Lost Books – A Coin in NIne Hands

A Coin in Nine Hands is one of Marguerite Yourcenar’s earlier works, originally published in 1934, although, as an afterword from the author explains, this is a revised version from 1959, translated in 1971 by Dori Katz (in collaboration with Yourcenar). That the original had been subject to censorship is perhaps unsurprising as it centres around the attempted assassination of a political leader who is clearly intended to be Mussolini, though the later version was entirely rewritten rather than simply restored. The novel’s conceit is apparent from the title: it uses a ten lira coin to link its characters during one dramatic day. Though each chapter focuses mainly on a single character, we gradually see that all are interlinked, and a character who is merely mentioned in one chapter may well appear in person in another.

The novel opens harmlessly enough with a brief chapter describing prosperous businessman Paolo Farina who, we are told, is regarded sympathetically since his wife, Angiola, left him (marriages – particularly unhappy marriages – will be a recurrent theme of the novel at a time when divorce is not legal). He copes with his wife’s absence by frequenting prostitutes, and a particular favourite of his, Lina Chiari (whose voice reminds him of Angiola – “since all women have more or less the same body”), will be the subject of then next chapter. Here the tone darkens a little as we discover Lina has finally plucked up the courage to see a doctor as she has developed a lump on her breast and fears the worst. Her only comfort is:

“…she savoured the consolation of telling herself that she would no longer have to worry about finding money, about cooking or doing her laundry, that, from now on, all she had to do is suffer.”

Yourcenar slowly develops a sense of hopelessness. Farina may seem superficially contented but he is fully aware, “Love can’t be bought.” In the third chapter we meet shop owner Giulio Lousi from whom Lina buys a lipstick. He is troubled by a nagging wife, and a daughter with a disabled child whose husband has left her:

“…all this conspired to make Giulio not quite the most unhappy of mortals, for there was vanity to claiming that title, but at least a poor man with his share of troubles like everyone else.”

In the next chapter, Rosalio di Credo, Angiola’s sister, tells us “unhappiness had become a habit”:

“Stifled by unhappiness as by sudden asphyxiation she quickly opened the window.”

It is as Giulio and Rosalio are in church that we first catch a glimpse of Marcella Ardeati, the would-be assassin, sheltering from the rain in her black shawl:

“…hiding under it the dangerous object wrapped in brown paper that perhaps tonight would change the destiny of a people.”

Marcella’s chapter, the fifth and therefore central, is by far the longest, beginning with a confrontation between her and the wife of Carlo Stevo – once her lover, but now a political prisoner denied to both of them

“She had met Carlo Stevo at the very moment when both were desperate about the state of their country and the world.”

Everyone she talks to attempts to dissuade her, including Massimo, whom she took for an ally but is in fact a police informer (people being other than we think they are is another recurrent theme). “Your sacrifice will save no one,” he tells her, but she is determined to go ahead:

“She clung to the idea of murder like a shipwrecked sailor hang on to the only solid part of his sinking universe.”

We, of course know, that she is fated to fail; the novel instead asks the question of whether it is better to attempt action, even out of despair, rather than live on without hope. The chapter ends just before she fires, and the rest of her story unfolds in gossip and hearsay in the chapters which follow, winning sympathy even from the world-weary flower-seller, Mother Dida:

“In spite of herself, Dida felt a twinge in her heart at the thought of her.”

In her penultimate chapter, Yourcenar introduces the elderly painter Clement Roux, in conversation with Massimo who has witnessed the attempted assassination. Here too, we see the contrast between those who act and those who stand by as Massimo reflects bitterly:

“To be the one who doesn’t die, the one who watches, the one who never quite enters the game completely…”

Given the circumstances, it difficult not to see his thoughts as also describing the artist, and, by extension, the writer. Roux returns to his hotel and, in a sentence which returns us to Farina’s life at the beginning of the novel, is contented with his lot:

“Once again having assumed the reassuring routine of day-to-day reality, Clement Roux felt safe.”

A Coin in Nine Hands is so cleverly executed it would be a joy to read even without the depth with which Yourcenar delivers her cast of characters. The coin is no mere trick as it emphasises the true connectedness of a society in which individuals often feel quite separate (a scene between Marcella’s husband and Angiola in a cinema illustrates this perfectly). It also wrestles with a question which is as vital now as it was then: tolerate a hopeless existence passively or embrace what may be equally hopeless action? Yet another novel – and, indeed, writer – mysteriously rendered out of print.

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7 Responses to “Lost Books – A Coin in NIne Hands”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    It sounds like a really clever book, Grant, and I can’t understand why it’s MIA – although I’m not sure how widely read she is nowadays. There really is no logic to book publishing…

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    It sounds excellent, Grant, both ingenious and thought-provoking. As you say, it’s difficult to know why this has fallen out of print. One for NYRB Classics to consider, perhaps?

    The central question — whether to risk drastic action out of despair or to live on without hope – is an interesting one. I’m currently reading Hadley Freeman’s memoir, House of Glass, which focuses on the lives of her Jewish grandmother’s generation in the first half of the 20th century. Even though I’ve only just started it, I can see similar questions emerging with the rise of the Nazis across Europe…

    • 1streading Says:

      Yourcenar would be a great fit for NYRB Classics – also for the Penguin European Writers series, though that seems to have ground to a halt.
      To be fair the action out of despair / live without hope scenario is increasingly one we are facing ourselves!

  3. Best Books of 2020 Part 1 | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] great discovery, in terms of older writers, this year has been Marguerite Yourcenar. A Coin in Nine Hands uses the composition classic (‘imagine a day in the life of a penny’) to paint a portrait of […]

  4. Fires | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] is less obviously engaging than A Coin in Nine Hands, my only previous Yourcenar, but there is great pleasure to be found in its pages, often at the […]

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