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Yourcenar, Marguerite (1903-1987)  
 
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On January 22, 1981, Marguerite Yourcenar took her place in literary history when she became first female "immortal" admitted to the French Academy since its founding in 1635. She was an ideal choice--and a much more suitable candidate than the more sensual Colette or the more political Simone de Beauvoir--because her career embodied exactly the kind of classical humanism the conservative Academy liked to honor.

Her writings are marked by measured, aphoristic sentences; by quietly reflective characters; by restrained lyricism; by thorough research and highly literate allusions to history and culture; and by attempts to adapt classical literature to contemporary concerns.

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The Paradoxes of Yourcenar's Life and Career

Yet Yourcenar's life and career are filled with paradoxes. The philosopher-king narrator of Memoirs of Hadrian (1951) and the alchemist protagonist of The Abyss (1968) suggest that Yourcenar admired the heroics of knowing; yet she seemed to live the self-examined life by examining the lives of others.

Her many meditations on the meaning of love and pleasure often had their roots in personal crisis; yet they were always filtered through historical, mythological or fictitious characters.

As a stylist, she was self-consciously French; yet she spent the largest part of her productive life in self-imposed exile from France.

She was a product of an education that emphasized ancient and classic European culture; yet she translated Negro spirituals, blues and gospel tunes as well as Japanese Noh plays.

She lacked direct contact and intimacy with family; yet she devoted the last part of her career to reconstructing a long and exhaustively detailed account of her family's origins.

She was a lesbian who spent forty-two years with the same woman; yet she spoke of homosexuality in her work almost exclusively through male characters, including a volume-length study of Yukio Mishima (Mishima; ou, La Vision du vide [Mishima: A Vision of the Void], 1981), while only two lesbians (Sappho in Fires [1936] and Marguerite of Austria in The Abyss) make cameo appearances.

And she was a fiercely proud, independent, and resourceful woman who has often been accused of depicting only weak women in her writings, especially Sophie in Coup de grâce (1939).

Problems in Yourcenar's Biography

Even the facts of Yourcenar's life are hard to ascertain. Yourcenar drew up a chronology in the Pleiade edition of her works, but biographer Josyane Savigneau takes exception to many dates and argues persuasively that Yourcenar forged her own persona just as she created, and then revised, her historical fictions.

Yourcenar was born Marguerite Antoinette Jeanne Marie Ghislaine Cleenewerck de Crayencour in Brussels on June 8, 1903. Her mother died shortly after her birth, and the young Marguerite spent her childhood traveling with her wealthy father, Michel, who was almost fifty years her senior.

She was educated privately. The outbreak of World War I exiled her in England, where she studied English and Latin. Later, she studied Greek in Paris and learned Italian on her own.

Her literary aspirations manifested themselves early, and while still in her teens, Yourcenar published two books privately--The Garden of Chimeras and The Gods Are Not Dead--and she chose Yourcenar, an anagram of her birth name, as her pen name.

She also undertook two ambitious projects, "Death Drives the Cart" and "Crosscurrents," that started as short stories but eventually led to the fictional masterpieces of her maturity: Memoirs of Hadrian, The Abyss, and Two Lives and a Dream (1982).

In 1929, in the wake of the Wall Street crash and mismanagement by her half-brother, Yourcenar lost her inheritance from her mother; and her father, who had remarried two years earlier, died in poverty.

Alexis

But that same year, her first major work, Alexis was published. Without mentioning the word homosexuality, which Yourcenar considered too clinical, this Gidean novel purports to be the letter written by a married man who must leave his wife and small child to come to terms with transgressive pleasure and his new identity.

Alexis sets the pattern for much of Yourcenar's work, which tempers scandalous passion with a classical literary treatment that relies on restraint and eloquence rather than explicitness and melodrama, and that seeks validating precedents in history and mythology.

Fires

After the critical success of Alexis, Yourcenar decided to spend her remaining money on a decade of the "luxurious freedom" of travel and writing. In the 1930s, according to Savigneau's biography, Yourcenar seduced many women and fell into desperate, unreciprocated love with two men.

The outcome was Fires, a series of prose poems meant to express her passions and philosophy of love through monologues by figures from ancient Greek and, in one case, Christian myths.

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