The Tale of Two Margueritas
I very rarely consider literature in terms of gender of the writers, but when I do, two names immediately come up to my mind: Marguerite Yourcenar and Marguerite Duras. To mark International Women’s Day, the Reader’s Nook celebrates the work of these two exceptional writers.
MARGUERITE YOURCENAR (1903-1987)
Marguerite Yourcenar was a French/Belgian novelist, essayist and short story writer, and the first woman elected to the Acedeme Francaise, in 1980. She became famous with her metaphysical historical novels, creating psychologically penetrating characters from the distant past. At the same time, in her novels she addressed issues such as homosexuality, and dealt with universal taboos such as incest.
Yourcenar’s first novel, Alexis, was published in 1929. At the outbreak of the WWII, her intimate companion of that time, a translator named Grace Flick, invited her to the United States, where she lectured in comparative literature.
Oriental Tales was first published in 1938 in France. From China to Greece, from the Balkans to Japan, the Tales take us from a portrait of the painter Wang Fo, “who loves the image of things and not the things themselves”, to legends of a hero betrayed and then rescued by love. “Dream and myth speak here in a language rich in images that imply other, more secret meanings, building a world of reflections upon art…”
Among Yourcenar’s best known works is certainly Memoirs of Hadrian (1951). The emperor, one of the last great Roman rulers, is portrayed on the eve of his death, absorbed in his reflections. Hadrian recounts his memories in his testament letter to his chosen successor and adoptive son Marcus Aurelius. The emperor meditates on his triumphs and failures, and on his love for Antonius, a Greek youth. Yourcenar worked on this novel for fifteen years, and Memoirs of Hadrian has become a modern classic, “a standard against fictional re-creations of antique world are measured”.
First published in Paris in 1982, each of the three stories in Two Lives and a Dream is written in a different style and takes place in the world of late Renaissance Europe. Yourcenar’s incredible gift for “bringing a historical epoch to life is here employed with unsurpassed mastery to create fables of timeless universality about the human condition”. An Obscure Man, the first and longest in this collection, contains one of the author’s most moving depictions of human nature. A Lovely Morning is a brief fantasy of a young man who joins a touring company of actors and dreams out the whole of his life to come. The final story, Anna, Sorror, an unforgettable tale of fated love, was composed by the time Yourcenar was 22. Set in the baroque Naples at the close sixteenth century, Anna, Sorror is “an intensely affecting account of illicit and overwhelming passion between a young aristocrat Miguel and his sister Anna, who live and love each other in seclusion from the surrounding world after the death of their mother."
For Marguerite Yourcenar’s books, please check our catalogue.
(Image of M. Yourcenar courtesy of flickr.com)
MARGUERITE DURAS (1914-1996)
"Very early in my life it was too late." (The Lover)
"On Marguerite Duras' tombstone at Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris", wrote Pilar Adon, "there are a small plant, a lot of white pills scattered over her sober gray stone, two flowers and two letters engraved: M. D. Two are also the images that could illustrate the unbridled process of her exsistence: the evocation of a beautiful girl full of eroticism, traveling by ferry along the Mekong River with a felt hat on, her lips in dark red color, and just, at the other end, a woman with her face and body devastated by alcohol, dressed in a straight skirt and a vest over a turtleneck jumper, who, after four detoxication cures, went into a five month coma. Marguerite Duras leapt in just a moment from the beginning to the end of her life, but in the brief time of that moment, she did what she wanted to do: écrire. To write..."
Marguerite Duras was born in French Indochina (what is today today South Vietnam), where she spent most of her childhood. "I cannot think of my childhood without thinking of water. My home town is a town of water”, whe once said. Her father's sudden death, when she was four, left the family impoverished. Many years later she would say that having money didn't change anything because she would always keep "a damned mentality of being poor".
Reading Marguerite Duras’ books implies looking into her own life. “In a real act of literary vivisection, she extracted her own pain, filtered it through her writing and offered it to the readers… Literature and life – two points hard to separate in the works of Marguerite Duras."
Probably her best known and most celebrated work is The Lover (L’ Amant), a semi-biographical novel about an illicit affair between a teenage French girl and a wealthy Chinese man in 1929 French Indochina. The book won the prix Goncourt, the most prestigious literary award in France, has been translated into 43 languages and in a short time sold 1.5 million copies.
“It is said that old loves can haunt us. The Lover creates this feeling through the atmosphere of shadows, veils, floating memories that came from – was it this boat trip or the last one? From the age of eight, twelve or thirty? In the end, it doesn’t matter, for the experience is now embedded, a distinct yet inseparable part of the personality “, wrote Erica Bauermeister in 500 Great Books by Women. Marguerite Duras digs in her own past to tell The Lover, a story of an adolescent girl who was forced to grow up to fast and was exposed to too much pain, too soon.
The Lover was made into a film in 1992, directed by Jean- Jacques Annaud, who remarked: “Destruction. A key word when it comes to Marguerite Duras, who uses her novels…to study herself in as many mirrors; she identifies herself with her work to the point that she no longer knows what is autobiographical fact and what is fiction…”
Check our catalogue for more books by Marguerite Duras.