Posts Tagged ‘Marguerite Yourcenar’


April 15, 2021

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.

Best Books of 2020 Part 1

December 21, 2020

Rather than focusing only on what’s new, I thought I would begin my books of 2020 with those older volumes which had stood out for me this year. (As I haven’t yet decided the winner of the missing Independent Foreign Fiction Prize of 1996, I have excluded the long-listed books from this category).

My one year sprint through all of Muriel Spark’s novels has turned into a three year marathon, but, in further vindication of continuing, I found it difficult to select which of her later novels I had most enjoyed. In the end I decided on Symposium, her dinner party novel, where an exquisite layer of social satire lies above robbery and murder, which, in turn, rests on madness and hints of satanic influence – Jane Austen via Dennis Wheatley. Its best line is perhaps the suggestion that the vows of marriage, made under the influence of love, are “like confessions obtained under torture.”

Of contrasting tone, Agota Kristof’s Yesterday (translated by David Watson) is a bleak vision of grinding poverty, both in childhood and adulthood. “The full horror of my present life stares me in the face,” is a fair summary of much of it. The narrator works in a factory, the kind of occupation which so rarely features in literature. Focusing particularly on the immigrant community, it briefly suggests the possibility of redemption before dashing the narrator’s, and the reader’s, hopes. Not for the faint-heated, but unforgettable.

My 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 fascist Italy. The plot revolves around a failed assassination attempt but the real joy is in the extensive cast of characters who flit in and out of each other’s stories. Each one is like a disparate note which together play an increasingly melancholy tune.

Another unexpected surprise was Antonio de Benedetto’s Zama, translated by Esther Allen; unexpected not because it isn’t widely regarded as a classic of Latin American literature, but because I hadn’t expected it to be so entertaining. The catalyst for its energy and verve is the unlikeable narrator – arrogant, short-tempered, unfeeling – who somehow wins the reader’s sympathy by the final pages of what turns out to be his tragic life. As with many tragic figures, he owns his faults regardless of his circumstances, winning our reluctant admiration.

Finally (and not yet reviewed) Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes proved to be all that others had claimed, superficially charming but with a dark interior. Full of wonderfully quotable lines (“Wherever she strayed the hills folded themselves about her like the fingers of a hand”), the novel is both the flower and the serpent under it. Its author may well become the Muriel Spark of 2021.

Lost Books – A Coin in NIne Hands

September 2, 2020

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.