World Literature

Marguerite Yourcenar

 

BORN: 1903, Brussels, Belgium

DIED: 1987, Mount Desert Island, Maine, United States

NATIONALITY: Belgian, French, American

GENRE: Drama, fiction, poetry, nonfiction

MAJOR WORKS:

Alexis (1929)

Fires (1936)

Coup de Grace (1939)

Memoirs of Hadrian (1951)

Dear Departed (1974)

 

 

Marguerite Yourcenar. DEA Picture Library / drr.net

 

Overview

Marguerite Yourcenar was the first woman elected to the prestigious Academie francaise. A self-taught scholar, novelist, poet, dramatist, essayist, and translator, widely traveled and well read, Yourcenar brought a broadly based sensibility to her literary work. Her writings treat the dawn of time and the future; the physical and the spiritual worlds; characters ranging from peasants to emperors, courtesans to Hindu gods; nature and civilizations; and the arts and religion. Although she frequently ignored or defied literary styles, the advice of critics, and the conventions of Parisian literary life, Yourcenar managed to reach and appeal to a wide audience in France and throughout the world. A woman who worked for conservationist and ecological causes, consumer protection, and civil rights, as well as a writer whose scholarship, command of her craft, and far-ranging knowledge in many fields were very striking, she occupies a privileged place in twentieth-century letters.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Life without a Mother, but in a Lovely World. Marguerite Antoinette Jeanne Marie Ghislaine Cleenewerck de Crayencour was born on June 8, 1903, to a French father, Michel, and a Belgian mother, Fernande de Cartier de Marchienne, both of whom came from old and influential families in Belgium—from Flanders and the Walloon section of the country, respectively. Because of her mother’s wish to be near her relatives, Yourcenar was born in Brussels, although she was immediately registered as a French citizen.

Following her mother’s death (ten days after Yourcenar was born), Yourcenar was brought to Mont-Noir, the ancestral home of the Crayencour family, where she spent the summers during her childhood; winters were spent in Lille for the first two years and afterward in the south of France. At Mont-Noir Yourcenar made contact with the land, with country people, and with animals—all of which had an influence on her life. When she was nine, Yourcenar and her father moved to Paris, where the world of books, museums, and art expanded her environment.

Fleeing War, an Invitation to India, and the Death of Her Father. Yourcenar’s first contact with war and exile came in 1914 when, while visiting Ostende, Belgium, she and her father had to flee from the advancing German armies across the channel to England. There, they lived for a year before making their way to southern France for the remainder of World War I (1914-1918) and beyond. During these years at Aix-en-Provence, Yourcenar completed her early education. By the age of sixteen, she had already begun to write. Her first publication, privately printed, came in 1921, and for it she and her father invented the pen name Yourcenar, a near anagram of Crayencour. The Garden of Chimeras proved her able to interpret and expand myths in order to express her own views. This work shows the aspirations of a young person, as Icarus is drawn to Helios, in contrast to the archetype of the wise old man, Daedalus. The volume had a certain cache, attracting the attention of the Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, who wrote to the young poet, inviting her to visit him in India.

In 1929, three events occurred that would alter the course of Yourcenar’s life. The first, in January, was the death of her father after a long illness. The second was the Wall Street crash, which caused Yourcenar to lose most of the fortune she inherited from her mother and signaled the approaching end of the privileged existence she had enjoyed. The third, and perhaps most important, was the publication of her first novel, Alexis; in desperate times, she had been confirmed as a member of that mythical tribe: she was a writer.

The Touch of Grace and a New Life in the States. The 1930s were the period in which Yourcenar’s life and talents took on new dimensions and found new means of expression. During this decade Yourcenar, although in the orbit of Paris as much as any young French writer, spent much of her time living and traveling in Italy, Germany, and, especially, Greece. This was a time of challenge, a time to try new methods, to publish what she had already written, to discover herself as she discovered the world she had loved in books.

In 1939, Yourcenar completed her novel Coup de Grace, considered by many to be among her finest, but when World War II (1939-1945) began, she once again found herself trapped. Low on funds, unable to find a position, and prevented from returning to Greece as she had planned, she accepted the invitation of her American friend and translator Grace Frick to join her in the United States. Although Yourcenar would subsequently travel abroad for periods as long as two years, she established her permanent home in the States at that time.

The break with her past around 1940 was profound. Not only did she suffer, as did many exiles, from a forced separation from the places and people that had been part of her life, but she was also obliged for the first time to earn a living, taking jobs in journalism and commercial translation before accepting a position as a part-time instructor at Sarah Lawrence College in 1942. In 1947 she became an American citizen and, at the same time, took Marguerite Yourcenar as her legal name. This shift in identity was further reinforced in 1950 when she, with her long-time partner Grace Frick, moved to Mount Desert Island in Maine, where she lived until her death.

