Unquiet Deaths

Patrick Parrinder

  • Two Lives and a Dream by Marguerite Yourcenar, translated by Walter Kaiser
    Aidan Ellis, 245 pp, £9.95, July 1987, ISBN 0 85628 160 3
  • The Wedding at Port-au-Prince by Hans Christoph Buch, translated by Ralph Manheim
    Faber, 259 pp, £10.95, August 1987, ISBN 0 571 14928 6
  • Saints and Scholars by Terry Eagleton
    Verso, 145 pp, £9.95, September 1987, ISBN 0 86091 180 2
  • Imperial Patient: The Memoirs of Nero’s Doctor by Alex Comfort
    Duckworth, 206 pp, £10.95, June 1987, ISBN 0 7156 2168 8

According to John Ruskin, ‘in the work of the great masters death is always either heroic, deserved, or quiet and natural.’ Not so in Marguerite Yourcenar’s world. She is renowned for her timeless narrative gift and lucid style, and she regards her books as defining that unfashionable thing, an ‘ideal of humanity’. Yet death occurs in these fictions with what Ruskin would have seen as a morbid regularity and an unwholesome virulence. Her best-known novel, the Memoirs of Hadrian (1954), impersonates the Roman emperor on his death-bed, torn between his reminiscences and his attempts to prepare for the final agony. Her coldly brilliant essay on Yukio Mishima[*] culminates in a detailed reconstruction of the gruesome last rites of seppuku performed by the Japanese novelist. The body-count in the first twenty pages of ‘An Obscure Man’, the longest of the three novellas collected in Two Lives and a Dream, rivals that in the whole of Bleak House (which Ruskin denounced for its sensationalism). Yourcenar published a much earlier version of Two Lives and a Dream in 1934 as La Mort conduit l’attelage (Death drives the cart), a title that she now repudiates as too oversimplified: ‘Death does drive the cart, but so, too, does life.’

There is an impressive unity and consistency in Yourcenar’s work. Of her story ‘Anna, Soror ...’, first written in 1925 at the age of 21, she now says that ‘I feel as completely at home with this story as if the idea for it had come to me this morning.’ ‘Anna, Soror ...’ is set in the grim fortress of Castel Sant’ Elmo in 16th-century Naples, and tells of the growth of an incestuous passion between the son and daughter of the prison governor. So intense are the emotions of these young people that the other inhabitants of the fortress – suspected heretics and political prisoners rotting away in its dungeons – are dismissed in a single sentence. The lovers enjoy five days and nights of violent happiness and then Anna’s brother, Don Miguel, becomes a mercenary and sacrifices himself in a sea-fight against the Saracens. Anna lives on without response, outlasting her mother and father and three of her children. The second part of her life seems quiet and natural enough, but Yourcenar cannot resist telling us that her eventual death-agony is ‘long and painful’. Originally titled ‘After El Greco’ – the new title is taken from an epitaph – this is a love-story steeped in the baroque, with the pure flame of love defiantly pitted against brothel and inferno, prison-house and charnel-house.

Given her long career as a historical novelist, one might be excused for thinking that Yourcenar’s preoccupation with death reflected a parochially modern and bourgeois view of the past: that life was nasty, brutish and short but more colourful in those days. The suspicion is hard to dismiss altogether, though the author herself would strenuously deny it. ‘An Obscure Man’, set in London, Amsterdam and the New World in the mid-17th century, traces the life of Nathanaël, who stows away on a ship bound for Jamaica after committing a murderous assault on a drunkard. Soon one of his shipmates is fatally stabbed in the eye, while his father is killed by a fall from some scaffolding. In the Caribbean Nathanaël enlists on an English gunboat, which sails up the coast of Maine and opens fire on a defenceless group of Jesuit priests (this is based on a historical incident in 1621). Further deaths from shipwreck, scurvy and consumption follow. When Nathanaël hears of the barbarous practices of the Abenaki Indians he is scarcely shocked: ‘Nathanaël remembered the heads of victims of torture hung from the gates of the Tower of London, and he realised that men are everywhere the same’ (in the original French, les hommes sont partout des hommes). This is indeed Yourcenar’s belief, one which reunites the present and the past, nor is there any sense that she would give les hommes a feminist inflection. Gender and historical distance are, she holds in her ‘Postfaces’ to this volume, matters of indifference to the creative imagination.

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[*] Mishima: A Vision of the Void, translated by Alberto Manguel in collaboration with the author. Aidan Ellis, 152 pp., £9.50, 4 December 1986, 0 85628 145 X.