Marguerite Yourcenar
Marguerite Yourcenar; drawing by David Levine

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.

The subject is not cruelty, but heresy—political, erotic, religious—and her characters are aristocrats, whatever their natural origin, their penchant for the losing side. They are immune to guilt, which makes them strangers to a convention of fiction we take for granted. They choose their sexual acquaintances—one can hardly say lovers, given the circumstances—but do not care to be chosen. They do not cringe, or dissemble, or wait with petit-bourgeois fatalism for the blow to fall. They are seldom hard-up for money, except by high-minded election, though their metaphysical gnawings can seem as acute as hunger cramps. Their neuroses are so stable and complete that they encourage rather than cripple decisions and action. They make devastating choices, taking short-term pleasure over lasting devotion, solitude over emotional dependency, death over disappointment. It is probably not surprising that Mme. Yourcenar felt drawn to Mishima, transposing for the French stage his modern No plays and publishing a study of his life and work.*

Homosexuality, postulated as a condition of heresy, thus of moral aristocracy, is rarely named. Zeno calls himself a sodomite and a sorcerer, with the observation that it does not mean what “the herd” imagines, but Abyss was published in the late Sixties, a period exempt from caution. Earlier books mention tendencies and inclinations: obviously, contempt for the herd is no protection, if we set aside the Emperor Hadrian, who does not have to account to his wife for his private arrangements. (Only once or twice in his masterly monologue do we hear the voice of Norman Douglas instead of the tone of Imperial Rome. There seems to be no manner of describing the extravagant doting of a man on a boy without sounding fatuous.) The plaintive and somewhat sappy Alexis informs his wife that he has found beauty, and leaves it to her to work out his meaning. This exasperating sidestepping has to be seen in its time, when a miasma of Beauty was expected to hang over the evocation of sex, and male homosexuality, in particular, was considered a criminal offense, or a flamboyant form of insanity, or a habit to be cured by the right girl and a vegetarian diet. A story about women might not have had the same resonance, or required the same amount of tact and circumspection. In Colette’s Claudine novels, published a generation earlier, Claudine’s husband cannot take a female rival seriously, just as Willy professed to be amused rather than outraged by Colette’s feminine affairs.

Mme. Yourcenar was twenty-six when she published Alexis and an amazing nineteen when she wrote some, most, or all of it—accounts vary. It coolly sets forth a man’s escape from wife and child, not for another man, but for the possibilities he imagines contained in a world of men. A situation acceptable from, say, a Proust or a Gide might have appeared totally scandalous from a young woman de bonne famille, without a blanketing mist of poetic effect. The least to be said is that Mme. Yourcenar’s intentions are miles removed from boulevardier nudging or any cheap desire to shock. (According to Matthieu Galey, she believes that authors who write directly about the “mystery and reality of sex” show bad manners—an unexpectedly pinch-mouthed observation from someone so supremely gifted at conveying the mystery and reality of erotic tension.)

Prefaces to new editions and versions of her books are usually straightforward. Mme. Yourcenar is given to rewriting and to second thoughts, not only altering the text but changing her mind about its meaning. Fresh insight offered decades later can contradict the evidence of the work itself: the narrator in Coup de Grâce, defended as if he were a figure of history slanderously accused of homosexual and racist conduct, is reestablished as a man who may have liked Jews and loved Sophie, the novel’s pathetic heroine. (The only attractive female character in the entire Yourcenar oeuvre, Sophie is the narrator’s victim, from the moment he lets her fall in love with him until he shoots her to death.)

Mme. Yourcenar has said that one cannot write about women because their lives are filled with secrets. The visible and open aspect of women’s lives must surely be the least appealing, if we are to take as just the dismal ranks of scolds, harpies, frigid spouses, sluts, slatterns, humorless fanatics, and avaricious know-nothings who people her work, and who seem to have been created for no other reason than to drive any sane man into close male company. Alexis deserts a wife pallid of mind and character, wanly religious, and so ignorant—she never reads a newspaper—that he cannot be sure if she knows he is a celebrated concert pianist; such a ninny, in short, that the reader can only cheer him on.

