Alongside Hermann Broch’s “The Death of Virgil”, I regard Marguerite Yourcenar’s “Memoirs of Hadrian” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1963) as one of the truly great historical novels, though it is scarcely known in the English-speaking world, for the two simple reasons that, first, it is not written in English by an Englishman, and, second, because it is written in French by a Belgian woman. There is little that can be meaningfully pulled out and quoted from the actual text; this is a book that needs to be read from cover to cover. There is much, however, that can be gleaned from the “Reflections on the Composition” which are appendixed to it. This for example:
“In turning the pages of a volume of Flaubert’s correspondence…I came again upon this admirable 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.’ A great part of my life was going to be spent in trying to define, and then to portray, that man existing alone and yet closely bound with all being.”
There is a huge difference, of course, between Flaubert’s "standing alone" and Yourcenar’s "existing alone" – though this may be a consequence of translation rather than Yourcenar shifting the ground. There is also a difference between the upper and the lower case for man, and the use of the definite, or an indefinite article; and an even huger difference between Man standing alone and a man existing alone. These are the subtleties which often distinguish the great writers from the lesser, and quite probably the great readers too.
Elsewhere, Yourcenar offers this manifesto for the historical novelist:
“Take a life that is known and completed, recorded and fixed by History (or as much as can ever be fixed), so that its entire course may be seen at a single glance; more important still, choose the moment when the man who lived that existence weighs and examines it, and is, for the briefest span, capable of judging it. Try to manage so that he stands before his own life in much the same position as we stand when we look at it.”
I like to think I can make this claim for both “City of Peace”, my King David novel, and “A Pilgrimage To Bayreuth”, my life of Wagner.
Best of all, this:
“Those who put the historical novel in a category apart are forgetting that what every novelist does is only to interpret, by means of the techniques which his period affords, a certain number of past events; his memories, whether consciously or unconsciously recalled, whether personal or impersonal, are all woven of the same stuff as History itself. The work of Proust is a reconstruction of a lost past quite as much as ‘War and Peace’. The historical novel of the 1830s, it is true, tends towards melodrama, and to cloak-and-dagger romance; but not more than does Balzac’s magnificent ‘Duchesse de Langeais’ or his startling ‘Girl with the Golden Eyes’, both of a wholly contemporary setting. Flaubert painstakingly rebuilds a Carthaginian palace by charging his description with hundreds of minute details, thus employing essentially the same method as for his picture of Yonville, a village of his own time and of his own Normandy. In our day, when introspection tends to dominate literary forms, the historical novel, or what may for convenience be called by that name, must take the plunge into time recaptured, and must fully establish itself within some inner world.”
"Within some inner world". Then to create Robinson Crusoe in a fictional novel is actually no different from recreating Alexander Selkirk in a historical novel. What Joyce famously remarked applies to both: that the depth of the writing depends upon the depth of the living; that to write at the level that you wish to write, you first have to live at the level that you wish to write.
Lastly this: “We lose track of everything, and of everyone, even ourselves. The facts of my father’s life are less known to me than those of the life of Hadrian. My own existence, if I had to write of it, would be reconstructed by me from externals, laboriously as if it were the life of someone else: I should have to turn to letters, and to the recollections of others, in order to clarify such uncertain memories. What is ever left but crumbled walls, or masses of shade? Here, where Hadrian’s life is concerned, [we must] try to manage so that the lacunae of our texts coincide with what he himself might have forgotten.”
At the start of this essay I equated Yourcenar with the great Austrian writer Hermann Broch in my hall of fame of historical novelists, and I cannot resist ending with this, from Broch's “The Death of Virgil” (Vintage Books, 1995) :
“The rumbling continued and it was emitted from the mingling of the light with the darkness, both of them roused by the incipient tone which now actually began to sound, and that which sounded was more than song, more than the striking of the lyre, more than any tone, more than any voice, since it was all these together and at once, bursting out of the nothing as well as out of the universe, breaking forth as a communication beyond every understanding, breaking forth as a significance above every comprehension, breaking forth as the pure word which it was, exalted above all understanding and significance whatsoever, consummating and initiating, mighty and commanding, fear-inspiring and protecting, gracious and thundering, the word of discrimination, the word of the pledge, the pure word; so it roared thither, roaring over and past him, swelling on and becoming stronger and stronger, becoming so overpowering that nothing could withstand it, the universe disappearing before the word, dissolved and acquitted in the word while still being contained and preserved in it, destroyed and recreated forever, because nothing had been lost, nothing could be lost, because end was joined to beginning, being born and giving birth again and again; the word hovered over the universe, over the nothing, floating beyond the expressible as well as the inexpressible, and he, caught under and amidst the roaring, he floated on with the word; although the more he was enveloped by it, the more he penetrated into the flooding sound and was penetrated by it, the more unattainable, the greater, the graver and more elusive became the word, a floating sea, a floating fire, sea-heavy, sea-light, notwithstanding it a still the word: he could not hold fast to it, and he might not hold fast to it; incomprehensible and unutterable for him: it was the word beyond speech.”
Proof that a historical novel, properly written, is not simply a recounting of history in narrative form, but a book that contains the limits of that history within the limitlessness of the human capacity to write profoundly; that it is the “novel”, not the “historical”, that is the important word in that phrase.
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