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Twilight in Flanders

Dear Departed

by Marguerite Yourcenar, translated by Maria Louise Ascher
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 346 pp., $25.00

Most people, when they come to write their memoirs in later years, naturally place themselves at the center of the story: how I rose from rags to riches, how I discovered the true faith, how my views were correct, although events may seem to have proved me wrong. Dear Departed, the first of Marguerite Yourcenar’s three autobiographical volumes, is not at all like this. The author, rejecting the self-centered approach, sets out to describe the hereditary influences and the social milieu which contributed to her personal identity. For the purposes of the literary life, she rechristened herself Yourcenar (a near anagram of her real name, Crayencour) and became the world-famous author of Les Mémoires d’Hadrien and of other richly imaginative historical novels, thanks to which she was also the first woman ever to be elected to the Académie Française, yet she claims to see herself not as an all-important subjectivity, but as no more than a provisional, contingent phenomenon in the ever changing play of natural and historical forces—a genetic and cultural nodal point, as it were, only to be defined in relation to the multifarious past from which she sprang. Consequently, all three of these memorial volumes—Souvenirs pieux, Archives du nord, and Quoi L’éternité—purport to deal with her family and her background rather than with herself.

She is lucky to be able to adopt this approach. Most of us know little or nothing of our family history beyond our grandparents or great-grandparents, whose predecessors are lost in the anonymity of the common herd. But Mlle. de Crayencour was an aristocrat, although of a minor sort, and as such could trace her lineage back to the fourteenth century, thanks to records in the public archives, and family papers such as wills, marriage contracts, letters, diaries, and amateur literary compositions, preserved in the surviving châteaux of her many relatives.

She realizes, of course, that an ancestral line plotted in this way according to the transmission of a name is to some extent arbitrary, and even perhaps in places a fiction. It’s a wise child that knows its own father and, in any case, since the number of our forebears increases by geometrical progression with each step backward in time, even aristocrats are descended from thousands and millions of unknowns, and we must all, ultimately, be interrelated. Even so, lineage has a certain reality. Yourcenar lays stress on the eminent, named family as being essentially a cultural unit attempting to survive from generation to generation. While not ignoring the unpredictable character of physiological heredity, in the nature-versus-nurture controversy she is rather more on the side of nurture. An aristocratic or bourgeois family, strongly aware of its identity, is obeying a more or less conscious urge to control the vagaries of human nature, to struggle against genetic accident and social chaos, by transmitting possessions that give power and freedom of choice and, along with these possessions, certain beliefs and standards which are meant to keep civilization going.

Even a democrat has to agree that the aristocracy, however philistine or frivolous some of its members may have been in every generation, was always the most literate and historically sensitive part of European society, outside the Church, and so we largely depend on it for the continuity of culture, or did so at least up to the eighteenth century. It was not, of course, an immutable class; it constantly coopted bourgeois or even peasant upstarts, once their land holdings or financial means made them eligible for the marriage market. Yourcenar mentions a number of such cases among her antecedents, including her paternal grandmother, Noémi, the daughter of a very prosperous Lille businessman, who all her life retained certain embarrassing bourgeois characteristics which irritated her fully aristocratic offspring. In some cases, an ambitious upstart secured an upper-class bride, but usually the transition from vilain to noble was effected by an aristocrat graciously accepting a lower-class heiress, this being more in keeping with the aristocratic principle quoted by Yourcenar: La truie n’anoblit pas le cochon (the sow does not ennoble the pig).

Yourcenar was also lucky, from the point of view of historical interest, if not of personal safety, in belonging to the aristocracy of the border area of Flanders, now divided between northern France and Belgium. It has had many different overlords in the course of the centuries—the dukes of Burgundy, the Spanish crown, the French revolutionaries, Napoleon, the Dutch, etc.—and it was also the scene of bloody battles between Catholics and Protestants. Somehow or other, many of the old, established Franco-Flemish families managed to endure through these upheavals, so that Yourcenar is able to evoke various significant and exciting historical episodes in connection with this or that forebear.

She herself became a victim of the area’s checkered history. At the age of twelve, she had to flee to England with her father to escape the German advance during the First World War, and although she went back to the family estate for a time after 1918, she never really settled in the Flanders region again. Her mother had died in giving birth to her, and her eccentric, free-thinking father, instead of sending her to a Catholic school for young ladies as would have been the usual practice, took her with him on his travels in the Mediterranean and elsewhere, and saw to her education himself, with the help of occasional tutors. As a result, after spending an intensely local childhood in the history-soaked area of Flanders, from adolescence onward she led a cosmopolitan existence in various countries and, as is wellknown, she eventually settled in America during the second half of her life. The fact that she had opted for permanent exile may explain why she felt the urge to spend her last years resuscitating in detail her Franco-Belgian past and its historical ramifications.

