Oriental Tales

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1193

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.

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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 compelling mixture of bravado and fancy in a highly sensual atmosphere. Marko makes an escape fully worthy of a legendary hero, a feat greater, the archaeologist comments, than any in the Illiad.

“The Milk of Death” is set in the same area and begins in a similar realistic fashion with a modern narrator, this time an engineer, who recounts the story of three brothers who wall up the wife of the youngest in a tower. Again, the mixture of the contemporary and the mythic serves well as a vehicle to manifest Yourcenar’s touching theme.

“The Last Love of Prince Genji” is an attempt to create an incident never included in Lady Murasaki’s great twelfth century Japanese novel, The Tale of Genji, a description of the death of the Shining Prince himself, an event that occurs about two-thirds of the way through the lengthy narrative. Murasaki wrote of Genji’s decline and then of the shock to the ensuing generation of his death, but the final period of his life was never chronicled in the original novel. Yourcenar’s fanciful attempt to do so turns him more into a French aristocrat in retirement, always ready to play the Casanova, than into the ailing and world-weary figure in the original, but there is no denying the ironic charm of his last liaison as she has imagined it.

“The Man Who Loved the Nereids” puts the reader in Greece, where fabled creatures can strike even a modern man dumb, while “Our-Lady-of-the-Swallows” celebrates a Christian rather than a pagan myth in the same culture. “Aphrodissia, the Widow” is also set in Greece. The author’s laconic recounting of this tale of lust and death is filled with a powerful eroticism altogether at odds with, say, the delicacies of “How Wang-fo Was Saved,” yet the two stories share a similar narrative technique in which small details, beautifully observed—the trail of an ant along the cracks in a wall in the former, dogs sleeping in a thin ribbon of shade in the latter—objectify and help render credible the more fabulous elements in the narrative.

Two briefer stories, “Kali Beheaded” and “The End of Marko Kraljevi,” deal respectively with Hindu myth and contrasting ideals of Slavic heroism. “The Sadness of Cornelius Berg,” the slim fragment that concludes the book, provides a brief sketch of an artist, an unknown contemporary of Rembrandt, who, having roamed Asia, has now returned to contemplate ruefully his past life while living in obscurity in Amsterdam. The sketch is perhaps too short to make a strong effect, but it does serve to pull the reader back into Europe and strikes a nice balance, as the author notes in her postscript, to her story about the painter Wang-fo, whose story opens the collection.

Sophisticated, elliptical, and often ironic, these tales are highly poetic and subtly moving. In virtually all these narratives, Yourcenar manages to establish and sustain a sense of the fabulous, and the reader is thus beguiled into finding again in himself that rarest of modern responses, a genuine sense of wonder. In terms of the author’s intentions, then, Oriental Tales is an unqualified success.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 62

Booklist. LXXXII, September 15, 1985, p. 109.

Kirkus Reviews. LIII, July 1, 1985, p. 613.

Library Journal. CX, September 15, 1985, p. 96.

The New York Review of Books. XXXII, December 5, 1985, p. 19.

The New York Times Book Review. XC, September 22, 1985, p. 42.

The New Yorker. LXI, October 21, 1985, p. 149.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVIII, July 12, 1985, p. 44.

Times Literary Supplement. November 8, 1985, p. 1266.

The Wall Street Journal. CCVI, August 27, 1985, p. 28.

Washington Post Book World. XV, September 22, 1985, p. 4.

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