Posted by: tuulenhaiven | October 22, 2011

Cemetarrying: In Search of Yourcenar

IMG_0790Cemetarrying (verb): to tarry in a cemetery

This splendid word is the invention, as far as I can tell, of the curator of The LovelyHorribles (‘a collection of curiosities, trinkets, and rarities‘) and it perfectly describes the mischief I’ve been getting up to lately. This is the Yourcenar mischief, not to be confused with all the OTHER mischief I get up to…

At some point towards the end of September, while reading Memoirs of Hadrian (trans. by Grace Frick), I happened to paruse the back flap of the tattered 1954 edition I had found (rather to my surprise) knocking round my local library. ‘Marguerite Yourcenar, the author, is French but has spent much time in this country… She now divides her time between Mount Desert Island, Maine, and travel and lecturing in Europe.

I don’t know why this flabbergasted me, but it did. You may have gathered from poking about my blog that I live in Maine – in fact I live in a town that is connected by bridge to Mount Desert Island, and I actually lived on Mount Desert Island from 2005-2010. I still tend to claim that I live there, since I work there and spend far more time on MDI than I do in the town where my house sits at present.

Anyway, research immediately followed, and I learned that Yourcenar came to the US at the start of WWII at the suggestion of her translator and intimate friend Grace Frick. The two of them bought a house together in Northeast Harbor, MDI, Maine, and lived there for decades. They’re buried only feet apart in Brookside Cemetery, Somesville, MDI, Maine. Of course my close proximity to both of these places meant I definitely had a quest to complete.

I found her house on the first try. Now a museum that can be toured by appointment (which I lacked – although I hope to return someday and nose about) it is a lovely white farm “cottage” with a deliciously vine-covered porch. It is situated very near Somes Sound, on the Shore Road (a bit of road that is on my top 10 list of almost ridiculously picturesque scenic drives). I instantly become fond of the image of Yourcenar sitting on her porch conjuring up the world of the Roman Emperor Hadrian, while Grace Frick scribbled away at a translation somewhere nearby.

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I had a friend in tow that day, and after this success, caught up in my investigative spirit, we took off for the Brookside Cemetery where we spent over an hour searching in vain for Yourcenar’s gravestone. The cemetery is a lovely one, small and rolling, surrounded by huge old trees and close to a pond and a brook (of course). The wrought iron entrance and fence is ornamented with lion faces, and in the intermittent gloom of the day the cemetery was wonderfully moody, full of creeping shadows and silence.

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That day, mistaken in thinking that the stone was upright and rather large (judging from a picture I had seen online), we were forced to leave without finding it. In the days that followed I kept thinking about the gravestone and made plans to return to Somesville to search again. Bad weather, work commitments, and visiting out-of-state friends kept me from the hunt, and the ever-present threat of the glorious fall foliage dumping off the trees prematurely and obliterating my chances of finding a stone that was flat to the ground and possibly on the smaller side made me daily more anxious.

Finally today (well, yesterday I suppose, as I note the lateness of the hour…) I found both the time and the sunshine necessary to attempt another search. If Brookside Cemetery was quaint and atmospheric before, it was downright pretty – even cheerful – on my second visit. Dappled sunlight and whatnot. Yellow leaves strewn everywhere, but not thankfully obliterating anything.

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Determined to be systematic this time I set off marching up and down the rows, pausing to gently brush aside maple leaf confetti, admire an interesting name or snap a picture. I returned yet again to a section I was convinced I had thoroughly investigated on my first visit, a spot where I liked to believe my gut was sensing Yourcenar’s final resting place. I caught sight of the edge of a small grey stone nestled in moss and other plant things and although unconvinced (I was certain it would be larger considering the amount of writing on it), I went to check it out. And there it was – impossibly tiny, but with ‘Marguerite Yourcenar 1903-1987‘ chipped clearly into it, as well as the epitaph, written in French below.

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Grace Frick’s stone was nearby, and the both lay within sight of the pond and beneath one of those huge old trees.

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May it please the One who perchance is to expand the human heart to life’s full measure.” (a line from Yourcenar’s novel The Abyss)

Excitement turned suddenly to bashfulness and I said out loud, awkwardly, but in earnest, “Well, here you are, after all that. Um… I liked your book an awful lot!” Then I gave a sort of salute, kind of tipped an imaginary hat, snapped a last picture, and turned away with a satisfied sigh. I walked back through the cemetery feeling more cheerful than is probably decent in such a place.

A brief encounter after such a lot of time and effort (comparatively), but well worth it. I want to find Yourcenar’s memoirs (she wrote three volumes) and see what I can find out about the time she spent living on MDI.

As for Memoirs of Hadrian, The Wolves September read…which I am so, so, so late in reviewing…! It is an amazing piece of writing – fiction based on fact, the imagined memoirs of the real Roman Emperor Hadrian. Yourencar drew from what exists of the man’s writings, and the writings of his historians, friends, and enemies, and crafted a fully realized world. The historical detail is thoroughly mesmerizing – at no point did I feel like I was reading a text book or even a bit of dry non-fiction, yet Rome of 76-138 A.D. came leaping off the page. There was high adventure, passionate love, political plotting, and a fascinating glimpse into the mind of a man who thought about his actions and tried to see himself clearly. How a person sees themselves, the question of what kind of narrative you tell yourself about yourself is addressed subtly. Hadrian presents himself as a really decent guy, and while the reader is only allowed to see him through his own rosy glass, there is an overwhelming sense of honesty. He’s an amazing character, curious, introspective, a fellow who loved to travel, to live life brilliantly, to solve problems and improve upon standards of life and governing. His dramatic and successful career is astounding – thirty years of forging peace throughout the Roman Empire which was vast at the time.

