In Week Two of #onthepage we’re looking at writers from days gone by. Although we will be discussing the likes of Woolf, Eliot and Austen, we wanted to take the opportunity to talk about those who are less well known. With that in mind, an introduction to the sensational Marguerite Yourcenar. As well as a short bio, read on for a piece from James Womack, who explores the power of Yourcenar’s masterpiece, Memoirs of Hadrian, as well as her writing style.

About the author: Marguerite de Crayencour (1903-88), who went by the inexact anagrammatic pen name ‘Marguarite Yourcenar’, was a Belgian-born French novelist and essayist, the first woman to be elected to the Académie française. Her first novel Alexis was published in 1929; in 1939 she was invited to America by her lover Grace Frick, where she lectured in comparative literature at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. When Mémoires d’Hadrien was first published in 1951, it was an immediate success and met with great critical acclaim.


James Womack on Yourcenar’s style

As with many truly original writers, Marguerite Yourcenar’s work is not easily categorised.

She has written diversely – fictitious historical memoirs as well as contemporary stories of bisexual love-triangles, though it is the twin themes of love and sexuality that tie her body of work together.

Perhaps uniquely for a gay female author, her protagonists are almost exclusively gay men: her first novella, Alexis, is couched as a long letter from a husband to his wife, explaining that he must leave her and be honest about his sexuality.

‘Virtue has its temptations like everything else, far more dangerous because we are not on the lookout for them. Before I knew you, I dreamed of marriage.’

Much of her work belies her affinity for violence: the final pages of Coup de Grace are shocking in their direct, erotically charged account of an execution.

Yourcenar, was a master of her craft. The violence of her stories is counterbalanced with the absolute understated control of her writing, never using too many words, never digressing. It is deliberately slow prose that seems somehow definitive, almost philosophical.

‘Everything, even a moral failure, has its advantages for a mind that is even faintly lucid’.

Her masterpiece, Memoirs of Hadrian, is full of this earned perfection:

‘He had reached that moment in life, different for each one of us, when a man abandons himself to his demon or to his genius, following a mysterious law which bids him either to destroy or outdo himself.’

James’ piece was first written for the Penguin Classics blog in 2014. Read the original here.

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Join the conversation! 2 Comments

  1. I have not heard of Marguerite Yourcenar, so thanks for bringing her to my attention. Which of her books do Penguin currently have in print?

  2. I have read just two books of her and they have been awsome. Actually, “Memoirs of Hadrian” was translated by Cortázar. I love the tone of the novel, the rithm, it is just genuine.


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