Jul. 15th, 2014

decemberthirty: (tree swallow)
I have, at long last, finished Memoirs of Hadrian. I have spent three months with the book, but now that it is finished I hardly know what to say about it. I have never had a reading experience quite like this one, in the sense that it felt both transcendent and like a slog, often simultaneously.

Let me say first that the book is undoubtedly a work of genius. The phrase "literary ventriloquism" gets tossed around, but Marguerite Yourcenar has achieved something that goes beyond even that commendation. Memoirs of Hadrian is the perfect distillation of a human consciousness, a work of utter authorial effacement. Despite the incredible amount of scholarly work she did to produce this novel, Yourcenar renders herself invisible and presents to us Hadrian complete: full of his memories, shaped by his time and by his lifetime's worth of work and thought. Not only does she do this, but she does it in absolutely beautiful prose--her sentences are careful, measured, unadorned, but beautiful nonetheless.

So why did long stretches of the book fail to hold my interest? Why did I feel so little impulse to pick the book up again after I had put it down? I found that reading it required immense concentration; I could only handle five or ten pages at a time, and even then I had to continually pull my focus back to the words on the page in front of me. I developed a fondness for Hadrian as I spent more and more time with him, and there were times (though they were isolated incidents) when his thoughts or (even rarer) his feelings resonated deeply with me, yet this never translated in a desire to know what would happen next. I could admire the book intellectually and aesthetically, but could not feel deeply engaged with it.

But it's another form of engagement, isn't it, to spend three months with a character? To sip continuously from a book over a long period, rather than drinking a few deep drafts? It is, of course, even if I can't describe exactly what the difference is. I only considered quitting the book when I was trying to read it in my usual mode. Once I had slowed down, and settled myself into the habit of reading just a few pages at a time I never questioned whether it would be worth it to finish the book.

And perhaps that is the result of my long wrestling with this work: something of value has been imparted, though I can't say now what it was. Perhaps the value, or part of it, is in the wrestling itself.

Reflections on the Composition )
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