MARGUERITE YOURCENAR's Memoirs of Hadrian is one of my Sacred Books, and I suspect it is for others as well. I first read it almost 25 years ago, and it changed my life, dazzling me with the pagan sun of the ancient Mediterranean world, something high school Latin and college Classical Civilization hadn't succeeded in doing. In a prose of exquisite clarity and grace, the Emperor Hadrian recounts his life to his nephew Marcus Aurelius; he reveals himself as both a creator and worshiper of beauty, a man of keen intelligence and strong passion, powerful and magnanimous, a poet, a lover, a prince "who was almost wise," as Yourcenar says in her "Reflections on the Composition" of the Memoirs. Bemused by Christianity and its "glorification of virtues befitting children and slaves," puzzled by the moralists and cynics who decry the flesh and its pleasures, Hadrian lived and died a hedonist, praising "Eros, that god who is wisest of all." Heady stuff, this, and it snared once and for all another of those Protestant souls longing, with Goethe, for that land "where the lemon trees bloom."
What has provoked these no doubt gratuitously personal reflections is the publication for the first time in English of A Coin in Nine Hands, a novel originally published in French in 1934 as Denier du r.eve, years later considerably revised ("half original text and half reconstruction") and reprinted in French in 1959. The complications here are part of a larger complexity facing Yourcenar's American readers: the Memoirs of Hadrian, although certainly her best known work (and the first to be translated into English), is her eighth book, by my count -- novels and volumes of stories, prose poems, essays and autobiography preceded it. Since the publication of Memoirs here in 1954, she has written and published another major novel, The Abyss, similar in spirit to the Memoirs, but dealing with an imaginary hero, Zeno, a Renaissance scientist and humanist. Between the Memoirs and The Abyss there appeared in 1957 an English translation of a novel she first published in the late 1930s, Coup de Gr.ace. And then last year, I reviewed in these pages Fires, a book of prose poems first published in 1936.
In 1980, Yourcenar became the first woman to be elected to the French Academy, and that fact probably has something to do with this flurry of publication in English of her earlier work. Better late than never, I say, even though the admirers of the later masterpieces are probably doomed to a certain disappointment, our expectations having been set impossibly high. A Coin in Nine Hands is a case in point.
Unlike the Memoirs and The Abyss, those marvels of a resurrected past, A Coin in Nine Hands is, according to her own testimony, Yourcenar's only novel of contemporary life: it is the fictional account of an attempt to assassinate Mussolini in 1933, year XI of the Fascist dictatorship. (There were, in fact, several such attempts in the early '30s.) The would-be assassin is Marcella Sarte, n,ee Ardeati, whose anarchist father had been a friend of Mussolini when the dictator was a young socialist. She and her exiled co-revolutionist Carlo Stevo are lashed to their passion to alter the future, and around them revolves a world of Russian double agents, French artists, English shopgirls, and ordinary Romans, "each lost in his own passions and in his intrinsic solitude" ("Afterword"). They are implausibly linked by a somewhat creaky device, the coin of the title that passes from hand to hand among the characters, penultimately ending up not in but near the Trevi fountain (the tosser missed: no return to Rome for him). Yourcenar herself gently derides this bit of business in her "Afterword," but it does inevitably give the narrative a dated air, as do the interior monologues, interlarded with ellipses (although these are, surprisingly, additions to the revised version of the novel). What isn't dated or old-fashioned is the author's psychological sharpness, her steady, penetrating gaze into the dreams and fantasies and realities of her characters: the cynical and opportunistic Alessandro Sarte; the cancer-stricken prostitute, Lina Chiari; the mad, impoverished Ruggero di Credo; his daughters Rosalia and Angiola, victims of Romance; the greedy but fiercely tenacious Mother Dida, the flower seller. Over them all looms the shadow of a foolish and dangerous new Caesar, as lost in dreams as his subjects are.
The book's greatest strength is, not surprisingly, Yourcenar's historical imagination that sees beneath the new Caesar, the automobile traffic and the movie palaces. This narrative is like a palimpsest on the story of imperial Rome, "the city where the eternal human story is set and unraveled" ("Afterword"). Here all significant human actions are reenactments of history and myth, and Yourcenar shows herself to be as inveterate a mythologizer as Yeats: Marcella appears variously as Medusa, Nemesis, Phaedra, Judith of Bethulia, and Charlotte Corday. The ordinary rituals of daily life are celebrated in gravely lyrical arias, as when the narrator looks beyond a character's mechanical act of lighting a votive candle:
"But the wax object, paraffin disguised as wax, lived a mysterious life. Well before Giulio, men had appropriated the labor of bees to offer the results to the gods; century after century, they had surrounded their holy relics with an honor guard of tiny flames, as they projected on their gods their own instinctive fear of the dark. Giulio's ancestors . . . had offered candles to the Virgin Mary in the same way that their ancestors, buried even deeper in the accumulations of time, had offered honey cakes to Venus' hot month. These flickerings had been consumed infinitely faster than brief human lives: some wishes had been denied; others, on the contrary, granted: the unfortunate thing is that, because wishes sometimes come true, the agony of hoping is perpetuated. Then, without asking for it, these people had obtained the only salvation that's certain, the dark gift that obliterates all others."
A passage like this, with its stark but liberating wisdom, is a clear promise of the great work to come.