Granted, they’re his own words, but Hadrian seems remarkably wise, fearless, on top of things – and at the same time vulnerable, questioning, destroyed by sorrow, full of doubts… And I say “they’re his own words” but of course they’re Yourcenar’s. This is…again I have to say amazing. It’s cool that Hadrian was a real person, that he did those things for real – but the brilliance of Yourcenar’s writing is what rocks me back in my seat. That she could make Hadrian come back to life like this. Amazing scholarship, amazing writing. Without a doubt one of the best pieces of historical fiction (if you can even call it that) I have ever read.

It brings to mind another fictional “memoir”, and the parallels are really interesting to me. Augusto Roa Bastos’ I The Supreme is another re-imagining of a real life ruler, another tale told in the man’s own words (more or less). What interests me is the the idea of self-image – the self-edited versions of Hadrian and Dr. Jose Gaspar Rodriguez de Francia as they represent themselves. Hadrian, while at times appearing almost too awesome, still inspired me with confidence, and his moments of humility and self-examination proved to me that he was an all right kind of person. Plus his actions reflected his basic honesty. Francia, on the other hand, is a terrible person and you can tell that from his actions, even though his self-edited self-image is glowing.

What’s doubly interesting is the concept of the reliability of these narrators and the way they represent themselves, layered over the fact that they are already the interpretation of real historical people as represented by their authors. These two books are perfect examples of this piling – both are extraordinarily well written, so well written that the authors disappear into the narrative voice of Hadrian or Francia.

Hmmm. Now where was I going with all of that? It just got really late on me… Suffice it to say that Memoirs of Hadrian is outstanding, and I’m delighted to have discovered both Yourcenar’s writing and her gravestone. See it, way down in the left corner of this picture?

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Join The Wolves at the end of this month for our discussion of House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski (unless I discover a related quest that needs to be completed, thus pushing my part of the discussion to some random point in November…!)


Responses

  1. Fantastic post, thank you. I knew that I need to read Yourcenar’s book, but I think I must revisit Maine some year. Mount Desert Island sounds unbearably exotic.

    • Ha, I would never use “exotic” for MDI, but of course I catch your drift. It is a very pretty place with lots of character and history and all that good stuff. I’m quite fond of the area. I hope you DO get to visit sometime soon!

  2. Great post! It’s wonderful to see a young person inspired by “Memoirs of Hadrian.” You should visit Petite Plaisance next summer!

    • I fully intend to. And by then I’ll hopefully have tracked down some of Yourcenar’s memoirs which will add so much to the experience of seeing where she lived. I had no idea an author I enjoyed so much lived so close by – definitely beats the expense of a trip to Europe to loiter at other famous author’s gravesides!

  3. What a wonderful post. First those pictures and the story of the gravestone and then the review of a book I really loved as well when I read it.
    I love cemeteries. It’s a realy weakness. I think this is a particularly nice one.
    When I read the novel I paired with Antonin Artuad’s nbook on Héliogabal. That was so fascinating. On one side chaoes. on the other order and the writers couldn’t be more different as well.
    I read somewhere that Artaud’s books will be re-issued or re-translated in English. He’s wild, to say the least.

    • Thank you Caroline! I had a great deal of fun both researching it and writing it. I picked up a book of “conversations” with Yourcenar that I’m eager to dip into, as well as another novel by her. She seems to be a fascinating person.

      Glad you share my love of cemeteries – I so enjoy looking at the gravestones, at the names and dates, and wondering what the bones beneath did in life. The most perfect sort of melancholy activity.

      I haven’t heard of Artuad, but I’m off to investigate.

  4. Oops…. I made a typo…. Artaud… Just in case you couldn’t find him.
    He wrote a book on theater that is interesting and his notes from the asylum…
    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Theatre-Its-Double-Oneworld-Classics/dp/1847490786/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1319727974&sr=1-1

    He was also an actor in some movies.
    I plan on visiting Highgate Cemetery …

    • Wow, from just a quick glance around his life he sounds like a really intriguing fellow. I definitely want to explore more. Thanks for the tip!

  5. I’m finally getting around to reading this entry, which is beautiful and fun to peruse! How odd that Yourcenar ended up buried in Maine – I mean, no reason she WOULDN’T be, but I never would have guessed. Hadrian sadly became a victim of my aggressive reading slump, but maybe now that I seem to be getting over it, I can return to the attack. In any case, I was very much enjoying it before the doldrums hit.

    And, as usual, I love your photography. 🙂

    • Thanks Emily!

      Hadrian helped me get out of a certain variety of reading slump – the kind where anything beyond fluff was making my head ache and my eyes cross! Glad to know that I still enjoy “literary fiction”. I hope you do return to it and enjoy it as much as I did.

  6. Just love this post. And these images! Hadrian was a special read for me as you know. And I kind of have a cemetery thing too. Have you ever been to some of the funky burial places in North Carolina on the Outer Banks? Complete with pirate graves and people with birth date, death date, then birth date on their headstones? Endlessly interesting walking through these places.

    • Thanks Frances! North Carolina is actually one of the states I have never even been in – must remedy this. After this venture, I am planning to make more of an effort to visit cemeteries, especially if I have a specific stone to find – such an adventure. I haven’t really been to many. Easily the most impressive (and bizarre) were the ones I visited in New Orleans…!

  7. […] surprised me most wonderfully with its rich historical details and immensely engaging story. The search for the author’s gravestone which followed my reading of it is one of my favorite things I […]

  8. […] surprised me most wonderfully with its rich historical details and immensely engaging story. The search for the author’s gravestone which followed my reading of it is one of my favorite things I […]


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