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Marguerite Yourcenar (1903-1987) - original name Marguerite de Crayencour


French novelist, essayist, and short story writer, who gained international fame with her metaphysical historical novels. In these works Yourcenar drew psychologically penetrating portraits of people from the distant past, but she also dealt with modern issues such as homosexuality and deviance.

"- Voyez, continua Zénon. Par-delà ce village, d'autres villages, par delà cette abbaye, d'autres abbayes, par-delà cette fortresse, d'autres fortresses. Et dans chacun des châteaux d'idées, des masures d'opinions superposés aux masures de bois et aux châteaux de pierre, la vie emmure les fous et ouvre un pertuis aux sages." (in L'Œuvre au Noir, 1968)

Marguerite Yourcenar was born Marguerite Antoinette Jeanne Marie Ghislane in Brussels, Belgia, into a Franco-Belgian family. Yourcenar's Bergian mother, Fernande de Cartier de Marchienne, died of puerperal fever and peritonitis shortly after giving birth. Yourcenar spent her summer months from 1903 to 1912 at the château of Mont-Noir, "a small brick manor house, built with a great many superadded turrets, in that Louis XIII style so cherished during the Romantic era. The date 1824 was engraved on the façade..." She began to write as a teenager, when she lived traveling and aristocratic life with her father, Mechel de Crayencour. Her pen-name she later created from the surname of her father; Yourcenar is a nearly perfect anagram. Her first books he had published at his own expense. Much of his time he spent gambling, hoping to win back the fortune he had lost.

The inheritance Yourcenar received after the death of his father, allowed her to devote herself to traveling and literary pursuits and love affairs on the Paris lesbian scene. In the story 'How Wang-Fo Was Saved' from Oriental Tales (1938), a collection of short stories from several countries, Yourcenar studied the artist's role in the world. Algernon Blackwood also had used the same Chinese legend in 'The Man Who Was Milligan' and M.R. James in 'The Mezzotint'. In a version told in the classic Sanskrit epic, the Ramayana, a famous poet is thrown into prison by an angry king. To escape he calls his creations to help him - they break into the poet's cell and set him free. The protagonist in Yourcenar's tale is an old painter, who loves the image of things and not the things themselves. The painter is imprisoned by an Emperor, who sees his autocracy threatened by the power and beauty of art.

"The kingdom of Han is not the most beautiful of kingdoms, and I am not the Emperor. The only empire which is worth reigning over is which you alone can enter, old Wang, by the road of One Thousand Curves and Ten Thousand Colors. You alone reign peacefully over mountains covered in snow that cannot melt, and over fields of daffodils that cannot die. And that is why, Wang-Fo, I have imagined a punishment for you, for you whose enchantment has given me the disgust of everything I own, and the desire for everything I shall never possess." (in 'How Wang-Fo Was Saved')

At the outbreak of World War II, Yourcenar moved to the United States. To support herself, she worked as professor of French literature at Sarah-Lawrence-College in New York. One of her students has recalled, that she was not a professor like the others, her "way of teaching was not that of a classical teacher but someone who is crazy about literature." Though quiet and retiring by nature, she had love affairs with both men and women. When she left her private papers to the Houghton Manuscript Library she stipulated that her private journal not be made available for the public until fifty years after her death.

Yourcenar shared her time between France and the USA, where  she lived with her partner, Grace Frick, who came from Kansas City. Orphaned early on, she had been raised by her uncle. Grace earned her Master's in English literature in 1927; Frick was the translator of several of her works. After 1950 Yourcenar's home was on Mount Desert Island, Maine. In 1980 she became the first woman to be elected to the Academie Française. Frick died from cancer in 1979. Yourcenar then entered into a stormy relationship with Jerry Wilson (1949–1986), a gay photographer, with whom he travelled around the world. He died of AIDS. In an interview, published in The Paris Review, Yourcenar said that "certainly all the physical evidence points to our total annihilation, but if one also considers all the metaphysical données, one is tempted to say that it is not as simple as that." Yourcenar continued traveling but also kept on writing Quoi ? L'éternité  (1988), the final volume of her autobiographical trilogy. Its title was taken from Rimbaud: "Elle est retrouvée! / Quoi? l'éternite. / C'est la mer mêlée / Au soleil..." Disappointing many readers, Yourcenar focused on her father – guarding her privacy as she had done throughout her literary career, she had no intentions to tell about her own life after WW II in the United States. Yourcenar died in Northeast Harbor, Maine on December 17, 1987.

