Coup de Grâce
A Coin in Nine Hands
Memoirs of Hadrian and Reflections on the Composition of Memoirs of Hadrian
With Open Eyes: Conversations with Matthieu Galey
The Dark Brain of Piranesi and Other Essays
The long career of Marguerite Yourcenar—she was born in 1903—stands among a litter of flashier reputations as testimony to the substance and clarity of the French language and the purpose and meaning of a writer’s life. In an age of slops, she writes the firm, accurate, expressive French that used to be expected in work taken seriously. Critics speak of language carved, etched, chiseled, engraved: simply, a plain and elegant style, the reflection of a strong and original literary intellect. She is a master of her native tongue and an honnête homme of French letters—novelist, critic, essayist, biographer, translator of Henry James and Virginia Woolf, interpreter of Constantine Cavafy and Yukio Mishima, and—perhaps less felicitously—poet and playwright. (Without rival, one could add, if it were not for the quiet, continuing career of Julien Gracq, now seventy-five.)
It is a way of writing remote from everyday French discourse, which has become increasingly diffuse, imprecise, and dependent on clichés; some teachers say that outside the traditional lycées, with their selected student body, her work can scarcely be grasped or imparted. At the same time, almost any literate Parisian would be likely to recognize Mme. Yourcenar in the street, and regard her with respect and affection: more people have watched the television interviews in which she speaks her mind about the conservation of nature, or the decline of black culture, or the myths of family life, or other writers (as the French expression puts it, she can show a hard tooth) than have read Memoirs of Hadrian, her best known and most widely translated book. National reverence for authors does not necessarily encircle knowledge of their work.
Her mind, her manner, the quirks and prejudices that enliven her conclusive opinions, the sense of caste that lends her fiction its stern framework, her respect for usages and precedents, belong to a vanished France. She seems to have come straight out of the seventeenth century, with few stops on the way. Nicolas Poussin is her contemporary, for drama and serenity and a classically ordered world; so is Racine, for form, for unity of vision, for the laws of hierarchy and the penalty for breaking them. To read her books (in particular the fiction, the essays in The Dark Brain of Piranesi, and two untranslated works of mingled autobiography and family history, Souvenirs pieux and Archives du nord) is like moving along a marble corridor in the wake of an imperturbable guide. The temperature varies between cool and freezing. The lighting is dramatic and uneven. Only the calm and dispassionate approach never changes.
What are we told? How the body betrays us. Why we destroy faith and one another. That we can produce art and remain petty. What we can and cannot have entirely. Jealousy, but not envy, is allowed free entry. Reciprocated love is never mentioned and probably does not exist. The high plateau of existence, the relatively few years when our decisions are driven by belief in happiness or an overwhelming sense of purpose are observed, finally, to be “useless chaos.” By the time Mme. Yourcenar reached this prospect, the view from old age, her fiction was written. Luckily: that useless chaos is what fiction is about.
The limpid pessimism of the voice speaks from a French tradition of right-wing literature, but even the most pernickety French mania for classification cannot hold her to that side of the line. Her life has been a reflective alliance with the rejected and put-upon, and she never misses a chance in an interview to overhaul racists and bigots of every stripe. Her novel A Coin in Nine Hands is specifically antifascist, in plot and spirit, its pivot a failed attempt to assassinate Mussolini. The narrator in Coup de Grâce—a brief masterwork, to be classed among European short fiction with Joseph Roth’s Hotel Savoy—is exactly drawn as an aristocratic bully, an instinctive killer, and a natural anti-Semite, who begins in the Baltic civil wars and ends fighting for Franco. Perhaps because of the accuracy of the portrait, Mme. Yourcenar has been accused, directly and deviously, of harboring some of the same opinions as her creation. These witless indictments stick like burrs. Last August, a critic on the state-owned radio station, France-Culture, announced that Mme. Yourcenar was anti-Semitic, “or at least anti-Judaic,” because she finds ritual slaughter cruel. The same floating logic should make her anti-Muslim.
On the evidence of her writing, she knows less about Jews, observed as though they were figures out of the Old Testament, than about anti-Semites. Whenever she is questioned on this subject, Mme. Yourcenar replies that she has a great number of close Jewish friends. Possibly the friends did not enter her early life, which might explain why her viewpoint is consistently literary and historical. Literature and history convey a kind of uneasy respect, bringing one to a halt, perhaps at a distance. (Respect and distance might be welcome today, when the most popular radio station in France is occupied for much of its daytime broadcasting by a teller of scatological and racist jokes. Jews, a constant butt, do not complain, because, apparently, they do not wish to be seen as spoilsports.) It would have been wholly possible for someone of her generation, raised in a sheltered, upper-class, Catholic background, to grow up without contact with Jews, or even without hearing much about them. There was the aftermath of the Dreyfus case, but pas devant les enfants.
Her roots are in French Flanders. She never knew her mother, who died of puerperal fever. Maman mystique is entrenched in France, in spite of the best efforts of Elisabeth Badinter, and Mme. Yourcenar is regularly asked if she missed having a mother. She invariably answers that you don’t miss what you’ve never had, which more than begs the question and does not explain why she reached the age of thirty-five before asking to be shown her mother’s picture. What seems even odder is that none of her relations had ever offered to show her one. (In her family chronicles and in her conversations with the critic Matthieu Galey, With Open Eyes, all her close relatives get the back of her hand.)
