A Successful Alchemist

The Abyss

by Marguerite Yourcenar, translated in collaboration with the author by Grace Frick
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 374 pp., $10.00

Historical novels continue to be written in considerable numbers, though most of them attract little attention from reviewers. From time to time there develops a more or less fervid cult of some practitioner—of Bryher, for example, now half-forgotten, or of Robert Graves or Mary Renault. But The Memoirs of Hadrian, first published in English twenty-two years ago, seems to have given Marguerite Yourcenar a special place in the modern history of the genre.

I have just read that book for the first time, so this expression of my admiration is very belated. The obvious comparison is with Graves’s book on Claudius, and perhaps his Belisarius, but it is not too helpful. Graves cultivates a terse modernity; he seems to want to minimize the differences between ancient and modern men, or at any rate not to indicate them by any archaism of language. Mme Yourcenar has a different purpose. Her book is “the written meditation of a sick man who holds audience with his memories,” and represents the inner voice rather than the conversation, recollections of activity rather than activity. The tone is therefore one of intelligent gravity, without pomposity and of no particular time.

This manner of presentation also enables the author to evade some of the dangers of the genre—the awkward intrusion of historical information, for example, and the kind of tushery—gadzooks or mehercle or whatever—which Graves so fastidiously abjured, but which is a famous feature of dialogue in many historical narratives. Yourcenar’s prose is somewhat mandarin, no doubt, but never self-consciously or vapidly so; and it carries a considerable freight of thinking. The translation, by the way, is exceptionally fine.

The historical novel seems, in principle, so difficult a thing to do well that it is quite surprising to reflect how many very good ones there are. The qualities necessary to success in it were, I imagine, easier to come by in the nineteenth century than they are now. A Scott or a Tolstoy could entertain strong feelings or strong theories about the past, without troubling himself with the consideration that his attitude must be powerfully and indeterminately affected by his own historical position. No intelligent writer can now avoid that modern complication; he must know that however completely the past seems to possess his mind and imagination, he has little power to alter the conditions under which he has to think about it, or even to understand the true nature of such constraints. And if he insists too much on these limiting conditions he may destroy the whole sense of a living past which he thinks it urgent to express. Too self-conscious a modernity, arising from a wholly serious conviction that the laws of history were reaching a state of intelligibility, probably accounts—to take an early example of a subtle mind at work in the form—for the failure of Romola; no amount of firsthand research could redeem that error.

In Hadrian, Mme Yourcenar avoided it, even when she allowed her hero a prophetic glance into the…

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