[Paleopsych] New Yorker: (Yourcenar) Becoming the Emperor by Joan Acocella

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Becoming the Emperor by Joan Acocella
February 10, 2005

     How Marguerite Yourcenar reinvented the past.
     Issue of 2005-02-14 and 21
     Posted 2005-02-07

     In 1981, six years before her death, Marguerite Yourcenar became the
     first woman ever inducted into the Académie Française, and that
     weighty honor has been hanging around the neck of her reputation ever
     since. Every book jacket, every review, speaks of it. But that wasn't
     all that set her apart from other mid-century writers. She was an
     extremely isolated artist. A Frenchwoman, she spent most of her adult
     life in the United States, on Mount Desert Island, off the coast of
     Maine, where, to isolate her further, she lived with a woman. Her
     background, too, made her seem different. She came from the minor
     nobility and didn't hide it. Most of the people who knew her, even
     friends, addressed her not as Marguerite but as Madame. Add to that
     the fact that she wrote not in English but in her native French, and
     in a style that was often magisterial, in an old-fashioned, classical
     way. (People compared her to Racine. This was at a time when we were
     getting Bellow and Roth.) Add, moreover, that though she was a
     novelist, she was not primarily a realist, that she never mastered
     dialogue, that her books were ruminative, philosophical. Add, finally,
     that her greatest novel, "Memoirs of Hadrian" (1951)--which Farrar,
     Straus & Giroux will reissue this spring as part of its new FSG
     Classics series--was a fictionalized autobiography of a Roman emperor,
     and it comes as no surprise that nearly every essay on Yourcenar
     speaks of her work as "marmoreal" or "lapidary."

     Actually, some of Yourcenar's prose is marmoreal, but not so that you
     can't get through it. Also, it is beautiful. What made her remarkable,
     however, was not so much her style as the quality of her mind.
     Loftiness served her well as an artist: she was able to dispense love
     and justice, heat and cold in equal parts. Above all, her high sense
     of herself gave her the strength to take on a great topic: time. Time
     was an obsession with her immediate predecessors in European fiction,
     but whereas those novelists showed us modern people altered--made
     thoughtful, made tragic--by time's erasures, she erased the erasures,
     took us back to Rome in the second century or, in her other famous
     novel, "The Abyss" (1968), to Flanders in the sixteenth century, and
     with an almost eerie accuracy. Yourcenar regarded the average
     historical novel as "merely a more or less successful costume ball."
     Truly to recapture an earlier time, she said, required years of
     research, together with a mystical act of identification. She
     performed both, and wrought a kind of trans-historical miracle. If you
     want to know what "ancient Roman" really means, in terms of war and
     religion and love and parties, read "Memoirs of Hadrian."

     This doesn't mean that Yourcenar, in her novels, conquered the problem
     of time. All she overcame was the idea that this was the special
     burden of the modern period. Human beings didn't become
     history-haunted after the First World War, Yourcenar says. They were
     always that way.

     The child of a Belgian mother, Fernande de Cartier de Marchienne, and
     a French father, Michel-René Cleenewerck de Crayencour, Yourcenar was
     born in Brussels in June of 1903. Years later, she reconstructed the
     events of that morning. "The pretty room," she said, "looked like the
     scene of a crime." Michel was screaming at the doctor, calling him a
     butcher. The housemaids hurried about, gathering up the bloodied
     sheets and also the afterbirth, which they took down to the kitchen
     and stuffed into the coal fire. (Yourcenar has a kind of mania for
     anti-sentimentality. It is hard to imagine another writer describing
     the burning of her own afterbirth.) Ten days later, Fernande was dead.
     The new baby lay squalling in a silk-lined crib.

