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literature

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Yourcenar, Marguerite (1903-1987)  
 
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Hadrian's life is recounted in the first person, Zeno's in the third person; Hadrian's tale takes place in sunny Mediterranean climes, whereas Zeno's unfolds in the pre-Renaissance darkness of the Low Countries; Hadrian recounts the subjective world of ruling other men, whereas Zeno's story concerns a misanthropic scholar who seeks objective, scientific truth.

If Memoirs of Hadrian coincided with its historical setting, The Abyss, as a novel of protest, seemed perfectly timed to the student rebellions of 1968 and the countercultural movement of the late 1960s. Its terrain, meant to embody the artist Dürer, is a border zone between the ancient Ptolemaic world view and the new scientific outlook pioneered by modern astronomy.

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Alchemy becomes a metaphor for the transformations of people and civilizations, and the persecuted Zeno, born in 1510, is seen as an intellectual bridge from the world before the Scientific Revolution to the revolutionary empiricism of Copernicus and Galileo. Zeno is also a sexual dissenter whose homosexual episodes epitomize his moral heresy.

Yourcenar's Plays and The Labyrinth of the World

In 1971, two volumes of Yourcenar's collected plays were published. Closet dramas like Electra, or The Fall of Masks and Dialogue in the Swamp remain more valuable for their poetry than their stagecraft. Still, her plays helped Yourcenar win the Prix Monaco in 1973.

In 1974, Dear Departed (Souvenirs pieux), the first volume of The Labyrinth of the World--a large-scale genealogical biography written much like a historical romance--was published, and brought Yourcenar the Grand Prix des Lettres of the French Ministry of Culture in 1975. The second volume, Archives of the North (Archives du nord), appeared in 1977.

Induction into the French Academy and her Last Work

In 1980, her French citizenship was restored, and Yourcenar agreed to be nominated for the French Academy after winning the Academy's Grand Prix de la Littérature. Though accused of being antisemitic by some opponents, she was finally received into the French Academy on January 22, 1981--only months after Frick had died.

The following year saw Yourcenar's last major work of fiction, Two Lives and a Dream (Comme l'eau qui coule or Like Water That Flows), which included three novellas.

"An Obscure Man," the longest story, is an emotionally subdued and Rembrandt-like portrait of Nathaniel, a lower class, uneducated Renaissance Dutch Everyman who wanders from Europe to an a island off the coast of Canada and back again. "A Lovely Morning" continues the first tale by tracking Nathaniel's son in a Jacobean acting troupe.

Unrelated to the first two, "Anna Soror" is a tale of adult, consensual brother-sister incest in a court of baroque Naples done in a "nervous and agitated" style meant to mimic that of the painter El Greco.

Conclusion

Yourcenar died on December 17, 1987, at Petite Plaisance. The next year, the concluding volume of the "Labyrinth" triptych, What? Eternity (Quoi? L'Éternité), appeared posthumously.

Except for documenting a taste for travel and different cultures, biographical information on Yourcenar is of limited use. What emerges from a close reading of Yourcenar's life is really her determination to keep her life separate from her art and to root her work in her imagination.

In the way she fused fact and fiction, Western and non-Western culture, history and contemporary life, Yourcenar could be characterized as post-modern, even though many critics continue to see her as pre-modern, as an anomaly set apart from her time.

Yet it is also possible to see Yourcenar's work as a different expression of the same existentialism that preoccupied other famous writers of her generation, such as Sartre, Camus, and Beauvoir. Much of her work, like theirs, stresses the issues of choice, commitment, ethics, and historical circumstances.

Her vast historical re-creations have much in common, for example, with the existentialist psychological studies that Sartre undertook of the writers Jean Genet, Gustave Flaubert, and Charles Baudelaire.

And her frequent use of transgressive eroticism, expressed through "in extremis" characters and situations, underscores certain similarities to Colette, Marguerite Duras, and Violette Leduc. Marguerite Yourcenar dwelled in history, to be sure, but she also resided in her own age.

As her many prefaces and postscripts attest, Yourcenar remained one of her best critics. "Every literary work," she wrote in an afterword to "An Obscure Man," "is fashioned thus out of a mixture of vision, memory and act, of ideas and information received in the course of a lifetime from conversations or books, and the sharing of our own existence."

Jacob Stockinger

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    Bibliography
   

Auchincloss, Louis. "On Power and History: What Marguerite Yourcenar Knew." New York Times Book Review (Jan. 10, 1988): 9.

Bree, Germaine. Women Writers in France. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1973.

DeRosbo, Patrick. Entretiens radiophoniques avec Marguerite Yourcenar. Paris: Mercure de France, 1972.

Farrell, C. Frederic, and Edith R. Farrell. "Marguerite Yourcenar." Gay and Lesbian Literature. Sharon Malinowski, ed. Detroit: St. James Press, 1994. 429-432.

Horn, Pierre L. Marguerite Yourcenar. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1985.

Howard, Joan E. From Violence to Vision: Sacrifice in the Works of Marguerite Yourcenar. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1992.

Robinson, Christopher. Scandal in the Ink: Male and Female Homosexuality in Twentieth-Century French Literature. London: Cassell, 1995.

Savigneau, Josyane. Marguerite Yourcenar: Inventing a Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Shurr, Georgia Hooks. A Reader's Guide to Marguerite Yourcenar. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1987.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Stockinger, Jacob  
    Entry Title: Yourcenar, Marguerite  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated March 3, 2004  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/literature/yourcenar_m.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
 
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  
 

 

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