Zeno, wondering why he ever bothered to sleep with a woman, decides it was “base conformity to custom.” Even in heterosexual men, women arouse no more interest than an occasional need, grudgingly satisfied, followed by boredom and disgust. Henry Maximilian reflects that he will quit his life with the relief he has always felt on leaving a mistress. Alessandro, a doctor, in A Coin in Nine Hands, after provoking an anonymous exchange of masturbation with a woman in a darkened cinema is simply “grateful to be able to despise all women in her.”

Alessandro seems to sum up the spite and the bitterness of the camouflaged homosexual, though it is not clear even after several readings if this is Mme. Yourcenar’s intention. He may be meant as a representation of what men turn into after the hopelessness of trying to live with women. As it happens, his wife has left him. Her grounds for complaint are that he is young, good-looking, intelligent, prominent in his profession, well-to-do, and married her for love. The marriage strikes her as a criminal attachment, “which it was, since those passionate years had sidetracked her from her true vocation; that is, from tragic reality.” Reality means the anti-Fascist conspiracy, and a political comrade to whom she feels bound “by common hatred rather than love,” and her wild, solitary attempt to assassinate Mussolini.

There is more to it than singleness of purpose: “Wealth, success, pleasure, happiness itself provoked in her a horror analogous to that felt by the Christian for the flesh.” We are in François Mauriac country, but without the familiar signposts: Marcella is an atheist martyr; there can be no deliverance, no reclamation. Women, like the coin, transmit death, the void, until they set the final example by dying. They are harbingers of the creeping glacier. Common hatred creates a rot more poisonous than the commonplace debacle of love. The end of the marble corridor is a wall of ice.

Even people who are unfamiliar with her work probably remember the outraged arguments that preceded Mme. Yourcenar’s election to the Académie Française, in January 1981. The ceremony took place when the Academy was 346 years old and Mme. Yourcenar going on seventy-eight. Some of her admirers, who see the Academy as an overdue and reactionary institution, were disappointed that she accepted. So were a great many Academy members, few of whom have attained her stature, in any field, but who did not want a woman, any woman, under the dome roof of the Institut. (The Institut is the seventeenth-century monument on Quai de Conti where the old gentlemen hold their sleepy sessions.) One objection, that she held an American passport, collapsed when her French citizenship was restored. (A native of Brussels, Mme. Yourcenar was born a French national, through her father. She moved to France at the age of six weeks, and to the United States at the beginning of World War II. Julien Green, an American citizen born in Paris, was elected to the Academy, with honorary French status, some years ago. Mme. Yourcenar’s own comment on her national identity: “What is more important and more objective than these criteria of blood and language is that I am French by culture. All the rest is folklore.”) The opposition had to fall back on the somewhat offhand argument that the Academy uniform of tight embroidered trousers, cutaway, and sword would not look becoming.

Hostility was not confined to the established right, as one might expect, but cut across the political battleground to whatever passes as left on Quai de Conti. Mme. Yourcenar’s champion was the firmly conservative Jean d’Ormesson, novelist, memorialist, and former editor of Le Figaro, his challenger the late, then aged, André Chamson, the Protestant novelist and a considerable left-wing figure in intellectual circles at the time of the Popular Front. Jousting had to consist of shouting; many of the doddering members are stone deaf. M. Chamson lost points for calling the elegant M. D’Ormesson a young ruffian, judged unsuitable on every count. One reason why the members finally gave way is that public ridicule was starting to wear them down.

No Academy business in recent decades had ever drawn so much outside interest. Parisians who knew nearly nothing about Mme. Yourcenar, except that she was highly respected, as well as female, watched the ceremony on television. They saw a plain, slow-moving elderly woman reading a very long speech about a man most of them had probably never heard of—the ethnologist Roger Caillois, whose seat Mme. Yourcenar was taking. She spoke without hurry, with a curious inflexion, not quite an accent. A Belgian voice? The effect of so many years lived in English? Writers who choose domicile in a foreign place, for whatever reason, usually treat their native language like a delicate timepiece, making certain it runs exactly and that no dust gets inside. Mme. Yourcenar’s distinctive and unplaceable voice carries the precise movement of her finest prose, the well-tended watch.

