saves himself by disappearing into the world of his own painting. The language of the story is arch, creating the effect of a piece of chinoiserie, but the narrative line, filled with ironic twists, is suitably stylish.
“Marko’s Smile,” which retells a Serbian legend, begins in a realistic vein but soon slips into a heroic and romantic mode as the narrator, a Greek archaeologist, recounts the story of a famous fighter against the Turks and of his escape from the enemy, to whom he has been betrayed by his jealous mistress. The tale provides a...
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