Monday, May 28, 2018
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
“MEMOIRS OF HADRIAN” by Marguerite Yourcenar (Memoires d’Hadrien first published in French in 1951; English translation, by Grace Frick in collaboration with Marguerite Yourcenar, first published 1955)
The matter of first-person narrative voice in fiction is always a problem. When we are children, we read adventure stories told by their main characters and simply assume that we are meant to take the narrator’s word as the truth. But as adults, we are quickly made aware of the “unreliable narrator”. There is a distinction between author and narrator, and there is therefore always the possiblity that the author does not want us to take the truthfulness of the narrator for granted. So we enter the realm of irony; we understand that events and their interpretation in the novel are subject to the narrator’s perspective, which could be skewed and untruthful in various ways. We learn to distrust the narrator.
I am pondering this problem because only recently did I get around to reading Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, which had hitherto sat unread on my shelves for many years. It is a first-person memoir as told by the second century Roman emperor Hadrian. After one reading, I think the author intends us to see Hadrian as a wise, insightful man of a philosophic cast of mind; non-belligerent, moderate and balanced in his moods; a promoter of civilisation and an excellent administrator. In other words, somebody to be admired. And yet frequently I found myself judging (Yourcenar’s version of) Hadrian as self-deluded, self-regarding and pompous – and hence less likely to be totally reliable in what he says. Is this simply my interpretation of a character whom the author sees as a paragon? Or has she intentionally created an “unreliable narrator”? This matter of voice bothered me throughout my reading of Memoirs of Hadrian.
As usual, let me first say something about the author. Marguerite Yourcenar (1903-1987) was a formidable intellectual. Of minor-aristocratic French-Belgian parentage, her family name was de Crayencour which she and her father re-jumbled into “Yourcenar” when, in her teens, she took to writing and her father financed the publication of her first books. She was (in old age – when she was 77) the first woman appointed to the Academie Francaise in its 346 years of existence up to that time. Though she always wrote in French, she was fluent in English. Among other things, she translated some of Virginia Woolf’s novels into French. She spent years as an academic in the United States, to which she had moved at the beginning of the Second World War, and she lectured in comparative literature. She wrote many novels and essays, but Memoirs of Hadrian, upon which she had worked on and off for over two decades, was a bestseller when first published and is still the novel for which she is best known. I make it a rule to judge the book and not the person of the author, but I think it is very relevant to Memoirs of Hadrian to note that Marguerite Yourcenar was a lesbian who lived with her American partner Grace Frick for nearly forty years. She collaborated with Frick in producing the English translation of this novel.
Memoirs of Hadrian takes the form of a long letter written by the emperor Hadrian to the young Marcus Aurelius, the adoptive son of Antoninus Pius whom Hadrian had chosen as his successor. In creating this fictitious, confessional letter, Yourcenar is banking on our knowledge that, after Antoninus Pius’s 23-year-reign as emperor, Marcus Aurelius himself was to reign for nineteen years and is generally (if not entirely rightly) regarded as a moderate and philosophic man. Both Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius are among the emperors given a tick of approval by Gibbon. There is a problem with having Hadrian addressing young “Mark” however – usually the novelist simply ignores that this is supposed to be a letter to Marcus Aurelius. After many pages with no specific address to young “Mark”, it is quite a shock when late in novel (Part 5, p.181 – all page numbers in this notice are according to my old Penguin paperback of the novel) the narrator mentions “your father Antoninus”. There is also the problem that Yourcenar’s Hadrian often tells the supposed recipient of his letter many things that the younger man would already have known anyway.
