BECOMING THE EMPEROR: The Life Behind the Memoirs of Hadrian

JOAN ACOCELLA – The New Yorker

In 1981, six years before her death, Marguerite Yourcenar became the first woman ever inducted into the Academie Francaise, 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-Rene 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.

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 recits 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.

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 Grace,” 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 Grace” 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 emperor.
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 forty-one.
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 honor:
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 shattered.
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 Lagerlof, 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…

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