Among Yourcenar's best-known books is Memoirs of Hadrian. The emperor is portrayed on the eve of his death, absorbed in his reflections. Hadrian, who built the famous wall, was one of the last great Roman imperial leaders. He recounts his memories in his testament letter to his chosen successor, Marcus Aurelius. "There is but one thing in which I feel superior to most men: I am freer, and at the same time more compliant, than they dare to be. Nearly all of them fail to recognise their due liberty, and likewise their true servitude. They curse their fetters, but seem to find them matter for pride. Yet they pass their days in vain license, and do not know how to fashion for themselves the lightest yoke. For my part I have sought liberty more than power, and power only because it can lead to freedom." Part of the story deals with his relationship with a Greek youth called Antinous. Yourcenar worked on the novel for fifteen years and published it immediately after settling in the United States.

Coup de Grâce (1957) was a story of a Prussian officer, who murders the woman who loves him because he loves her brother. The Abyss (1976) was a fictitious life of Zeno, a Renaissance man, created from Yourcenar's fascination with the occult. She worked on the story intermittently from 1921 to 1965. Zeno's personality and life is a combination of Da Vinci, Paracelsus, Copernicus, and Giordano Bruno. He travels around Europe and the Mediterranean searching for truth. In the rivalry between Catholic and Protestant states, Zeno refuses to take sides, and like Hadrian, Yourcenar depicts him as essentially homosexual. "The strange magma which preachers define by the not ill-chose name of lust (since it would seem to be a matter of the luxuriance of the flesh expending its force) defies examination because of the variety of substance which compose it, and which in their turn break down into other components, themselves complex. Love is one part of the mixture, though less often, perhaps than is admitted, but the concept of love is itself far from simple."

The central figures in Yourcenar's fiction are torn between society's demands and their own passions. Noteworthy, the majority of the characters she presents are male. Yourcenar's only novel with a contemporary setting was Le Denier du rêve (1934), about an assassination attempt on Mussolini. The book was written while she lived in Italy, and revised in 1958-59. Through her characters - a doctor, a flower-seller, a whore, and a Resistance fighter - Yourcenar examines life under a cruel regime and offerers different views into the female psyche. A woman loves unhappiness, another is "stingy like all who have just enough money for a single expense and enough fore for a single passion."

In Alexis, which came out in 1929 and again in 1965 with Yourcenar's foreword, a young aristocratic man writers a long letter to his wife, Monique. Alexis confesses that he did not love his wife, and at school he already found women disgusting. He has decided to leave her and his son, and devote himself to his music and sensual pleasures, that are not against his own true self. The author is purposefully ambiguous about their nature and Alexis's sexual orientation. In her foreword Yourcenar denies that Gide's Traité du Vain Désir had influenced her book. Yourcenar's Mishima: A Vision of the Void (1980) tried to separate the persona or shadow of great Japanese writer, and homosexual, and the human being of flesh and blood. "... let us remember that the central reality must be sought in the writer's work: it is what the writer chose to write, or was compelled to write, that finally matters. And certainly Mishima's carefully premeditated death is part of his work."

The first version of Anna, soror... (1981) Yourcenar composed already at the age of 22. The central characters are Miguel, a young aristocrat, and his sister Anna. They live and love earch other in seclusion from the surrounding world after the death of their mother. Yourcenar's family memoirs,  Souvenirs pieux (1974) and Archives du Nord  (1977), prove the author's skill to depict contemporary life. Yourcenar's other works include prose poems FEUX (1935), and Fleuve profound, sombre rivière(1974), essays ('Without Liability to Debts,' 1962; 'Mishima or the Vision of Emptiness,' 1981), and several plays. Yourcenar also translated Negro spirituals and various English and American novels into her native French.

For further reading: Marguerite Yourcenar by Pierre L. Horn (1985); Marguerite Yourcenar, A Readers Guide by Georgia Shurr (1985); From Violence to Vision: Sacrifice in the Works of Marguerite Yourcenar by Joan E. Howard (1992); Marguerite Younrcenar: Inventing a Life by Josyane Savigneau (1993); Mythic Symbolism and Cultural Anthropology in Three Early Works of Marguerite Yourcenar by Patricia E. Frederick (1995); A Case of Betrayal? by Ingeborg Majer O'Sicley (1999); Marguerite Yourcenar: Reading the Visual by Nigel Saint (2000)

Selected works:

