May 2013

Nicholas Vajifdar

The Forgotten Twentieth Century

Alias Yourcenar: On Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar


According to my taste, there could be no more damning descriptor attached to a novel than "extremely well-researched," and nothing gives me such readerly feelings of dread as when, around the middle of a book, I sense the author cooking up whole storylines or characters, all to make sure that not a single note in his walloping fat bundle of research will go to waste -- baking in historical customs and anecdotes and factoids like leftovers into a casserole. Page by page I feel myself being lulled into a kind of Colonial Williamsburg stupor as the main character trudges from hut to hut, taking weary note of the hide-tanning methods of yore.

Which might suggest that this writer hates War and Peace. Mais non. That book almost entirely lacks the "Save My Notes!" plague that does so little to save a book. One scene is enough to show what I mean. Prince Andrei has been bludgeoned by a French soldier, and he lies on his back as the battle roars on around him. Then, literally out of the blue, he notices the sky. He thinks: "How was it I did not see that lofty sky before? And how happy I am to have found it at last!" It dawns on the reader that much of the preceding chapters with their world-historical flavor were only a necessary prologue to this oceanic thought, this skull-sized event, which could only have been "researched" through introspection and imagination.

War and Peace's most boring scenes -- by my lights, the descriptions of troop movements -- suffer from this focus on the exterior, which jars so painfully with the novel form since Austen and Stendhal, who obsessed over the hidden wishes of history's nobodies. What I remember most vividly after digesting the Tolstoyan battle scenes is the thoughts of the characters: Prince Andrei predicting privately but in all earnestness that the battle would make him into a second Napoleon; or Nikolai Rostov, a bit flummoxed by why the enemy troops would want to kill him -- "me, whom everyone is so fond of." These are mental impressions, felt by individual characters, and at an ironic remove from the Cecil B. DeMille pageantry. There is some law, almost Newtonian in its simple relentlessness, that forces the novel inward.


Freighted with this prejudice -- that excessive research leads away from the inner life and toward bad writing -- I was surprised by Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar; here is a historical novel that is both resolutely interior and thoroughly researched. As the title implies, it is an imagined letter to Marcus Aurelius by the ailing Emperor Hadrian. Marguerite Yourcenar, the Belgian-French author with aristocratic blood who wrote most of the manuscript on trains in the American West, had been obsessed with the project since her twenties. In her late forties, after years of hesitation, false starts, and an intense form of research that resembled the intravenous injection of primary sources, she gave birth to Hadrian, which was pronounced her masterpiece. She, as the dust jackets say, "divided her time" between her home on a Maine island and world travel. She later became the first woman to be elected immortelle at the Académie française; she died in 1987.

I should start by saying that Hadrian is a work of genius, but also an awkward chimera in terms of form. But first, it's worth cataloguing the genius. Yourcenar's narrative of Hadrian's life is bookended by, and strewn with, aphorisms and essayistic fragments so powerful and great that I found myself painting entire pages yellow with my exhausted highlighter.

Here is a smattering: "One desires to die, but not to suffocate; sickness disgusts us with death, and we wish to get well, which is a way of wishing to live," "For the divinity of the great restorer [sleep] consists in bestowing his benefits upon the sleeper without concern for him, exactly as water charged with curative powers cares not at all who may drink from its source," "Men adore and venerate me far too much to love me," "Meditation upon death does not teach one how to die."

Given the quality, there's a temptation to stick these under the windshield wipers of cars like the "HAVE YOU BEEN SAVED?" flyers that do so much to help me imagine being basted in an unquenchable Baptist hellfire. The aphoristic passages prove Yourcenar to be the heir of those other great Francophone moralists: La Rochefoucauld, Montaigne, Pascal, and to type them out is already a sufficient argument for her achievement: to be intensely naïve and intensely intelligent at the same time, to feel a child's fresh feelings with an adult's ferocity and experience.

The trouble with Hadrian as a novel is that these powerful mental impressions and generalizations don't really arise out of the drama between the characters. In fact, there is very little drama and really only one character in the book, Hadrian himself (if a character is defined, as I define it, as someone whose behavior could be predicted in a multitude of situations). There's almost no dialogue, and there are almost no "scenes" when Yourcenar drops into the time-stream of the present to narrate in slow motion a tense incident or turning point. Whereas Prince Andrei's discovery of the sky would be stripped of its power if plucked out of the story, Yourcenar's aphorisms would lose almost nothing if printed in an arbitrary sequence like La Rochefoucauld's. They function like incidental music to a play.