     Michel gathered up the child and returned to his family estate, near
     Lille, where Yourcenar lived until the age of nine, in what she later
     described as considerable happiness. She recalled the riot of poppies
     in spring. She remembered her pets: a lamb, a goat whose horns her
     father had painted gold. According to Josyane Savigneau, the
     excellent, hard-nosed biographer from whom I have taken much of this
     information, Yourcenar later scandalized some of her French readers by
     claiming that she never regretted not having a mother. She had a good
     substitute, a young nursemaid, Barbe, who adored her. But one day when
     Marguerite was seven it was discovered that Barbe, on a few occasions,
     had taken her to "houses of assignation," where she went now and then
     to supplement her income. Barbe was instantly dismissed; she wasn't
     even allowed to say goodbye to Marguerite.

     After that, the child grew up fast. When she was nine, Michel sold the
     château, and the two of them moved to Paris. A man of leisure, an
     occupation that he took seriously, Michel wasn't home much, but
     neither was Marguerite. She was out scouring the city: the museums,
     the streets, the bookstalls. Like most girls of her social class, she
     never went to school. She had a few tutors, but mostly she educated
     herself. She taught herself Latin, ancient Greek, English, and
     Italian; she read everything she could find. Soon she began writing,
     and she expected a great literary career. "O, winds!" she called out,
     in a poem she wrote in her teens. "Carry me away to the fiercest
     heights, / To the loftiest summits of triumph to come!" With such a
     future awaiting her, she embraced any new adventure. At the age of
     eleven, she had what seems to have been her first serious sexual
     encounter, with a young woman. Afterward, the woman said to her that
     she had heard it was bad to do these things. Yourcenar's biography of
     her family finishes the story: "`Really?' I replied. And . . . I
     stretched out on the edge of the bed and fell asleep." This was soon
     followed by an equally unfraught encounter with an older man, a
     cousin. Early initiation, she wrote, "can be a way to save some time."

     Always given to understatement, Yourcenar later played down the
     affection between herself and her father. ("No doubt there was a
     strong attachment, as there is when one is raising a puppy.") But
     Michel clearly loved her, the more, no doubt, since she was his only
     relative who had not loudly deplored the fact that he was gambling
     away the family fortune. They eventually moved to the South of France
     and, in 1920, settled in Monte Carlo, where Michel could be closer to
     the baccarat tables. There, in the words of the Yourcenar scholar Joan
     E. Howard, the two became "partners in crime." They read aloud
     together, passing the book back and forth: Homer (in Greek), Virgil
     (in Latin), Ibsen, Nietzsche, Saint-Simon, Tolstoy. In his early
     years, Michel had tried his hand at literature: some verse, the
     beginnings of a novel. Now, as he watched Marguerite doing the
     same--by her early twenties, she was writing all the time--he urged
     her on. One happy night, they worked out a nom de plume for her, an
     approximate anagram of Crayencour. Then he wrote to publishers, under
     her new name, to peddle her writings. He paid for the publication of
     her first two books (both poetry). He also gave her the first chapter
     of his abandoned novel and told her to rework it and publish it as her
     own, which she did. Entitled "The First Evening," it is the story of a
     joyless wedding night, and the couple in question may have been based
     on Michel and Fernande. This was a very intimate and unconventional
     collaboration. In 1929, shortly before Yourcenar's first novel was
     published, Michel died. She was twenty-five. She said she cried and
     then almost forgot him for thirty years. He left her next to
     nothing--he was bankrupt by 1925--but she had a small legacy from her
     mother that she figured would give her ten years of freedom if she
     spent it carefully.

     She passed those years partly in what she called "dissipation"--that
     is, a little drinking and a lot of sex, some with men, mostly with
     women.The rest of the time she wrote. In her old age, she said that
     everything she ever produced was already fixed in her mind by the time
     she was twenty. In any case, she now laid down her method. First, many
     of her narratives were set in the past. Second, they often involved
     towering passions compacted into tight, steel-band forms. That's the
     reason for the comparison to Racine, but a closer reference point is
     Gide, whose austere récits influenced almost every writer of her
     generation. She continued to embrace anti-sentimentality; indeed, she
     showed a fondness for brutality. And those traits, together with her
     highly controlled prose, encouraged reviewers to say--as they would
     say throughout her life--that she wrote like a man. As one critic put
     it, he could not find in her work "those often charming weaknesses . .
     . by which one identifies a feminine pen. The hand does not yield, it
     does not caress the paper; it is clasped by an iron gauntlet." This
     opinion was fortified by the fact that most of her protagonists were
     men. Curiously, however, they tended to be homosexual men. Yourcenar,
     it has been claimed, also had the habit of falling in love with
     homosexual men, the most serious case being her editor at Éditions
     Grasset, André Fraigneau, who had great interest in her artistically
     and none whatsoever sexually. This injustice drove her wild throughout
     her early thirties. She got two books out of it.

