Marguerite Yourcenar

I was into science fiction and fantasy novels when I was younger. This adoration of unknown and nonexistent worlds came about as a result of a rejection of the world I knew: when I was six my family moved from New York City to Maine, and I went from being a happy, popular, and talented student to an outcast and a failure. This was an overnight transformation. I was still the same person, but my surroundings were different.

I can remember very distinctly one of my first days at the bright shining public school in Maine where I walked into class and was immediately told to take a math quiz with the rest of the students even though I hadn’t studied the material (which was probably simple multiplication) and wasn’t even quite sure what the rules of the quiz were. It was all so different from back in the city, and the surprise took me so completely off guard that after exactly two minutes the little white plastic timer pinged and everyone was finished except for me. My paper was blank. It would take ten years for me to regain my natural interest in learning. My teachers complained in my report cards that I spent most of class staring out the window. No wonder. Everyone in those rooms, myself included, was convinced that I was an idiot, while back in New York City I had been the fastest reader in the class. I was all too sensitive, on top of that. When the other kids made fun of me I cried instead of taking it in stride, and that only encouraged them. It was no surprise, therefore, that I retreated from this world and began gravitating toward other planets. Before long I was drawing spaceships during storytime, the other kids snapping at me because the sound of my pencil dotting the paper—applying windows—was too loud. Words followed.

When the situation improved in high school and college I drifted away from the ridiculous books with dragons and spaceships on their covers and started moving toward something more realistic that was still very far away: classical literature, history books, and historical fiction. Here were strange new worlds that seemed so much more real than the movie novelizations and sequels and spinoffs I had been devouring for years. The cardboard sets were knocked down and fortresses of thousand year-old stone rose up in their places, glittering with soldiers, charred black by flames. Then a professional historian and a professional poet both recommended Marguerite Yourcenar when I was in college, a woman who coincidentally happened to live on the same island as me, in the same town as The School of Unhappiness, though she died a month after I was born.

I’ve read two of her books, Memoirs of Hadrian and The Abyss, and I’m currently re-reading the latter. In doing so I’ve discovered that this is the book I would write if I were capable of being ten times as witty, interesting, engaging, and poetic; ten times as intelligent; and ten times the researcher. Everywhere my eye falls there are words, sentences, paragraphs, floods of detail, worthy of being underlined and commented upon. In this book Yourcenar has made 16th century Europe far more real and believable than the modern world in the hands of lesser writers, who need only look outside their windows or inside their memories in order to research; one almost suspects her of traveling through time and reporting back on what she saw.

Here, in one example I’ve picked almost at random, with the patience of a scientist and the passion of an artist she describes the beginnings of Western science, when both science and art were still joined at the hip:

But, for the most part, Zeno would take off alone, at dawn, his notebooks in hand, going far into the back country, seeking whatever he might learn from direct contact with the nature of things. Thus for hours at a time he would examine stones, weighing them and studying their rough or polished contours, their coloration from rust or mold, all of which tell a tale and testify as to the metals which have composed them, the waters which long ago precipitated their substance, and the fires which have coagulated them into the shapes we see. Insects would often escape from beneath the stones, strange creatures from some animal inferno. Seated, perhaps, on a hummock he would gaze at the plains, undulating under gray skies, and swollen here and there by long ranges of sandy hills; he would dream then of times gone by when the sea had filled these great spaces where grain was now growing, and had left on them, in receding, the shape and imprint of waves. For everything suffers change, both the form of the world and what Nature produces in its motion, each moment of which takes centuries. Or again, his attention suddenly fixed and furtive like that of a poacher, he would turn to the beasts which run, fly, or crawl in the depths of the woods, to study exactly what traces they leave behind them, their rut and mating, their nourishment, their signals and their stratagems; and the way in which, when struck with a stick, they die. He was drawn by a certain sympathy toward the reptiles, calumniated as they are by man’s superstition or fear; the marveled at their cold, cautious, half-subterranean nature, enclosing in each of their eartbound coils an ancient, mineral-like wisdom.

And from theories as to the beginning of science (rooted in Lucretius) we move to a theory as to the beginning of literature (mirrored in Nabokov):

…we sort out our readers: the fools take us literally; other fools, thinking us more stupid than themselves, abandon us; those who stay with us make their way in the labyrinth of our books, learning to jump the obstacle, the lie, or to go around it. I should be greatly surprised if the same subterfuges are not to be found even in the most sacred texts. When read thus, every book has a hidden meaning.

To say nothing of hidden connections.