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Yourcenar, Marguerite (1903-1987)  
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Yourcenar Meets Grace Frick

In 1937, Yourcenar met Grace Frick, an American college professor, who remained her lifelong collaborator and translator until Frick's death in 1979.

Observers have often seen this as a somewhat abusive marriage of convenience in which Frick took charge of the daily business while Yourcenar steeped herself in history and literature.

A Coin in Nine Hands

A Coin in Nine Hands (Denier du rêve) first appeared in 1934, then was drastically revised in 1959. Along with La Nouvelle Eurydice (The New Eurydice, 1931), it is perhaps the least successful of her prose works, even though the novel is also the closest she ever came to writing fiction with a contemporary setting.

The work takes place in Fascist Rome and centers on a plot to assassinate Mussolini, with characters and events tied together by a coin that changes hands. Yourcenar drastically revised the text in the 1950s to eliminate any sympathy for the Italian fascists.

Oriental Stories and Coup de grâce

In 1938, Yourcenar published Oriental Stories, which draws on myths of the Balkans, India, and China as well as the Japanese novelist Lady Murasaki to create almost Kafkaesque parables of excessive love and artistic creation. These miniatures may well be the most underrated part of Yourcenar's fiction.

In 1939, she published Coup de grâce, a melodramatic novel of politics and love in revolutionary Eastern Europe that became a bestseller in English twenty years later.

In 1977, it was made into a film by the German director Volker Schloendorff, though Yourcenar objected to the elimination of Erick's repressed homosexuality and to a leftist revision of its politics.

In the misogyny and militarylike hardness of its main character, some critics discerned a reactionary side to the author.

Yourcenar and Frick Move to Maine

Also in 1939, Yourcenar came to the United States to visit Frick and ended up exiled in the United States by the outbreak of World War II. From New York City, the couple moved to Hartford, Connecticut, where Frick had found a job.

In the summer of 1942, the couple spent their first vacation at Mount Desert Island, off the coast of Maine, where in 1950, they moved permanently into the house they nicknamed "Petite Plaisance." Yourcenar taught comparative literature at Sarah Lawrence College from 1942 to 1953, and in 1947, became a naturalized U.S. citizen.

Memoirs of Hadrian

In 1951, Memoirs of Hadrian brought Yourcenar both critical acclaim and commercial success; it won the Prix Feminina Vacaresco, and by 1989, had sold almost a million copies.

Couched as a farewell letter from the Emperor Hadrian to his successor, Marcus Aurelius, this "voice portrait" and "passionate reconstitution," as Yourcenar described her historical novels, seems typical for its lyrical style, extensive research, and restrained eroticism, expressed though Hadrian's love for the Greek teenager Antinous.

Adding perhaps to the novel's appeal in the years after World War II and in the early days of the Cold War were the parallels it captured between the "pax romana" and the "pax americana."

The novel is a long meditation on the idea of empire, on conquest and rule--whether of a political or military nature, whether of a loved one or of one's self. Rome's Hellenism, its ready acceptance of a superior culture's influence, also embodied the allure that history and foreign cultures seemed to hold for Yourcenar.

Honors followed. In 1955, Yourcenar won the Page One award of the Newspaper Guild of New York, and in 1963, the Prix Combat. But in 1959, Frick was diagnosed with the breast cancer that would eventually kill her.

The Abyss

In 1966, Plon publishers sued Gallimard for the rights to issue Yourcenar's The Abyss [L'Oeuvre au noir in French or The Work in the Black Phase]. The court decision allowed Yourcenar to choose her publisher. She decided on Gallimard, the biggest and most prestigious house in France, which thereafter began to reissue her complete works. The critical reassessment that would culminate in her election to the Academy soon began.

In 1968, The Abyss was finally published, also to great critical acclaim and popular interest. It won the Prix Femina and helped get Yourcenar elected to the Royal Belgian Academy in 1969.

The novel, chronicling the life of a sixteenth-century alchemist, Zeno, represented a major departure for Yourcenar and seems a mirrorlike complement of Memoirs of Hadrian, a comparison Yourcenar herself often discussed in interviews and in her essay on the historical novel.

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