If you read this novel to find out the external facts of Hadrian’s active and public life, you will find them. Hadrian is a Spaniard from a family that had been settled in Spain for over four generations. His grandfather (according to Yourcenar) had many peasant virtues, and his father was an imperial administrator and bureaucrat. Young Hadrian gets training in soldiery as an officer in legions commanded by Trajan. He earns merit as a soldier and is given command of the First Legion Minerva. A clever chap, he ghost-writes speeches for Trajan once Trajan is emperor and he is unofficially named Trajan’s successor. At the age of 28, he enters into an arranged marriage with Sabina, a marriage that has been arranged by Trajan’s wife Plotina. Hadrian admires Trajan’s skills as a military leader, but he thinks some of Trajan’s triumphs are hollow such as his triumph over the Dacians (from what is now Romania) which is no triumph at all. Hadrian regards Trajan’s proficiency in war as something that ultimately makes the empire more vulnerable by over-extending its borders and creating unnecessary enemies. Nevertheless, he keeps his opinions to himself and Trajan makes him a consul.
After Trajan’s death, and after some court intrigue, Hadrian at last becomes emperor. He stops the empire’s war in Mesopotamia. He does not wish to be seen as a tyrant, so he acts leniently when his deputy in Rome kills senators for corruption. Because he himself makes Rome’s bureaucracy so efficient, he is able to be absent from Rome frequently and spends much of his life travelling his empire. “In my twenty years of rule, I have passed twelve without fixed abode” he says at one stage. After the massacre of the 9th Legion by Caledonians, he goes to Britain (being the first reigning emperor to do so since Claudius nearly a century before), organises native auxiliaries as reinforcements and supervises the building of the protective wall that now bears his name. As often as possible he avoids wasteful wars and makes treaties with vassal states, but he does prosecute a ferocious war against the Jews in the land he officially calls Palestine. In Rome itself, he has the Coliseum rebuilt and all signs of the decadent emperor Nero removed from it. He has Trajan’s column raised to glorify the conquests of his predecessor and he also has the Pantheon built, displaying his view that all gods should be worshipped together and that essentially all gods may be merged into one.
Marguerite Yourcenar was not the only novelist to produce a fictitious first-person “confession” by a Roman emperor. Probably the best-known examples of this curious sub-genre of historical fiction are Robert Graves’ racy, gossipy first-person Claudius novels I, Claudius (first published 1934) and Claudius the God (1935). Some years back I also recall reading and enjoying Gore Vidal’s first-person Julian (1964), concerning the apostate emperor who turned against the Christianisation of the Roman empire. Vidal basically used his novel as a vehicle for his anti-Christian views, but it is sharp and witty and was produced before Vidal descended into the inane bitcheries of his later writing career.
Even more that Graves or Vidal, however, Yourcenar is determined to emphasise the intellectual side of her protagonist. For while the public events and achievements of Hadrian’s life are there, Hadrian’s “confession” is mainly an exposition of the emperor’s philosophical ideas, so that the public events become background music. The letter to Marcus Aurelius is being written in the shadow of death. It is a kind of confessional last will and testament, or the “written meditations of a sick man who holds audience with his memories” (Part 1, p.23) as Hadrian says. Each of the novel’s six sections is named after an abstract or philosophical concept related to Hadrian. Inevitably, then, the first section is named after the three most famous words from a poem Hadrian is purported to have written - “Animula Vagula Blandula” (“little wandering soul”). This is also the novel’s epigraph and the closing words of the novel are the whole poem in translation.
At once warning us what sort of novel this will be, the whole first part resolves itself into a series of philosophical essays, in which Hadrian discourses on the limits of sensual pleasure, the nature of love, the reality of death and the passage of time, the benefits of sleep, and how one writes autobiography. As the novel progresses he says much about the nature of the self and of the soul (that “animula”), and the slim possibility of immortality after death or of the transmigration of the soul (i.e. reincarnation). Ultimately he comes to no definitive answer on these matters, although it is clear that an anxious questioning of the possibility of immortality and his later contemplation of suicide are consistent with a man who knows that his time is nearly up. Some have interpreted the passage and effect of time as the main theme of this novel.
