Omni Crush: "Memoirs of Hadrian"

Think of this as a Paris crush, part two. My kind and indulgent wife, faced already with a house overfull of books, made my Hanukkah present gift certificates to the two famous English bookshops in Paris, Shakespeare and Co. and Village Voice Books. At the excellent latter store, where I kept my eye out in vain for friend-of-the-shop Mavis Gallant, I resisted buying cool-looking UK editions of books I already have (e.g. Chronic City and Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned) and instead focused on books I'd have a harder time getting in the States or that at least had some connection to where I was. One of these was Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian, the novel from the '50s that I've often heard described as being sort of the Platonic ideal of the historical novel. I'd never read it.

Later in the trip, once I'd finished Paris Trance and was still in the mood for some non-required reading, I pulled out Hadrian and immediately fell in love. But my crush is not on the novel--I've still only just cracked it--but on the afterword, which drew me in with the title, "Reflections on the Composition of Memoirs of Hadrian." I always want to hear people say how they make their art: fiction especially and, these days, historical fiction most of all. But as soon as began them, I knew these notes (which is how they are presented) were something special. I like to copy favorite passages from my reading: as it turned out there was hardly a passage from this piece that I didn't copy down. Here are a few:

The idea for this book and the first writing of it, in whole or in part, and in various forms, date from the period between 1924 and 1929, between my twentieth and twenty-fifth year. All those manuscripts were destroyed, deservedly.

In any case, I was too young. There are books which one should not attempt before having passed the age of forty. Earlier than that one may well fail to recognize those great natural boundaries which from person to person, and from century to century, separate the infinite variety of mankind; or, on the contrary, one may attach too much importance to mere administrative barriers, to the customs houses or the sentry boxes erected between man and man. It took me years to learn how to calculate exactly the distances between the emperor and myself.

Keep in mind that everything recounted here is thrown out of perspective by what is left unsaid: these notes serve only to mark the lacunae. There is nothing, for example, of what I was doing during those difficult years, nor of the thinking, the work, the worries and anxieties, or the joys; nor of the tremendous repercussion of external events and the perpetual testing of oneself upon the touchstone of fact. And I pass also in silence over the experiences of illness, and over other, more profound experiences which they bring in their train; and over the perpetual search for, or presence of, love.

The notes read like a love story, those ones you see in the movies where characters encounter each other, briefly, and then are torn away through circumstance or their own unreadiness before finally, if it's the right sort of movie, finding each other at the end, wiser and more prepared to love. (Can you tell I like those stories? Though I also like the ones where they never find each other again.) The romance here is between Yourcenar and Hadrian: she claims her subject in the '20s, abandons him, returns in the '30s and leaves again, and then finally finds him for good in the '40s, after living through events she only barely alludes to here, which one assumes include the exile and madness of the years of fascism and war. (There's another romance too, between the writer and her partner and translator, Grace Frick, to whom the reflections are dedicated, although I, drawn to romances between writers, first read the "To G.F." as referring to Flaubert, whose letters she says first inspired her to pursue the emperor, and I still like to think she had him in mind as well.)

Yourcenar_in_Paris It's a dazzling romance, a tribute to both passion and patience, and I'd pass it along to anyone learning to write. It would be ideal for teachers to give to their classes, except they'd run the risk of their students turning in their final projects two decades late. And it's also a wonderful defense of the often-maligned (though this past year frequently rewarded) genre of historical fiction. I could quote passage after passage again, but here are two that make the life of archives and the imagination sound as thrilling as the more traditionally appealing Parisian adventures of writers like Hemingway and Henry Miller:

I pass as rapidly as possible over three years of research, of interest to specialists alone, and over the development of a method akin to controlled delirium, of interest, probably, to none but madmen. And yet this term delirium smacks too much of romanticism; let us say, rather, a constant participation, as intensely aware as possible, in that which has been.

Keep one's own shadow out of the picture; leave the mirror clean of the mist of one's own breath; take only what is most essential and durable in us, in the emotions aroused by the senses or in the operations of the mind, as our point of contact with those men who, like us, nibbled olives and drank wine, or gummed their fingers with honey, who fought bitter winds and blinding rain, or in summer sought the plane tree's shade; who took their pleasures, thought their own thoughts, grew old, and died.

Can the novel itself live up to the romance of its composition? I'm not even sure it needs to--maybe Yourcenar will turn out to be my Hadrian. --Tom


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Comments (2)

"Memoirs of Hadrian" struck me like a runaway freight train when I first read it, and your blog about it is excellent. I re-read it every year, and have not yet found anyone who writes of love like Marguerite Yourcenar. Thank you for your writing.

Posted by: Gail Moore | Thursday May 13, 2010 at 7:08 PM

Thank you, Gail. I look forward to spending a lot more time with the emperor in years to come.

Posted by: Tom | Thursday May 13, 2010 at 10:36 PM

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