The current issue of the New Yorker features a magnificent review by Joan Acocella of Margaret Yourcenar’s great novel, “Memoirs of Hadrian.”
Yourcenar (above and below) was truly sui generis.
Among other things, she was only woman ever to be inducted into the Académie Française in the 346 years of its existence before her election in 1981.
No woman since has come close, and it may well be another few centuries until the next such occurrence.
Yourcenar was an extraordinarily isolated artist who lived most of her adult life on Mount Desert Island off the coast of Maine.
She regarded the average historical novel as “merely a more or less successful costume ball.”
Yourcenar believed that to truly recapture an earlier time, years of research along with a mystical act of identification were required.
Acocella writes, “She performed both, and wrought a kind of trans-historical miracle. If you want to know what ‘ancient Rome’ really means, in terms of war and religion and love and parties, read ‘Memoirs of Hadrian.’ No other document takes us so deeply into the pre-Christian mind.”
Acocella writes that of the major novelists of the twentieth century, including Joyce, Yourcenar was probably the most erudite.
From childhood she read almost everything she could lay her hands on, and when she finished a book, she would turn back to page 1 and read it over again.
She went from Western literature to Asian literature; she taught herself new languages: Japanese, German, Spanish, Portuguese, and modern Greek.
Acocella’s review is a mini-biography of this singular woman.
If you read the review, it will be difficult — if not impossible — to resist the pull of “Memoirs of Hadrian.”
Even though I read the book years ago, I succumbed and ordered a new copy.