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Hadrian to the Life

My first encounter with Memoirs of Hadrian was during a brief holiday in Andalusia. As I drove north from Málaga into the snow-covered hills, my husband turned to the first page. Within a sentence we were transported into the second century AD; a few pages later we realized we were traversing the very same landscape Hadrian had known as a boy. It was in the hills and forests around Seville that he learned to ride and to hunt: ‘The kill in a Spanish forest was my earliest acquaintance with death and with courage.’

The novel is written in the form of an extended letter from the Emperor Hadrian to his successor, Marcus Aurelius. ‘My dear Mark’, he writes, ‘Today I went to see my physician.’ Having begun his letter with the simple intention of informing Mark that his illness is mortal, the letter develops from ‘the written meditation of a sick man who holds audience with his memories’ into a detailed account of his life, his travels, his achievements as emperor, and his views on pretty well everything. At the heart of the book lies his love for the beautiful Antinous, and his despair following the youth’s tragic death.

But before embarking with Hadrian on his extraordinary journey through life, I strongly advise you to turn to the back of the book where you will find Yourcenar’s ‘Reflections on the Composition of Memoirs of Hadrian’. These ‘Reflections’ reveal the tortuous road she herself travelled before she finally settled to writing her masterpiece.

The idea for Hadrian was conceived in 1924, when Yourcenar was only 20. She destroyed the first version in 1929. But during her researches she had come upon a letter from Flaubert to a friend which contained this sentence: ‘Just when the gods had ceased to be and the Christ had not yet come, there was a unique moment in history, between Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, when man stood alone.’ This image of man standing alone caught and held her. ‘A great part of my life’, she notes in ‘Reflections’, ‘was going to be spent in trying to define, and then to portray, that man existing alone and yet closely bound with all being.’ Between 1934 and 1937 she several times resumed work on the project, but each attempt was abandoned. But from the 1934 version she retained just one sentence, spoken by Hadrian: ‘I begin to discern the profile of my death.’

In ‘Reflections’ she writes: ‘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 of view from which to view the book.’ Yet it was not until 1948 that she at last felt sufficiently master of her subject to take it up again. This time she finished it. It was published in France in 1951 and, as far as I can establish, has never been out of print since. It was published in English in 1955. The first print run was enormous – 37,000 copies. A book like this could have suffered irretrievable damage in translation, but Yourcenar’s friend and companion of many years, the American Grace Frick, produced a text of such superb quality that it is hard to believe the original was written in French.

The ‘Reflections’ also demonstrate the astonishing depth of Yourcenar’s scholarship. Her passionate determination ‘to endeavour to restore the mobility and suppleness of life to those visages known to us only in stone’ sets an impossibly high standard for any biographer. Even a glance at her Bibliography, which extends to 14 pages, is enough to remind you of the intellect at work here. And that is before you realize that many of the sources are clearly only available in Latin, others in Greek.

The only thing lacking in this prince of a book is a map. My knowledge of Roman history is too vague for me to place the Sarmatians and the Dacians accurately. But for Yourcenar, one feels, the ancient world is as familiar to her as her own, and no concessions are made to those readers who have a less than intimate knowledge of the Greek gods and of Classical authors.

The quality and directness of the writing throughout are breathtaking. (It comes as no surprise to learn that Yourcenar was the first woman ever to be elected to the Académie Française.) It is a demanding book: the text is dense, not a sentence lacks weight, not a word is wasted. It must be read with total concentration. But at every turn of the page the reader is rewarded by powerful images: ‘Already certain portions of my life are like dismantled rooms of a palace too vast for an impoverished owner to occupy in its entirety.’ Or: ‘Our Greek and Latin lands, everywhere supported by bone-structure of rock, have the trim beauty of a male body; the heavy abundance of the Scythian earth was that of a reclining woman.’ On Hadrian’s passion for building and architecture: ‘I have done much rebuilding . . . These walls which I reinforce are still warm from contact with vanished bodies; hands yet unborn will caress the shafts of these columns.’ The section of the book devoted to his years with Antinous are lyrical and joyous, his grief and remorse at the boy’s suicide intensely moving: ‘A being deeply wounded had thrown this proof of devotion at my very face; a boy fearful of losing all had found this means of binding me to him forever.’

When one finally closes the book it is with both a sense of loss and the certainty that you have been in the hands of a writer of supreme integrity; that you have come as close to the character of the Emperor Hadrian as it is possible to get.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 2 © Caroline Chapman 2004

About the contributor

Caroline Chapman’s first biography, Elizabeth & Georgiana: The Duke of Devonshire and His Two Duchesses, relates the scandals and intrigues of eighteenth- century high society – a far cry from the mighty manipulations of a Roman emperor.

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