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Marguerite Yourcenar - Memoirs of Hadrian (Mémoires d'Hadrien) Legolas Send a noteboard - 29/12/2010 09:38:44 PM
To be quite honest, I think the main reasons why Marguerite Yourcenar has long been on my "I should read this author at some point" list are, firstly, the fact that she's Belgian (or half-Belgian, as it turns out, though really she's travelled around the Western world so much that she shouldn't be limited to any one or two nationalities), and secondly the rather unusual last name (well, pseudonym, actually, a near-anagram of her real last name "(de) Crayencour" ), nearly invariably last on any alphabetical list of authors that doesn't happen to include Emile Zola.

I wouldn't want to give the impression that she is some obscure or hard-to-find writer, though. She has the distinction of being the first ever woman elected to the Académie Française (the fact that that only happened in 1980 is rather shocking, though), and her magnum opus, the book reviewed here, certainly has a solid reputation. But with so many books with solid reputations to read, and so little time, sometimes the factors that play a role in leading you to a really great book are quite random. We've all been there, I'm sure.

Mémoires d'Hadrien (yes, there's a good reason why I write the title in French, more on that later) is what one would call, I suppose, historical fiction, but Yourcenar is right when she indicates she's not entirely happy with that categorization. The book definitely is rather different from what most people think of when they hear "historical fiction". It has rather too much reflection and philosophy, and too little depth in the supporting characters, for that. But neither is it a straightforward biography of Hadrian, the famous Roman emperor (76-138 AD, ruling from 117), with just some made-up details and first-person PoV to make it more entertaining for the average reader. Rather, it's a highly personal and subjective take on what Hadrian might have been like, and how he would have viewed the world. And as such, it's an impressive achievement.

When I say it's not a straightforward biography, or that it's a subjective take on his life, that does not mean Yourcenar is careless with the details, or making things up wherever it's convenient. Her knowledge of Antiquity as a whole and the first half of the second century AD in particular is vast, and the notes in the back of the book carefully provide sources and indicate which details are fictitious. What it does mean, is that she chooses to focus Hadrian's memories on those aspects of his life that most interest her. As she indicates in the accompanying notes, she has a particular interest in Hadrian's time because of something also commented on by Flaubert: "There has been a time when the gods were no more and Christ was not yet, the time going from Cicero to Marcus Aurelius, a single moment in which there was only man."

And indeed, her Hadrian has a fair bit of attention for the various religions in his empire, and little appreciation for Judaism or its young Christian offshoot. But since he does not particularly believe in any of them, his real interest lies in philosophy, and more particularly in how to live one's life, how to find a balance between hedonism and asceticism, between enjoying life's pleasures and fulfilling one's duties. Yourcenar's take on Hadrian's philosophy and self-image may be spot-on, or not so much, we will never know; but what matters most is how thoroughly convincing the effort is. I can't think of many other writers who have managed to get inside a historical character's head so deeply - the fact that she might be quite wrong on some points doesn't really detract from that.

The things most commonly associated with Hadrian are all there, of course - the bearded face, Hadrian's Wall, his villa outside Rome - but none as prominently as Antinoüs, the love of his life. Antinoüs must be quite unique in Antiquity for the sheer amount of depictions made of him, considering that he died aged twenty, having done nothing particularly noteworthy other than being Hadrian's lover. Their relationship, short as it was in comparison with Hadrian's long life and reign, is the core and the high point of the novel, as it was, at least in Yourcenar's view, of Hadrian's life. It's a thoroughly uneven relationship, for a number of obvious reasons including the age gap and the difference in status of the two men, and the depiction of it is not particularly romantic, but it leaves quite an impression nonetheless. Hadrian's declining years after Antinoüs' death are rather gloomy, and not always as enjoyable to read, but then how else should they be?

The language and style of the book are rather flowery and lyrical, in a way that only books in French can be. I would definitely recommend reading this book in the original version if at all possible; the style is part of what makes the book so strong, but I have my doubts about how well it can be translated. It should be noted that the English translation of this book was done by Grace Frick, Yourcenar's American companion and girlfriend until Frick's untimely death, so most likely it is quite good and approved of by the author; but all the same, I have to wonder if a more down-to-earth Germanic language like English can be used in quite the same way as Yourcenar uses French, without coming across as exaggerated or silly. The quotes on the English Wikipedia page about the book certainly look stulted to me, but then I'm not sure if those are from Frick's translation, or translated on the spot by some random contributor.

I'll let you judge for yourself, and give you a taste of the style in the process:

"Of all our games, love’s play is the only one which threatens to unsettle our soul, and is also the only one in which the player has to abandon himself to the body’s ecstasy. (…) Nailed to the beloved body like a slave to a cross, I have learned some secrets of life which are now dimmed in my memory by the operation of that same law which ordained that the convalescent, once cured, ceases to understand the mysterious truths laid bare by illness, and that the prisoner, set free, forgets his torture, or the conqueror, his triumph passed, forgets his glory."

Compared with the original:

"De tous nos jeux, c'est le seul qui risque de bouleverser l'âme, le seul aussi où le joueur s'abandonne nécessairement au délire du corps. (...) Cloué au corps aimé comme un crucifié à sa croix, j'ai appris sur la vie quelques secrets qui déjà s'émoussent dans mon souvenir, par l'effet de la même loi qui veut que le convalescent, guéri, cesse de se retrouver dans les vérités mystérieuses de son mal, que le prisonnier relâché oublie la torture, ou le triomphateur dégrisé la gloire."

I'm not too good at judging matters of style, but the French flows, sounds good, has rhythm. The translation, not so much; I rather hope that isn't actually Frick's work. And note also the way the first sentence in English is scaled back and less dramatic compared to the original ("unsettle" for "bouleverser", "ecstasy" for "délire" ). This is a phenomenon I've also noticed when translating French texts to Dutch, that you have to scale back some things a little for fear of having a ridiculous-sounding text, but it just reinforces my point that this book really should be read in the original French for it to have its full impact.

In short, this is not a book I can recommend to all readers. Its style and content are not for everyone; it takes an interest in Antiquity and in its philosophies, and an appreciation or at least tolerance for flowery writing to really enjoy this book, I think. And even those who have all those things may find that not every single passage is a complete success, or have issues with Yourcenar's (extremely positive, all things considered) depiction of Hadrian. Still, I wouldn't hesitate to call it a masterpiece. Those who are interested should make sure to get a copy which contains the "Notes" - not the historical ones, though those are interesting too, but the notes in which Yourcenar explains how the novel came to be, and describes her long and arduous efforts that finally paid off.
This message last edited by Legolas on 29/12/2010 at 09:39:52 PM
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Marguerite Yourcenar - Memoirs of Hadrian (Mémoires d'Hadrien) - 29/12/2010 09:38:44 PM 8027 Views
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I've read this... - 30/12/2010 04:32:35 PM 1319 Views
You thought the English translation was good, then? - 31/12/2010 05:15:48 PM 1458 Views

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