While Yourcenar’s Hadrian sometimes inclines to mysticism and joins at least one mystery cult (Mithraism), he has a pragamatic attitude towards public religion. Like other Roman emperors, he believes conquered peoples can keep their local gods, which can be absorbed into the cults of traditional Roman gods – and by such benign means, subject peoples can thus be gradually Romanised. Personally he sees all gods (Roman or otherwise) as equals, a merging of the gods that is put into concrete form by his building of the Pantheon in Rome.
As befits an emperor, governance, or the proper way to rule, is also a major part of his philosophical reflexions. Hadrian credits himself with inventing Imperial Discipline – that is, a standardised code of military conduct something like the British “King’s Regulations”. He also credits himself with reorganizing and making more efficient the bureaucracy of Rome and setting up the Perpetual Edict on how Italy itself (as distinct from the rest of the empire) is to be governed. In the last pages, as death nears, he has thoughts on the future of Rome and how long his reforms will endure. Naturally Hadrian sees himself as a spreader of civilisation and culture, noting: “The founding of libraries was like constructing more public granaries, amassing reserves against a spiritual winter which by certain signs, in spite of myself, I see ahead.” (Part 3, p.106) This civilisation can endure only if there is peace, order and uniformity in the empire. For this reason, Hadrian hates Jews. He claims “During the Jewish War the rabbi Joshua translated literally for me some texts from Hebrew, that language of sectarians so obsessed by their god that they have neglected the human.” (Part 2, p.34). Jews, with their strict and transcendent monotheism, are set in opposition to the Hellenistic religion which Hadrian cultivates – a religion with many gods and much room for sensuality. In the novel’s account of the prolonged and brutal war against Simon Bar-Kochba (in Part 5), Hadrian’s contempt for Jews is even more firmly expressed. They are fanatics who will not let their god join the pantheon of the empire’s many gods. Their strict monotheism threatens the whole foundation of the empire. There are only very rare references to Christians, those offshoots of Judaism. With patrician disdain, Yourcenar’s Hadrian sees Christians as preaching something that is philosophically incoherent, but harmless for uneducated peasants and other people of the lower classes.
Marguerite Youncenar once described most historical novels, accurately, as “fancy dress balls” – modern writers pretending, with all their modern values, to express the thoughts and vision of people from past ages. Clearly she saw herself as not falling into that category of writer. Even so, for all her scupulous historical research, there are moments in Memoirs of Hadrian where the narrator shows a remarkable prescience. In the novel’s third part (“Tellus Tabilita” = the genius of the pacified earth), much of what Hadrian says about the art of ruling sounds like a post-Enlightenment agenda. He discourses on wars (there should be fewer); women (they shouldn’t be forced into marriage); slaves (they should be treated humanely and their families should be recognised) and bureaucracy (the importance of choosing the right people). He also just happens to side with those few “daring philosophers” who believe that the Earth itself might move and not be the fixed centre of everything. In the closing pages of the novel, he says the empire will have its ups and downs and may finally fall , but he still holds out for “humanity, liberty and justice”. All historical novels, even the best, end up betraying the age in which they were written – and in these moments of unlikely prescience, I can’t help hearing the voice of someone who was finishing her novel just after the Second World War and placing much hope in sane internationalism guided by the new United Nations.
I might temper this criticism, however, by noting that, having recently read Robin Campbell’s translation of a selection of the letters of Seneca (who flourished some time before Hadrian), I am aware that some Roman intellectuals really did express the “advanced” ideas that Yourcenar attributes to Hadrian. So perhaps her attribution might be historically accurate after all.
So far, I have said nothing about what may be the chief emotional matter of what is generally a dry and cerebrotonic piece of writing – I mean the emotional matter that may have made the historical figure of Hadrian attractive to Marguerite Yourcenar. This is of course the theme of homosexuality. Hadrian has a wife, but has no children with her. She is a mere background figure, rarely mentioned in the novel. Hadrian admits that he had casual mistresses in younger years, but none is important enough to be even named. The only woman he appears genuinely to like is Plotina, Trajan’s widow, who arranged his marriage and has a sharp analytical mind like his own.
