Of the creation of Memoirs of Hadrian, Marguerite Yourcenar writes, “The idea for this book and the first writing of it, in whole or in part, and in various forms, date from the period between 1924 and 1929, between my twentieth and twenty-fifth year. All those manuscripts were destroyed, deservedly.” Over almost thirty years, Yourcenar kept returning to the idea – writing a fictional memoir of the Roman emperor Hadrian, written as a reflection on his life and his rule – and writing little bits here and there, before the finished product was finally published in 1951.
The simple idea of taking thirty years to write a book is incredible to me. More so, the fact that even after burning her manuscripts and abandoning the concept, Yourcenar found herself unable to let go of Hadrian, and just kept trying and trying until she got the book right. There’s a bit at the end of the book called “Reflections on the Composition of Memoirs of Hadrian” where Yourcenar describes the decades-long process of writing, and this was the best bit: “From the version of 1934 only one sentence has been retained: ‘I began to discern the profile of my death.’ Like a painter who has chosen a landscape, but who constantly shifts his easel now right, now left, I had at last found a point from which to view the book.”
I was all set to write a review of this book, and then I read Kelly’s brilliant essay (the word “review” seems too insufficient to describe what she does) and realized that I wouldn’t be able to express my thoughts with anything approaching that kind of eloquence and thoughtfulness. So instead, this is going to be a simple two-part review: first, go read Kelly’s thoughts on Memoirs of Hadrian. Then read this excerpt and try to explain why you aren’t hauling ass to the bookstore to buy a copy and read it immediately:
“From the top of a terrace on the night following these celebrations I watched Rome ablaze. Those festive bonfires were surely as brilliant as the disastrous conflagration lighted by Nero; they were almost as terrifying, too. Rome the crucible, but also the furnace, the boiling metal, the hammer, and the anvil as well, visible proof of the changes and repetition of history, one place in the world where man will have most passionately lived. The great fire of Troy from which a fugitive had escaped, taking with him his aged father, his young son, and his household goods, had passed down to us that night in this flaming festival. I thought also, with something like awe, of conflagrations to come. These millions of lives past, present, and future, these structures newly arisen from ancient edifices and followed themselves by structures yet to be born, seemed to me to succeed each other in time like waves; by chance it was at my feet that night that this great surf swept to shore. …The solid walls of the Palatine Palace, which I occupied so little, but which I had just rebuilt, seemed to sway like a ship at sea; the curtains drawn back to admit the night air were like those of a high cabin aft, and the cries of the crowd were the sound of wind in the sails. The massive reef in the distance, perceptible in the dark, that gigantic base of my tomb so newly begun on the banks of the Tiber, suggested to me no regret at the moment, no terror nor vain meditation upon the brevity of life.”
Verdict: five out of five stars