I could see myself as seconding the deity in his effort to give form and order to a world, to develop and multiply its convolutions, extensions, complexities. I was one of the spokes of the wheel, an aspect of that unique force caught up in the multiplicity of things; I was eagle and bull, man and swan, phallus and brain all together, Proteus who is also Jupiter. (146)
Marguerite Yourcenar (1903-1987) was a Belgian-born French novelist and essayist. In 1980 she became the first woman elected to the Académie française. She published her first novel Alexis in 1929 and moved to the United States a decade later to escape the outbreak of World War II. Mémoires d'Hadrien was published in 1951 to great critical acclaim.
Memoirs of Hadrian, translated from French by Grace Frick in collaboration with Yourcenar, is a fictionalized autobiography of the Roman Emperor Hadrian, who ruled from 117 to 138. He was one of the Five Good Emperors praised by Niccolò Machiavelli. Edward Gibbon, in his famous work The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, characterized their rule as an era when "the Roman Empire was governed by absolute power, under the guidance of wisdom and virtue." Hadrian did in fact write an autobiography but it has since been lost. Yourcenar portrays him as the quintessential "enlightened despot": a deep thinker and well-rounded, experienced statesman who directed his power toward the public good.
At times he seems almost too perfect, but such is probably in keeping with his personality as he composes the history of his own life. Hadrian's appreciation for the highest gifts of civilization - art, philosophy, rule of law - combines with breathtaking prose to recreate an Elysium that reigned briefly before the Dark Ages. The lost world of the Roman elite is one of palatial villas on the shores of the Mediterranean, deeds of daring on the barbarian frontier, and the ancient cults of Egypt and the Near East. Hadrian's conception of divinity extends from his secular knowledge, imagining the gods as innately connected to the various facets of human life. He is especially enamored of beauty in all of its forms, from poetry to soaring architecture to the vitality of youth. The climax of his story is the early death of his lover Antinous by suicide, although for all his rhapsodizing it appears that Hadrian loved him physically but not quite as a full individual. Antinuos was a Tadzio who manifested an ideal or exalted concept. Hadrian had him deified after his death, a megalomaniacal move that nevertheless transcends mere egotism and becomes poetry itself - an epic tale of love lost and the death of beauty in full bloom.
The breadth of Hadrian's lifetime, extending from far-off battles and travels to the depth of his learning, gave Marguerite Yourcenar a large canvas with which to work. She takes maximum advantage of the material offered to her and the result is a brilliant book and homage to what was seen centuries afterwards as one of the Golden Ages of Western civilization. A fascinating and rewarding read.
Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian was The Wolves' reading selection for September. Please feel free to join us for the rest! You can find the complete book list here.