On Omni last spring I wrote of my new crush on Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian, or, more specifically, on her afterword to the book, "Reflections on the Composition of Memoirs of Hadrian." Before I had read the novel itself, I skipped ahead to the afterword and consumed it in a haze of delight. Sorry, "haze" is actually the opposite of the actual sensation, which was more like being overtaken by a wash of clarity: the afterword's mere twenty pages seemed to contain multitudes, as well as a fair fraction of life's truths. (That I was reading it while drinking a hot chocolate and watching sheets of rain and patches of sunlight alternate in the Place de la Contrescarpe may have also contributed to this effect.)
I'm often willing to hold my reading pleasures at a distance for a while, and it wasn't until a year later, on another vacation (this time in a breezy and bright little room in the Arizona desert), that I made it to the novel attached to that afterword. I'm not sure anything could live up to the promise or even the drama of Yourcenar's own elliptic writer's memoir, but I was not disappointed with the Memoirs, which have grace and wisdom and a grandeur that comes not from excess but from a kind of regal reticence. It seems appropriate, since Hadrian, as I learned, was such an admirer of the Greeks, that something about the clarity of Yourcenar's sentences reminded me of the way Don DeLillo talked in his Paris Review interview about writing The Names, in which he was inspired to a new, almost sculptural clarity in his writing by the carved letters he saw everywhere in Athens, and by the "sunlight and elemental landscapes" of the Aegean islands.
I connected most directly with the opening section, a sort of philosophical overture in which Hadrian reflects on the approach of his death before beginning the story of his life: he seems here less like an ancient than one of the great modern men, aphoristic and humbly responsive to the flux of the world like Emerson or Montaigne or our own age's Edward Hoagland. Here's a favorite passage, which I could easily be convinced comes instead from one of those many Montaigne essays I haven't read (did he write one called "Of Sleep"? Of course he did):
The man who cannot sleep, and I have had only too many occasions for some months to establish the point for myself, refuses more or less consciously to entrust himself to the flow of things.... I have never cared to gaze, as they slept, upon those I loved; they were resting from me, I know; they were escaping me, too. And every man feels some shame of his visage in the sully of sleep; how often, when I have risen early to read or to study, have I replaced the rumpled pillows myself and the disordered covers, those almost obscene evidences of our encounters with nothingness, proofs that each night we have already ceased to be.
It's rare enough to read a novel about an admirable character (Yourcenar in the "Reflections" calls him, with much more consideration than usually accompanies such praise, a "very great man"). It's far more rare, I realized as I read, for that novel to be told from that character's point of view (narrators, like heroes, are so often undermined), and rarer still to have an admirable narrator who is a man of power (after all, who wants to root for the emperor?). Is there another literary novel that's narrated by an admirable, powerful man? I can't think of one off-hand, though that hardly means they don't exist. Which is not to say that Hadrian is flawless; even in Yourcenar's sympathetic telling he is not immune to, as he puts it, the "delirium" of near-absolute power. But he's most appealing to me when he sees his power as an extension--or a perfection--of his humanity, not a separation from it. Here's an unabridged version of the passage I quoted in my first Firmament post last week:
It was at about this time that I began to feel myself divine. Don't misunderstand me: I was still, and more than ever, the same man, fed by the fruits and flesh of the earth, and giving back to the soil their unconsumed residue, surrendering to sleep with each revolution of the stars, and nearly beside myself when too long deprived of the warming presence of love. My strength and agility, both of mind and of body, had been carefully maintained by purely human disciplines. What more can I say except that all that was lived as god-like experience? The dangerous experiments of youth were over, and its haste to seize the passing hour. At forty-eight I felt free of impatience, assured of myself, and as near perfection as my nature would permit, in fact, eternal. Please realize that all this was wholly on the plane of the intellect; the delirium, if I must use the term, came later on. I was god, to put it simply, because I was man.
Hmm: pretty Emersonian again!
Love Hadrian as I might, however, I think it will still stand as one of those works of art for which, like Hearts of Darkness to Apocalypse Now or Flaubert and Madame Bovary to Madame Bovary, I prefer the secondary text, the one that tells a story of how the art was made, to the art itself.