Posts Tagged ‘marguerite yourcenar’

Achilles, Antigone, Mary Magdalene–these are all figures we are used to associating with strength, sacrifice and forgiveness. Marguerite Yourcenar rewrites their extraordinary stories and interpolates therein the experience of tragic romantic love. But for all Yourcenar’s skill and thoughtfulness, evident in her other works, the torment and deliciousness of love are but poorly served in Fires; I was disappointed, even a little disgusted. The great dramatic potential in the most well-known stories of pre-Biblical times is utterly adrift in the prose, which ultimately seems to be the end point of a cathartic process rather than a narrative which can convey the true pathos of catharsis itself.

Fires
comprises 11 stories, or rather portions of lyrical prose, in the voices of the respective title characters. Thus, ‘Clytemnestra, or Crime’ begins with an address by Clytemnestra to the jury assigned to her case, the murder of her husband Agamemnon. ‘Clytemnestra’ is among the easiest of the chapters to follow. Others, like the Antigone story, begin with stream of consciousness musings and gain little structure thereafter. There is a certain horror to witnessing such emblematic women made the mouthpieces of trivial, bitter laments. One can only assume from the repetitive yet strangely vague vocalisations that Yourcenar had a very specific emotional axe to grind but was satisfied merely with wearing it away. The historical details used to set the scene, though plentiful, are overwhelmed by violently devotional symbolism and such time-travelling therefore seems useless. The utterer of the line ‘I am rich and hairless’ might well have been Donald Trump as the fabled Xerxes.

It’s possible, though, that if the book contained only these portions, Fires would not have been so unpalatable. But inserted between the stories are poetic segues in a voice ex nihilo, and it is these that completely unbalance Fires. Fawning, aggrandising epistles dedicated to an unnamed love-object are rarely attractive to anyone other than the recipient, and we get 11 of them here. They only aggravate a reader already left in tatters from the counter-intuitive and unknowable shifts of emotional direction that arise from the schizophrenia of catharsis.

What I had hoped to find from this book was an exquisite representation of reworked characters of classic literature, a typology detailing what love can drive a person, fabled or not, to do. Fires instead reads like the unedited diary of an anguished girl, and the bridging parts apparently were reworked versions of extracts from Yourcenar’s diary. However, the preface is fascinating; it’s analytical and controlled yet seems more convincingly passionate than the book proper. Read the preface, if you like.


I must confess to very little knowledge of the triumphs and vagaries of the Roman empire. I know the names of the gods, and their Greek predecessors; I know a couple of humdrum Latin words, but nothing that would impress the boys behind the bike shed. Yet if it were possible for the life of each emperor in those fifteen centuries to be beheld through the passionate and tender words of Marguerite Yourcenar, I would amortize the debt of my ignorance most gladly. Her Hadrian’s intelligence and ceremony seethe throughout Memoirs of Hadrian‘s sinuous grace, which also owes a debt to Yourcenar’s friend Grace Frick’s translation. It is not easy to do justice to the fullness, the coherency of a life; the discrete clues of history are not always amenable to an embrace that is two thousand years behind.

A background in classics is not necessary for the enjoyment of the fineness of Yourcenar’s (a pseudonym, an approximate anagram of her actual surname, Crayencour) portrait of Rome’s 14th emperor. Rich is the tapestry placed before our eyes, dripping are the names and places from the pen of the emperor, but not an otiose or jarring word is to be seen. Such treatment is evidence of the great respect possessed by the author for her subject. However wild the religious experiments, however ceaseless the conflicts of the expanding Empire, however lavish the commonplaces of Principate life, Hadrian as expressed here is a clear-headed sophisticate who resists excesses of pride and display of power. But like many of literature’s and history’s best beloved, he cannot resist excesses of love or guilt. Therein lies the heart of this story, which for the first hundred pages is elegant and systematic and useful, but static; a great amount of pain brings experience into minute focus, and the narrative thereafter vibrates with the humanity of pain.

A ten year labour of research and writing was necessary for the work to come about, a labour which, as detailed in an appendix of the author’s notes, lacked no dramatic moments of self-doubt and derailing. Such endurance and toil paid off, and with interest. Yourcenar’s grasp on the politics, the geography and the personages of the early years AD would be oppressive if it were not so radically germane to the novel’s success to capture the feel, the heat of that burgeoning period of progress. The possible scale of one man’s life was so different then (and the possible scale of a woman’s life, one might say, was not so different). Hadrian has, in place of avocations, cities; wars, instead of simple mistakes; but also philosophy in place of leisure; the ecstatic and divine, the mysterious rather than the mundane; and to magnify all this, perpetuity.

It might be difficult in theory to trust a man like Hadrian, trained to speak with persuasion and act with cunning. His legacy, as presented in Memoirs of Hadrian, is nevertheless to be honoured, and unreservedly. The life of one who can assess the gifts and grit of mankind with so little self-pity and so much lucidity has much to offer. The words of one speaking from a time when man stood alone strike a plangent note for the notice even of an audience at the opposite extremes of time and space.