     Then, one afternoon in 1937, when she was thirty-three, she was
     sitting in a hotel bar in Paris talking with a friend about Coleridge
     when a woman from another table came over and told them they were all
     wrong about Coleridge. The woman was Grace Frick, an American English
     professor, almost exactly Yourcenar's age. The next morning, Frick
     invited Yourcenar to come up and see the pretty birds outside her
     hotel-room window. Later that year, Yourcenar sailed to the United
     States to spend the winter in New Haven with Frick, who was starting a
     dissertation at Yale. In the spring, she returned to France with a
     decision to make. She was still in love with Fraigneau; meanwhile,
     Frick was madly in love with her, and it was nice, finally, to be the
     loved one. She sat down and wrote a savage little novel, "Coup de
     Grâce," about a group of young people involved in the civil war in the
     Baltics after the Russian Revolution. At the center of the book is a
     love triangle. The narrator, Erick, an elegant Prussian fighting on
     the side of the White Russians--and a dead ringer for Fraigneau--is in
     love with his co-adjutant, Conrad; Conrad's sister, Sophie, is in love
     with Erick, and throws herself at him every chance she gets. (At one
     point, as Erick is prying Sophie off of himself, he compares her
     clinging limbs to the suctioned arms of a starfish.) Finally, Sophie
     abandons the White Russian cause and defects to the Red Army. Soon
     afterward, her division is captured by Erick and his men. In a
     military execution, he shoots her--in the face.

     This was Yourcenar's most autobiographical novel, which doesn't mean
     that it's easy to figure out, in real-life terms, who shot whom.
     Roughly, one can say that Fraigneau killed Yourcenar by not loving
     her, and now--as the title of the book, with its pun on Frick's name,
     tells us--she's going to kill him, or her passion for him. Soon after
     "Coup de Grâce" came out, in 1939, Yourcenar returned to the United
     States, where for the next forty years Frick would be her companion,
     her translator, her household manager, and her shield against the
     world--possibly the most complete literary wife in the annals of art.

     As Yourcenar explained it later, she had planned only to try out
     another winter with Grace, but the Second World War intervened, and by
     the time it was over she had decided to stay. (She became an American
     citizen in 1947.) When she was old, she said that her passion for
     Grace exhausted itself after two years. But Grace's passion lasted,
     and perhaps Yourcenar could not turn her back on that, or on the
     domestic comforts it provided. But there was another reason for not
     returning to her life in France. Its bottom, her literary career, had
     dropped out. Horribly, mysteriously, Yourcenar stopped writing when
     she arrived in the United States. For more than a decade, she
     published almost nothing. She and Grace lived mainly in Hartford, to
     be near Grace's work, first at Hartford Junior College, then at
     Connecticut College. Soon Yourcenar, too, began teaching, commuting to
     Sarah Lawrence, just outside New York City, where she gave courses in
     French and Italian. By all accounts, she was despondent. She had died
     to herself.