Consider this passage, which is representative of the narrative style:

...I could see in the more or less immediate future the beginning of revolts and divisions to come. I do not believe that we can avoid these disasters, any more than we can escape death, but it depends on us to postpone them for a few centuries. I got rid of incompetent officials; I had the worst executed. I was discovering myself to be inexorable.

Savoring that wise statement on politics -- that the goal should not be permanent solutions but the postponement of the inevitable disasters -- I still got an odd taste. Rereading the passage, I was struck by the unadorned sentence: "I got rid of incompetent officials." Say what, now? It's hard enough to herd senior citizens onto a tour bus or to run an Elk's Lodge meeting; to "get rid of incompetent officials" in the largest empire in the world takes more than reciting the words Let's get rid of the incompetent officials. This reminded me of when someone of European descent told me that the problem with Africa was the political corruption; get rid of that, she said, and things over there'd be a whole lot better. To which the only sensible reply must be, No shit, lady. The mysterious intractable problem is just how to get rid of the corruption, whether in ancient Rome or contemporary Africa. Everything political in the novel proceeds by fiat, as if to think something is to do it. This has never been true, not even under twentieth-century totalitarian regimes.

This indifference to how governments actually govern is present throughout Memoirs of Hadrian, which would be perfectly understandable if only its main character were not Pontifex Maximus of the Eternal Rome. The great passions of Hadrian are really only two: travel and eros. He moves through his empire, he quells a revolt, and he loses his young lover Antinous to suicide. These events, though vague (it sometimes feels like watching an opera from a soundproof booth, the dramatis personae bellowing and exiting for Lord knows what reasons), provide a backdrop for gorgeous observations on time, aging, death, and sex. The reader is moved and provoked. The reader is convinced that this character Hadrian must have had an exceptional mind. But at no point does the reader feel that this drinker of infinity could have gamed his way into so much as a PTA vice-presidency, much less the highest office of the second century A.D. As a point of comparison, Shakespeare's Richard II, another contemplative king, died violently in prison.


So why did Yourcenar choose Hadrian as the vehicle for these aphorisms? The FSG edition includes a "Reflections on the Composition" postscript, which is as fascinating as the book it appends. Yourcenar singles out this passage from Flaubert's letters as a particular inspiration: "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." Yourcenar herself makes an even stronger case: "The Second Century... was the last century, for a very long period of time, in which men could think and express themselves with full freedom."

Whether this is historically defensible is beyond the scope of this essay. However, this supplies the reason why Yourcenar chose an emperor for her character, and why this emperor seems so bored with governing. The Mediterranean of the second century (through Yourcenar's eyes) serves as a world of frictionless omnipotence, where travel is the same as government, and observation is the same as action. A bisexual and an expatriate, a cosmopolitan in a world bloodied by nationalism, Yourcenar had reasons to feel adrift in the twentieth century, and to long for such a golden age of sanity. (And, I can't help adding, of slaves and gladiatorial combat.)

There is another possible source for the affinity between such a clear-sighted writer and an emperor of Rome. A novelist needs a certain brutality; all sentimentality has to be burnt remorselessly away by the harshest cynicism until only true feeling, which is impervious to cynicism, survives. Writing about human beings from the standpoint of eternity makes it difficult to keep taking them at their word. This habit of mistrust, of seeing through, is, I think, what accounts for the famously bad personalities of our most eminent novelists. After a while, the novelist starts to feel like a tyrant; he sends cherished falsehoods to their death without raising his heartbeat and then cracks open a beer. I suspect that, as Yourcenar endured loneliness and writer's block, and as her determination to finish doubly redoubled, she began to feel more than a little imperial in her ambition.

Yourcenar found it infuriating when critics insinuated that her book was a self-portrait rather than a rendering of Hadrian's soul. But Yourcenar's Hadrian considered as a distant figure in silhouette is more fascinating than Hadrian at your elbow, telling you about his life; in the end, the truly fascinating person remains the author who had such unforgettable things to say about going to sleep and nothing at all really to say about levying taxes. In fact, what would have been so bad about a novel whose subject is a Franco-Belgian bisexual aristocrat living off the coast of Maine, obsessed with the Emperor Hadrian, and possessed with incredible insight into the shape of human life? Nothing bad at all, except that the only conceivable author of the book is dead.

There are many other facets of this remarkable book that I could have emphasized. (A philhellene, Hadrian looks back at classical Greece the way we, in the third millennium A.D., look back at many dead or moribund civilizations, Rome included. This explodes the idea that the "moderns" are uniquely condemned to repeat what has already happened or to feel a sense of paralyzing belatedness.) But the formal awkwardness here suggests that, while the novel form still rules the roost, other forms are equally powerful and sometimes preferable. As it is, Memoirs of Hadrian establishes Yourcenar as the heir not of Stendhal but Montaigne.