  • Alexis; ou, Le traité du vain combat, 1929
    - Alexis (translated by Walter Kaiser in collaboration with the author, 1984)
    - Alexis: turhan taistelun kuvaus (suom. Jussi Lehtonen, 2001)
  • La Nouvelle Eurydice, 1931
  • Pindare, 1932
  • Le denier du rêve, 1934
    - A Coin in Nine Hands (translated by Dori Katz in collaboration with the author, 1982)
    - Unelman lunnaat (suom. Marketta Enegren, 1961)
  • La mort conduit l'attelage, 1934
  • Feux, 1936
    - Fires (translated by Dori Katz in collaboration with the author, 1981)
    - Tulet (suom. Jussi Lehtonen, 2011)
  • Les Songes et les Sorts, 1938
    - Dreams and Destinies (translated by Donald Flanell Friedman, 1999)
  • Nouvelles orientales, 1938
    - Oriental Tales (translated by Alberto Manguel, in collaboration with the author, 1985)
    - animation film: Comment Wang-Fo fut sauvé (1987), dir. by René Laloux
  • Le Coup de grâce, 1939
    - Coup de Grâce (translated by Grace Frick in collaboration with the author, 1983)
    - Armonlaukaus (suom. Inkeri Tuomikoski, 1988)
    - film 1976, dir. by Volker Schlöndorff, starring Margarethe von Trotta, Rüdiger Kirschstein, Matthias Habich
  • Mémoires d'Hadrien, 1951
    - Memoirs of Hadrian (translated by Grace Frick in collaboration with the author, 1954)
    - Hadrianuksen muistelmat (suom. Reino Hakamies, 1953)
  • Électre; ou, La chute des masques, 1954
  • Les Charités d'Alcippe & autres poëmes ornés d’un dessin d’Aristide Maillol, 1956
    - The Alms of Alcippe (translated by Edith R. Farrell, 1982)
  • Constantin Cavafy, 1958
  • Sous bénéfice d'inventaire, 1962
    - Dark Brain of Piranesi and Other Essays, 1984 (translated by Richard Howard in collaboration with the author)
  • Le Mystère d'Alceste, suivi de: Qui n’a pas son Minotaure? théâtre, 1963
  • Fleuve profond, sombre rivière, 1964 (negro spirituals)
  • L'Œuvre au noir, 1968
    - The Abyss (translated by Grace Frick in collaboration with the author, 1976) / Zeno of Brueges (translated by Grace Frick in collaboration with the author, 1994)
    - Käy kohti pimeää (suom. Irene Sorsa, 1969)
    - film 1988, dir. by André Delvaux, starring Gian Maria Volontè, Sami Frey, Anna Karina, Philippe Léotard, Jacques Lippe
  • Yes, Peut-être, Shaga, 1969
  • Théâtre, 1971
  • Souvenirs pieux, 1974
    - Dear Departed (translated by Maria Louise Ascher, 1991)
  • Archives du Nord, 1977
    - How Many Years (translatefd by Maria Louise Ascher, 1995)
  • Le Labyrinthe du monde, 1974-84
  • Mishima ou la Vision du vide, 1980
    - Mishima: A Vision of the Void (translated by Alberto Manguel in collaboration with the author, 1986)
  • Les Yeux ouverts, 1980
    - With Open Eyes: Conversations with Matthieu Galey (translated by Arthur Goldhammer, 1984)
  • Anna, soror…, 1981
    - Anna, Soror... (translated by Walter Kaiser in collaboration with the author, 1992)
    - Anna, sisaresi... (suom. Jussi Lehtonen, 2002)
  • Comme l'eau qui coule, 1982
    - Two Lives and a Dream (translated by Walter Kaiser in collaboration with the author, 1987) / Anna, Soror... (translated by Walter Kaiser in collaboration with the author, 1992)
  • Le Temps, ce grand sculpteur, 1984
    - That Mighty Sculptor, Time (translated by Walter Kaiser in collaboration with the author, 1992)
  • Quoi? L'Éternité, 1988
  • Conte bleu. Le Premier soir. Maléfice, 1993
    - A Blue Tale and Other Stories, 1995 (translated by Alberto Manguel)
  • Portrait d’une voix: vingt-trois entretiens (1952-1987), 2002 (ed. by Maurice Delcroix)
  • D’Hadrien à Zénon: correspondance 1951-1956, 2004 (ed. by  Colette Gaudin and Rémy Poignault, et al.)
  • Une volonté sans fléchissement: Correspondance 1957-1960, 2007 (ed. by Joseph Brami and Maurice Delcroix, et al.)
  •  Persévérer dans l'être: correspondance 1961-1963, 2011 (ed. by Joseph Brami and Rémy Poignault, et al.)

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