     Before she left Europe, Yourcenar had deposited a trunk in storage at
     a hotel in Lausanne. She had been trying for years to get it back, and
     one day in 1949 it arrived. Opening it, she looked first for some
     valuables, but they had vanished. All that was left was a bunch of old
     papers. She pulled her chair up to the fireplace and started pitching
     things in. Then she came upon the drafts of a novel about Hadrian that
     she had begun when she was twenty-one and had later put aside. At the
     sight of those pages, she said, her mind more or less exploded. It is
     hard to understand how she managed to produce "Memoirs of Hadrian" in
     two years. In a bibliographical note appended to the novel, it takes
     her seventeen pages to list the sources she consulted (mostly at Yale)
     in order to make her account factually correct: ancient texts by the
     score; histories in English, French, and German; treatises on
     archeology, on numismatics. Then, there was the matter of writing the
     book, but she said that she composed it in a state of "controlled
     delirium." She recalled a train trip she took at the time:

     Closed inside my compartment as if in a cubicle of some Egyptian tomb,
     I worked late into the night between New York and Chicago; then all
     the next day, in the restaurant of a Chicago station where I awaited a
     train blocked by storms and snow; then again until dawn, alone in the
     observation car of a Santa Fe limited, surrounded by black spurs of
     the Colorado mountains, and by the eternal pattern of the stars. Thus
     were written at a single impulsion the passages on food, love, sleep,
     and the knowledge of men. I can hardly recall a day spent with more
     ardor, or more lucid nights.

     Clearly, she was simply ready to write this novel, as she had not been
     at twenty-one. She herself said that the crux was time: "There are
     books which one should not attempt before having passed the age of
     forty." She was forty-five when she went back to Hadrian.

     As the book opens, Hadrian is sixty, and dying. His life, he says,
     seems to him "a shapeless mass," but in this memoir, written as a
     letter to his adopted grandson, Marcus Aurelius, he will try to make
     some sense of it. The son of a Roman official, he grows up on a dusty
     estate in his native Spain. At sixteen, he is sent to study in Athens,
     and there he falls permanently in love with Greece, "the only
     culture," he says, "which has once for all separated itself from the
     monstrous, the shapeless, and the inert." Time, he discovers, is not
     just the present; some matters are eternal. But he is young and wild.
     In the wars in Dacia (Romania), his bravery greatly impresses the
     emperor, Trajan, who is his cousin and guardian. He recalls with
     exhilaration the "Dacian footsoldiers whom I crushed under my horse's
     hoofs." Later, in Rome, he shows himself equally skilled as an
     administrator and as a courtier. He is careful to get as drunk as
     everyone else at Trajan's parties. He longs to succeed Trajan as

     There is a difficulty, however. Hadrian has come to hate Rome's policy
     of conquest. Instead of subduing other peoples, he thinks, why not
     make treaties with them and let them be, relying on the exchange of
     goods and ideas to spread Rome's laws? But he cannot voice these
     ideas. Trajan is an utterly convinced warmaker. Soon, this problem
     solves itself. Trajan dies, and Hadrian is made emperor, at the age of

     His sense of time now changes. The future is everything. He enacts a
     thousand reforms. He builds a bureaucracy. He outlaws forced labor,
     adjusts taxes, forbids execution by torture. Most important, he ends
     Rome's wars on its neighboring peoples. He envisions an empire not of
     uniformity but of multiplicity. (Today, we call this
     multiculturalism.) "The tattooed black, the hairy German, the slender
     Greek, and the heavy Oriental"--he wants them all, and just as they
     are, in their peculiar clothes and with their strange gods, except
     that, in keeping with Roman rule, they will clean their streets, give
     good weight, enforce the law. The new Rome of Hadrian's imagining was
     thus not so much an empire as a world. When the Greeks declared him a
     god, he thought--arrogantly, touchingly--that perhaps this wasn't
     excessive. The gods ruled the world in the name of right. So did he.

