lunes, 8 de octubre de 2012

Mémoires d'Hadrien

Mémoires d'Hadrien (Gallimard, 2011)
by Marguerite Yourcenar
France, 1951

Ce matin, l'idée m'est venue pour la première fois que mon corps, ce fidèle compagnon, cet ami plus sûr, mieux connu de moi que mon âme, n'est qu'un monstre sournois qui finira par dévorer son maître.
*
This morning the idea came to me for the first time that my body, this loyal companion, this surest of friends, better known by me than my soul, is nothing but a cunning monster which will end up devouring its master.
(Mémoires d'Hadrien, 11)

Mémoires d'Hadrien [barbarian title: Memoirs of Hadrian] is a profound, remarkably subtle, and understated work which convincingly passes itself off as a long letter from the dying Roman emperor Hadrian (76-138 C.E.) to a young protégé who would later become known to posterity as the philosopher emperor Marcus Aurelius.  Although Yourcenar claims in the afterword that one of her goals in writing the work--a work that obsessed and then stymied the novelist for the better part of three decades--was to "refaire du dedans ce que les archéologues du XIXe siècle ont fait du dehors" ["redo from within what the 19th century archeologists did from without"] (327), her attempt to painstakingly reconstruct a vanished world--and in particular the mindset of a physically deteriorating 60-year old man who lived and loved so many centuries before us--would have fallen flat on its historical fiction face had the voice she created for her title character not succeeded so admirably and even paradigmatically.  At the very least, I could relate to listening to him ruminate about his current afflictions and about his love for life in his youth and I could also believe it when he talked about the grief he endured as a result of the suicide of his lover Antinous--an event that is said to have caused the real life Hadrian "to weep like a woman" and an event that the grief-stricken fictional Hadrian at one point describes as "mon dialogue interrompu avec un fantôme" ["my interrupted dialogue with a phantom"] (291).  A keen, affecting, but deceptively low-key production--proof of which is that the book's been trashed by multiple Amazon reviewers for having "no dialogue" and "no plot," those two cornerstones of the ancient epistolary tradition!

Marguerite Yourcenar (1903-1987)

Mémoires d'Hadrien was my September 2011 reading pick for the gone but not forgotten reading group known as the Wolves.  Although I'm naturally a little embarrassed to be over a year late in getting to my own group read selection, I'm delighted to finally link to the non-slacker Wolfies' posts below.

E.L. Fay, This Book and I Could Be Friends
Frances, Nonsuch Book
Sarah, what we have here is a failure to communicate

18 comentarios:

  1. Hi Richard! Long time no see! You're a little embarrassed for being late, I'm a lot embarrassed for still not having gone at it at all. I still intend to read this, for sure. Hopefully, it doesn't take me ten years. I missed you!

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    1. Hi Claire--what a wonderful surprise to hear from you! (Must be karma--I was snooping around on your new blog recently trying to remind myself that I needed to update your address for my blogroll.) Anyway, I hope you do get to Yourcenar some day--it felt very much like a Claire book to me, and it was a Richard book as well. P.S. I've missed you, too--glad you're back blogging again!

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    2. A Claire and Richard book! Best combination ever, balance of feeling and thought? It's good to be back but missing Frances and Sarah and Emily now..

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    3. Sorry for the delay, Claire, but a "balance of feeling and thought" is a great way to put it for this book. I miss the other Wolves, too, but hopefully Emily will have a disgust book to unleash on us someday!

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  2. isn't this a wonderful book? I loved it when I read it and it would have been perfectly fine with me if it had been even longer. She does such a marvelous job of making Hadrian feel like a living breathing person. Who needs plot and dialogue!

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    1. Stefanie, "wonderful," indeed! I was particularly tickled by how "down to earth" Hadrian seemed even though, as an emperor, you might have expected Yourcenar to dwell on his less down to earth features and moments. A fine portrait, dialogue & plot be damned...

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  3. Curious, I had no idea this novel was written in the epistolary form. It's been on my reading list for a while. I understand Yourcenar struggled with the novel because it was hard for her to get into the mind of an old man; she had to wait until old age to write from that perspective. Quite fascinating.

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  4. Miguel, "old age"? Ouch. Yourcenar was only in her 40s when she wrote this! She does say in the afterword that she had to wait till she was older to understand the 60-year old Hadrian, though, and I think the wait clearly paid off for her. It's a very mature and wise book in many regards. I think you'd enjoy it.

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    1. He he, thanks for the correction; I didn't check her age, I just repeated what I heard or read somewhere.

      P.S. What was up with the Guimarães Rosa book cover a few days ago? I thought you were going to regale us with a review of him.

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    2. I was all set to finally read Guimarães Rosa for a day or so, Miguel, and then I decided to postpone him in favor of other, presumably more quicker reading stuff until I finished reading my several hundred plus pages of Galdós this month. It was a difficult decision, though, so I hope I can get back to the Brazilian soon. Have you read him? Rise from In lieu of a field guide speaks very highly of that novel.

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    3. No, I'm eager to, but acquiring that book is difficult here. I really don't understand what's the use of speaking the same language when Portugal barely imports any books from Brazil.

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    4. Miguel, that's such a surprise to hear! I haven't been to Spain in ages so I can't remember how difficult it is or isn't to find Latin American books there, but it's not hard at all to find books from Spain in Buenos Aires or even in the city I live in in the U.S. Of course, the import tariffs are fairly high, which they might be from Brazil to Portugal as well.

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  5. I loved this book when I read it. I thought Hadrian's voice was wonderfully done.
    I'm interested in Ancient Rome in general and I love books that give this world back to us.

    PS: the first post reminds me of Proust in Time Regained.

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    1. A "wonderfully done voice," for sure, Emma, which is pretty astounding given the difficulty level involved. I didn't know that you were interested in ancient Rome, but two of my favorite writers ever come from there: Ovid and Tacitus. I need to reread both sometime soon.

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  6. This is one book that made me annoyingly evangelical; I went around pestering all my literary friends to read it (fortunately, many of them did and were as giddy as I was). As historical novels go, this is something quite in a league of its own. Yourcenar also apparently pulled a lot of the weight in doing the English translation along with her longtime partner, Grace Frick, so whether one reads it in French or in English one is still getting Yourcenar herself.

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    1. I can't picture you as being "annoyingly evangelical" about anything, Scott, but I'll take your word for your evident enthusiasm about Yourcenar. Have you read anything else by her? I have a book of nouvelles by her I hope to get to next year, but I just saw that one of my local bookstores has some seemingly new English translations of her works as well (or at least ones I don't remember seeing before). Thanks for sharing that bit on the English translation; I wasn't aware of that, but I almost bought the book in Spanish a few years ago when I was told that Julio Cortázar had done the Spanish translation. I'm glad I finally read it in French, of course--helped shake off some big time language rust!

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  7. Yo me lo leí hace un montón de años y he vuelto a releerlo hace poco. Me pareció un libro nuevo y desde luego sabio.
    Creo que hay que leerlo despacio y releerlo otra vez despacio. Dice tantas cosas.
    Un saludo
    Teresa

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    1. ¡Hola Teresa! Me imagino que tú tienes toda la razón en cuanto al libro de Yourcenar siendo una obra que mejora con una relectura despacia. De hecho, espero poder releerlo en el futuro (quizá en la traducción de Cortázar la próxima vez). De todos modos, gracias por la visita y favor de perdonar la demora en responderte. ¡Saludos!

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