There is a tendency in France—for that matter, in other places—to turn aging writers into teddy bears, as if it were the only way these unwieldy objects can be grasped. Some—Colette was one—given in and let themselves be hugged. (The danger signal is when “well-loved” starts to precede “writer.”) It was clear at first sight that Mme. Yourcenar was unlikely to become anyone’s nounours. Some of Caillois’s friends were puzzled by the mystical element she lent the work of a lifelong agnostic and skeptic, but everyone admired the dignified good faith of a performance carried through in an atmosphere of masculine sulks. Some members seemed to be digesting a bad lunch; some went to sleep. The difficulty about the embroidered trousers had been settled by having Yves Saint-Laurent design a suitable costume. Gowned and hooded in quasi-Oriental modesty, looking for all the world like the mother superior of a Byzantine order of nuns, Mme. Yourcenar brought that off, too; she then returned to her house on Mount Desert Island, and is said not to have attended a meeting of the Academy ever since.

At about that time, French critics and journalists began making the pilgrimage to Petite Plaisance, Mme. Yourcenar’s island property. (Matthieu Galey calls her “the good woman of Petite Plaisance,” which is probably no good reason for throwing the book across the room.) The United States is divided by the French media into four sections: Manhattan, New Orleans, Dallas, and a place in California called “Owliewood,” where Jerry Lewis lives. Maine is an exotic venue, and some visitors may not have known quite where they were. A radio critic, last summer, informed listeners that Mount Desert Island, Maine, was part of Canada. Perhaps because of the strangeness of the surroundings, and the strong mind and character of the subject, who manages to shoo interviews up and down her favorite streets, everyone comes back with the same bleak and unruffled view of the universe. One journalist confided to friends after his return that he felt as if he had been enchanted by a benevolent witch.

He would not have said it to her: it is impossible to imagine anyone’s being familiar, let alone impertinent, though it would probably leave her undisturbed. She did not change her expression, or bother to correct a TV anchorman, last winter, when he introduced her as “Marguerite Duras.” (In the subsequent fracas, he was interviewed, and explained he had been so overcome by the honor of meeting her that he hardly knew what he was saying.) Actually, there was every excuse for having “Duras” on the brain: she had won the Goncourt prize, and had also received a sharp professional pinch from Mme. Yourcenar. Hiroshima mon amour, said Mme. Yourcenar, in yet another interview, trivializes one of the greatest tragedies of history. The title itself is in appalling taste, as bad as saying “Auschwitz mon chou.” Asked by French Canadian television if she meant it, Mme. Yourcenar seemed glad to repeat the opinion. Her long, frank interviews are filled with clues to the inevitable biography—willow wands that in the right hands will bend at the right place, showing the biographer where to dig.

Translations of her work into English are usually praised, perhaps because Mme. Yourcenar often works closely with the translator. “In collaboration with the author” carries its own drawbacks, not the least of which is a desire to hold too faithfully to original syntax. None of the books now available in English reveals anything of the quality and clarity of the French. English and French are not negative-positive images of each other, but entirely different instruments. The two languages cannot be made to work in the same way. A French sentence, transcribed exactly as it stands, means an English sentence with five words too many. The poise and tension of French, translated word for word, turns into a length of frayed elastic: “And let us even extinguish the floodlights projecting upon the walls and roofs of old residences a poetry which has its beauty but which is merely the reflection of today superimposed on yesterday, endowing things with a ‘lighting’ they did not possess.” (“Ah, Mon Beau Château,” from The Dark Brain of Piranesi.)

In The Little Mermaid, a play adapted from Hans Christian Andersen, a shoal of mermaids announce in chorus that they are “inflating their divine gills.” Surely no actors could read some of the lines in her Electra with a straight face: “Don’t get so worked up, Electra,” or “Yes, you’re very kind, you, Theodore.” Hadrian and Abyss suffer from a kind of linguistic fuzziness that could give English-speaking readers the impression Mme. Yourcenar writes like Sir Walter Scott: characters are a-doze, they spy a fair ship, perhaps of venerable antiquity, they cast amorous eyes, and life goes on in such wise. Probably translation should consist of adaptation, with the qualities and advantages of English (a glorious language) in mind; and, probably, it is too much to expect. English speakers have to take it on faith that it is not for the sake of examples quoted here that so many people think it is high time that the committee in Stockholm looked at a woman, and at Marguerite Yourcenar in particular.

This Issue

December 5, 1985