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.