Issue 106, Spring 1988
I had an appointment with Marguerite Yourcenar on Saturday, November 14, 1987, at her hotel in Amsterdam. I was told that she had not arrived, that several people had been looking for her, including her driver, and that no one knew where she was. Further telephone calls to her home in Maine and to her publishers in Paris revealed that she had had a slight stroke and was recovering, and that there was no cause for concern. She did not recover, and died on December 18. She was eighty-four.
I had first interviewed her on April 11 in London and later sent her the typescript for corrections. It had come back with a good deal of amendment, carefully written on the text and on separate sheets of paper. I was grateful that she had taken so much trouble over it, but she was still not quite satisfied and wanted to see me again, go through it with me and make sure that everything was exactly as she intended. I was happily anticipating our meeting in Amsterdam, but it was not to be. The following introduction was written after our meeting in London. I have left it in the present tense.
Marguerite Yourcenar has the ardent imagination and clear, intense blue eyes of her Flemish ancestors. The rich, many colored subtlety of her great novels—Memoirs of Hadrian; The Abyss; Alexis; Coup de Grace; and others—is reminiscent of their intricate tapestries, while her sublime mystical appreciation of Nature and its beauty evokes the golden age of landscape painting in the Low Countries. For years she has been considered one of France’s most distinguished and original writers; yet it was not until 1981, when she was the first woman ever to “join the Immortals” and be elected to the French Academy in the four hundred years of its existence, that she was discovered by the general public.
Marguerite Yourcenar was born in 1903 into a patrician Franco-Belgian family. (Yourcenar is an anagram of her real name à particule, de Crayencour.) Her mother died of puerperal fever shortly after her birth, and she was brought up by her father, a great reader and traveler, who taught her Latin and Greek and read the French classics with her. They lived in various European countries, and she learned English and Italian as well.
She published two volumes of poetry in her teens, “which are frankly oeuvres de jeunesse and never to be republished.” Her two novellas, Alexis and Coup de Grâce, appeared in 1929 and 1939 respectively (during which time she lived mostly in Greece) and won her critical acclaim. In 1938 she met Grace Frick in Paris, who later “admirably translated” three of her major books. When the war came in 1939 and she could not return to Greece, she was offered hospitality in the U.S. by Grace Frick, “since she had not the means of living in Paris.” To support herself, she took a teaching job at Sarah Lawrence College. She also began to write her masterpiece, Memoirs of Hadrian, which was published in 1954.
In 1950 Yourcenar and Frick bought a house in Mount Desert Island, off the coast of Maine, where they lived between long journeys abroad. Grace Frick died in 1979 after a long illness, but Marguerite Yourcenar still lives there, though she continues to travel extensively.
Her latest book, Two Lives and a Dream, was published recently in England, and she is now working on Le Labyrinthe du monde, completing the autobiographical triptych that began with Souvenirs pieux and Archives du nord. She has just written a long essay on Borges—a lecture given recently at Harvard.
Marguerite Yourcenar’s intellectual vigor and curiosity are still prodigious, despite age and an open-heart operation two years ago. She has just translated James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner and Yukio Mishima’s Five Modern No Plays into French, from the original Engish and Japanese, helped for the latter by her friend J.M. Shisagi, Mishima’s executor. She was in London briefly for the publication of Two Lives and a Dream, and this interview took place at her hotel in Chelsea. She was elegantly dressed in black and white and spoke an exquisite French, with a markedly patrician accent, in a deep, mellifluous tone.
You have just spent the day in Richmond; was it just to walk in the beautiful park there or for some other reason?
Well, it had to do with the book I am writing at the moment, which is a book built entirely of memories, and in the present chapter I evoke the fourteen months I spent in England when I was twelve and we lived in Richmond. But where exactly I can’t recall. I saw dozens of little houses in as many streets, all looking alike, with tiny gardens, but I couldn’t tell which one was ours. It was during the first and second years of World War I, which, unlike the Second World War, did not drop from the sky in England—there were no bomb alerts or blitzes. I used to go for long walks in Richmond Park on fine days and to museums in London when it rained. I saw the Elgin Marbles at the British Museum and went to the Victoria and Albert frequently. I used to drop my sweet wrappings in a porcelain dragon there—I bet they’re still there!
What is your new book to be called?
The French title is Quoi? L’Eternité, which is from a poem of Rimbaud’s: “Quoi? L’Eternité, elle est retrouvée.” The book is the third volume of my memoirs. The other two are being translated into Engish at the moment. There are certain words one can’t translate literally, and one has to change them. For example the first volume is called Souvenirs pieux in French, and I have translated it as Dear Departed, which conveys the same nuance of irony. The second volume is called Archives du nord, but “the north” in another language evokes a different image: In England the north refers to Manchester, or even Scotland; in Holland it is the Fresian Isles, which has nothing to do with the north of France. So I have changed it completely, and taken the first line of a Bob Dylan song—“Blowin’ in the Wind.” I quote the song inside as an epigraph: “How many roads must a man walk down / Before you can call him a man?” It is very beautiful, don’t you think? At least it defines well my father’s life, and many lives. But to come to the present volume, I don’t think “Quoi? L’Eternité” would work in English, and we will have to find another title. Among the Elizabethan poets there must be quantities of quotations about eternity, so I think I might find something there.
Let’s go back to the beginning. You were very close to your father. He encouraged you to write and he published your first poems. It was a limited edition and I believe is now unobtainable. What do you think of them in retrospect?
My father had them published at his own expense—a sort of compliment from him. He shouldn’t have done it—they were not much good. I was only sixteen. I liked writing, but I had no literary ambitions. I had all these characters and stories in me, but I had hardly any knowledge of history and none of life to do anything with them. I could say that all my books were conceived by the time I was twenty, although they were not to be written for another thirty or forty years. But perhaps this is true of most writers—the emotional storage is done very early on.
This relates to what you once said, that “Books are not life, only its ashes.” Do you still believe that?
Yes, but books are also a way of learning to feel more acutely. Writing is a way of going to the depth of Being.
From your father’s death in 1929 to 1939 you only published two novellas, Alexis and Coup de Grâce, which you said were based on people you knew. Who were they?
My father loved an extraordinary woman, exceedingly free in her private life, yet of an almost heroic morality. She chose to remain with her husband though her real attraction was for a man who was Alexis. As for Coup de Grâce, I can now tell you that Sophie is very close to me at twenty, and Eric, the young man ardently attached to her own brother whom she falls in love with, was someone I knew, but political problems separated us. Of course one never knows how close fictional characters are to real people. At the beginning of my memoirs I say, “L’être que j’appelle moi”—the person I call myself—which means that I don’t know who I am. Does one ever?