This meticulously researched book about one of France’s most esteemed writers begins with an epigraph from E. M. Cioran: “It is amazing that the prospect of having a biographer has caused no one to abandon the idea of having a life.” The sentence captures effectively the peculiar tension that exists between the biographer (“Here I come, ready or not”) and his or her subject (“Find me, if you can”), a game of pursuit in which the latter is at a distinct disadvantage. For the dead lack all privacy—especially those who, in life, have had the dubious fortune to be public figures. No matter how carefully you’ve protected your personal life from the intrusive gaze of the world, once you’re safely under the turf, biographers will be going through your mail, reading your diaries, pumping your friends and relatives, poring over your financial records, interviewing your psychiatrist, ransacking your closets for skeletons.

Marguerite Yourcenar, the first woman elected to the Académie Française and the author of the best-selling novels Memoirs of Hadrian and The Abyss, sculpted her public persona as deliberately as her prose. She deplored this gossip-hungry age: “I detest what seems to be some kind of pathological excitement on the part of the public about pouncing on a writer’s life, as if he or she were not a man or a woman like everyone else.” Even her remarkable three-volume autobiography reveals little about her adult life, much of which she spent far off the beaten track, in a small town in Maine. In her final years she burned many of her private papers, and when she died in 1987 she left a will stipulating that much of her remaining correspondence be sealed for half a century—enough time for juicy personal gossip to become dry historical footnote. As if this weren’t daunting enough for a biographer, Yourcenar had a serene disregard for chronological accuracy and an inveterate tendency to rewrite her life and her texts. At the time of her death, she had attained the status of a monument in France and had also acquired a large audience in the United States. But few people knew much about her. What was she like, that woman behind the monument? Or rather—since the woman and the monument were one—what was the relation between them?

Josyane Savigneau, editor of the book-review section of Le Monde, has taken that relation as her guiding theme in this first full-length account of Yourcenar’s life (well translated, and supplemented with helpful notes, by Joan Howard). She prefaces her work with a detailed description of the challenges that Yourcenar poses to biographers, and of her own efforts to establish a balance between the reader’s desire to know and the subject’s right to privacy. Although she was a friend of Yourcenar’s, she does not let this fact blind her to the writer’s flaws.

Savigneau’s strengths are investigative, not analytic.

Savigneau’s strengths are investigative, not analytic. She brings together material from dozens of interviews and countless hours of archival research; she is somewhat less effective when it comes to interpreting this wealth of raw data. Still, she does a superb job of sorting out fact from fiction, resolving inconsistencies in the record, presenting the contrasts and contradictions in Yourcenar’s character, and describing the texture of her daily life, especially in her later years. This is a finely shaded portrait of a singular and complex woman.

Yourcenar was born Marguerite Antoinette Jeanne Marie Ghislaine de Crayencour, in Brussels, on June 8, 1903. Her mother, Fernande, a Belgian, died a week later of peritonitis. Michel de Crayencour, a Frenchman, took his baby daughter back to his family estate near Lille, where she was cared for by nannies and by various of her father’s mistresses. She was educated at home, and the fact that she escaped the rigid curriculum and methods of the French school system no doubt partly accounted for her unconventional turn of mind.

Savigneau is excellent in discussing the girl’s relationship with her father, probably the most influential figure in her life. His pedagogy consisted of giving her complete freedom to indulge her intellectual tastes—to learn Greek, Latin, and English (they lived in England for a year during World War I), to read the books he himself liked, to question and think deeply about what she read. He aided her with her fledgling writing projects; helped her rearrange the letters of her family name into an exotic-sounding pseudonym (a name “that calls to mind faraway unknown places—that strikes one as the very sign of something strange,” as Savigneau says); and published her first book of verse at his own expense. “Perpetually absent without leave” is the phrase Yourcenar used to describe him—and this applied not only to his conduct during World War I but also to his general defiance of bourgeois mores. He gambled away the family fortune, and died just as Yourcenar was about to publish her first novel, Alexis, which would win her critical acclaim at the age of twenty-six.