     That was the high noon of his life. Then, at the age of forty-eight,
     he met a Greek boy, Antinous, aged thirteen or fourteen, and for the
     first time in his life he fell headlong in love. Antinous was tender
     and artless. After the hunt, Hadrian says, he "would cast off his
     dagger and belt of gold, scattering his arrows at random to roll with
     the dogs on the leather divans." Antinous, one suspects, was just the
     sort of blank little beauty (he only wanted to hunt; he never managed
     to learn Latin) that brilliance sometimes fastens on when it is tired
     of being brilliant. In any case, Hadrian, after seven years of
     midnight toil, found this patch of sunshine and was carried to mystic
     heights. He describes a "fire festival" his people staged in his

     I watched Rome ablaze. Those festive bonfires were surely as brilliant
     as the disastrous conflagrations lighted by Nero; they were almost as
     terrifying, too. Rome the crucible, but also the furnace, the boiling
     metal, the hammer, and the anvil as well, visible proof of the changes
     and repetitions of history, one place in the world where man will have
     most passionately lived. . . . These millions of lives past, present,
     and future, these structures newly arisen from ancient edifices and
     followed themselves by structures yet to be born, seemed to me to
     succeed each other in time like waves; by chance it was at my feet
     that night that this great surf swept to shore. . . . The massive reef
     in the distance, perceptible in the dark, that gigantic base of my
     tomb so newly begun on the banks of the Tiber, suggested to me no
     regret at the moment, no terror nor vain meditation upon the brevity
     of life.

     He is ecstatic, prophetic--the master of time.

     Time soon reminds him who the master is. Hadrian was a great
     sensualist, and whereas, for a while, he was happy to spend his nights
     with Antinous alone, he eventually drew the boy into more complicated
     revels, including women. Antinous, by then nineteen, may have sensed
     what time would do to his position with Hadrian. One night in
     Alexandria, he came to Hadrian in a robe "sheer as the skin of a
     fruit." The next morning, he drowned himself in the Nile. Hadrian was

     One last catastrophe awaited him. His idea that all of Rome's peoples,
     while following their own customs, would nevertheless recognize Rome
     as an overarching authority was not endorsed by everyone, notably the
     Jews. Hadrian couldn't understand the Jews: their insistence that
     their god was the only god, their barbarous custom of circumcision. He
     finally banned circumcision, and this, probably with other factors,
     provoked an insurrection. It took Hadrian and his army three years to
     put down the revolt, which they did savagely. Jerusalem was destroyed;
     the rabbis were executed; the rebels were sold into slavery. "Judea
     was struck from the map," Hadrian writes. That was the beginning of
     his death. Though he was the one who did it, it broke his heart. His
     policy of peace lay in the dust.

     Of all Yourcenar's characters, Hadrian is the most admirable. He took
     everything in, liked everything: men, women, war, peace, Greece, Rome.
     He read endlessly. (Yourcenar reconstructed his library.) And he made
     combinations, compromises, with a goal of partial virtue, partial
     justice. He thought slavery was all right, but he outlawed the sale of
     slaves to gladiatorial schools. He accepted that women were inferior,
     but he gave them the right to inherit and bequeath property. He
     thought that men were no more prone to evil than to good, and that if
     he could induce them to try the good they might get in the habit. His
     mind was as large as his empire.

     What would become of that empire after his death? This is the question
     that torments his last years. Near the end, he finds a bitter peace:

     Life is atrocious, we know. But precisely because I expect little of
     the human condition, man's periods of felicity, his partial progress,
     his efforts to begin over again and to continue, all seem to me like
     so many prodigies which nearly compensate for the monstrous mass of
     ills and defeats, of indifference and error. Catastrophe and ruin will
     come; disorder will triumph, but order will too, from time to time. .
     . . Some few men will think and work and feel as we have done, and I
     venture to count upon such continuators, placed irregularly throughout
     the centuries, and upon this kind of intermittent immortality.

