Grande Dame

D.A.N. Jones

Marguerite Yourcenar was born in Brussels in 1903. She became a US citizen in 1947 and has lived for more than thirty years on Mount Desert Island, off the coast of Maine. Thus when she was proposed for membership of the French Academy, it was natural that some Frenchmen would make an issue of her nationality, in order to prevent a woman joining their club. However, the justice minister granted her dual nationality on the grounds of her ‘evident cultural links’ with France, and in 1980 she became the first woman member of the Academy. In that same year, Les Yeux Ouverts: Entretiens avec Matthieu Galey was published in Paris. Galey, a French journalist, had been to interview her on Mount Desert Island. The title of the book was a quotation from Mme Yourcenar’s novel, Memoirs of Hadrian: ‘Let us try, if we can, to enter into death with open eyes.’

The translation of M. Galey’s interviews has been made by Arthur Goldhammer, working with the nervous precision demanded by his knowledge that Mme Yourcenar is herself a fastidious translator: she has translated The Waves and What Maisie Knew into French. With Open Eyes is an engaging introduction to her work, imbued with an unexpected spirit of comedy, rather like Boswell’s life of Johnson – for Mme Yourcenar, like Johnson, is a weighty and judicial writer, contemplating many eras and continents, while Matthieu Galey is a journalist determined to ask ‘Just exactly how do you feel?’ about the issues of the day. In the Twenties, every interviewer asked his subject for views about the Modern Girl. In the Sixties he might ask: ‘What do you think of people who “trip” with drugs?’ or ‘Were you something of a “hippie” before the fact?’ Galey does indeed ask two of those questions, in those very words – just as Boswell would have asked Johnson, hoping for a weighty reply. Though Galey does not ask about the Modern Girl, he does ask about feminism – and also, of course, about racism, another issue of the day. She responds by questioning the journalist’s categories, not discourteously, but sometimes like a tutor with a student. If he uses a Latin or Greek word, like ‘pessimist’, ‘anthropomorphic’ or ‘aristocratic’, she asks him to think what the word means. We learn that her father began teaching her Latin when she was ten and Greek when she was 12. (Her mother died in childbirth.) She is not uncivil but I lost count of the number of times she said no to his suggestions.

Galey likes the idea of Mme Yourcenar being a Flemish ‘aristocrat’ in romantic exile from the Paris where she truly belongs. Her father’s name was Michel de Crayencour (her pen-name being a near-anagram) and she lived in a grand house with many servants. ‘This Flamande knows her ancient charters,’ writes Galey, ‘but doesn’t care a fig for aristocratic origins or fancy genealogies.’ It has been recognised in Paris by ‘even the most partisan newspapers and weeklies’ that ‘the time has come to admit that while Yourcenar might be an aristocratic writer, she is an aristocrat worthy of praise ... This is how reputations are made in France.’ But what is she doing out there on Mount Desert Island, so far from the Paris publishing houses of ‘the Sixth Arrondissement with its schools, its vogues, its commitments’? He keeps reverting to her isolation from the Parisian well-spring. She tells him about the people of Mount Desert Island and about its history, from Champlain who named it in the 17th century to John D. Rockefeller, but he still can’t accept it as a real place. When she talks of her friends, he asks: ‘Do they come even to a place as out-of-the-way as this?’ As if exasperated, she replies: ‘Let’s not rehash the myth of my solitude yet again!’

The European wars led her to England in 1915 and to America in 1939: she is altogether well travelled. Galey cannot reconcile this taste for travel with her habit of disciplined contemplation, surely a stay-at-home thing to do. She responds: ‘It’s becoming increasingly difficult to follow you. One travels in order to contemplate. Every trip is contemplation in motion.’ Galey remarks that ‘some great thinkers never left their studies: Descartes sat by his fire, and Montaigne had his library.’ She replies: ‘As it happens, the two men you mention both travelled fairly extensively.’ Like a tutor she tells him all about it, starting with Descartes’s war service in Holland. We could re-title this book after Denis Johnson’s play, The old lady says ‘No!’ All the same, Matthieu Galey (perhaps faux-naif) does elicit a good deal of information with his mistakes and his provoking questions. He even tempts her, for a moment, into a touch of French snobbery: she admits she is glad she was named Marguerite and not, for instance, Chantal – ‘a saint’s name, but it smacks too much of the Sixteenth Arrondissement’.

Talking seriously of her work, she most frequently refers to Memoirs of Hadrian, which she completed on Mount Desert Island. She opened a trunk in 1948 and found in it a few pages she had written about Hadrian and with them a volume of Dio Cassius and a copy of the Historia Augusta. She found herself able to ‘put herself in the place’ of Hadrian, writing in the first person, under his name – not like one of those historians who are ruled by theories, militarists admiring imperialism or Marxists seeking communism or its absence. ‘I reconstructed a day that Hadrian spent in Palestine with the same concern for the truth as in writing about a day in the life of the Crayencours.’ Galey asks: ‘How is it possible to relate individual destinies to the context of history, to life’s ebb and flow?’ She counters: ‘How is it possible not to? You seem to be making an idol of “History”, as the Marxists do. History consists of individual lives ...’

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[*] Aidan Ellis, 112 pp., £9.50, 85628 144 1.