In 1982, when I first read Marguerite Yourcenar’s “The Memoirs of Hadrian,” I asked Arnaldo Momigliano, the great scholar of the ancient world, what he thought of the novel. Italian to the highest power, he put all five fingers of his right hand to his mouth, kissed them, and announced, “Pure masterpiece.” Now, nearly 30 years later, I have reread the work and find it even better than before. A book that improves on rereading, that seems even grander the older one gets—surely, this is yet another sign of a masterpiece.
Marguerite Yourcenar wrote ‘The Memoirs of Hadrian.
Its author was born in Belgium, wrote in French, and lived much of her adult life in Maine with her excellent translator and companion, Grace Frick. As such, Mme. Yourcenar (1903-1987) was, in effect, a writer without a country, though she was the first woman elected to the Académie Française (in 1980). She was the last aristocratic novelist of the 20th century, and not only in the sense that her father was of aristocratic descent. She did not ask in her fiction the contemporary middle-class questions of what is happiness and why have I (or my characters) not found it, concerning herself instead with something larger—the meaning of human destiny as it plays out on a historical stage.
Mme. Yourcenar wrote a good deal of fiction, but her imperishable work is “Memoirs of Hadrian,” first published in French in 1951. The novel is in the form of a lengthy letter written by the aged and ill Emperor Hadrian, who ruled from A.D. 117 to 138, to the 17-year-old but already thoughtful Marcus Aurelius.
Roman emperors seem to be divided between monsters and mediocrities, with an occasional near-genius, like Hadrian, thrown in to break the monotony. Highly intelligent and cultivated, he was a Grecophile, always a good sign in the ancient world. As emperor, he attempted to pull back from the imperialist expansion of his predecessor Trajan and wanted, as the chronicler Aelius Spartianus put it, to “administer the republic [so that] it would know that the state belonged to the people and was not his property.”
And yet Hadrian was also a Roman emperor, which meant living amid dangerous intrigue, wielding enormous power and being able to fulfill his erotic impulses at whim. He was, Spartianus writes, “both stern and cheerful, affable and harsh, impetuous and hesitant, mean and generous, hypocritical and straightforward, cruel and merciful, and always in all things changeable”—in short, not a god but a man.
Mme. Yourcenar has taken what we know of the life of Hadrian and from this sketchy knowledge produced an utterly convincing full-blown portrait. One feels that one is reading a remarkable historical document, an account of the intricate meanings of power by a man who has held vast power. Imagine Machiavelli’s “The Prince” written not by an Italian theorist but by a true prince. Imagine, further, that he also let you in on his desires, his fears, his aesthetic, his sensuality, his feelings about death—in a manner at once haute and intimate, and in a prose any emperor would be pleased to possess.
Part of the mastery of “Memoirs of Hadrian” is in its reminder that the emperor, like the rest of us, remains imprisoned in a perishable human body. Hadrian’s letter to young Marcus is being written at the end of his life, and so with a sure grasp of the inexorability of “Time, the Devourer.” Hadrian has come into his wisdom only after manifold errors and tragic mistakes; not least among the latter, contriving, through thoughtlessness, in the death of his great love, the Bithynian youth Antinous. He is writing “when my harvests are in.” The letter lets Hadrian take his own measure.
“I liked to feel that I was above all a continuator,” Hadrian writes. He notes that he looked “to those twelve Caesars so mistreated by Suetonius,” in the hope of emulating the best of each: “the clear-sightedness of Tiberius, without his harshness; the learning of Claudius without his weakness; Nero’s taste for the arts, but stripped of all foolish vanity; the kindness of Titus, stopping short of his sentimentality; Vespasian’s thrift, but not his absurd miserliness.”
Mme. Yourcenar has Hadrian compare himself, favorably, with Alcibiades, who “had seduced everyone and everything, even History herself.” Unlike Alcibiades, who had brought destruction everywhere, he, Hadrian, “had governed a world infinitely larger…and had kept pace therein; I had rigged it like a fair ship made ready for a voyage which might last for centuries; I had striven my utmost to encourage in man the sense of the divine but without at the same time sacrificing to it what is essentially human. My bliss was my reward.”
Like most of our lives, Hadrian’s—and so Mme. Yourcenar’s novel—is plotless. What keeps the reader thoroughly engaged is not drama but the high quality of Hadrian’s thought and powers of observation. Hadrian, through the sheer force of his mind, comes alive. That this most virile of characters has been written by a woman might be worth remarking were it not the case that the greatest novelists have always been androgynous in their powers of creation. With the dab hand of literary genius, Mme. Yourcenar has taken one of the great figures of history and turned him into one of the most memorable characters in literature in a masterpiece too little known.
Mr. Epstein’s latest book is “The Love Song of A. Jerome Minkoff and Other Stories” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).
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