     One token of that immortality is "Memoirs of Hadrian." No other
     document takes us so deeply into the pre-Christian mind. This act of
     time-travel is part of what Yourcenar meant when she said one had to
     be forty in order to attempt certain books. Younger than that, this
     exemplary Judeo-Christian writer--who was a committed pacifist--could
     not have achieved the self-suppression required to describe her hero's
     joy as he trampled the Dacian foot soldiers. Age gave her more than
     objectivity, however. She says in an afterword to the novel that in
     order to appreciate Hadrian's struggle with time--the reversals, the
     accidents--she had to undergo the same struggles, among which her
     ten-year writing block no doubt figured heavily in her mind. "Hadrian"
     can be seen as her solution, the same one offered by Proust, whose
     work she loved. Art redeems us from time: in Hadrian's case, by
     shaping his life into a meaningful curve (ambition to mastery to
     exaltation to disaster to reconciliation); in Yourcenar's case, by
     enabling her to do that shaping, and in the process to write her first
     great novel, to save her own life.

     But the salvation is not limited to the superstructure. It goes down
     to the diction, the grammar. In "Hadrian," Yourcenar gathers not just
     the round-cheeked boys and the fire festivals but also the less
     glamorous materials--the tax abatements, the judicial reforms--into
     sentences that throb and glow like rising suns. This is more than
     beauty; it's morals. If, to Hadrian and to Yourcenar, their lives
     seemed crazy or dull or just plain obliterated, these magnificent
     Latinate constructions, with their main clauses and their subordinate
     clauses--that is, with distinctions, with judgment--say the opposite.

     "Hadrian" was Yourcenar's first big success--it made her famous--and
     the momentum she generated for it lasted close to twenty years. In the
     nineteen-fifties and sixties, she wrote some superb critical essays,
     several of them spinoffs from "Hadrian," and gathered them in her
     collection "The Dark Brain of Piranesi and Other Essays" (1962). One
     striking feature of this book, and of her later critical writings,
     too, is the extent of her learning. Continuing the practice of her
     childhood, she read almost everything she could lay her hands on, and
     when she finished a book she liked, she would turn back to page 1 and
     read it over again. She went from Western literature to Asian
     literature. She taught herself new languages: a lot of Japanese, some
     German, Spanish, Portuguese, and modern Greek. This studiousness is
     reflected in her criticism. There seems to be almost nothing she
     doesn't feel she can write about: Cavafy, Mishima, Selma Lagerlöf,
     Michelangelo, the Venerable Bede, plus some people we haven't heard of
     but whom she is rescuing for us. Of the major novelists of the
     twentieth century, including Joyce, she was probably the most erudite.
     The point of her critical writings, though, is not their show of
     knowledge. As with "Hadrian," it is penetration--historical,
     moral--and the subject, again, is often time. In "The Dark Brain of
     Piranesi," the best of her essays--it is one of the most profound
     critical studies of our period--we learn what the great
     eighteenth-century draftsman, trailblazing for Yourcenar in his
     thousand-odd etchings of the ruins of Rome, thought about time's
     action on the supposedly eternal city.

     These were sidelines, though. Yourcenar's main project in the
     nineteen-sixties was her next novel, "The Abyss." The tone of this
     book is very different from that of "Hadrian." When an interviewer
     raised that point with her, she asked him to consider the events
     intervening between the two novels. When "Hadrian" was written, the
     war had just ended, and the United Nations had been established. There
     seemed to be some hope for the world. Then came a series of disasters.
     She listed them briefly: "Suez, Budapest, Algeria." (She might have
     added the Vietnam War, which sickened her. She went to sit-ins,
     carried placards.) If reading "Hadrian" is like gazing on white
     marble, reading "The Abyss" is like breaking open a clod of earth and
     finding strange, dark things: glints and bones and bugs, slimes and
     roots, sulfur and verdigris. Flanders in the sixteenth century was a
     pit of violence--secular wars, religious wars, peasant revolts. All
     this is in the book, together with the explosion of ideas that
     occurred at that time: the Reformation, the discovery of new worlds,
     the birth of modern science, the beginnings of industrialization. The
     hero of "The Abyss," and the representative of those new ideas, is
     Zeno, the illegitimate son of a rich banking family, who leaves home
     at the age of twenty to find truth. He becomes a priest, a physician,
     an alchemist, a philosopher. He writes books, and they are seized by
     the authorities. He travels to North Africa, to Sweden, to the courts
     of the East, and often has to leave quickly, with the police on his
     tail. Finally, he is captured, and condemned to be burned at the
     stake. On his last night, he cuts opens his veins and dies in his
     prison cell.

