Well, hope as I might, the post about Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian is not going to write itself. You’d think from all my kvetching and putting off that I hated the book. Far from it. While I can’t say I loved the book, I enjoyed it very much. It had been on my TBR pile for years, no need to say just how many. The reason I keep putting off writing about it is because the book is a long and intricate musing of a dying man, dying Roman emperor, looking back over his life in a very long letter to his successor, Marcus Aurelius. Hadrian hopes that by telling Marcus of his life, he might be able to impart some wisdom. But I also think he is, as we all do, looking back and trying to make sense of it all, trying to put it in some kind of order (even though he admits early his life is “a shapeless mass”), to make a story of it, and to feel as though, in spite of mistakes, that he did right and is leaving the world better than it was when he arrived in it.
In character with this deeply reflective book, Yourcenar includes at the back bibliographical notes and her own reflections on writing the book. She has hewn closely to the historical record but made changes and adjustments as best suited the story. She was not trying to write a biography, this is fiction, what she is after, she explains is to attempt to “approach inner reality.” In this she is successful. I believed all of it, not once did I find myself thinking, “no way!”
Hadrian proves to be a smart, resourceful man, politically savvy but with a genuine desire to do good. He understands that war costs the empire money and men and good will and will eventually lead to its collapse. And so he embarks on missions of peace. Occasionally that peace comes at the end of a sword, but he understands that by appealing to businessmen who stand to make money from open borders, he not only earns profits for Rome in taxes, but respect and allies.
Of course he makes mistakes and has regrets. His young lover, Antinous, commits suicide and Hadrian feels responsible for it in some ways. He grieves more for the death of Antinous, than he does for the death of his wife many years later. His grief for his lover is so deep that he has Antinous’ face stamped on coins, builds temples in his honor, and actually elevates him to a god that eventually has his own cult following.
Photographs are sprinkled throughout the novel, lending a Sebald-esque flavor and anchoring Hadrian’s story into real life. The photos are of places but also of coins and sculptures of Hadrian, Antinous, and various other personages that appear in the story. It is good reading but difficult and slow. It moves, not at the pace of thought, but at the pace of one writing down his thoughts. The pen and the hand can only go so fast and as much as the reader might like to read faster than the pen writing, Yourcenar’s prose will not allow it. And perhaps that is why one should read this book, not for the story or the philosophical musings, but for the writing itself. Because Yourcenar, and the translator Grace Frick, create a brilliant piece of work embodying thoughts into a sensuous, lyrical prose that both floats and yet sits firmly on the ground.
I’ll end with one of my favorite passages. It is long so don’t feel bad if you skip it.
Sometimes my life seems to me so commonplace as to be unworthy even of careful contemplation, let alone writing about it, and is not at all more important, even in my own eyes, than the life of any other person. Sometimes it seems to me unique, and for that very reason of no value, and useless, because it cannot be reduced to the common experience of men. No one thing explains me: neither vices nor my virtues serve for answer; my good fortune tells more, but only at intervals, without continuity, and above all, without logical reason. Still, the mind of man is reluctant to consider itself as the product of chance, or the passing result of destinies over which no god presides, least of all himself. A part of every life, even a life meriting very little regard, is spent in searching out the reasons for its existence, its starting point, and its source. My own failure to discover these things has sometimes inclined me toward magical explanations, and has led me to seek in the frenzies of the occult for what common sense has not taught me. When all the involved calculations prove false, and the philosophers themselves have nothing more to tell us, it is excusable to turn to the random twitter of birds, or toward the distant mechanism of the stars.