Old Ladies

D.A.N. Jones

  • Dear Departed: A Memoir by Marguerite Yourcenar, translated by Maria Louise Ascher
    Aidan Ellis, 346 pp, £18.00, April 1992, ISBN 0 85628 186 7
  • Anna, Soror by Marguerite Yourcenar, translated by Walter Kaiser
    Harvill, 256 pp, £7.99, May 1992, ISBN 0 00 271222 9
  • That Mighty Sculptor, Time by Marguerite Yourcenar, translated by Walter Kaiser
    Aidan Ellis, 224 pp, £18.00, June 1992, ISBN 0 85628 159 X
  • Coming into the End Zone: A Memoir by Doris Grumbach
    Norton, 256 pp, £13.95, April 1992, ISBN 0 393 03009 1
  • Anything Once by Joan Wyndham
    Sinclair-Stevenson, 178 pp, £15.95, March 1992, ISBN 1 85619 129 X
  • Within Tuscany by Matthew Spender
    Viking, 366 pp, £16.99, April 1992, ISBN 0 670 83836 5

Marguerite Yourcenar was a highly honoured French writer, the first woman to be elected to the Académie Française, but her mother came from the Low Countries. The mother died in 1903, eight days after the daughter’s birth: her married name was Fernande de Crayencour (from which the pen name ‘Yourcenar’ was constructed) and her maiden name was de Cartier de Marchienne. In 1974, Marguerite Yourcenar published Souvenirs pieux (the first volume of her memoirs, Le Labyrinthe du monde), but it is a ‘memoir’ that never deals directly with the author. The book is about Fernande, her family and ancestors, over several centuries in what is now called Belgium. They were people who could take the concept of ‘pious memories’ quite seriously or, at least, formally.

Yourcenar read and emended eight chapters of this new English version before her own death in 1987, and it was she who decided that the title, Souvenirs pieux, should be rendered as Dear Departed, ‘with all its resonant irony’. She might almost have been thinking of the sour, dingy titles of British chuckle-shows in her time. On television we have been offered the ‘resonant irony’ of Till death us do part and In Sickness or in Health and One Foot in the Grave. There was a show (in the Seventies, I believe) called Valued Friends: it was about property values, home ownership, the housing market. Dear Departed is not such a rib-tickler as these, but it does offer an archaic smile, along with its stoicism. Yourcenar seems determined not to shed, nor to provoke, a sentimental tear. Instead she writes: ‘I take issue with the assertion commonly heard that the premature death of a mother is always a disaster or that a child deprived of its mother feels a lifelong sense of loss and a yearning for the deceased.’ Fernande had been the second wife of Yourcenar’s proud father, Michel de Crayencour: the young daughter subsequently enjoyed sisterly or motherly relationships with her father’s ‘mistresses or quasi-mistresses and later his third wife’.

As a septuagenarian in 1974, Yourcenar noted that she was more than twice as old as Fernande had been in 1903, and that she could ‘look at her as at a daughter whom I am trying my best to understand’. Set against this passage is a reproduction of Fernande’s souvenir pieux – ‘a small religious card that could be inserted between the pages of a missal’, a printed reminder of the deceased, with prayers and texts, which was sent to her Roman Catholic friends and kinsfolk, urging them to pray for her soul, her departed spirit. Such printed pieties may well seem sentimental to outsiders – rather like the halting rhymes we find in the ‘In Memoriam’ columns of newspapers.

