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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.