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Memoirs of Hadrian – Marguerite Yourcenar




Posted October 13, 2016 by

Memoirs of Hadrian – Marguerite Yourcenar – 1951

Posted by Guillermo Maynez on 3/9/2003, 2:28:47

OK, here I go. I finished the book a couple of weeks ago, ages before I thought I’d do, and so I hope I’m not too disconnected. Here are my initial thoughts, and hopefully after you give your input I will expand on some of my points. For there are many of them; the book is full of great literature and insightful reflections on many issues.

With this book, the author has managed to create a full human being, a character that trascends “characterization”. Only God knows how close this Hadrian is to that man who really walked the Earth. Who cares. I understand that Yourcenar did an enormous amount of research over many years on this subject, and that goes to her credit and makes Hadrian all the more believable. For all I know, Hadrian was indeed a man of great experience, courage, intelligence and good sense. In fact, after the adventurous and reckless Vespasian had reached the point at which the Roman Empire was largest, Hadrian realized Rome suffered from imperial overreach, and so dedicated his tenure in power to consolidate the borders and negotiate with neighbors. So we know something about his public personna. How was him when alone, when he suffered, when he was tired?. There are probably some sources out there, but here is where Yourcenar’s magic as writer shines best. This is NOT a biography, it is a reinterpretation of a famous, grand man, but also a representation of Rome at the peak of its power. It is also a testament by Yourcenar, as it is inevitable that some of Hadrian’s feelings and ideas reflect, to say the least, the author’s own. So deeply felt and sincerely expressed they are.

For those among us who have a theoretical and practical interests in the subjects of power, statesmanship and politics, Hadrian comes through as a master of the craft. Some of his ideas are too advanced for his times, but in any case they project the image of a man right on the money for a great statesman: never shy of using power and all the many tools Roman Emperors had at their disposal (some of them gruesome, of course), but also always commonsensical. A sensible, courageous statesman not very much like the ones we have got used to.

I’ll stop my ramblings here for the moment. But other themes I would like to explore are: the quality of the writing itself; Hadrian’s reflections on youth and old age; the experience of the Roman world; Hadrian’s big ego (how to lack one when you’re the Roman Emperor?)and how it mixes up with his conviction that the Emperor was not God, but a civil servant; and finally, Hadrian the lover (homosexual passion is simply not transmitted to me and in fact I don’t like the idea, but it is a part of the book that can’t be overlooked). Bottom line: excellent choice, and simply one of the best books I’ve read in ages (I say that five or six times a year and it’s still true)


Posted by Lale on 3/9/2003, 18:01:03

This is some letter, huh? Imagine being its recipient.

I am only around page 100-110 but I don’t think my opinion of the book will change by the time I finish it, so I can say that this is indeed a beautifully, masterfully written book. Even though it has taken the author decades to ponder and write it, it reads effortlessly. One topic follows another, never boring, never overstaying its welcome, flowing cooly and peacefully just like a stream in the woods.

I recommended this book to my husband saying that he would find some little anecdote, remark or observation on every page to re-tell our daughter, as needs for wise lectures arise.

I found the translation superb (by Grace Frick in collaboration with the author). I read the first 20 pages of the book in French and it is even more beautiful in original but still, this is one magnificient translation. As the introduction (Paul Bailey) informs us, Yourcenar was a purist when it came to the French language and she was even criticized for being “conservative” or “rigid” in her use of it.

My version (Penguin) has “Reflections on the composition of memoirs of Hadrian” at the end. These notes by Yourcenar are proof of how mighty this task was and how she gave up a few times under its weight:

“The idea for this book and the first writing of it … date from the period between 1924 and 1929, between my twentieth and twenty-fifth year. All those manuscripts were destroyed, deservedly.”

Imagine undertaking such an incredible task at the age of 20!

“I resumed work on the book in 1934; … Then the project was abandoned, only to be taken up again several times between 1934 and 1937.”

“From the version of 1934 only one sentence has been retained: ‘I begin to discern the profile of my death.'”

“From 1939 to 1948 the project was wholly abandoned. I thought of it at times, but with discouragement, and almost with indifference, as one thinks of the impossible. And with something like shame for ever having ventured upon such an undertaking.”

Then in 1948, she has a trunk shipped to her containing old papers:

“As I unfolded and threw mechanically into the fire that exchange of dead thoughts between a Marie and a Francois or a Paul, long since disappeared, I came upon a four or five typewritten sheets, the paper of which had turned yellow. The salutation told me nothing: ‘My dear Mark …’ Mark … What friend or love, what distant relative was this? I could not recall the name at all. It was several minutes before I remembered that Mark stood here for Marcus Aurelius, and that I had in hand a fragment of the lost manuscript. From that moment there was no question but that this book must be taken up again, whatever the cost.”

Hadrian is quite ahead of his time. Luckily, he is not a *perfect* person, that would make the book boring. So far, I am finding him wise but not to the point of being unbelievable. I find him real. I like some of the rules of the society that are attributed to him, such as giving women the equality in business and in inheritance and allowing them the freedom to choose their husbands:

“The law should differ as little as possible from accustomed practice, so I have granted women greater liberty to administer or to bequeath their fortunes, and to inherit. I have insisted that no woman should be married without her consent; this form of legalized rape is as offensive as any other. Marriage is their great venture; it is only fair that they should not engage upon it against their will.”