After reporting the death of this young mother, the birth of this child, Yourcenar embarks on a ‘tour of the chateaux’, the stately strongholds in the neighbourhood of Liège and Namur where members of Fernande’s family, de Cartier de Marchienne, had quietly sheltered or sallied forth. All seem equally ancient, equally modern, in Yourcenar’s disorienting prose, her glimpses. In 1792, a house of the family was commandeered by the terrible young Saint-Just, commissioner to the armies of the North. Yourcenar admits: ‘Like a number of French men and women of my generation, I worshipped Saint-Just when I was very young.’ She had liked to fancy that her great-great-grandmother fell in love with the handsome revolutionary: later the author’s admiration for ‘Robespierre’s cruel friend’ changed to ‘a tragic pity’. In the 19th century, when events and manners seem more dowdy, recent enough to be ‘old-fashioned’, she detects a sort of fatuity in her forebears’ piety: their real gods were all Roman and pagan, Plutus and Terminus, Lucina and, most certainly, Libitina, goddess of burials, ‘pushed as far away as possible, but ever-present at family funerals and devolutions of inheritance’. A remembered ancestor, active on the battlefield at Crécy, leads her to quote from Sacheverell Sitwell, evoking ‘the shock of the suddenly revealed past’ from the effigy, at Tewkesbury Abbey, of another Crécy warrior, a ‘man of prey’, displaying ‘the cruel eagerness of a wild cat’.

There are aspects of all three of the Sitwell siblings in Yourcenar’s memoirs, also perhaps a touch of M.R. James: there is always something eerie about her evocation of past facts and probabilities. Her narrative reads like the sober preamble to an unsettling ghost story, a sceptical intelligence pressing on with reasoned discourse, while half-aware of flickering lights and muted voices behind the twitching curtain, beyond explanation. ‘The episode that follows is so ugly that I hesitate to write it down’: so begins one chapter, concerning a mysterious incident in 1887. A photograph of a character in this story (perhaps the villain) reveals a prosperous gentleman, Yourcenar’s grandfather, with a thick imperial covering his lower lip and chin, ‘making it impossible to assess the lines of his mouth. The eyes behind the pince-nez are sly and a bit roguish.’ (A widower, he kept an unknown mistress in Namur.) Yourcenar remarks: ‘I cannot say that I heard the cry of blood when I looked at that photo; in short, it is not the image of a man who would rain blows on someone weak or impaired.’ Nevertheless, it may be that this personable grandfather (Fernande’s father, remember) must bear the blame for violently killing his feeble-minded son, Gaston the Simple, rarely mentioned in the family circle.

This suspect grandfather had a cousin called Octave Pirmez, to whom Yourcenar devotes a substantial section of her book. She has textual evidence for her speculations here, since Octave was, ‘chronologically, the first Belgian essayist of the 19th century’. He wrote, it would seem, the kind of belles-lettres we pass over in second-hand bookshops, dustily undisturbed among the essays of Shenstone and Stevenson, Birrell and Lynd. ‘It took me a while, I confess, to become interested in my pale “Uncle Octave”,’ Yourcenar reports. Nevertheless, she made a little study of this neglected essayist – and of his beloved brother, Rémo, a melancholy young radical who shot himself (to the music of Tannhaüser) in the 1870s, at the age of 28. As with the case of Gaston the Simple, the family kept quiet about the manner of Rémo’s death. Octave wrote an affectionate little book about him, keeping to ‘the pious lie’ (as Yourcenar calls it) that Rémo had an accident: ‘he didn’t know the gun was loaded.’ What kind of radical was Rémo? Would he have been drawn to Fascism or Communism, or both? And what kind of liberal was Octave, so reserved, dreamy and poetical? Yourcenar does not pin them down. Nor does she extravagantly commend their concern for the poor, their pacifism. She remarks that Rémo’s ‘demagogic rhetoric is worth no more than Octave’s doctrinaire eloquence.’

She prints a reproduction (which might be thought rather Gothic) of Octave’s souvenir pieux in 1883: an engraving of two feet, savagely pierced by nails, from which great gouts of blood drip into a holy vessel held by a robed acolyte. Beneath is the legend, Voici le calice du salut, with two similar Christian exclamations in English and German. Yourcenar remarks that the engraving is executed ‘in that Sulpician style which in those days still bore faint traces of the grand manner of the 17th century’, and that the acolyte is evidently St John. All this is a part of the history, the mentalité, of Octave – and so of Yourcenar.

