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.
As for Yourcenar herself, we can perhaps say that her solution to the uncertainties of a border identity was to combine a passionate adherence to French culture with a dream of universalism—hence Les Mémoires d’Hadrien, a fiction, written in classical, rather archaic French, about one of nature’s aristocrats trying to impose the general pattern of the pax romana on the absurd chaos of the ancient world. This is an extraordinary imaginative flight in which the author, a minor female aristocrat from the north, identifies with the problems of the emperor Hadrian at the imperial center. There may be another modern case of transferred identification, but this time in real life. Yourcenar mentions, incidentally, that Charles de Gaulle’s family belonged to the same border region as her own, and that De Gaulle is a Gallicization of Van der Walle, comparable to the transformation of her family name from Cleenewerck to De Crayencour. This prompts the thought that the quite exceptional intensity of De Gaulle’s French nationalism, with its distinctly ancien régime flavor, may owe something to a deep-seated anxiety about being a man from the marches rather than a Frenchman of the heartland.
The elaborate accouchement section is followed by a “tour of the châteaux,” a rapid panoramic view of Flanders history from the fourteenth century onward, centered on the halfdozen or so castles or country houses owned by Fernande’s family, the Cartier de Marchienne, and their near relatives. Yourcenar plots the slow and complicated piecing together of the domains, each with its “stately home,” the symbol of family achievement. Her normal attitude of ironic detachment sometimes gives way to bursts of romantic melancholy, excitement, or even enthusiasm. One of her ancestors had the doubtful honor of housing the enemy, Louis XIV, when that monarch invaded the Low Countries, but carried off the ordeal in style. Another probably entertained Peter the Great in Liége, or Joseph II of Austria, or Casanova. There is a well-established family tradition that Maréchal Ney was billeted in one of the châteaux on the eve of Waterloo, and that couriers kept arriving with urgent messages from Napoleon.
But unexpectedly, Yourcenar waxes most eloquent about the revolutionary Saint-Just, Robespierre’s right-hand man during the Reign of Terror, who, as commissioner of the French Revolutionary Armies of the North, occupied the Château de Marchienne in 1792, with the owner still in residence as Citizen Cartier. How far Yourcenar can seem to distance herself at times from her own family tradition is illustrated by the following lyrical paragraphs on Saint-Just:
Like a number of French men and women of my generation, I worshipped Saint-Just when I was very young. I spent a good deal of time at the Musée Carnavalet contemplating the portrait of the Exterminating Angel by an anonymous artist who had endowed him with the somewhat languid charm of Greuze’s subjects. That handsome face framed by flowing locks, that feminine neck enveloped as if through modesty in an ample cravat of fine linen, counted a great deal in my admiration for Robespierre’s cruel friend. I’ve changed since then: admiration has yielded to a tragic pity for this man who seems to have been corroded before he could find fulfillment. At the age of eighteen Saint-Just engaged in the traditional pranks of a young man from the provinces who sows his wild oats in Paris; confined in the Petit-Picpus prison at the request of his alarmed mother, he wrote L’Organt, the century’s dullest erotic novel, a clumsy imitation of all the forbidden books read on the sly in school. At twenty-two, from his remote village of Blérancourt, he eagerly followed the first stages of the Revolution. At twenty-four he became, in the intellectual sense of the term, the Infernal Consort of the Incorruptible, his adviser, exhorter, inciter, accompanying that smoky cloud, Maximilien, the man from Arras. His dry, specious arguments helped cost Louis XVI his head; he likewise rolled into the basket those of the Girondists, the Dantonists, the Hébertists; the executed Camille Desmoulins, the Parisian gamin who had been his friend and in many ways his opposite….
Which does not mean that we can deny him all greatness. From the perspective of myth, more profound than that of history, he had the greatness to incarnate the Nemesis that kills, and then obliterates the human avatar it has chosen to carry out its executions…
…Saint-Just seems closer to me at Marchienne than my vague forebears. I like to imagine him galloping along on a mount requisitioned from Citoyen Cartier, revelling in the boundless energy of his youth.
However, her enthusiasm may not be so strange. Perhaps she is seeing Saint-Just as the ancestor she would like to have had, an aristocrat of revolution, partly a prefiguration of the nineteenth- or twentieth-century metaphysical homme révolté and partly the sort of outstanding person who imposes his will on an area of society and—should he achieve fulfillment—usually creates a dynasty, only to have to leave it, of course, in the uncertain hands of his unpredictable descendants. For Yourcenar’s own family to have come into existence, she must have had some forceful kinsmen in the past and not simply “vague forebears.” But however carefully aristocrats may play the marriage game, they have never yet been able to control their genetic line, as they can, to some extent at least, that of their race horses. To endure in its average representatives, an upper class, whether aristocratic or bourgeois, has to count on the support of the rituals it creates for itself, and against which some of its members may rebel, more or less lucidly, in every generation. Yourcenar herself is an example of the ambivalent rebellion that can occur; she opted out of the family system, as was her right, but she obviously continued to think and behave with the unembarrassed self-confidence of an aristocrat (an excellent thing), just as she appears to have survived without qualms, during part at least of her adult life, on unearned income from the family estate (understandable but not so excellent).