As Yourcenar’s Hadrian presents himself, he is in search of an ideal of beauty, not a brief erotic thrill. He wants a love that lasts. Early on, he says: “The technique of the great seducer requires a facility and an indifference in passing from one object of affection to another which I could never have; however that may be, my loves have left me more often than I have left them, for I have never been able to understand how one could have enough of any beloved.” (Part 1, p.19)
Hadrian’s ideal of beauty means attractive young men. In his twenties, he almost loses Trajan’s favour when they both fall for the same boy. He much admires the culture of Greece and its homoerotic mythology with the story of Achilles and Patroclus and “the heroic friendships of the Sacred Battalion” (Part 2, p.64). Late in his life he is attracted to his young male assistant Celer and the beautiful Greek slaveboy Gadara, although he does not have any sexual play with them.
But most important, and the centrepiece of the novel, is his love for the Greek youth Antinous, which is recounted in the fourth part of the novel, appropriately called “Saeculum Aureum” - the age of gold. The title refers to Hadrian’s love of Greece in general but also to the chief satisfaction of his emotional life. Antinous is 13 or 14 when Hadrian, a grown man, first encounters him. Hadrian sees Antinous as the embodiment of godlike beauty, a gift from the gods, an ideal. But Antinous commits suicide at the age of 20 or thereabouts. Hadrian’s grief is overwhelming. He has a temple built in honour of Antinous. He attempts to start a religious cult centring on the young man and his beauty.
I make it clear that MargueriteYourcenar has made none of this up. Hadrian’s obsession with Antinous is a matter of historical record, inasmuch as we have historical records of it. Appended to the novel is a closely-printed 13-page essay in which author carefully enumerates her sources, which are many. For later reprintings of the novel she added an essay on how she wrote Memoirs of Hadrian. But, to recur to what I said about the author near the beginning of this notice, it is hard to see her choice to write about this particular emperor as anything other than a reflection of her own sexual impulses.
So at last to the matter with which I began this notice. How much is Hadrian intended by Yourcenar to be a paragon, held up for our admiration? Or how much is there a screen of irony through which we recognise an unreliable narrator?
I often feel the icy hand of Hadrian’s pomposity and self-regard when, early in the novel, he tells us how clever he is in wooing only women who will not cause scandal, and how tactful he is in order to gain favour and power. In these moments he is, to me, like that “cold fish” Prince Hal, early in Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays, who thinks (i.e. soliloquises) that he will cast off his tavern mates as soon as he has power.
I perceive in Hadrian an Olympian view of things when he becomes emperor, as if he is a god looking down on ants. Possibly this was the way many Roman emperors – masters of the world as they knew it – felt about their role, but it is still something to make us wary of his views, as in: “I was thankful to the gods, for they had allowed me to live in a period when my allotted task consisted of prudent reorganization of a world, and not of extracting matter, still unformed, from chaos, or of lying upon a corpse in the effort to revive it.” (Part 3, p.94)
When he assesses his relationship with both his wife and with Antinous, he couches it in Olympian mythology, the better to magnify himself and make his love affair seem something grand and noble: “For a long time, already, I had been more inclined towards the fable of love and quarrels of the gods than to the clumsy commentaries of philosophers upon the nature of divinity; I was willing to be the terrestial image of Jupiter, who is the more god in that he is also man, who supports the world, incarnating justice and giving order to the universe, but who is at the same time the lover of Ganymedes and Europas, the negligent husband of a bitter Juno.” (Part 4, pp.139-140)
Indeed, reading Hadrian as an unreliable narrator, I see much delusion in his declared love for Antinous. Note that he has proclaimed his quest for a fixed, committed, unchanging and pure love. But, by his own account, he tries to introduce Antinous to new sexual pleasures in brothels and the like, as if he is in search of quick erotic thrills after all. This all calls into question his initial high-sounding rhetoric about the perfect object of his love. On the one hand, he philosophises about the soul and the body; on the other he finds pretexts to wallow in the sensual cultures of Greece and Rome.
