Saturday, 19 May 2018

Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar.

Memoirs of Hadrian (Mémoires d'Hadrien) by Marguerite Yourcenar is one of the most interesting novels I've read in a long time. It is presented, as the title indicates, as an autobiography by Hadrian, the Roman Emperor who ruled from 117 - 138 A.D, and is written as a series of letters to Marcus Aurelius (who would be Emperor following the death of Hadrian's successor Antoninus Pius). It is said that Hadrian did in fact write an autobiography - Historia Augusta under the pseudonym of Phlegon of Tralles (the real Phlegon of Tralles was a writer and freedman of Hadrian).

One thing I thought of when reading this was Virginia Woolf's essay On Not Knowing Greek (The Common Reader First Series, 1925). In this she writes of how remote the Ancient Greeks are from us in 20th (and indeed 21st) Century England:
It is the climate that is impossible. If we try to think of Sophocles here, we must annihilate the smoke and the damp and the thick wet mists. We must sharpen the lines of the hills. We must imagine a beauty of stone and earth rather than of woods and greenery. With warmth and sunshine and months of brilliant, fine weather, life of course is instantly changed; it is transacted out of doors, with the result, known to all who visit Italy, that small incidents are debated in the street, not in the sitting-room, and become dramatic; make people voluble; inspire in them that sneering, laughing, nimbleness of wit and tongue peculiar to the Southern races, which has nothing in common with the slow reserve, the low half-tones, the brooding introspective melancholy of people accustomed to live more than half the year indoors.
As this easily applies to the Ancient Romans too, I can't help but feel Virginia Woolf would have got as much a kick out of Memoirs of Hadrian as I did. Instead of being a distant figure, a catalogue of deeds and sayings, Yourcenar makes Hadrian a man of flesh and blood, as real and as tangible as any of us living now. We see Hadrian at the end of his life contemplating death and his life behind him, and see not just Hadrian's actions but the thoughts, fears, and hopes behind them. There is excitement, love, and loss, but it has a cooler tone to it; Hadrian is an intelligent man reflecting on what has been, this isn't a dramatic and wild romp through the First Century A.D.

I would say that Memoirs of Hadrian is a realistic portrayal of an Emperor: not that I could hazard a guess as to what a truly real account of Hadrian's mind would look like, more that it seems very real, so much so it's an exciting read as it is a remarkable and unique concept, this attempt to portray a man who died almost 2 millenniums ago. It's also a fascinating time: as Flaubert noted (and this is quoted in the introduction),
The melancholy of the antique world seems to me more profound than that of the moderns, all of whom more or less imply that beyond the dark void lies immortality. But for the ancients that ‘black hole’ is infinity itself; their dreams loom and vanish against a background of immutable ebony. No crying out, no convulsions—nothing but the fixity of the pensive gaze.
With the gods gone, and Christ not yet come, there was a unique moment, from Cicero to Marcus Aurelius, when man stood alone. Nowhere else do I find that particular grandeur.
This is another reason why I loved Memoirs of Hadrian: Yourcenar's novel has taken me as close as I'll ever get to what it was really like. An outstanding and admirably ambitious work that I would recommend to anyone interested in this period, the Ancients, and historical fiction.

2 comments:

  1. i read this about forty years ago and really liked it a lot... i think anybody would; Yourcenar was a brilliant writer, imo...

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    Replies
    1. I agree, a brilliant writer and it's such a fantastic concept. A wonderful book!

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