Monday, January 11, 2010

Review: Memoirs of Hadrian, by Marguerite Yourcenar

Memoirs of Hadrian My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Memoirs of Hadrian is the most meticulously researched, and, as a result, the most historically accurate work of historical fiction I have ever encountered. Written intermittently between 1924 and 1954 by a French-American, homosexual woman, it has since become a bit of a monument of historical fiction, and, to a lesser extent, gay fiction. If not for its non-Roman, non-Emperor origins, it would surely be called a monument of autobiography and history. If only it were "real."

It convincingly portrays the inner thoughts of an old and dying Emperor Hadrian, as he looks back at an eventful life of over sixty years. It is told in the first person, as a long letter to the young Marcus "Mark" Aurelius, his young future successor. At first I thought this approach a bit clumsy. Yet it is believable: long works were sometimes addressed to friends of the author, as if letters; and Marcus Aurelius seems a convincing target. The Meditations and the genuine autobiography of Hadrian would have made a great pair.

Unfortunately, this book is not and never will be quite genuine. Hadrian did in fact write an account of his life, but it has been lost. This book can be viewed, from one direction, as an attempt to fill that void -- piecing together the evidence that does remain, filling in a few holes with fiction, and adding a poetical fancy over the whole. Everything flows nicely, with the author simply trying to patch up history rather than rewrite it.

As a scholarly experiment in history, literature, and biography the book rings and shines. If Mme. Yourcenar wished only to convincingly portray the emperor and his world, she succeeded wonderfully. Hadrian traces his entire life, from glazing over his childhood in Spain, to his imperial cursus honorum, to his accession and extensive travelling throughout the Empire. His many personality quirks and traits are also on display: like his great admiration for Greek culture, his artistic and literary pretensions, his passion for detail, his competency and justness as a ruler, but also his extravagance. As a historical figure, there is a bit of both Nero and Augustus in him.

Ultimately, he ruled competently enough for most people to overlook his idiosyncrasies. Antinous, a man-boy from Bithynia whom he fell desperately in love with, is a great example. After the young man died, by drowning in the Nile river at the age of twenty (some say accidentally; this book takes the more fanciful route of willing sacrifice), Hadrian deified him. He started a cult around the kid, founded cities in his name, and commissioned hundreds or even thousands of statues in his image. Yet, in a world of Suetonius and other scorned senators like him, no one seems to have batted an eye.

As entertainment, this book is sometimes lacking. It is caught between general, pure-entertainment historical fiction, and genuine historical texts -- between I, Claudius and The Meditations. It sometimes "smells too much of the lamp" -- like she did her research a little too well and didn't rely on her writing talents enough.

Perhaps she forgot that it was a work of fiction and not a history text. Though, for this very reason, this book probably would make a fun and informative read for students of an introductory Roman History course. The general reader, however, may want to brush up on their Roman history beforehand. The names of long-gone people and places abound, and footnotes and/or a glossary would have been nice. At least, these were lacking in the edition I read -- though the bibliographical notes and the author's notes on the book's composition were great additions.

"Convincing" is the best one-word review I can imagine for this book. It sucked me in, and only slipped a few times. Yes, occasionally, very occasionally, I felt the huge time gap, and perceived the work as a "fake." Yet, I am even convinced that, if it were not widely established as fiction, it could fool most people, even some scholars.

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