decemberthirty: (tree swallow)
[personal profile] decemberthirty
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.

I read Memoirs of Hadrian in a Modern Library edition that included at the end a section called "Reflections on the Composition of Memoirs of Hadrian." This was nearly 30 pages of brief, fragmentary notes by Yourcenar describing the work of writing the book, the 25 years that it took between her first conception of writing the life of Hadrian and the full germination of the book, the reading that she did and the images that were important to her during that time, etc. And while my feelings about the book itself are a confused jumble, I just plain loved these little notes. They seem to contain so much wisdom and to say so much, not just about Yourcenar's amazing project but about all of writing. I wanted to copy out almost all of them. But I will share only a few:

Take a like that is known and completed, recorded and fixed by Histry (as much as lives ever can be fixed), so that its entire course may be seen at a single glance; more important still, choose the moment when the man who lived that existence weighs and examines it, and is, for the briefest span, capable of judging it. Try to manage so that he stands before his own life in much the same position as we stand when we look at it.

The human substance and structure hardly change: nothing is more stable than the curve of a heel, the position of a tendon, or the form of a tow. But there are periods when the shoe is less deforming than in others. In the century of which I speak we are still very close to the undisguised freedom of the bare foot.

On the 26th of December, 1950, on an evening of freezing cold and in the almost polar silence of Mount Desert Island, off the Atlantic shore, I was striving to live again through the smothering heat of a day in July, in the year 138 in Baiae, to feel the weight of a sheet on weary, heavy limbs, and to catch the barely perceptible sound of that tideless sea as from time to time it reached a man whose whole attention was concentrated upon other murmurs, those of his approaching death. I tried to go as far as the last sip of water, the last spasm of pain, the last image in his mind. Now the emperor had but to die.

Date: 2014-07-15 08:18 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
What an interesting relationship to have with a book. You do make it sound incredibly intriguing... if one has the right amount of energy and ambition. :D

Date: 2014-07-17 05:39 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
It certainly was interesting. I'm glad I did it, although I'm not sure whether I would recommend the book to many people--perhaps only to those looking for a very specific sort of thing....
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