Until she was in her late thirties, Yourcenar led the frugal life of a nomadic intellectual, frequenting Paris, Lausanne, Vienna, Rome, Belgrade, Athens, New York, and other cities in Europe and the United States. Her output was varied: small, carefully composed novels (with correspondingly small sales), plays, verse, prose poems, essays, stories, and translations of Henry James and Virginia Woolf. Savigneau gives us a remarkable account of a meeting with the latter, including Yourcenar’s comments on Woolf (“at once sparkling and timid”) and a Woolf’s-eye view of Yourcenar: “she wore some nice gold leaves on her black dress; is a woman I suppose with a past; amorous; intellectual; lives half the year in Athens; . . . red-lipped, strenuous; a working Frenchwoman.”

She was indeed a “woman with a past.”

She was indeed a “woman with a past.” In her twenties and thirties she affected a striking, masculine style of dress and engaged in numerous love affairs with both men and women: “she liked to seduce,” Savigneau tells us—to exert her power over others via her sensuality. (She always disliked the word “sexuality”—too “clinical,” she claimed.)

Concerning the works that Yourcenar published during this period, Savigneau’s evaluations go no further than the obvious: Yourcenar’s poetry was “more akin to exercises in versified composition”; a certain essay was “mediocre.” But she acknowledges her lack of specialized knowledge here, and compensates for it by including assessments by professional critics. Yourcenar’s dense, layered, psychologically incisive texts have evoked comparisons with Gide, Rilke, Benjamin Constant, Proust, Schnitzler, and Racine. Her prose has an almost marmoreal quality—smooth and precise, like a Roman inscription. Many critics praised her cerebral, abstract style (which in those days was frequently characterized as “masculine,” “virile”) and her unique voice. “The voice is low and deep, and soft of modulation,” wrote the eminent critic Edmond Jaloux about Alexis. “It is tender and harsh at the same time, . . .  stirring feelings in us that only great writers have so thoroughly aroused, making itself heard, amid the din of contemporary literature, with all the assurance of its highly pure tone.” Others were not seduced. Angelo Rinaldi, reviewing a collection of stories entitled Three Lives and a Dream, criticized her “taste for the highly wrought story,” her “starchy formality when it comes to the expression of feelings,” her “knack for sculpting noble bas-reliefs in unctuous Marseilles soap.” Certainly she used this formal, abstract style to create unusual resonances, in conjunction with her disturbing themes: betrayal, incest, fascism, sado-masochism, suicide.

Savigneau’s book is, in fact, most interesting when it deals with the contrasts in Yourcenar’s work and character. Yourcenar could be charming, generous, compassionate, thoughtful, tolerant, loyal; she could also be stubborn, quarrelsome, vengeful, imperious, and insular (one of Savigneau’s favorite words for her is “autarchical”). Notwithstanding the “nobility” of her published prose, she could be petty and even downright vitriolic in her letters. Some of her most potent barbs were aimed at unappreciative critics, such as Guy Dupré: “Slipping on spit is a slight occupational hazard; still, one has the right to feel a healthy mistrust when the spit comes from a man who started out by showering you with obsequious praise.” The remark is delightfully nasty and graphic—and has an unmistakable structural elegance.

Yourcenar always hated to expose her private side.

Yourcenar always hated to expose her private side; after one interview with the French journalist Matthieu Galey, she regretted her frankness, saying she felt as if she had taken all her clothes off. Savigneau’s book reveals many hidden facets: Yourcenar, in her youth, was fascinated by night life and red-light districts; she had an affinity for violence, which sometimes led her into physically abusive relationships; she carried on lengthy lawsuits with her publishers; she both scorned and craved the esteem of the French literary establishment; and contrary to the assurance and even haughtiness she projected in later life, she suffered long periods of self-doubt and discouragement early in her career. She fell into a severe depression during the World War II years, and Savigneau insightfully observes that her decision to write plays at that time may well have been a function of her flagging confidence: “Writing dialogue was therapeutic . . . It spared her from calling on an ‘I’ she was no longer sure of.”

