Marguerite Yourcenar is widely considered one of the most important writers of the 20th century

She was born in Belgium in 1903, moved to the US in 1939 and became a citizen in 1947. She died in Maine in 1987.

She shared 40 years of her life with Grace Frick, her American companion, until Frickís death of cancer in 1979.

Frick and Yourcenar lived openly as a couple and supported causes like the Civil Rights Movement and Nature conservation.

In 1980 Yourcenar became the first woman ever to be elected a member of the French Academy of Literature, since its founding in 1635.

She achieved a relatively late recognition.

In part, this was due to her highly specialized writing style, which requires a considerable amount of homework from the reader.

Most likely, the main reason was her frequent choice of subject: Homosexuality.

Yourcenar had a truly exceptional literary talent and a vast erudition.

She could have been spared long periods of financial leanness had she written more standard books that would have appealed a far larger - heterosexual that is - audience.

But, with Frickís help and encouragement, that talent yielded a number of gay-themed literary masterpieces.

Yourcenar wrote about homosexuality, both her own and that of others, in a dignified and uncompromising way.

Two of her books in particular, Memoirs of Hadrian and The Abyss, can be singled out for their significance, which extends beyond the literary realm.

Both are historic novels whose main characters are gay men. They are often thought to be the summit of Yourcenarís oeuvre.

While we can find gay people uniformly distributed all through history, there are however two periods, the Renaissance and the Greek-Roman times, where gay presence seems to have been particularly strong.

The general public is however, rarely aware of this. Many political and religious groups have orchestrated an effort to erase, or at least hide, the homosexuality of people that played important roles in history.

This is a crucial point, whose importance cannot be downplayed, since an important step in a route that leads to the eventual condemnation and persecution of homosexual people, is to deny their history and their value in the building of a civilization.

In Memoirs of Hadrian and The Abyss Yourcenar targeted this problem with force and distinction, restoring a gay identity to people and times that years of censorship had often denied.

Her writing is not only historically precise, but also poignantly beautiful; a beauty that originates in the uniquely profound and cogent qualities of her prose.

Having to prepare a poster and a web page that honors Marguerite Yourcenar is a huge challenge. When talking about Yourcenar, we are forced to use the same tools that she had so artfully mastered, and which in our case, are barely adequate to provide some key facts about her life, but will never help to grasp Yourcenarís subtle magic.

Letís hear her own voice then... The following are a few of our favorite excerpts from her books. Needless to say, this list is not meant to be complete; its length and contents reflecting only space limitations and time constraints.

"Of all our games, love's play is the only one which threatens to unsettle the soul, and is also the only one in which the player has to abandon himself to the body's ecstasy"
From Memoirs of Hadrian

"More sincere than most men, I can freely admit the secret causes of this felicity: that calm so propitious for work and for discipline of the mind seems to me one the richest results of love. An it puzzles me that these joys, so precarious at best, and so rarely perfect in the course of human life, however we may have sought or received them, should be regarded with such mistrust by the so-called wise, who denounce the danger of habit and excess in sensuous delight, instead of fearing its absence or its loss"
From Memoirs of Hadrian.

"Little soul, gentle and drifting, guest and companion of my body, now you will dwell below in pallid places, stark and bare; there you will abandon your play of yore. But one moment still, let us gaze together on these familiar shores, on these objects which doubtless we shall not see again... Let us try, if we can, to enter into death with open eyes..."
From Memoirs of Hadrian, the last paragraph of the novel, these words are spoken by Hadrian just before his death.

"A human life cannot be graphed whatever people may say, by two virtual perpendiculars, representing what a man believed himself to be and what he wished to be, plus a flat horizontal for what he actually was; rather, the diagram has to be composed of three curving lines, extended to infinity, ever meeting and ever diverging."
From Memoirs of Hadrian.

"This book bears no dedication. It ought to have been dedicated to G.F...[Grace Frick], and would have been, were there not a kind of impropriety in putting a personal inscription at the opening of a work where, precisely, I was trying to efface the personal. But even the longest dedication is too short and too commonplace to honor a friendship so uncommon. When I try to define this asset which has been mine now for years, I tell myself that such a privilege, however rare it may be, is surely not unique; that in the whole adventure of bringing a book successfully to its conclusion, or even in the entire life of some fortunate writers, there must have been sometimes, in the background, perhaps, someone who will not let pass the weak or inaccurate sentence which we ourselves would retain out of fatigue; someone who would re-read with us for the 20th time, if need be, a questionable page; someone who takes down for us from the library shelves the heavy tomes in which we may find a helpful suggestion, and who persists in continuing to peruse them long after weariness has made us give up; someone who bolsters our courage and approves, or sometimes disputes, our ideas; who share with us, and with equal fervor, the joys of art and of living, the endless work which both require never easy but never dull; someone who is neither our shadow nor our reflection, nor even our complement, but simply himself; someone who leaves us ideally free, but who nevertheless obliges us to be fully what we are"
From Memoirs of Hadrian, acknowledging the love between Marguerite Yourcenar and Grace Frick.

