Philobiblon: Yourcenar the outsider

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Yourcenar the outsider

I've recently read Marguerite Yourcenar's The Abyss and her Alexis, and was very interested in this account of her life. Oddly enough, she strikes me as having quite a bit in common with Michel Houellebecq, both being very much outsiders in the literary world, and French people living in Anglophone environments, although one looked to the past and the other to the future.

Yourcenar's Alexis, however, was emotionally sophisticated for a work written by someone aged 24, and bravely amoral for something written in 1929. (It is in effect a soliloquy from a gay man of 24 explaining why he is leaving his young wife and their child.)

In the preface in my edition, dated 1963, she writes: "I have sometimes thought of composing a response from Monique ... But for now I have abandoned that project. Nothing is more secret than a woman's existence. The tale of Monique would probably be much more difficult to write than the admissions of Alexis."

This strikes as a very odd thing for a woman to write, and reminded me that I was struck in The Abyss by the way that the male characters in general seem much more developed than the female, who don't often proceed beyond a sketch.

She seems to have tried for most of her life to be as "unwomanly" as possible. She also wrote in what must have seemed at the time in an unwomanly way, not being emotionally involved with her characters. In fact she often, particularly in The Abyss, kills them off enitrely pitilessly.

I have to say that I quite like Yourcenar's distance, I suppose because what I perceive as "sentimentality" often puts me off novels. And I do think in The Abyss you get inside the head of Zeno, the main character who was something of a mix of Da Vinci, Paracelsus, Copernicus, and Giordano Bruno, just that he tries to approach himself and his own life from a distance, not to throw himself emotionally headlong into things.

Both of these factors probably have quite a bit to do with her being the first woman inducted into the Académie Française, as well as her astonishing erudition.

Now I REALLY have to find time to read The Memoirs of Hadrian, since at least on this account it is supposed to be even better than The Abyss.


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