These are all fragments peeled from a few dowdy decades in the centuries rolling past Yourcenar’s inward eye. They are so far from everyday conceptions of reality that Yourcenar can imagine Octave confronted, in a numinous seaside village, by a character from her own fiction – the 17th-century mystic called Zeno from L’Oeuvre au noir. ‘Time and dates ricochet,’ she remarks. ‘For Rémo I feel an ardent respect. “Uncle Octave” sometimes moves me and sometimes irritates me. But Zeno I love like a brother.’

In the last section of Dear Departed, we come nearer to living flesh, material reality. Yourcenar’s father, Michel de Crayencour, has arrived upon the scene, with the close-cropped hair and the long, drooping moustache that make ‘this northern Frenchman look deceptively like a Hungarian magnate’. He is a widower of 46, a brilliant conversationalist, magnificent on horseback (with a photograph to prove it) and ‘he glances appreciatively at Fernande’s soft, somewhat languid form’. This is 1900 and Fernande is 28: she has read a few advanced books and ‘has unjustly acquired a reputation for being a young lady with ideas’, declares Yourcenar. The author follows their engagement trip and honeymoon travels, through Central Europe, Italy and France, with an almost envious enjoyment. She seems to want to be ‘a member of the wedding’.

Yourcenar knew her father well: she might be thought to have sprung, like Pallas Athene, from her father’s head, with no contribution from the faint, evanescent mother. Twenty years later (Yourcenar remarks as if in passing) the father handed his daughter a rather good story he had written, about an experienced, somewhat promiscuous man, wistful on his honeymoon: he suggested that she should revise it and publish it under her own name. Yourcenar did so, and won a literary prize. Earlier in the book, she has remarked that, just as she thought of Fernande, her dead mother, as being her puzzling young daughter, so she thought of Michel, her vivid father, as being her elder brother, strong and lucid. Perhaps this has something to do with the pattern of Yourcenar’s life?

Two other recent Yourcenar publications are relevant to her memoirs. One is Anna, Soror, a collection of three novellas, previously published as Two Stories and a Dream. The ‘dream’ is a strong, persuasive tale about incest in 17th-century Naples, the love affair of a brother and sister, children of the Spanish governor. Another story concerns a 17th-century Dutchman, a versatile but unambitious man who is driven, by the accidents of fate, to travel to London and to thinly settled America, before he meets a lonesome death in the Frisian Islands: the third section is about this man’s son, who becomes a boy actor, playing girls on Continental tours of Shakespeare’s plays. The plausibility is more than scholarly: it is eerie. The tales read like eye-witness reports by an accomplished correspondent in some little-known territory, like modern Nagorno Karabakh. Yourcenar displays her unaffected sympathy and respect for such dangerous activities as sibling incest and male homosexuality. There are interesting glimpses, in the factual postludes, of Yourcenar’s later life, as a resident in the State of Maine. The impressive essays in That Mighty Sculptor, Time, (an apt title, a quotation from Victor Hugo) range from a serious, well-informed study of Tantric Buddhism to a ‘prose-poem’ of 1931 about the loves of Michelangelo. Many good points are made about her own time (and ours), about feminism and the environment, but more pleasing and eerie is her account of the ‘coincidences’ that have attended her writing of historical fiction.

When her 70th birthday hit her, Doris Grumbach grimly began Coming into the End Zone. Seventy is a threatening age: three score years and ten. We may try to disregard our decades, believing our lives are divided into seven-year periods: but we are caught both ways by 70. It is, in the cant phrase, a double whammy. Doris Grumbach twice refers to Yourcenar and she quotes one of her aphorisms, as if for consolation: If you can say “mad with joy” you should be able to say “wise with grief”.’ But Grumbach has doubts: ‘I grow more foolish, not wiser, in my grief.’ To mark her 70th anniversary, Grumbach moved from Washington DC to the famously restful State of Maine – where Yourcenar had lived so long, on L’Ile des Monts-Déserts.