The following excerpt from Pico Della Mirandolaís "Oratio de hominis dignitate" is used by Yourcenar as a preface to The Abyss:
"I have given you, O Adam, no fixed abode, and no visage of your own, nor any special gift, in order that whatever place or aspect or talents you yourself will have desired, you may have and possess them wholly in accord with your desire and your own decision. Other species are confined to a prescribed nature, under laws of my making. No limits have been imposed upon you, however; you determine your nature by you own free will, in the hands of which I have placed you. I have placed you at the worldís very center, that you may the better behold from this point whatever is in the world. And I have made you neither celestial nor terrestrial, neither mortal nor immortal, so that, like a free and able sculptor and painter of yourself, you may mold yourself wholly in the form of your choice"
This paragraphs serves to settle the bookís mood: the search for freedom and wisdom in a society that forbids both.

Early in the narrative, Zeno -the main character and a Renaissance scientist- says:
"The world is big. May it please the One who perchance Is to expand the human heart to lifeís full measure"
Yourcenar engraved this last sentence in her tombstone, expressing perhaps a dual goal: to expand her own heart to lifeís full measure, and to write material that would please those readers willing to expand their hearts.

The Abyss was first published in French with the title L'Oeuvre au Noir, on which Yourcenar wrote:
"In alchemical treatises, the formula L'Oeuvre au Noir, designates what is said to be the most difficult phase of the alchemist's process, the separation and dissolution of substance. It is still not clear whether the term applied to daring experiments on matter itself, or whether it was understood to symbolize trials of the mind in discarding all forms of routine and prejudice. Doubtless it signified one or the other meaning alternately, or perhaps both at the same time."

"I have no desire to mention here a small fact that is supposedly obscene, but what follows corroborates in advance the opinion I hold today on that so highly controversial subject of the awakening of the senses, our future tyrants. Lying that night in Yolandeís narrow bed, the only one available to us, an instinct, a premonition of intermittent desires experienced and satisfied later in the course of my life, allowed me to discover right away the posture and the movements needed by two women who love one another. Proust talked about the heartís intermittencies. Who will talk about those of the senses, particularly about those desires that the ignorant assume to be either so thoroughly against nature as to be always artificially acquired or else, on the contrary, inscribed in the flesh of certain persons like a nefarious and permanent fate? My own would not really awaken until years later, then in turn, and for years at a time, disappear to the point of being forgotten. Though a bit callous, Yolande admonished me kindly: Iíve been told it was bad to do those things. Really? I said. And turning away without protest, I stretched out and fell asleep on the edge of the bed"
From Quoi? L'eternite.

Nathanaël is one of those people who think almost without the mediation of words. That is to say, he is practically devoid of that vocabulary which is both customary and exhausted, as worn down as overused coins, with which we exchange what we take to be ideas, what we think we believe and what we believe we think.
From Two Lives and a Dream.

He didnít feel himself to be, as so many people do, a man as opposed to beasts and trees; rather, a brother of one and a distant cousin of the other. Nor did he particularly consider himself male in contrast with the gentler order of women; he had passionately possessed certain women, but, out of bed, his cares, his needs, his constraints of money, sickness, and the daily tasks one performs to live hadnít seemed to him so different from theirs. He had, rarely it is true, known the carnal brotherhood other men had shared with him; he didnít feel less a man for that. People falsify everything, it seemed to him, in taking such little account of the flexibility and resources of the human being, so like the plant, which seeks out the sun or water and nourishes itself fairly well from whatever earth and wind has sown it in. Custom more than nature seemed to him to dictate the differences we set up between classes of men, the habits and knowledge acquired from infancy, or the various ways of praying to what is called God. Ages, sexes, or even species seemed to him closer one to another than each generally assumed about the other: child or old man, man or woman, animal or biped who speaks the works with his hands, all come together in the misery and sweetness of existence.
From Two Lives and a Dream.

 


References:

Petite Plaisance Yourcenar and Frickís home in Maine, near Acadia National Park, can be visited during the summer months.

A biography written in French by Josyane Savigneau and translated into English by Joan E. Howard is available.

The following books can be found in libraries and bookstores:


Alexis
A Coin in Nine Hands
Oriental Tales
Coup de Grace
Memoirs of Hadrian
The Abyss
Two Lives and a Dream
Fires
Mishima, a Vision of the Void
Dear Departed
How Many Years
That Mighty Sculptor, Time.


For an instant which seemed to him eternal, a GLOBE of scarlet palpitated within him, or perhaps outside him, bleeding on the sea. Like the summer sun in polar regions, that burning sphere seemed to hesitate, ready to descend one degree toward the nadir; but then, with an almost imperceptible bound upward, it began to ascend toward the zenith, to be finally absorbed in a blinding daylight which was, at the same time, night.

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