THE JACKET ILLUSTRATION for Fires is a reproduction of "The Avenging Angel" from the Villa of Mysteries at Pompeii, and it is a wonderful introduction to this collection of nine prose poems, "a sequence of lyrical prose pieces connected by a notion of love," in the words of the author's preface. The angel, poised before blood-or flame-red walls, is a half-naked winged woman, her right hand grasping a rod raised to lash her . . . what? Victims? Suppliants? In this case the author herself, for Fires is a book born out of pain. Marguerite Yourcenar describes it as the "product of a love crisis," and her characters are the mythical or real people who have suffered a similar fate: Phaedra, Achilles, Patroclus, Antigone, Lena (concubine of Aristogiton), Mary Magdalene, Phaedo, Clytemnestra, and Sappho, characters who "serve the poet as props through time."
These stories, by the writer who earlier this year became the first woman member of the French Academy, are interspersed with "unrelated pens,ees that were at first notes for a private diary." Having appeared in French in 1936, and only now in English, they are retellings of more or less familiar narratives, pulled out of their antique frames to "modernize the past": Sappho is a trapeze acrobat, traveling from circus to circus in Europe between the 20th-century wars, accompanied by or in pursuit of the lovely but unfaithful girl, Attys; after seeing the film of the battles Achilles would die in, his mother Thetis has him dressed "in her goddess tunics to mislead Death"; after John abandoned her, Mary Magdalene "dunked (her) pale hands into the dishwater of the Last Supper."
The stories are variations on the theme of absolute love, its terrible price and transcendent rewards, whatever its form: Antigone's passion for justice, growing out of the love for her brother; Clytemnestra's desire to force Agamemnon, "as he died, to at least look me in the face; I killed him only for that, to force him to realize that I was not a thing of no importance that you could drop or hand over to the first comer"; Phaedo's lust for knowledge; Mary Magdalene's devotion to Jesus:
"He placed on my head his large cadaverous hand, which seemed already emptied of blood: all we ever do is change enslavements: at the exact moment the devils left me, I became possessed by God."
Readers familiar with Hadrian's grave and limpid voice in Memoirs of Hadrian, Yourcenar's beautiful meditation on history and her best-known work, or the complex but conventional narrative voices of The Abyss and Coup de Gr.ace, her other novels available in English, will be surprised by the language and style of Fires. Aphoristic, paradoxical, rife with startling and often farfetched similes and metaphors, these poems and the excesses of their style are convincingly defended by their author as "a legitimate effort to portray the full complexity and passion of an emotion."
Of the narratives of passion in Fires, "Phaedo, or the Dance" is to my mind the most moving and the most successful, and it is the one that best prepares us for both Memoirs of Hadrian and The Abyss. From Diogenes Laertius' remarks on the adolescene of Phaedo--his beauty, the destruction in war of his family, his enslavement and degradation as a prostitute in a bordello, his salvation through Alcibiades' intervention--Yourcenar builds a monologue on the making of a philosopher, the disciple whose long hair Socrates caresses moments before he drinks the hemlock:
"Since, after all, flesh is the most beautiful garment the soul can be dressed in, where would Socrates be without Alcibiades' smile and Phaedo's hair? To this old man who knew of the world only the crossroads of Athens, a few loved bodies had revealed not only the Absolute but also the Universe."
Like the poet, lover, and noble prince Hadrian and the invented Renaissance physician and alchemist Zeno of The Abyss, Socrates is the greatest kind of hero, the hero of Knowledge and Wisdom, and as they do, he approaches those absolutes through his passion for the beloved, thereby uniting body and soul. Zeno considered "love's burning mysteries as the only means of access for many of us to that fiery realm of which we are perhaps the infinitesimal sparks." And Hadrian writes to his successor, the youthful Marcus Aurelius:
"I have sometimes thought of constructing a system of human knowledge that would be based on eroticism, a theory of contact . . . (when) these contacts persist and multiply about one unique being . . . when he passes from the periphery of our universe to its center, and finally becomes for us more indispensable than our own selves, then that astonishing prodigy takes place wherein I see much more an invasion of the flesh by the spirit than a simple play of the body alone."
In the preface to Fires (written in 1975) Yourcenar expresses very nearly the same sentiment, perhaps more cautiously, with less fervor, in her own voice:
"What seems obvious is that this notion of mad, sometimes scandalous love that is nevertheless permeated by a sort of mystical power could only survive if it is associated with whatever belief in transcendence, even if only within a human being."
The survival of this notion of love in Yourcenar's work, its unwavering peristence, is surely one of the truths Yourcenar alludes to in the conclusion to her preface to Fires, when she says that "certain passages in Fires seem to me to contain truths glimpsed early on that needed a whole lifetime to be rediscovered and authenticated."