Tuesday, 15 September 2009

'Memoirs of Hadrian' by Margaret Yourcenar

Is this possibly one of the greatest books ever written? It might be hard to convince others of this view, but somehow I have a nagging huge respect for this book and its author. I remember the powerful effect of first reading ‘Memoirs of Hadrian’ over 15 years ago, with a copy lent me by a good friend, Tony Head. By chance I came across it in a charity shop this year, and snatched it up with eager anticipation, even though the years had erased nearly all detail of the book in my memory, except that feeling of awed respect. On this re-reading, I was even more impressed. A book which improves and magnifies its impact on subsequent reading is a rare achievement.

The writing of this book was virtually a life’s work for the author. It was first written in French, but she participated in the translation with Grace Frick to produce an equally precious artwork in English. The measured and lapidary nature of the French language comes through in elegant and significant English sentences. One needs to read the book slowly, for virtually every sentence carries weight. It is deeply philosophical, using the life of the Emperor Hadrian to meditate on matters of love, loyalty, politics, religion, death, decay, memory, futility, betrayal, Godhood, ecstasy, poetry, architecture, self-discipline, courage, nature and on and on with admirable judiciousness and balance. The fictional Hadrian achieved great wisdom from his long, varied and sad life, but it all comes out of the head and heart of its remarkable author.

So this is a profound and deeply moving book. It is infused with melancholy, yet intensely interested to convey thought and explore life. It has real weight, transcending the fictitious historical memoir of a great Roman Emperor, to address universal issues of human life in a perplexing universe.

In such a wide-ranging book, it is difficult to select a passage to convey an impression of this magnificent work. After much thumbing back through the pages, I have selected this elegant paragraph. Enjoy.

“Wine initiates us into the volcanic mysteries of the soil and its hidden mineral riches; a cup of Samos drunk at noon in the heat of the sun or, on the contrary, absorbed of a winter evening when fatigue makes the warm current felt at once in the hollow of the diaphragm and the sure and burning dispersion spreads along our arteries, such a drink provides a sensation which is almost sacred, and is sometimes too strong for the human head. No feeling so pure comes from the vintage-numbered cellars of Rome; the pedantry of great connoisseurs of wine wearies me. Water drunk more reverently still, from the hands or from the spring itself, diffuses within us the most secret salts of the earth and the rain of heaven. But even water is a delight which, sick man that I am, I may now consume only with strict restraint. No matter: in death’s agony itself, and mingled with the bitterness of the last potions, I shall try still to taste on my lips its fresh simplicity.”

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