In 1937 Yourcenar met Grace Frick, an American academic almost precisely her age. They quickly fell in love, and in 1939, as Europe was mobilizing for war, Yourcenar came to the United States to live with Frick. For eight years, beginning in 1942, Yourcenar taught French literature and civilization at Sarah Lawrence College. Savigneau interviewed a number of her former students and colleagues, many of whom noted that Yourcenar had a quality of seeming not quite of the here and now. “I couldn’t imagine her tending to the tasks of everyday life, using a toaster or a hair dryer,” observed a former student; “I had the vague notion, when I was taking her courses, that she must use medieval instruments in her daily life.”

In 1947 Yourcenar became an American citizen, and in 1950 she and Grace Frick bought a small house in Northeast Harbor, on Mount Desert Island, Maine. For the next three decades they shared a life of work, travel, and domestic routine. Savigneau is here at her best: she admires Frick, shows a fine understanding of her attachment to Yourcenar, and beautifully evokes the atmosphere of their home (“that closed, soft, and somewhat static place”), which they named Petite Plaisance. Her portrait of their “marriage” is infinitely nuanced and often surprising. We learn, for example, that Yourcenar had a curious streak of passivity in her nature. It was Frick who persuaded her to live in the United States and who managed the details of their shared life. She also aided with research and proofreading, and translated many of Yourcenar’s works.

Yourcenar never moved back to France. But she missed her native language and culture, made little effort to get to know her neighbors, and found the gray Maine winters unutterably boring. Like a true nomad, she always spoke of Petite Plaisance as a “base,” and thought of Northeast Harbor not as “the United States” but merely as “a bit of country” where she owned a cottage and to which she retired periodically to write. Much of each year she spent abroad.

During those three decades, Yourcenar’s literary reputation was steadily growing.

During those three decades, Yourcenar’s literary reputation was steadily growing. In 1979, even as Frick was losing a long battle with cancer, Yourcenar was being suggested as a suitable candidate for the Académie Française. This august institution consists of forty members, known as the “Immortals,” who are elected from among France’s most respected literary and cultural figures. Since the Académie’s founding in 1635, the members had all been men. Savigneau’s account of the controversy over Yourcenar’s nomination is itself worth the price of the book. A number of the academicians were outraged at the idea that any woman should be elected, much less one who was a lesbian and, worse, an American citizen. She was the subject of crude jokes regarding her sexual preferences, scurrilous rumors accusing her of anti-Semitism, absurd remarks about how she would look in the Académie’s ceremonial garb (a Napoleonic military-style uniform, with sword and cocked hat) and how she would upset its rituals and protocols. Claude Lévi-Strauss was ardently opposed to her candidacy, because “you don’t change the rules of the tribe.” Jean Dutourd said that she had read too much to be a good writer. And so on.

Yourcenar herself kept above the fray. “They’re a bunch of aging little boys,” she sniffed. But in 1980, thanks to the strenuous efforts of her supporters, Yourcenar’s French citizenship was renewed and she was elected as the first female academician. Yves Saint-Laurent designed a ceremonial costume for her (an elegant black velvet cloak), and the Académie adjusted its procedures to accommodate a female member. Not that this made much difference to her: after the induction ceremony, she never attended another meeting.

Yourcenar was accompanied at that ceremony and on her subsequent travels by a young man whom she had met just before Grace Frick’s death in 1979 and who became the last great love of her life: an American named Jerry Wilson. Yourcenar was transformed by their relationship. He revived her interest in life and enabled her to resume her travels, which had been discontinued during Frick’s long illness. The feelings of Wilson, who was gay, are harder to gauge. For five years they traveled together, shared each other’s lives. But “neither one of them was what might properly be called ‘good- natured,’” says Savigneau. Wilson had a weakness for alcohol; when he drank, he became abusive. Yourcenar reacted calmly: “I think back on it at night and I’m surprised by the unconscious choice that has caused me several times to attach myself to beings of an intransigence and violence that suddenly tear through the fabric of a peaceful life together . . . One accepts people as they are.”

