Sunday, March 21, 2010

50. “Memoirs of Hadrian” by Marguerite Yourcenar [English version]

Year of first publication: 1951
Genre: historical novel, memoir
Country : France / Belgium

En français: Mémoires d’Hadrien de Marguerite Yourcenar

Marguerite Yourcenar tried to write this story for a long time, but she was constantly unsatisfied with the result. She was sort of like Flaubert, who rewrote the same page over and over again. And it is indeed a quote from Flaubert that Yourcenar uses, in her notes at the end of the volume, to tell us why she chose to write about Emperor Hadrian: “When the gods were no more and Christ not yet there, between Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, there was a unique moment in which only man existed, alone” (my translation).
The author starts from the idea of taking the life of a great man in history, of creating a fictional autobiography that narrates the man’s life in retrospective, looking back at the past days. Marguerite Yourcenar takes us back to the II century AD into the life of Emperor Hadrian, into his old age, when he was tired and ill, but didn’t stop appreciating life. Hadrian was a philanthropist, a philosopher and, of course, a great statesman. With this book we get to know the everyday life of a Roman Emperor, his preoccupations and his passions. From his childhood in what is now called Spain, then a province in the Roman Empire, to the death of Emperor Trajan who designated him as his successor on his death bed, Hadrian remembers his life, trying to grasp the ultimate meaning of his existence. He had a Greek education and was an admirer of Greek culture, so it was natural for him to indulge in philosophy, therefore the book is first of all about philosophy.
Hadrian notoriously had a romantic relationship with a Greek youth called Antinous, who mysteriously drowned in the Nile. Saddened by this loss, Hadrian founded the city of Antinopolis. Memoirs of Hadrian therefore also becomes a book about love and loss, and it doesn’t really matter that it was a same-sex relationship. In the background there are Hadrian’s campaigns (in Judea or in Britannia, for instance) and his preoccupations to find a successor.
The measured language and the fluent prose make this book precious, but one that you’d need to read more than once to really appreciate. Memoirs of Hadrian needs to be savoured, read slowly and maybe reread at an older age.

About the author: Marguerite Yourcenar was born in Brussels, Belgium, in 1903 to a French aristocratic father and a Belgian mother. Her mother died ten years after her birth, so she grew up with her paternal grandmother and her father, a great traveller. Her first novel, Alexis, was published in 1929 and it was inspired by André Gide, a famous French writer and a declared homosexual. It is about a man who confesses his homosexuality to his wife and therefore decides to leave her. After the death of her father in 1929, Marguerite Yourcenar led a bohemian life between Paris, Istanbul, Brussels and Greece. She was bisexual and had relationships with both men and women. She published Nouvelles Orientales in 1938, a recount of her travels. In 1939, finding herself out of money and in the prospect of a war, she joined her lover, Grace Frick, in the United States. They lived together in Mount Desert Island, Maine, until Frick’s death in 1979. Marguerite Yourcenar became an American citizen in 1947. In 1951 she published Mémoires d’Hadrien, which she had been writing for a decade, and the book was an immediate success of critic and public.

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