“Memoirs of Hadrian” is a brilliant piece of work and I am enjoying it greatly.



Posted by Guillermo Maynez on 3/9/2003, 18:35:24

A brief note on my copy of the book, just before Anna (and hopefully the rest) jump in. My copy is a luxurious hardcover with a dustjacket. It’s part of a 25-book special collection Editorial Sudamericana launched to celebrate its 60th anniversary. The translation is by non-other than great Argentinian-Parisian writer Julio Cortazar, who knew Yourcenar. Other titles I own in this collection include “Deeds of King Arthur and his noble knights”, by Steinbeck, and “Narcissus and Goldmund”, by Hesse. Lucky me.


Posted by moana on 4/9/2003, 20:08:27

I guess this just wasn’t my kind of book… I started reading it and I thought it was really good, really well written etc etc, but after about a hundred pages I just couldn’t seem to stay with it. I liked Hadrian, his little nuggets of wisdom (like the quote about women), but I just couldn’t stay with the plot.

Biographies have always disagreed with me for some reason, perhaps it is because the plot of a “Memoir” doesn’t have the same kind of rising action – it is, after all, someone’s life, and life doesn’t tend to fall into normal plot form easily. Most memoirs I’ve read and liked tend to be more novelized, like ‘Bastard out of Carolina’…

The same thing happened to me when I read Stegner’s ‘Angle of Repose’ – I loved it when I was reading it, but the plot didn’t make me want to pick the book up after I had set it down.

I give the first 150 pages 3 stars, and the rest is up for grabs…



Posted by Anna van Gelderen on 4/9/2003, 20:40:28

Ah well, if you are in it for the plot, then I agree: this is definitely the wrong kind of book, for it hardly has a plot at all, and no suspense, for we all know what happened to Hadrian in the end: he died!

I will be back this weekend with something more substantial, when I have the time to go over the book once more (I finished it some weeks ago). But this I can tell you in advance: five hearts, cinque coeurs, fünf herze, vijf hartjes.


Posted by Liliana on 10/9/2003, 22:19:39

Hi Moana!

I am a little bit like you in the sense that most “biographies” are not really my type of reading. However, I read a book a few years ago that I truly loved. Of course it is a fiction book but the author also did quite a bit of research in order to make the book closer to reality. It is called “Memoirs of Cleopatra” and the author is Margaret George. If you have a chance, go to the bookstore and read the first few pages; you may be surprised!



Posted by Anna van Gelderen on 7/9/2003, 14:31:09

I know it is despicably weak of me, but really, I have nothing to add to what Guillermo and Lale have said about the book. They have said it very well and I agree: Memoirs of Hadrian is beautifully written, suberbly translated, full of wisdom,and entirely believable in its portrayal of a real human being. For me, too, it is one of the best books I have read this year.

I wish I could think of something more to say, but it is much easier to write whole treatises about a book with lots of flaws that you can point your finger at, than about a novel that is quite simply very very good.


Posted by Howard on 7/9/2003, 20:38:40

I agree with Guillermo, Lale and Anna’s comments about this book. The quality of Marguerite Yourcenar’s writing is excellent throughout as is Grace Frick’s translation. Memoirs of Hadrian could not have been written by any novelist even with the kind of extensive research Yourcenar did. It is Yourcenar’s ability as a writer and her passion for her subject that makes this book as good as it is.

By writing the novel as a memoir, Yourcenar has not had to create the kind of fictional dialogue and scenes which one sees in other Roman fiction and to her credit has stayed close to (reliable?) historical sources. Even the fictional Hadrian seems believable. Did Yourcenar somehow manage to travel back to 138 AD to interview him too? He is certainly far from the image of an emperor as a distant, god-like figure. This book is a mixture of fact and fiction but Yourcenar succeeded in making it feel for me more *fact* than fiction.

Although Memoirs of Hadrian was a slower read than I expected and packed with historical information which may appeal more to some readers than others I thought it was a great book and it would definitely encourage me to read more of Yourcenar’s work.

My rating – four and a half hearts.


Reviewed by: Ethel Falls   lmontgom@uark.edu      Date: 19 August 2004  

I read Yourcenar’s book probably 15 years ago; it remains in my heart and my mind as one of the most enriching, well-written, well-researched books I’ve ever read. I read a lot because I teach journalism. I love architecture. I enjoy reading about those who accomplished greatly. I read Yourcenar after I’d visited Tivoli; the visit was one of the most enjoyable of any I’ve taken.

If you haven’t yet read more about Hadrian’s architecture in Greece and hiked Hadrian’s wall in England, you might consider adding those experiences.

Hadrian’s sexuality is not of interest to me except to see how it interacted with his art, architecture, battle strategy — if it has anything to do with any of those (and I don’t think it did!). His sexuality, like his mental gifts, was a gift from his creator.

ReadLit Team


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