     "The Abyss" is not a warm book. For one thing, it sometimes imitates
     Renaissance literary forms--the love lyric, the picaresque novel--and,
     while this true-to-period writing worked well in "Hadrian," in "The
     Abyss" it has a distancing effect, in the postmodern way. Furthermore,
     the story has very few good people in it. Zeno himself is not
     altogether sympathetic. The novel's excitement lies in the vividness
     of the world Yourcenar calls up: the reeking taverns, the lecherous
     monks, the smell of honey cakes and eel pie, and of festering bodies,
     felled by plague. Then there are the visions that fill Zeno's
     expanding mind. Here is what he sees as he is dying. Night has fallen:

     But this darkness, different from what the eyes see, quivered with
     colors issuing, as it were, from the very absence of color: black
     turned to livid green, and then to pure white; that pure, pale white
     was transmuted into a red gold, although the original blackness
     remained, just as the fires of the stars and the northern lights
     pulsate in what is, notwithstanding, total night. For an instant which
     seemed to him eternal, a globe of scarlet palpitated within him, or
     perhaps outside him, bleeding on the sea. Like the summer sun in polar
     regions, that burning sphere seemed to hesitate, ready to descend one
     degree toward the nadir; but then, with an almost imperceptible bound
     upward, it began to ascend toward the zenith, to be finally absorbed
     in a blinding daylight which was, at the same time, night.

     Yourcenar often voiced the conviction that her characters actually
     existed, and lived with her, but there is no character she felt closer
     to than Zeno. He was a brother to her, as she put it. When she
     couldn't sleep, she would hold out a hand to him. Once, weirdly, she
     recalled going to a bakery and leaving Zeno there; she had to go back
     and get him, she said. In view of this attachment, the stern and
     furtive character that she gave to Zeno seems puzzling. Perhaps it was
     a defense against too great a love for him. Or, more simply, one might
     say that Zeno was Yourcenar's tribute to one part of herself, her love
     of knowledge, and that she made the tribute more pointed by cutting
     the other parts away. She said she expected "The Abyss" to be read by
     about ten people. Instead, like "Hadrian," it was a big success.

     In the nineteen-forties, Yourcenar and Frick discovered Mount Desert
     Island, a starkly gorgeous spot. In 1950, they bought an old frame
     house there, and soon they had quit their jobs and settled in. They
     called the house Petite Plaisance, little pleasure. Petite Plaisance
     is now a museum dedicated to Yourcenar. I visited it under the
     guidance of its director, Joan E. Howard, who, apart from being a
     Yourcenar scholar, was a friend of the writer's. The house is a
     bright, cozy place with eight small rooms jumbled together and filled
     with modest treasures--delft tiles, Chinese figurines, photographs of
     Yourcenar's and Frick's dogs. The most striking feature of the house
     is the library, which stretches from floor to ceiling and from room to
     room: Asian literature in the parlor, Greek and Roman in the study,
     seventeenth and eighteenth century in the foyer, early nineteenth
     century in Frick's bedroom, later nineteenth century in the guest
     rooms, twentieth century in Yourcenar's room. The place looks like the
     Bibliothèque Nationale crammed into a New England farmhouse. In the
     study, there is a large custom-made table with two typewriters
     opposite each other. As Yourcenar wrote her novels, and Frick
     translated them, they sat face to face, a few feet apart.

     This they did for almost thirty years. After "The Abyss," Yourcenar's
     most important project was a three-volume biography of her
     family--basically, it is another historical novel--with the over-all
     title "Le Labyrinthe du Monde." These three books have wonderful
     parts, but that's what they are: parts. Yourcenar, it seems, had
     finally tired of constructing her books. She also let herself rant.
     She was a longtime activist for environmentalism and animal
     protection, and in "The Labyrinth" we hear a lot about those causes.

