Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 07 May 2017

Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar

I'm astonishingly ignorant about the Classical world. It is such a distant period – so alien, so old – that somehow I can't get to grips with it. I can't relate it to anything else that I do know a little bit about. It isn't the eighteenth or nineteenth century or even the Middle Ages. It offers me no convenient way in; and I lack the necessary dedication to persist.

And yet, there is Marguerite Yourcenar's extraordinary Memoirs of Hadrian, published in French in 1951 and then in a glorious English translation – by Yourcenar's partner, Grace Frick – in 1955. In the house they shared at Mount Desert Island off the coast of Maine the pair worked at adjoining desks to turn Yourcenar's French text into glittering English. It is a recreation of the second-century Roman Empire and the life, achievements, ambitions, imagination, interior life – the very consciousness – of Hadrian, the fourteenth emperor.

Yourcenar first began the book in the mid-1920s but set her drafts and notes aside. She considered her writing blocked – perhaps permanently so – and it was only in 1939 when she relocated to the US to be with her lover Frick that she began to think again about Hadrian. She says that an early sentence she had written for him – “I begin to discern the profile of my death” – was what launched her again into what must be one of the most deeply researched historical novels that has ever been written.

Yourcenar seems to have read just about everything written about Hadrian and the Roman world, in just about any and every language. (In an end note to the book her sources cover sixteen pages.) And yet what makes Memoirs such a masterpiece is the lightness with which it wears this learning. It is first and foremost a work of imaginative literature and in Frick’s translation its prose has a sort of supple measured stateliness which seems perfectly in keeping with its subject.

Hadrian is in his final years. His health is failing and he knows that death is approaching. He begins a sort of stream-of-Classical-consciousness letter addressed to Marcus Aurelius, his successor. It is to be an examination of his life and times, a self-justification, a guide to the future, a reassessment of the past, a final reckoning. It is a way of attempting to pass into death with his eyes open.

Hadrian reflects on power, statehood, love, honour, death, time; he considers what is required in building and maintaining a civilisation and a ‘good society’. While steeped in learning and scholarly research Memoirs raises this to the status of literature, of metaphor. It is a miracle of imagining and rather put me in mind of two other completely different writers who one feels may have learnt something from Yourcenar in their treatment of power and the individual : Gabriel García Márquez and Ryszard Kapuściński.

Central to Hadrian’s life was Antinous, his young male lover. There were other male lovers too, but non held the place that Antinous did. When he died aged around twenty – probably by suicide, and in all likelihood in some kind of sacrificial gesture to Hadrian – the emperor founded an Antinousian cult in his honour and the boy was deified and worshipped throughout the Empire. Numerous statues of the boy were commissioned. “I was counting desperately,” Hadrian explains, “on the eternity of stone and the fidelity of bronze to perpetuate a body which is perishable…but I also insisted that the marble, rubbed daily with a mixture of acid and oil, should take on the shimmer, and almost the softness, of youthful flesh.”

I have seen Hadrian referred to as the ‘first openly gay Emperor’ but this seems an anachronistic view because it seems now acknowledged that the Roman lexicon of the period had no word for homosexuality and thus no directly comparable concept. Male love was accepted: indeed, it was an expression of maleness, even of power, perhaps – as long as the object of one’s affection was of a lower social caste, a slave, a soldier, a gladiator. What does seem to be the case is that Hadrian’s love for Antinous was regarded as crossing a boundary: on his death Hadrian wept openly before the entire Roman court and this most certainly was seen as exceptional.

I know that because of my ignorance there will be dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of allusions and references in Memoirs that I have not fully understood. And I don’t for one moment think that it will send me racing to Suetonius or Herodotus or the other Classical sources. They are beyond me. But this doesn’t matter. Memoirs of Hadrian is a Proustian triumph of imaginative historical writing and if you have ever looked for something that will open a window onto this distant epoch then it may be the book that you too are waiting to discover.


Alun Severn

May 2017