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
The full version of this article is only available to subscribers to Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly. To continue reading, please sign in or take out a subscription to the quarterly magazine for yourself or as a gift for a fellow booklover. Both gift givers and gift recipients receive access to the full online archive of articles along with many other benefits, such as preferential prices for all books and goods in our online shop and offers from a number of like-minded organizations. Find out more on our subscriptions page.Subscribe now or Sign in