She was brought up as an only child (a half-brother was much older) and educated at home by her father, Michel de Crayencour, twice a widower and no longer young. He taught her Greek and Latin; tied oranges to trees to surprise and delight her; had her first poems printed and devised her pseudonym, a near anagram of the family name. He also gambled away the family property and fortune, for which she bore him no grudge. There is a telling remark in Memoirs of Hadrian to the effect that family ties have no meaning if they are not strengthened by affection: she has said that she did not love her father and, until she was grown, did not even like him. Nevertheless, he remains the presumable influence on her young mind. He was born within the lifetime of Balzac; his grandparents were born before the French Revolution. Two generations from the Enlightenment is short reach, though it is hard to see where he took his bearings. He twice deserted the army, once over a married woman, and for a long time could not live in France. His first wife and her sister died within hours of each other, in the Crayencour apartment, after “light surgery” performed by a shady doctor. There was no attempt to get serious medical help, and no inquest.
Mme. Yourcenar makes him sound idle, selfish, and, at the least of things, careless. She once heard him shout racial abuse at someone who had done him an injury and concluded in her calm way that she had never known much about him. On some secondary image of her father she modeled the only fully drawn heterosexual male character in her fiction—Henry Maximilian, the sixteenth-century Flemish freebooter in The Abyss. He carries a manuscript sheaf of sonnets in his tunic pocket, “from which he had hoped for a little glory,” which ends “in the bottom of a ditch, buried with him.”
Henry Maximilian is dispatched half-way through the novel, leaving the field to the cold and single-minded Zeno, partly modeled on Erasmus and other noble heretics, and almost a summing-up of Mme. Yourcenar’s secretive, bitter, clever, homosexual men. Zeno occupied her imagination from the time she was eighteen, as did the Emperor Hadrian—traveling, one would guess, in separate compartments. She thought and wrote about the two, real and unreal, unalike except in their contempt for women, for decades of her life. She parted, finally, from the manuscript of Memoirs of Hadrian (it was published in 1951, and at once established her international reputation), but held on to Zeno and The Abyss until she was in her mid-sixties. When she finally had no more excuse to write, change, and rewrite, bereft, in a sense widowed, she held the completed manuscript in her hands and, she told Galey, repeated the name of Zeno some three hundred times.
It follows that in a supreme degree she trusts what has gone by and has no faith in experiments. She has rebuked the poets René Char and Yves Bonnefoy, hardly striplings, for taking liberties with form—an authoritative censure that prompted one critic to say he would trade all her Alexandrines for a line by Char. Her expedients are deliberately formal and artificial, from the epistolary novel to the outright cultural pastiche of Oriental Tales. Hadrian consists of a 295-page letter from the emperor to his heir, Marcus Aurelius. The eponymous narrator of Alexis leaves a letter for his sleeping wife, explaining why he is deserting her and their infant son for a life of homosexual freedom. In Coup de Grâce, Erick, the narrator, tells his life’s story to a group of people in a railway station. A Coin in Nine Hands uses the trumped-up cinematic design of lives briefly linked by some casual token—in this case, a coin slipped from stranger to stranger in a handful of change. Inevitably, one thinks of Arthur Schnitzler and Reigen, but the ronde set in motion by Mme. Yourcenar is political and moral. The nineteenth century launched its hypocrisy and syphilis on the roundabout. By the 1930s, as this cool and dark story has it, sickness, sex, solitude, hatred, and terror move round the hub of the police state, to the tune of its contagious thuggery. Any human tie, even the most fleeting and fragile, brings nothing but bad, black luck.
At its worst and lowest, luck has to be viewed without a blink. To love eyes closed is to love blindly, Mme. Yourcenar writes in Fires, a collection of prose poems about a failure of her own. “Let us try, if we can, to enter into death with open eyes,” is the last sentence of Hadrian. Marcella, the terrorist gunned down by Mussolini’s police in A Coin in Nine Hands, stares with open eyes “into the void which is now her whole future.” Mme. Yourcenar, who makes a dazzling whole of all religions, would appear to believe wholly in none. Wrenched out of the heart of her work, with the possibility of love, is any hope of redemption. An advantage gained from her early Catholic training, she tells Galey, is that it made her gentle. Gentleness is the last quality one would ascribe to her books, where violence and cruelty are played out against a world that seems immobile, like a painting, or a stage set. The theatrical quality is so strong that one often has the sensation of watching a curtain rise, revealing frozen, Poussin-like figures caught at a moment of incipient horror. When they move, it can only be into mortal danger. A prisoner opens his veins, and calculates his chances of dying before his blood runs under the cell door. A prostitute takes her breast cancer to a doctor for a verdict she already knows. A captured partisan, preparing to be shot by a man she was once in love with, starts to unbutton her tunic, in an instinctive feminine gesture of acceptance. Every shot is missed, just as every act is incomplete: the executioner shoots away half her face, and has to administer the coup de grâce.