According to John Ruskin, 'in the work of the great masters death is always either heroic, deserved, or quiet and natural.' Not so in Marguerite Yourcenar's world. She is renowned for her timeless narrative gift and lucid style, and she regards her books as defining that unfashionable thing, an 'ideal of humanity'. Yet death occurs in these fictions with what Ruskin would have seen as a morbid regularity and an unwholesome virulence. Her best-known novel, the Memoirs of Hadrian (1954), impersonates the Roman emperor on his death-bed, torn between his reminiscences and his attempts to prepare for the final agony. Her coldly brilliant essay on Yukio Mishima[*] culminates in a detailed reconstruction of the gruesome last rites of seppuku performed by the Japanese novelist. The body-count in the first twenty pages of 'An Obscure Man', the longest of the three novellas collected in Two Lives and a Dream, rivals that in the whole of Bleak House (which Ruskin denounced for its sensationalism). Yourcenar published a much earlier version of Two Lives and a Dream in 1934 as La Mort conduit l'attelage (Death drives the cart), a title that she now repudiates as too oversimplified: 'Death does drive the cart, but so, too, does life.'
LRB 3 September 1987 | PDF Download