Savigneau is a good deal more cautious in her account of Yourcenar and Wilson than she is in discussing Yourcenar and Frick. She tells us almost nothing about Wilson’s background. Perhaps her reticence stems from consideration for Wilson’s family; perhaps she is simply uncomfortable in the face of this “strange relationship.” She also makes an intriguing remark about possible similarities between Grace Frick and Jerry Wilson, but fails to develop this point. Throughout the book she has shied away from “immoderate psychoanalytic interpretation”; here she seems more reluctant than usual to venture any comments.

This counterintuitive relationship, which seemed to reverse so much of the conventional order of things, ended with a reversal: Jerry Wilson contracted AIDS; he died in 1986. At the time of his death, Yourcenar herself was recovering from a heart attack. The following year she had a stroke, and died on December 17. Her ashes were interred in a little cemetery on Mount Desert Island. Not a single representative from the Académie Française attended the memorial service.

We reach the end of Savigneau’s account with the feeling that we have enjoyed a long and satisfying acquaintance with a remarkable person—a feeling that the finest biographies always give us. Savigneau’s diligence, fairness, and tact win our sympathy both for her and for her subject. Aside from a penchant for proleptic clichés of the “little did she know what was to come” variety, she writes extremely well, and seems to have learned a thing or two from Yourcenar herself. For example, she begins her account by evoking, in a brief passage, the deaths of the three major figures in Yourcenar’s life: her father, Grace Frick, and Jerry Wilson— deaths which spanned nearly six decades. It’s a thoroughly Yourcenarian device, compressing and traversing great swaths of time via the quicksilver links of memory and association. The reader is thus led into Yourcenar’s life by means of one of her own favorite narrative methods.

Savigneau is also superb at reading nonverbal evidence—images, photographs, symbolic notations, facial expressions, absences, silences.

Savigneau is also superb at reading nonverbal evidence—images, photographs, symbolic notations, facial expressions, absences, silences. In a moving passage, she observes the fading of Frick and Yourcenar’s love, as revealed in Frick’s daybooks over the years: “The entries grew more and more factual and terse, . . . the signs (crosses and suns) marking happiness, tenderness, love, and the joy of being together disappeared almost totally, and forever, as though, after the love story, there came what their friends from the Fifties and Sixties described as a ‘marriage of convenience.’”

One wishes that there had been more such passages in the book; also that Yourcenar the literary artist had been given more attention. Savigneau describes the fabric of her daily life in great detail. But how did Yourcenar’s creative genius grow and flower in this context? Savigneau sometimes becomes immersed in minutiae. Granted, she explicitly delimits her aim: all she wants to do is “retrace the itinerary” of this woman who “rewrote her life endlessly”—untangle the threads of fact from the welter of obscurities, contradictions, rumors, and misconceptions. She illuminates the relation between the woman and the public persona, and shows how much deliberate shaping was devoted to the latter; but we get little sense of the woman who created, and whose creations in turn made her Marguerite Yourcenar.

Savigneau says modestly in her introduction that she makes no “attempt to analyze or comment on the work itself,” seeking only “to propose certain avenues of inquiry” and merely “sketching” a “silhouette.” Of course, her portrait is immensely richer than that, and in a way it seems churlish to ask for more when she has given us so much. Yet as Borges said, in a remark that haunted Yourcenar, “A writer thinks he’s talking about many things, but what he leaves behind, if he’s lucky, is an image of himself.” Any fully rounded portrait of Yourcenar must thus include a consideration of her works—not in the simple-minded sense of using the works to illuminate the life, but in order to explore the development and maturation of one of the foremost literary talents of our century. Such a critical biography remains to be written. In the meantime, we have Savigneau’s scrupulous, sensitive, and highly readable account—the chronicle of a remarkable act of self-invention.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 12 Number 2, on page 62
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