Finding a Home in Activism. In 1951, the publication of Memoirs of Hadrian brought unexpected international success and served to establish Yourcenar firmly in the line she would follow over the next decades. During this decade also, Yourcenar became ever more concerned about social evils and involved herself in groups and programs aimed at combating them. She joined both American and European societies fighting for civil rights, world peace, protection of the environment, endangered or mistreated animals, and consumer protection, as well as groups against nuclear proliferation and overpopulation.

Following the death of Grace Frick in 1980, Yourcenar embarked once more on her world travels, this time accompanied by Jerry Wilson, an American. She traveled often: to France, England, the Low Countries, Denmark, North Africa, Spain and Portugal, Italy, Egypt, Greece, Canada, Japan, Thailand, India, and Kenya, visiting some more than once. Throughout these travels, she was ever concerned with the plights of the oppressed, and her contact with different cultures broadened the scope of her social concerns.

Struggling against Illness, for Justice. During a stop in Nairobi in 1983, the year after Yourcenar was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, she and Wilson were hit by a police car. The next year the flu interrupted her work for a considerable time. In 1985 Wilson was diagnosed as having tuberculosis, and, in September, Yourcenar suffered a heart attack, necessitating surgery. She recovered, but Wilson died of viral meningitis in February of 1986.

Yourcenar maintained her activist and scholarly interests to the end. In the last three months of her life she gave two speeches, one in Canada on ‘‘superpollution’’ and one at Harvard on Jorge Luis Borges. She had planned to travel to Paris and from there to India and Nepal, but on November 8, 1987, she suffered a stroke, which led to her death on December 17. Her grave, near the memorials to Grace Frick and Jerry Wilson, is in the cemetery at Somesville, Maine, close to the first house where she lived on Mount Desert Island.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Yourcenar's famous contemporaries include:

Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977): A Russian American novelist most famous for his extremely controversial novel Lolita.

Pablo Neruda (1904-1973): A Chilean poet and writer and political Communist; his 1971 receipt of the Nobel Prize in Literature caused much controversy.

Erich Fromm (1900-1980): A renowned German American social psychologist.

Rene Magritte (1898-1967): A Belgian surrealist painter known for his plays on words and pictures, particularly The Treachery of Images.

James Baldwin (1924-1987): An African American writer who lived in France and explored issues of homosexuality and politics; Yourcenar translated one of his plays into French.

 

Works in Literary Context

The Many Forms of Love. Fires (1936) illustrates or underscores most of Yourcenar’s themes. It was written in part to get over an unhappy love affair with the nameless ‘‘man I loved.’’ Passages from her diary alternate with prose poems whose protagonists are primarily mythical women. Mary Magdalene goes beyond physical love to a love for Christ, while Antigone devotes herself to an ideal. Sappho closes this collection, and she is saved from her suicide attempt by the safety net of her art. Her lover, Attys, leaves her; and she begins to prefer a young man, who has just enough feminine qualities to be attractive. This blend of the sexes is very common in Yourcenar’s work and may reflect Yourcenar’s own romantic experiences.

History Rewritten. Memoirs of Hadrian (1951) is an imagined first-person narrative in epistolary, or letter form, written by the Roman emperor Hadrian shortly before his death, when action has had to yield to contemplation and analysis of his accomplishments. Yourcenar’s attempt to ‘‘redo [history] from within’’ shows Hadrian primarily as good; his meditations on classical art, dreams, destiny, religions, women, freedom, and so forth make him an extremely well-rounded character. Similarly, the events of his life in politics, love, and war are documented, chronicling the self-improvement that allows him to realize his own potential and his plans for the Roman Empire.

Yourcenar frequently used historical or legendary events and figures as the basis for her creative works. This is also seen in Fires, which includes figures such as the ancient poet Sappho, and The Abyss (1968), a tale that takes place in sixteenth-century France.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Yourcenar draws on history to add density to her works. With the help of actual events, her fiction becomes richer and more complex. Here are a few other works that use real occurrences to emphasize their central themes and embellish their characters:

A Tale of Two Cities (1859), a novel by Charles Dickens. Beginning with 1775, this novel explores the events leading up to the French Revolution.

The Name of the Rose (1980), a novel by Umberto Eco. Set in a monastery during the middle ages, this story, in which a murder takes place and must be solved, is among Eco's most famous.

The Remains of the Day (1989), by Kazuo Ishiguro. An English butler struggles to maintain his professionalism at the expense of his humanity in this novel set during the tense times prior to World War II.