Before she settles down in the End Zone, Grumbach writes discursively of her griefs in the Inner City, assailed by thoughts of death and ageing. This is a sad account, deliberately saddening. The summer heat of Washington DC ‘has increased the number of homicides in this city’: her car is stolen and trashed by a young boy and she feels herself ‘becoming paranoid and, what is worse, racist’. She takes many precautions against crime, but wonders ‘how long will I be able to see some humour in my beleaguered state?’ The Washington bookshop she runs, with her friend Sybil, is burgled, again. She feels ‘at bay, attacked from within, sure that every passing young black is a threat. I despise the racism involved in this.’ As for her men friends, they all seem to be dying of Aids. She has written several novels and a biography of Mary McCarthy, but, in the States, she seems most widely known for her broadcast book reviews on National Public Radio, and elsewhere for her annual contribution to the Britannica Book of the Year. By chance, she meets, once again, the withered near-death Mary McCarthy. ‘Hello, Mary. Do you remember me?’ ‘Unpleasantly.’

For 12 long months she piles on the agony, but at last, on her 71st birthday, she can write: ‘No longer am I burdened by the weight of my years. My new age does not worry me.’ She has settled down in Maine, with Sybil, they have reopened their bookshop and she reads the lessons at the local Episcopalian church. This is, in the long run, a comforting sort of book.

Joan Wyndham, too, has passed 70. She saw it coming.

11 October 1990. My 69th birthday. Old age – how I hate it ... My head has started to poke forward like a turtle peering from its shell, my front teeth fall out when I sneeze ... How is it possible to go on pretending everything is OK with only ten or fifteen years to go?

Anything Once is more depressing than the memoirs of the other two old ladies, despite Joan Wyndham’s skittishness and jollity. The extracts from her youngish diaries are sometimes convincingly happy-go-lucky, but the reminiscences by her older self sound rather as if she is ‘pretending everything is OK’. This is the third volume of her autobiography. Both the preceding volumes dealt with her merry young life during World War Two, which she much enjoyed: they have been read aloud as the BBC’s Book at Bedtime, to the delight of those nostalgic for wartime and their youth. Rushing through the half century of peacetime that ensued has proved to be less gleeful. It is Book-of-the-Dead Time.

After the war, she seeks out her father, a journalist called Dick Wyndham (he was divorced from her mother when Joan was two). She goes to parties with his rather pre-war friends, Cyril Connolly, Arthur Koestler, Stephen Spender. She has an affair with Lucian Freud, she visits Oxford, becomes pregnant and marries into a more modern set: her husband, a friend of Ken Tynan and Kingsley Amis, has to be indoctrinated into her mother’s religion by the time-honoured Father D’Arcy, S.J. There are many more names, but she is not really name-dropping, in the usual sense: she is ‘dreaming all the time of smart literary parties, full of my father’s old friends’ – especially when her father gets killed in the Middle East. Cyril Connolly and Sonia Brownell invite her round, to receive some of her father’s letters: they found them, Sonia told her, ‘when we went down to Tickerage to hide the whips ... He wasn’t called Whips Wyndham for nothing.’ Cyril says: ‘My dear, didn’t you know that your father was one of Europe’s most famous flagellists?’

