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Summary Article: Yourcenar, Marguerite
from Continuum Encyclopedia of American Literature

Known primarily as the author of the acclaimed novel Mémoires d’Hadrien, published in 1951 and translated as Memoirs of Hadrian (1954), Y. was accomplished as well as a poet, short story writer, dramatist, translator, and essayist. Her literary career spanned well over half a century and culminated in the extraordinary distinction when at the age of seventy-six she was elected to the Académie Française, the first woman in the history of the institution to be so honored.

Born Marguerite de Crayencour of a Belgium mother, who died shortly after childbirth, Y. inherited the French citizenship of her father, who assumed responsibility for her upbringing. Y. was encouraged by her father at an early age to pursue her literary interests, and in 1921 he arranged for the private publication of her first book, Le Jardin des chimères, a dramatic adaptation of the Icarus legend. This was followed a year later by a collection of poems, Les Dieux ne sont pas morts. Her father also assisted in the invention of her anagrammatical pseudonym, which in 1947 she adopted as her legal name.

After her father's death when Y. was twenty-four, she decided to devote herself exclusively to travel, study, and literature. She began to contribute poetry and critical essays to a variety of literary periodicals and in 1929 published her first novel, Alexis; ou, Le Traité du vain combat, revised in 1965 and translated as Alexis (1984), which earned for her critical as well as popular attention. This was followed by a second novel in 1931, La Nouvelle Eurydice. Her emerging literary reputation was further enhanced by the publication in 1934 of Denier du reêve, revised and expanded in 1959 and translated as A Coin in Nine Hands (1982). Set amid the rise of fascism in prewar Italy, the novel is atypical of Y.'s fiction in utilizing a contemporary setting and an ensemble cast rather than a single, dominant protagonist. It is nonetheless characteristic of thematic concerns that accentuate Y.'s distinct artistic vision, notably the exploration of self, the mystery of human emotion, and the fusion of dream and reality.

In 1936, Y. published a sequence of lyrical prose pieces entitled Feux, revised in 1974 and translated as Fires (1981), followed by a collection of short stories, Nouvelles orientales (1938), revised in 1963 and 1975 and translated as Oriental Tales (1985); and a novel titled Le Coup de graêce (1939), translated as Coup de Graêce (1957). She completed the novel while living in Italy, returning to Paris shortly before the outbreak of World War II. Disheartened by the imminent invasion of France, Y. left Europe for the U.S. at the invitation of Grace Frick, an American friend who would become her lifelong companion. The decade that followed was disappointing artistically for Y.; compelled by economic necessity, she turned to translating and teaching as a means to earn her livelihood. In 1942, while living in Hartford, Connecticut, Y. and Frick began to summer in Maine, where in 1950 they purchased what became their permanent residence in Northeast Harbor. In 1947, Y. became a naturalized American citizen.

The turning point of Y.'s literary career was her decision to resume work on a character study of the Roman Emperor Hadrian, a creative impulse that evolved into the novel generally acknowledged to be her most significant achievement. Memoirs of Hadrian was the first of Y.'s works to be published in the U.S. Written in the form of a letter to his adopted grandson and future heir, Marcus Aurelius, the novel explores the boundaries of human experience, allowing the protagonist to ruminate on the circumstances of his life while confronting the inevitability of death. The critical reception of Memoirs of Hadrian established Y. as an author of international stature, a reputation further solidified by the publication in 1968 of L’Œuvre au Noir, translated as The Abyss (1976). Similar in context and methodology to Memoirs of Hadrian, L’Œuvre au noir is set in northern Europe in the mid-16th c. The protagonist of the novel is the fictitious Zeno, a physician-alchemist-philosopher in search of enlightenment within an age dominated by repression.

The death of Grace Frick after a long illness in 1979 was a tremendous personal loss for Y. Her companion for over fifty years, Frick was both a source of creative inspiration to Y. and her collaborator, translating all of her major works into English. It was shortly after Frick's death that Y. was nominated for membership to the Académie Française. Although her nomination generated heated debate over admission of a woman to the all-male institution, she was elected on March 6, 1980 and inducted on January 22, 1981. Largely the result of becoming France's first académicienne, the demand for her work in the U.S. prompted publication in English of her earlier fiction as well as Comme l’eau qui coule (1982), translated as Two Lives and A Dream (1987). In addition, her early collection of criticism Sous bénéfice d’inventaire (1962) was translated as The Dark Brain of Piranesi and Other Essays (1984). This was followed by Mishima: A Vision of the Void (1986), first published as Mishima, ou la vision du vide (1980), a critical study of the Japanese writer Yukio Mishima. A second collection of criticism, originally published in 1983 as Le Temps, ce grand sculptour, was translated as That Mighty Sculptor, Time and published in the U.S. in 1992. Souvenirs pieux, the first volume of her semi-autobiographical work entitled “Le Labyrinthe du monde,” was published in 1973 and translated as Dear Departed (1991). The second volume, Archives du Nord, published in 1977, appeared as How Many Years (1995), and the final volume, “Quoi? l’eternité,” was left unfinished.

Y. enjoyed a prolific and diversified career, and she possessed a unique and enduring artistic voice. Merging the past with the present, her fiction evokes a sense of agelessness as well as timely significance.


Bibliography Farrell, C. F., and E. R. Farrell, M. Y. in Counterpoint (1983) Howard, J. E., From Violence to Vision: Sacrifice in the Works of M. Y. (1992) Savigneau, J., M. Y.: Inventing a Life (1993)

Steven R. Serafin

© 2005 The Continuum International Publishing Group, Ltd

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