Even more tellingly, despite his infatuation with the boy and young man, Hadrian never really seems to understand Antinous or connect with who he is. He is aware that Antinous is afraid of ageing and losing his beauty. Perhaps the word “narcissist” would be appropriate here, although it is never used in novel. It is apparently this fear of age that causes Antinous to commit suicide. But there is another possibility that to me seems equally plausible. Did Hadrian not notice what a huge psychological burden it would be for a boy to be the centre of a powerful ruler’s attention? After all, there is nothing here to suggest that the boy is anything other than a handsome, immature young guy with an average brain and very little resilience.
Quite apart from the matter of Antinous, there are other matters in which I detect Hadrian’s lack of self-awareness. Does he not notice his personal malice in banishing from Rome the poet Juvenal for satirising a male actor whom Hadrian fancies? And in the same pages he looks with equanimity upon a show of 300 criminals being pulled apart by wild beasts (Part 5, pp.187-88). When he adopts young Lucius as one of his heirs, is he not aware of how ridiculous he sounds? He says : “I had the impudence to mention that this fair-haired prince would be admirably handsome clad in the purple; the ill-willed hastened to assert that I was giving an empire in return for a voluptuous intimacy of earlier days.” (Part 5, p.210)
At this point, you are free to suggest that I am simply giving negative constructions to things said by a character whom the author wants us, on the whole, to admire. I concede that, by being as true to the historical record as a novelist can be, Marguerite Yourcenar could have included some of Hadrian’s foibles without intending us to see him as generally untruthful. But for the sake of her own integrity, I hope she really meant Hadrian to be an unreliable narrator. Of course an emperor would have a god-like view of his lowly subjects, but Hadrian’s self-regard, self-praise and lordly manner come close to delusion. And so does his interpretation of his relationship with Antinous. I am aware that Greeks and Romans had different sexual mores from our’s, but frankly this relationship would now be called paedophilia, with all the pejorative connotations that word now has.
Cheeky and presumptuous footnote: Twice Marguerite Yourcenar makes the mistake of assuming that the Mithraic cult required initiation by immersion in bull’s blood (Part 2, p.48, when young Hadrian himself is initiated into the cult in Germany; Part 4, pp.147-8 when Antinous is inducted). More recent research and archaeology suggest that this was never the case, although the cult’s hero Mithras was said to have bathed in bull’s blood. We can’t blame Yourcenar for accepting what was, seventy years ago, the common belief of historians; but this is one matter in which time has caught up with the novel.
Disrespectful footnote: As is my wont after reading and writing my own reflections on older books, I went on line and looked up what various other people had had to say about Memoirs of Hadrian. Most gave it a huge thumbs up as a modern classic, took it for granted that it had really got into the late classical mind, and accepted unconditionally the wisdom of Hadrian’s sayings, as conveyed (or invented) by Marguerite Yourcenar. However, I was surprised – and in a way felt vindicated – to find one genuine review on a site called unappetisingly “Bookslut” wherein the reviewer criticised the novel for having no real drama – there is no true interaction between characters, simply Hadrian’s reflections thereupon. Worse, said this reviewer, while Yourcenar tells us what (she purports) Hadrian would have had to say about the soul, beauty, immortality etc., she hardly ever gives his detailed reflections on what would have been the workaday concerns of an emperor – how taxes could be raised, how inefficient bureaucrats could be got rid of etc. These things are dealt with in one-line statements along the lines of “I got rid of inefficient bureaucrats”, without going into detail. This bias very much skews the author’s view of the historical figure and limits its plausibility as history. The reviewer concluded that Yourcenar was more an essayist than a true novelist – more the heir of Montaigne than of Flaubert. Fair enough.