The pattern of the trilogy is meant to be simple. This first volume deals predominantly with the mother she never knew and with her mother’s family and ancestors, who were Belgians settled in or around Liége, while the second and third volumes, as yet untranslated, are devoted to her father, his French forebears, and his associates. Actually, there are many rather confusing cross-references, and some points do not become clear until one has read all three volumes. The last one, incidentally, was left unrevised and shows signs of disintegration in both style and subject matter.

An initial point perhaps worth making is that the English title, Dear Departed, sets the wrong tone. The translator says that it was suggested by Yourcenar herself, but this is no guarantee of correctness because in television interviews she displayed a surprisingly poor command of English, in spite of her long stay in America. To my ear, “the dear departed” is a sentimental expression, tinged with affectionate irony, and refers to people one has actually known and been fond of; it has the same resonance as the old song, “We shall meet, but we shall miss him. There will be one vacant chair….” As it happens, French has an equivalent expression, Nos chers disparus. Souvenirs pieux is much more solemn and suggests a bleaker irony. The literal meaning is “pious memories,” but the term was also used for the mourning cards, the faire-part de décès, sent out by a bereaved family to relatives and friends, and always couched in the most pious Catholic style, whatever the real circumstances of the case.

The French expression is exactly appropriate to the book.* Yourcenar is to some extent performing an act of family piety in recording what she has learned by hearsay or research—or alternatively what she imagines—about her mother and her mother’s people; at the same time, she does so without any personal tremor of family emotion, either through upper-class disdain for sentimentality or because her basic philosophy was a stoical sense of the absurd. This is not surprising; absurdism was the unspoken philosophy of many aristocrats long before it was specifically formulated in technical terms by twentieth-century existentialists.

I said “what she imagines,” because the book really belongs to the genre sometimes called “faction.” Where definite information is available, Yourcenar quotes it, but she unhesitatingly fills in the gaps with plausible suppositions. To this extent, she is not suppressing her subjectivity but giving free reign to her imagination, so that at times the text reads like one of her novels. She begins, for instance, with a vivid description of her own birth. Some of the details must have been supplied by her father, but she has obviously filled them out so as to present an archetypal accouchement of the turn of the century, with all the superstitions and medical uncertainties of the day.

Her father had bought a house in Brussels for the occasion, chiefly because Fernande (his second wife) was apprehensive about childbirth and wanted to be near the German-trained doctor who had attended her sisters. The precedents were not good; both Fernande’s mother and grandmother had died in childbirth. Puerperal fever and other dangers were so common in those days that upper-class prospective mothers would prepare not only a layette but also their own funeral garb, just in case. To put Heaven on her side, Fernande had taken a vow that the child, whether a boy or a girl, would be dressed only in blue during its first seven years, in honor of the Virgin Mary.

As it happened, the doctor appears to have bungled matters. M. de Crayencour, who was present in the bedroom (perhaps aristocratic fathers were then ahead of fashion in this respect), called him a butcher and chased him out of the house. Fernande lingered on for a few days in the care of another doctor. She asked for a holy relic with supposed healing powers to be brought to her bedside from a nearby church, but to no avail. She died, after recommending that her daughter should eventually be allowed to become a nun, if she so wished. In the event, Marguerite proved to be so different in temperament from her mother that, when the time came for her to be confirmed, she refused to make even this concession to Catholicism. Meanwhile, as she dryly comments, the adults were so busy with the elaborate ceremonies of death that she was left entirely in the care of servants, who occasionally fed her on cold, unpasteurized cow’s milk, fortunately with no ill effect. How she knows this, she doesn’t say; nor does she comment on the fact that, having been born in Brussels of an originally Belgian mother, she must technically have had the possibility of becoming a Belgian subject.

It is interesting to note in this connection that, in the very process of explaining her cross-border connections, Yourcenar is totally, and perhaps quite unconsciously, biased in favor of French culture. She mentions, with apparent approval, that her father would never have married her mother had she had the slightest trace of a Belgian accent; this is because, traditionally, the Belgian accent sounds comic to French ears. And, in a later volume, she relates, again without adverse comment, how disgusted her father was when his son from his first marriage, who was eighteen years older than Marguerite, deliberately chose to be Belgian and established himself in the Belgian aristocracy.

  1. *

    Generally speaking, the translation is good, but there are a number of mistakes which obscure the meaning, e.g., p. 36, “the century” (le siècle) should be “the world,” as opposed to the religious life; p. 121, “hurly-burly” is quite different in implication from hurluberlu; p. 159 “verses” is surely a confusion of the plural of ver, “worm,” with vers, “poetry”; p. 208, the two books wrongly attributed to Yourcenar’s kinsman are well-known works by Chateaubriand and Renan. Such are the hazards of even “good” translation.

    In the passages I quote, I have made some alterations intended to bring the meaning closer to that of the French text.

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