Fires by Marguerite Yourcenar was originally published in 1936, then reissued in 1957 with, according to Yourcenar, “almost no change”, and finally translated into English by Dori Katz (in collaboration with Yourcenar) in 1981. As with all of Yourcenar’s novels published by Black Swan in the eighties, it is a short volume, just under 100 pages long. In fact Yourcenar, in a preface written in 1975, disputes that it is a novel at all:

“Fires is in the form of a collection of love poems, or rather, is like a sequence of lyrical prose pieces connected by a notion of love.”

These ‘lyrical prose pieces’ focus almost entirely on figures from classical Greece, the exception being the chapter on Mary Magdalene. The more the reader is acquainted with classical literature, the more enjoyment they are likely to gain from Fires. It is not that any of the figures are particularly obscure, but while Achilles’ story is widely known – even perhaps the time he was hidden among women to avoid fighting at Troy which forms the basis of his chapter here – fewer readers are likely to be acquainted with that of Phaedo, even if Plato named one of his dialogues after him. This matters largely because Yourcenar plunges straight in with little concession to context or back story. The more knowledge you bring to the book, the more you will be able to take pleasure in Yourcenar’s concise and consummate portraits. Here, for example, is Helen:

“…painting her vampire mouth with lipstick that made one think of blood.”

Cassandra, meanwhile, is “painfully giving birth to the future,” and Antigone, later, is described as walking “on the dead as Jesus on the waters”:

“This dead man is the empty urn in which to pour all the wine of a great love.”

Knowing the original stories also allows some wry amusement where Yourcenar adds contemporary references. in ‘Patroclus’ she talks about the difference the invention of tanks has made to the Trojan war and continues:

“Paris had been disfigured by the explosion of a grenade; Polyxena had just succumbed to typhoid in Troy’s hospital…”

In ‘Lena’, Aristogiton is a celebrity, “caught by the reporters’ questions, by the photographers’ cameras,” and in ‘Sappho’ we find the poet in a circus:

“She climbs at last higher than the spotlights: spectators can no longer applaud her, since now they can’t see her.”

Far from being gimmicky, these anachronistic details allow Yourcenar to better get to the heart of the story. Her portrait of love, however, is hardly an inviting one. Phaedra falls in love with her husband’s son, Hippolytus:

“She imagines the rape Hippolytus will be accused of, so that her lie becomes her fulfilment.”

Achilles love for Patroclus becomes a jealousy of Hector for “perfecting this masterpiece,” a feeling he should have killed him “in order to discover Patroclus in the sublime nudity of death.” Clytemnestra resents that she has given up her life (“I agreed to melt into his destiny like a fruit in his mouth”) to a husband who abandons her for the war on Troy and is unfaithful to her. Mary Magdalene marries Saint John only to find that “for him I represented the worst corporal offence,” and so begins her life of carnality. Of Jesus she says:

“I knew at once that I wouldn’t be able to seduce Him, since He did not run from me.”

(Jesus is another figure Yourcenar conjures up with skill: his “feet worn down to the bone”; his hair “infected by a vermin of stars”; his “cadaverous hands”). In each case love is something the lover has little control over, and it is easy to see why Yourcenar is attracted to a time when gods were thought to curse us with such feelings. The stories are linked by a contemporary voice but, here too, love is viewed as misfortune:

“Love is a penalty. We are punished for not having been able to stay alone.”

Fires 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 level of the sentence. The title is well chosen: here love is dangerous, damaging, impossible to tame.

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6 Responses to “Fires”

  1. JacquiWine Says:

    What an interesting choice for the 1936 Club! I wasn’t that Yourcenar was writing back than. (For some reason, I had her down as a much later writer, from the 1970s and ’80s – unless she had a long career?) My main experience of the classical Greek stories comes from Madeleine Miller’s Song for Achilles, which a friend chose for our book group. It was a bit YA for my tastes tbh, so the Yourcenar would probably suit me better!

    • 1streading Says:

      Yourcenar did have along career. She wrote throughout the 30s, then there seems to be gap until Memoirs of Hadrian in 1951. I think her earlier novels were re-released, perhaps with some editing from Yourcenar, after this. She then wrote into the 80s. As for novels based on Greek myth, have you tried Pat Barker?

      • JacquiWine Says:

        Not personally, although some of our book groups have with good results. I think she’s got another novel on the way in a similar vein, later this year perhaps.

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Truly, 1936 really was a great year for books. I know little about Greek myth but it sounds like this might be a good read even withough that knowledge. Like Jacquie, I thought she was a much more recent author, so I’m intrigued! Thanks for finding something really unusual for the club!

  3. #1936Club – links round-up – Stuck in a Book Says:

    […] 1st Readings […]

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