     It was while Yourcenar was writing "The Labyrinth" that she was
     elected to the Académie Française, an event that was heavily covered
     in the international press. (The society had existed for three hundred
     and forty-six years without including a female in its ranks, and many
     of the members--Claude Lévi-Strauss, for example--opposed any change
     in this policy.) At that point, Yourcenar had published almost a score
     of books (plus translations of other writers' work) in French, but
     only three of them, "Coup de Grâce," "Memoirs of Hadrian," and "The
     Abyss," had been brought out in English. Now her publishers got busy,
     and translations of her earlier work appeared in fast succession.
     Yourcenar wasn't troubled by the possibility that these volumes might
     not equal the products of her middle period. She had an odd view of
     her writing. Everything having come to her when she was young, she
     regarded it all, somehow, as one work, which she simply carried
     forward year by year. So she happily endorsed the translation and
     republication of her early books, many of which she now extensively
     revised. But no amount of revision could bring this material up to the
     level of "Hadrian" or "The Abyss," and that fact, together with the
     slackly composed "Labyrinth," left a number of reviewers with a
     problem. How could they say that this eminent, and also politically
     attractive, figure--this unbothered bisexual, this breacher of the
     walls of the Académie--had written a book that was not of the first
     rank? Some couldn't, and found the phrases they needed to lay another
     bouquet at her feet. Others, scornful of such politesse and, in the
     case of some New Wave types, unimpressed by marmoreal prose, asked
     what the big deal was about Yourcenar.

     Her last years were strange. In 1958, Frick had been found to have
     cancer, and she fought it for twenty years. This put a terrible
     pressure on the household. Yourcenar had a mania for travel. If she
     didn't mind the isolation of Mount Desert Island, that was because,
     under normal circumstances, she was there only half the year. The rest
     of the time, she and Frick were in Europe or elsewhere. But as Frick
     got sicker they couldn't leave. For almost a decade, they were stuck
     year-round in that little house, as Grace, more and more slowly,
     translated "The Abyss" and Yourcenar went stir-crazy. Their
     relationship suffered. Frick died in 1979, and within three months
     Yourcenar had left Maine.

     In the lives of aging divas, it sometimes happens that a young
     man--often impecunious, often homosexual--walks through the door
     saying how wonderful Madame is, and how the people around her don't
     fully appreciate that. In 1978, a year before Frick's death, Petite
     Plaisance was visited by a French television crew that included a
     young American photographer, Jerry Wilson, who was the director's
     assistant. Yourcenar was seventy-four, Wilson was twenty-nine, and he
     became the last love of her life. Most of her friends disapproved;
     Wilson didn't like them, either. ("He hated me," Joan Howard said to
     me, "and I came to hate him, too.") Yourcenar didn't care. She
     travelled with Wilson to Europe, to Asia, to Africa. At times, she
     thought of herself as Hadrian and Wilson as Antinous. The relationship
     may even have been consummated, or so say some of Wilson's friends.
     Wilson drank heavily, and he sometimes hit her. Still, in her mind, it
     was worth it. Wilson died of aids in 1986. Yourcenar grieved horribly,
     and then, two months later, she was back on the road, this time with
     one of his friends.

     Like Hadrian, she had her burial plot prepared, next to Frick's, in a
     cemetery near Petite Plaisance. Indeed, the headstone was carved,
     lacking only the date of death. She must have known that her career
     was over; if not, she would have stayed home and worked on the last
     volume of "The Labyrinth," which she never finished. In 1987, having
     packed to leave for Europe again, she suffered a stroke and was taken
     to the hospital, where she became delirious. Soon afterward, when her
     friend Yannick Guillou, who oversaw her work at Éditions Gallimard,
     arrived and spoke to her in her native language--according to
     Savigneau, the only thing in the world that she loved without
     reservation--he said that "an expression as if of relief spread over
     her face, almost a look of happiness." That night, there was a date to
     inscribe on her tombstone.

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