Archive for Marguerite Yourcenar

the 101 favourite novels of Le Monde readers

Posted in Books, Kids, pictures with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 1, 2020 by xi'an

Le Monde called its readers to vote for their five favourite novels, with no major surprise in the results, except maybe Harry Potter coming up top. Before Voyage au bout de la nuit and (the predictable) A la recherche du temps perdu. And a complete unknown, Damasio’s La Horde du Contrevent, as 12th and first science fiction book. Above both the Foundation novels (16th). And Dune (32nd). And Hyperion Cantos (52). But no Jules Verne! In a sense, it reflects upon the French high school curriculum on literature that almost uniquely focus on French 19th and 20th books. (Missing also Abe, Conrad, Chandler, Dickens, Ishiguro, Joyce, Kawabata, Madame de Lafayette, Levi, Morante, Naipaul, Rabelais, Rushdie, Singer, and so many others…) Interestingly (or not), Sartre did not make it to the list, despite his literature 1953 Nobel Prize, maybe because so few read the (appalling) books of his chemins de la liberté trilogy.

I did send my vote in due time but cannot remember for certain all the five titles I chose except for Céline’s Voyage au bout de la nuit (2nd), Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (74th) and maybe Fedor Dostoievski’s Brothers Karamazov (24th). Maybe not as I may have included Barbey d’Aurevilly’s L’ensorcelée, Iain Pears’ An instance at the fingerpost, and Graham Greene’s The End of the affair, neither of which made it in the list. Here are some books from the list that would have made it to my own 101 list, although not necessarily as my first choice of titles for authors like Hugo (1793!) or Malraux (l’Espoir). (Warning: Amazon Associate links).

L’œuvre au noir

Posted in Books with tags , , , , , , on September 28, 2013 by xi'an

L‘œuvre au noir (The Abyss) is a 1968 book written by Marguerite Yourcenar I read decades ago and took with me this summer. It tells the story of Zeno(n), a mediaeval precursor of the Renaissance humanist, involved in medicine, alchemy, engineering and philosophy, but above all fighting or at least resisting the pressure of irrational beliefs and superstitions until they lead him to suicide. As acknowledged by Yourcenar in her notes, the character borrows from Renaissance scientists like Erasme, Giordano Bruno, Mikołaj Copernic, Leonardo da Vinci, and medical pioneers like Paracelsus (very much like Paracelsus!), Michel Serat and Etienne Dolet. Zenon is an atheist at a time when atheism is punished by burning at the stake, and an experimenter in an epoch when alchemy and dissection were assimilated to sorcery. The original title (translated as nigredo) is the first of the three steps in the alchemist transmutation process but also applies to the transformation of Zenon from what the society planned for him into a free and rational man. So free that he could choose himself the time and manner of his death. So rational that he reached a spiritual solitude that made him see his fellow humans with the doctor’s detached compassion and the philosopher’s pessimistic analysis of their superstitions. (The English title is just missing the point!)

This is a 20th century novel (on which Yourcenar tolled for many years, from three short stories to the final version), which makes the highly modern vision of the imaginary Zenon less remarkable than the steps made by the above real characters, but the text abounds in remarkable discussions and monologues that reminded me of similar passages in Memoirs of Hadrian. Both books are centred on (impossibly and unrealistically) exceptional men with visions that set them out of their historical time. The fate of Zenon is somehow underlying the whole book and his weak and failed attempt at fleeing Bruges and the Inquisition can be understood at the first step towards his philosopher’s suicide, preferring to face the ecclesiastical tribunal and debate of some of his ideas than Flemish smugglers and an inglorious end by being tossed into the North Sea. L‘œuvre au noir is a remarkable if pessimistic book that reflects on science and intolerance in a beautiful style, a book that I put in par with the equally great Memoirs of Hadrian.

Villa Adriana

Posted in Books, Kids, pictures, Travel with tags , , , , on March 10, 2012 by xi'an

On the last day of our stay in Roma, we decided to go outside the city and were suggested by friends to visit Hadrian’s “villa” (imperial complex!) or Villa Adriana in Tivoli. Going there was less than straightforward, involving metro, missed train, metro again, omnibus bus, but we managed to reach the place. It is an unbelievable place, fairly well preserved with minimal additions from modern times (in this respect, far better than Knossos for instance!).

The information on the site is rather minimal but one can see the evolution from an original republican villa to the huge structure of an imperial domain. From the posters at the different buildings, I gathered that the role of most of them had been misunderstood by the early archaeologists who named them, and I wonder how much could be found in ancient documents. The multiplicity of therms and baths is amazing, the peak being the basin with the outdoor banquet place carved out of the hill…

I also found the one hundred room (cento camerelle) structure used both as a basis for another basin (poikilè) and as a lodging for servants highly impressive. The visit was made the more pleasant by the lack of visitors (except for a few Frenchmen, rather discreet for once!, and an Italian high-school class busy drawing ruins) and the unseasonable sun. It made us all want to re-read Yourcenar’s fantastic novel!