When her husband takes her to Baghdad, they let their London flat to a Russian, whom she marries on returning to England. She sets up, in Oxford, a coffee-bar for the Fifties, with money from a kinsman in the Tennant family: when it fails, she settles in Chelsea until ‘in 1963, when I reached the ripe old age of 42,’ as she puts it, ‘I lost my appetite for raving.’ Seven more riotous years flash by, and she declares: ‘I had reached the end of my life as a middle-aged hippie.’ Even so, she takes up with much younger men, in Chelsea and Ibiza, and is embarrassed when she meets their mothers: the youngsters are often markedly homosexual. One youth kills himself: she hides away his ‘gay magazines’, his vibrator and his suicide kit, before the bereaved mother calls. When she hits 56, she is catering for Bent at the Royal Court Theatre, wondering ‘what the hell a rather wet Tory like me is doing in this temple to street cred and trade unionism’ – but a colleague bolsters her confidence: ‘I’ll say something for you, Joan. You’re a Royal Court person through and through!’ Another Tennant kinsman funds a magazine, called the Chelsea Scoop, and she goes to Amsterdam to write about Callboy International, an erotic centre for ladies who have got ‘past the grand climacteric’. She explains: ‘I’d always been interested in the idea of male tarts for women.’ I daresay all this seemed good fun at the time, but I find it too frightening to enjoy – and events move too spasmodically. I would have preferred her memories shaped into fiction by Angus Wilson, or Evelyn Waugh.

Joan Wyndham, it would seem, has found no retreat: she has been so busy skimming the waters of the deep, with youngsters on their first adventures, that she has never settled upon one of those harbours where elderly boats are beached. Her daughter has gone to Tuscany already: as a retirement home for gentlefolk, this region might be compared with the State of Maine. Stephen Spender’s son, Matthew, has been living in Tuscany for some twenty years, engaged in agriculture, painting and sculpture. His memoir, Within Tuscany, will not be confused with the Edwardian travel book, In Tuscany (which still lingers in old bookshops, near Try anything once, selected book reviews by Raymond Mortimer). Matthew Spender is really into Tuscany, it appears: he describes curious events and situations, and discoveries of general scholarly interest, as incidents in his everyday life. His children are educated at the village school, he carves a crucifix for the church, he plays clarinet in the village band. He hears, from fellow bandsmen, about the more tolerable aspects of Mussolini’s Fascism, he discovers and admires the cartoons of Maccari, an almost acceptable Fascist (sympathetic to the Jews), and he visits Pitigliano, an old-established Jewish town, with a 17th-century synagogue, which was later ‘one of the few places in Italy where the Germans had been successful in destroying a whole community’: most of the houses seem to be occupied by Germans, for ‘there were such a lot of houses for sale, after the Jews had been taken away’, as the restaurant-owner explains.

There are more pleasant topics – olives, bees, porcupines and frescoes. He makes little studies of older local history. He recommends the 18th-century writings about the government of Tuscany, made by Archduke Pietro Leopoldo, before he left to become Emperor in Vienna. He investigates the marble quarries used by Michelangelo, and the place where Savonarola is supposed to have met Lorenzo de’ Medici and demanded ‘liberty’ for the people of Florence. Archaeologists have dug up the city square of Florence, where Savonarola was burned, and Spender has enjoyed watching the centuries being revealed. (Since this book was written, the cultural officials, responsible for repaving the square, have received jail sentences for aesthetic ineptitude.) Spender visits the places where Byron riskily intrigued and where Shelley died: he suspects that Shelley was murdered, and that political enemies of Byron were, at the same time, creating ‘a vacuum around the victim’, detaching Byron from friendly agencies – employing the same methods as those used now by the Mafia. (We might wonder whether the fall guys of the Florence repaving scandal have fallen victim to the same technique.)

‘The theme is Tuscany,’ Spender says. ‘I thought I would take just one or two events in the remote past, or even from my own life here, and cover them well, leaving the readers to fill the gaps.’ This is a fair description, though the expression ‘cover them well’ is ambiguous: the people and conversations he describes are as interesting as characters in good fiction – which they may be, for Spender admits that ‘some of the characters are imaginary’, others are covered by false names, and some places have been heavily disguised. ‘Coverage’, in the other sense, is often concentrated, thorough and detailed, whether the subject is the ‘undertow of violence’ in Dante’s work, or the tricky matter of an English girl, a friend of Spender’s daughter, and whether she is, or has been, sexually threatened by his satyr-like farm-labourer. ‘A young girl, fresh from England’: it is as if ‘Signor Matteo’ were a British Resident under the Raj, deciding between Miss Quested and Dr Aziz.