Braveheart (1995), a film directed by Mel Gibson. Set in the thirteenth century, this film focuses on William Wallace, a Scot who attempted to overthrow King Edward I of England.

 

Works in Critical Context

Despite Yourcenar’s prediction that Memoirs of Hadrian would find an audience of ‘‘a few students of human destiny,’’ it is her best-known work. But for several reasons, recognition as one of the leading figures of modern French literature was a long time coming for Yourcenar. She refused to be lionized; she lived from 1939 until her death in 1987 in the United States and ignored popular trends in order to write about what seemed important to her.

Dear Departed. A series of autobiographical books published by Yourcenar focus less on herself than on her family. Dear Departed (1974) chronicles the story of Yourcenar’s mother, Fernande de Crayencour, and her family, tracing them back over several centuries in Belgium. Of her effort, Harold Beaver writes in the New York Times Book Review: ‘‘Anyone who has ever tried to sort out boxes of family effects will be astounded at what Yourcenar has achieved. For she reoccupies the past, as it were, nourishing it with her own substance to bring it alive once again.’’ But for New York Review of Books contributor John Weightman, the series is disappointing in its lack of information on Yourcenar herself. He concludes, ‘‘In her family saga, she traces the strands which crisscrossed to form... her unique identity and then, almost perversely, leaves that identity unexplained, presumably for all time.’’

Memoirs of Hadrian. In the Spectator, Miranda Seymour calls Memoirs of Hadrian ‘‘arguably the finest historical novel of this century.’’ Likewise, New York Herald Tribune Book Review contributor Geoffrey Bruun notes that Memoirs of Hadrian ‘‘is an extraordinarily expert performance.... It has a quality of authenticity, of verisimilitude, that delights and fascinates.’’ Mavis Gallant feels that Yourcenar ‘‘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.’’ The author continued to write, travel, and contemplate historical and philosophical issues central to the human condition into her eighties. In his Saturday Review essay, Stephen Koch concludes:

As an artist and thinker—for Yourcenar’s novels must be regarded as simultaneously art, scholarship, and profound philosophical meditation—Marguerite Yourcenar writes squarely in defense of the very highest standards and traditions of that enlightened humanism which Hadrian promulgated for an empire and to the agonized rebirth of which her Zeno dies a martyr. It is, to say the least, heartening to find a writer so deeply committed to that humanism who is producing major art at this moment in our own history. It is, in fact, inspiring.

 

Responses to Literature

1. Yourcenar was the first woman to be in the Academie francaise. Research the institution and explain why you think she, unlike any women writers before her, received this honor.

2. Yourcenar lived in and traveled to many different places. How do these different landscapes show up in her works? Does she seem attached to any one sort of place?

3. Yourcenar spent many years working on Memoirs of Hadrian. What can this fictional treatment of history tell us about history itself? Are there ways in which fiction can communicate more truth than nonfiction? If you think so, how and why? If you think not, what is the value of doing historical research to write fiction? Or is this valuable? Support your position with detailed analyses of specific passages from Memoirs of Hadrian.

4. Consider Yourcenar’s treatment of her family in Dear Departed. What stylistic techniques does she use to evoke an emotional response from readers, and what is that response? How does this emotional charge affect the overall message of the work itself?

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Farrell, C. Frederick, Jr., and Edith R. Farrell. Marguerite Yourcenar in Counterpoint. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1983.

Horn, Pierre. Marguerite Yourcenar. Boston: Twayne, 1985.

Howard, Joan E. From Violence to Vision: Sacrifice in the Works of Marguerite Yourcenar. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1992.

Savigneau, Josyane. Marguerite Yourcenar: Inventing a Life. Translated by Joan E. Howard. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Periodicals

Royer, Jean-Michel. ‘‘Marguerite Yourcenar.’’ Actualite, March 1972: 64-72.

Rutledge, Harry C. ‘‘Marguerite Yourcenar: The Classicism of Fires and Memoirs of Hadrian.’ Classical and Modern Literature 4 (Winter 1984): 87-99.

Soos, Emese. ‘‘The Only Motion Is Returning: The Metaphor of Alchemy in Mallet-Joris and Yourcenar.’’ French Forum 4 (January 1979): 3-16.

Watson-Williams, Helen. ‘‘Hadrian’s Story Recalled.’’ Nottingham French Studies 23 (October 1984): 35-48.

Whatley, Janet. ‘‘Memoirs ofHadrian: A Manual for Princes.’’ University of Toronto Quarterly 50 (Winter 1980/1981): 221-37.

 

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