In dealing with the nineteenth-century phase of her mother’s family, for which period information is naturally more abundant, she is generally critical of those who carried on their class traditions in a routine way, and markedly sympathetic to the eccentrics and drop-outs. At the same time, she is not insensitive to what might be called the phenomenological quality of average upper-class living. For instance, she devotes a page or two of convincing prose-poetry to the nineteenth-century master bedroom, with its mahogany furniture, heavy curtains, night tables, and slop basins, and its status as the domestic holy of holies, the solemn theater of birth, copulation, and death. She also gives a lucid picture of what, in England, used to be called the “upstairs-downstairs” relationship between the family and its servants, and confirms the point, suggested by so much traditional literature, that ordinary human affinities between superior and inferior often cut across hierarchical distinctions.
However, on the whole, she takes a negative view of the generation of her maternal grandparents, Arthur and Mathilde Cartier de Marchienne:
…an odor of stagnation emanates from this milieu.
…These ruling classes, which by this time scarcely rule any longer, are gradually ceasing to be the enlightened classes or to claim to be such…. “Artist” is a term of contempt…
Public spirit, which was still strong in this milieu among certain members of the older generation, has rapidly faded: the State is felt to be the enemy of family inheritance.
Arthur and Mathilde are good Catholics…one is Catholic as one is conservative…. The fulfillment of one’s religious duties is confused in the mind with the respect owed to established institutions, and is often grafted onto indifference or a discreet or vague skepticism.
Monsieur Arthur and Madame Mathilde have probably never met a Protestant or a Jew, types of humanity regarded from afar with mistrust. The same holds true for the free-thinker, a specimen considered more vulgar than impious….
But the real gods are those that one serves instinctively…. Plutus, the prince of strong-boxes; the god Terminus, lord of the cadastre, who takes care of boundaries; the rigid Priapus, secret god of brides, legitimately erect in the exercise of his functions; the good Lucina, who reigns over lyings-in; and finally, bringing up the rear, kept at bay as far as possible but ever-present at family functions and devolutions of inheritance, Libitina, goddess of burials.
Having delivered this indictment, Yourcenar singles out for more favorable mention two people who broke the pattern. These were her maternal grandfather’s cousins, Octave and Fernand Pirmez, the first of whom devoted himself entirely to travel, literature, and music—i.e., was an example of the despised “artist”—while the second actually took part in social agitation and founded a short-lived subversive journal. She gives them the full novel-like treatment, building up their characters on the basis of Octave’s privately published writings and his correspondence with his younger, more passionate brother. Unfortunately, they are hardly worthy of so much attention. Octave comes over as a self-centered, rather namby-pamby dilettante (Yourcenar hints that he was a repressed homosexual), and Fernand seems to have been both naive and ineffectual. He committed suicide in his mid-twenties, but whether through political disappointment or for more personal reasons remains unknown.
This I find the most labored part of the book; Yourcenar unduly magnifies the two rather dim characters, perhaps through loyalty to forebears who at least tried to strike out in a creative direction, i.e., who attempted to do something that she herself was to carry through much more successfully—but also, it has to be said, at the cost of the continuity of the line.
In a final section, having brought the story up to date, she reverts to her mother and the circumstances of her parents’ wedding, no doubt as a way of leading in to volumes two and three about her father and his family. She thus takes us back to the marriage market, where material interests and personal preferences jostle so uncomfortably. Her parents’ union was no great love match. Michel was nearly fifty, and had already had an eventful career, with a number of liaisons and one arranged marriage; this had ended with the mysterious deaths, within a few days of each other, of his wife and his divorced sister-in-law, with whom he apparently formed a ménage à trois. Yourcenar is so heavily reticent about this episode as to make one suspect that the two women must have succumbed to clumsy abortions carried out by the same doctor. Michel, left on his own, was not the sort of man to survive without a female companion, so an obliging baroness of his acquaintance brought him together with Fernande, a suitably endowed lady who was still unmarried at the age of twenty-nine. They found each other relatively congenial and a deal was struck, perhaps with rather more keenness on Fernande’s side.
Two circumstances, which Yourcenar quotes confidently, as if she had been directly told about them by her father, show in what a spirit of aristocratic libertinage that gentleman conducted his life. At the wedding, Michel was so bowled over by the bridesmaid, an old school friend of Fernande’s on whom he had not set eyes before, that he wished he could have gone back on his choice (some years later, after Fernande’s death, the former bridesmaid, now a married woman, became his mistress). Then, he had no intention of producing further heirs to strengthen the line, since he found the son from his first marriage already enough of an irritation. Marguerite owed her conception to his polite acceptance of Fernande’s rather half-hearted conviction that she ought to have a child to enhance her dignity as a married woman. So Marguerite, aristocrat though she may have been, was left in no doubt that she had come very close to not existing at all. Perhaps this explains the Zen saying placed as an epigraph at the head of the book:
What did your face look like before your father and mother met?
Although this first volume is full of human interest, it leaves the rather sad impression of dealing mainly with the twilight of a social class, which must once have had a significant heyday. The feeling increases with the two subsequent volumes in which Michel becomes the hero or antihero. Marguerite was obviously devoted to him, and she never allows herself a word of direct criticism, but she presents the portrait of a charming, cultured wastrel who spent money like water, twice deserted from the French army (once because his parents refused to pay his gambling debts, and once in order to join a mistress in England), was never much more than an absentee landlord, and eventually sold the bulk of the family estates, much to his son’s indignation.
The story of his vapid career is a useful, and at times entertaining, social document, but it seems a pity that Yourcenar devoted her last energies to it, instead of writing her own life story. How much one would have preferred her to give a similarly frank account of her mysterious, cosmopolitan, bisexual career, to which she refers only in infrequent, tantalizing asides. In her family saga, she traces the strands which crisscrossed to form the nodal point of her unique identity and then, almost perversely, leaves that identity unexplained, presumably for all time.
January 16, 1992
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. ↩