Becoming the Emperor - How Marguerite Yourcenar reinvented the past

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.

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