(Review of ‘Memoirs of Hadrian’ – a novel by Marguerite Yourcenar 5*/5* )
“But books lie, even those that are most sincere.”
It is supposed to be historically most accurate novel – I can’t judge about that but I’m willing to take the word of knowledgeable people on that. What is so far more incredible is the way the author managed to make herself invisible in her work – you know how novels have their authors’ personality in them. You can’t normally come out of a novel without having some idea of author’s personality. Narrators of Proust and Celine look like so much like their mirror images; in other cases it is true to a lesser extent – but not in this case. The only thing you will have guessed about Yourcenar by reading MoH, is that she is genius. To create this believable a first person narrator is genius enough, but to recreate a fictional account of a real historical figure who lived in another age, was of other sex, much older – well, we need a new word here.
If I believed in spirits, I could have asserted that Hadrian’s had possessed Yourcenear. An innocent reader can easily led to believe that is written by someone who if not a king, is a really old man living in ancient Rome.
It is not your regular historical fiction as an account of decades of historical research undertaken by an author may make you believe – there is no massive collection of dates and years in there to remind you of a history class but rather an easy tranquillity which wisdom carries in itself. The narrative is first person – so we enter with a bit of suspicion about the reliability but soon that suspicion is removed. Hadrian is old and looking forward to his inevitable death. I guess different people react differently at that stage – Hadrian has grown a bit distant from his own self – distant enough to look at his own self objectively:
“I have come to speak of myself, at times, in the past tense.”
He didn’t had any children. perhaps that is why he wanted to leave his heir as much of himself as can be contained in letters.
Another thing which shadow of death does is that it makes king of one of most powerful empires look so much like an ordinary, powerless man. Not that he is weak, scared and melodramatic – but his reflections are perhaps more sober than you could ordinarily expect from a king.
Not that Hadrian is your regular arrogant kings. Besides the hard qualities of builders, soldiers and generals that you would expect from a Roman king; he has the soft qualities of being knowledgeable, philosophical, lover of arts, at times poetical and perhaps wise; which we associate with people of ancient Greece – and Goodreads. His philosophical reflections and lyrical prose is almost seductive. The narrator impresses on reader’s mind an image of wise old man accepting his inevitable death with a confidence of conviction (rather than arrogance of ignorance as is normally the case) and giving his last lesson (in most lyrical language) to his disciple; perhaps with one hand raised to heavens like in ‘Death of Socrates’.
I’ve whole pages of quotes from the book. The following are only a small sample:
“Morals are matter of private agreement; decency is of public concern.”
“We talk much of the dreams of youth. Too often we forget its scheming.”
“To me, who had not yet given first place to anything except to ideas or projects, or at the most to a future image of myself, this simple devotion of man to man seemed prodigious and unfathomable. No one is worthy of it, and I am still unable to account for it.”
“I knew that good like bad becomes a routine, that the temporary tends to endure, that what is external permeates to the inside, and that the mask, given time, comes to be the face itself.”
“I am not sure that the discovery of love is necessarily more exquisite than the discovery of poetry.”