“One foot in scholarship, the other in magic arts, or, more accurately and without metaphor, absorption in that sympathetic magic which operates when one transports onself, in thought, into another’s body and soul.”
– Marguerite Yourcenar on writing Memoirs of Hadrian
Most authors have a style. They have tells and techniques and tics and quirks and words they overuse. Endless sentences interspersed with commas or short and terse with reverence for economy of language. Often this is a conscious choice. They want you to know. Others choose to present a character free of all authorial voice and rarely succeed. Seldom can a writer so totally subsume herself into the identity of a character or person as Marguerite Yourcenar does to the emperor Hadrian. Surely, this is not a novel written by a contemporary writer, but the actual memoirs of a 2nd century Roman emperor, composed as he succumbed to illness?
Hadrian, one of the “good” emperors, settled several of Rome’s economic and territorial woes whilst being certain of the empire’s eventual dissolution, regardless of his stabilizing acts. Casting aside the ascetic virtues of his time, he was more of a hedonist. And a searcher. Gods, good works, his next lover (non-discriminating w/r/t gender, but not to age…). The occasional self-aggrandizing tone of the book reveals that he sort of loved himself. He was a forward thinker in some areas — he detested slavery and created some laws to obviate its worst abuses — but not all; He was of the Greco-Roman pederast tradition and his “great love” was a 15 year old he met when he was like 40*. When the boy kills himself just shy of 20, ostensibly for the benefit of Hadrian, the great emperor has to perform some mental gymnastics to believe that it is not his fault. He continues to mourn the boy for the rest of his lift, as he solidified his reign, reluctantly crushes Judea, and chooses his successor — the book is addressed to Marcus Aurelius.
My feeling reading this book was that it was very impressive. Well written and incredibly well researched. But not exactly something I was dying to return to or filled me with wonder I still think this, though the author’s notes on writing it at the end of the book greatly enhanced the preceding text. Hadrian’s philosophical cogitations on the passing nature of civilization, man’s penchant for destruction (though not totally without hope) has a greater urgency and context when you know the words were written by a woman who lived through two world wars as an adult.
Also while reading her notes, I kept thinking “She writes like Hadrian!” which is yet another testament to her skill in transmitting, through the centuries, the Emperor’s Voice.
*It’s a common thought to look into the past and think of people partaking in acts we now deem immoral and excuse them as a “man/woman of their times”. This is true of course. But it generally ignores the fact that even in their times (and before), there was critics and dissenters to these societally approved acts. Not all Greeks and Romans (including Plato!) were so comfortable with man-boy sexual relationships.
Likewise, we already partially excuse moderate racism/homophobia/sexism in early-mid 20th century people — especially writers we like. This does a disservice to the many men and women of their times who did not think as they did, and already knew many widely accepted notions were wrong.