Near the beginning of this book, in one of its many lyrical and precise descriptive passages, Hadrian writes about his intimations of mortality.
Comme le voyageur qui navigue entre les îles de l'Archipel voit la buée lumineuse se lever vers le soir, et découvre peu à peu la ligne du rivage, je commence à apercevoir le profil de ma mort.
[As the traveller navigating between the islands of the Archipelago sees the luminous mist rise towards the evening, and discovers, little by little, the line of the shore, so I begin to notice the contours of my death.]
This passage sets out perfectly both the book's theme – mortality – and its method - a melancholy prose style whose brilliance can sometimes take your breath away.
I was hugely impressed by Mémoires d'Hadrien
. Purporting to be the memoirs of the Roman emperor, Yourcenar's book pulls off the narrative voice so well that you sometimes have to remind yourself that it's fiction; every sentence seems heavy with the wise sadness of someone who has lived for a long time and through many momentous events.
The novel took more than twenty years to write and the quality shows in every line, every phrase. It's not a perfect book, perhaps – although it's short, it is dense (like the book Alice's sister was reading, it contains no pictures or conversations), and I found it dragged slightly in the back end – but that's admittedly perhaps because I was reading it in French.
Though the book is a life story, it is also tightly-controlled. This is not a sprawling epic, but rather a thematic portrait of a man at the end of his life dwelling mostly on those experiences which have come to preoccupy him, primarily his own impending death and the moments of love which – just perhaps – will have made it all worthwhile.
For Hadrian, in Yourcenar's conception of him, love and death are closely intertwined. Perhaps that is why he can't leave either of them alone. Architecture sets him off: his passages on the immortality of buildings represent a great meditation on architecture to be set beside that of Hugo in [b:Notre-Dame de Paris|1253933|Notre-Dame de Paris|Victor Hugo|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1182280513s/1253933.jpg|3043569].
Ces murs que j'étaie sont encore chauds du contact de corps disparus; des mains qui n'existent pas encore caresseront ces fûts de colonnes.
[These walls that I prop up are still warm from contact with bodies that have disappeared; hands which do not yet exist will caress the trunks of these columns.]
Ideas of death being transcended through architecture are followed by sketches of deaths variously from old age, natural disaster, war, and suicide. Hadrian does not draw conclusions from this catalogue of mortality, but the reader is well able to if he or she wishes. There is also an interesting section where Hadrian reflects on his own deification: as emperor, the people consider him literally to be a god, something which, characteristically, he tries to find useful:
Loin de voir dans ces marques d'adoration un danger de folie ou de prépotence pour l'homme qui les accepte, j'y découvrais un frein, l'obligation de se dessiner d'après quelque modèle éternel, d'associer à la puissance humaine une part de suprème sapience. Être dieu oblige en somme à plus de vertus qu'être empereur.
[Far from seeing in these signs of adoration a risk of madness or authoritarianism for the man who accepts them, I found them to be a restraint – the obligation to model oneself on some eternal prototype, to link human power to an element of supreme wisdom. Being a god, in short, calls for more virtues than being an emperor.]
Part of the impetus for the novel, Yourcenar has said, was a fascination with this period of history when belief in the Olympian gods had disappeared but before Christianity had really emerged – a brief moment, in Flaubert's phrase, when man alone existed. This book evokes the idea perfectly.
There is a looming sense of disaster in all this brooding on death, a disaster which finally comes with the fate of Hadrian's beloved Antinous. There is something exceptionally artful in the way that Antinous's story takes up only a small part of the novel, while the ramifications are yet so infused in every sentence Hadrian writes. Yourcenar – or Hadrian – is coy about the physical side of their relationship, but the book is full of brilliant and perceptive comments on love as an emotion.
Mais le poids de l'amour, comme celui d'un bras tendrement posé au travers d'une poitrine, devenait peu à peu lourd à porter.
[But the weight of love, like an arm draped tenderly across one's chest, became little by little heavy to bear.]
It's in this character of Antinous that the themes of death and love are united – and the reason, perhaps, that they are so united in Hadrian's mind. It's a union that means Hadrian is reluctant to ignore death or pass over its unsavoury features: he's determined to consider it as fully as he can, and understand what he himself is facing.
Cette mort serait vaine si je n'avais pas le courage de la regarder en face, de m'attacher à ces réalités du froid, du silence, du sang coagulé, des membres inertes, que l'homme recouvre si vite de terre [...].
[This death would be in vain if I did not have the courage to look at it head-on, to concentrate on these realities of cold, of silence, of coagulated blood, of inert limbs, that man recovers so quickly from the earth.]
In a way the whole book is an attempt to do this, only somehow it's not half as depressing as I just made it sound. On the contrary, it's life-affirming, moving and thought-provoking – and built from a prose style which, on occasion, looks something like genius.