Better late than never: ‘Memoirs of Hadrian’ by Marguerite Yourcenar


Near the start of Paul Bailey’s introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Yourcenar’s fictional memoir, we’re told the idea for the book first came to the author in the mid-1920s.  Now I don’t want to push the comparison too much, but the novel wasn’t actually published till 1951 so reviewing it gives me an opportunity to reflect on my own recent literary hiatus.  I know that a month away from WordPress isn’t really like Yourcenar’s years without publication (there was over a decade between ‘Hadrian’ and her previous novel).  Still, if this book has taught me anything it’s that there is nothing wrong with reading your own theories and beliefs into the life of a historical hero.

One reason why it’s so tempting to impose my own interpretation on this book, is that I feel the London libraries have given me a strong example to follow.  I had originally hoped to read and review ‘Hadrian’ for the 1951 reading club and was delighted to discover that it is held by several local libraries, each of which had decided to place it on a different shelf:  In Brixton it is held in ‘Gay/Lesbian’, in Streatham it is in ‘Classic Fiction’, in Tooting it is categorised as ‘History’ and in Northcote as ‘Classics: classics.’  Having read it, I’m rather disappointed that it wasn’t stored under ‘Philosophy,’ as well, but I like to think that in other libraries this may well be the case.

For all the initial build up however, I’m not sure this book is the experimental genre-bending work such confusion had lead me to expect.  Following her exhaustive research, Yourcenar structures the novel as a letter from the dying Hadrian to his future successor Marcus Aurelius.  We learn about the important events of his life, but the focus is far more on his thoughts and philosophies, giving an excellent view of what Hadrian might have believed, if Hadrian had happened to be a twentieth-century French humanist.

Such an approach inevitably slows the pace of this account of an action-packed life. Hadrian was not born to power; he became emperor after being adopted by the martial Trajan.  Before and after his accession to ultimate power he was a relentless adventurer, roaming the known world and making the most of all the physical, emotional, spiritual and intellectual experiences open to him.  By the time we encounter him as the narrator of the novel, the possibilities of the first option have receded into the past.  The restless emperor can now barely move his body, and even his recollections of previous exploits seem consumed with reflections on sensuality rather than conveying a sense of action.

This tone extends to the descriptions of sexuality.  Hadrian’s most significant relationship was with the Greek Antinous.  The two met when Hadrian was in his forties and Antinous was a young teenager, an age discrepancy which can’t help affect my response to the romance between the master and his dependant.  We know from history that Antinous died suddenly and under rather murky circumstances around the age of 20, at which point he was deified by the mourning emperor.  We also know a lot about what he looked like.  Part of the cult Hadrian initiated in his memory involved a huge number of statues being created; according to Wikipedia, ‘more images have been identified of Antinous than of any other figure in classical antiquity with the exceptions of Augustus and Hadrian.’


Bust of Antinous from Wikipedia

It’s all exciting stuff, with enough sex, danger and adventure to make anyone interested in classical history.  Yourcenar however has gone for a decidedly philosophical rather than sensationalist telling of Hadrian’s life and I’m afraid it says more about me than her literary skills that I rather wish she hadn’t.  I’m flying in the face of traditional responses to the book, but I like to believe that Hadrian was a much more determined, charismatic and, frankly, interesting man than I got from the narrative.  I shouldn’t complain though; reading ‘Memoirs of Hadrian’ has allowed me to belatedly feel a part of the 1951 reading club, given me the chance to read a work by the first woman ever to be elected to the Académie Français and reminded me to get blogging again.  It may not have taught me much that I didn’t know about Hadrian’s life from listening to the wonderful ‘History of Rome podcast,’ but it has been an oblique window into how the past was viewed by 1950s intellectuals.  It’s also given me a standard against which to judge all library books and I’m now on the lookout to see if I can find any books that cause more confusion to cataloguing systems!

Even though I didn’t manage to review ‘Memoirs of Hadrian’ for the 1951 club, it did make it onto the list and was reviewed at Intermittencies of the Mind.


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8 Responses to Better late than never: ‘Memoirs of Hadrian’ by Marguerite Yourcenar

  1. Even though the week is over, I’ve added your post to my links page – especially as this is a title that wasn’t so common as some others! 🙂

    • Thank you! I was really looking forward the club and annoyed at myself for missing it (though I’m afraid I can understand this book maybe being not as popular with some of the other choices from the year)

  2. Jonathan says:

    It’s interesting seeing another’s take on the book. I liked it and most of the times it felt as if I was reading the actual memoirs of Hadrian but I would have preferred it if it had been written as a history in the third person.

    I also find it amusing when books can’t be categorised; they’re usually my favourites.

    Thanks for the mention.

    • I think I preferred the idea of this book slightly more than the actual experience of reading it unfortunately! Maybe you’re right and it was the first person narrative that I found alienating – it certainly wasn’t as page turning as Robert Grave’s Claudius novels…

  3. This does sound interesting. At the moment I’m finding my brain is a bit full and a novel has to grab me to sustain my attention, so maybe one to read when I feel I’ve got space for philosophical French humanist musings in my head!

  4. BookerTalk says:

    It does seem that people are not exactly sure how to categorise this book.

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