Sunday, March 14, 2010

Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian

Memoirs of Hadrian
by Marguerite Yourcenar*

(10: 13/50)

"But the gods do not rise; they rise neither to warn us nor to protect us, nor to recompense nor to punish."

The entry below will openly analyse Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian and address specifically its possible themes, symbols, and intent. No plot-related spoilers will be divulged.

French writer Gustave Flaubert wrote in correspondence, "Just when the gods had ceased to be, and the Christ had not yet come, there was a unique moment in history, between Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, when man stood alone." This observation, carefully plucked from published letters, would become the genesis of Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian.

Hadrian, so long entombed at the foot of Rome's seven hills, is resurrected in these pages. This book is not a novel but a laboriously achieved possession. Here is a voice of candor, eloquence, and placid, careful consideration; of perfect recollection of time, place, and company. Yourcenar ceases to exist in these pages; There is only Hadrian. It is with bitter resentment that one remembers that this great voice, this god of a man, is now only a shade upon the Earth.

And therein is the perfect beauty of Yourcenar's novel. Fixed within a period of history where the Roman gods were fond tradition but of no substance, and the cult of Christ had no more credence than that of Mithra, Yourcenar deifies Man. Embodied within Hadrian, the strong but largely pacifistic Emperor; the passionate and later mournful lover of the fair Antinous; the brilliant and read but far from diluted intellectual, is the paradigm of mankind. The Man who is as worthy of deification and veneration as any god.

Yourcenar doesn't use history to her ends; From the transience of religion to the common deification of mortal men like Antinous, it bends to her.

Memoirs of Hadrian is an exhaustingly precise, exquisite rendering of one man, and his place in history. Through his triumphs and failures, his virtues and vises, his passion and his heartbreak, Yourcenar tenderly insists on Man's assent to godhood and place in a pantheon, which surely already houses at least one charlatan or two.

Memoirs of Hadrian is beautiful, and impressive, filled with insights both familiar and fresh, and written in the voice of a man whose inability to continue existing is almost painfully lamentable. And as Hadrian-- or rather, Yourcenar-- tells us, the gods do not rise.

*Translated by Grace Frick

Up next: Scott Heim's Mysterious Skin

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