Sunday, 17 February 2013

The Letter

It was a slow start. I actually thought this would be one of those books that I will pretend to have read when other people start talking about anything more complicated than the Little Prince. However, the Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar were fantastic.

I am at a cross-roads in my life, which at the moment consists of waiting and spending too much time on 9gag. By comparison, Hadrian is nearing the end of his and writes a last letter to his successor Marcus Aurelius. Here he describes his childhood in Spain, his grandfather, how he ascended to the seat of emperor (he gets rid of a throne at some point), how he triumphed in battle and how he ruled the empire. Hadrian also speaks of his love of philosophy, music, art and poetry, and of his appreciation for Greek culture.

I am no expert in the Roman emperors, but Hadrian is remarkable because he does not possess some identifiable hamartia, unlike Shakespeare's Mark Antony or Goscinny and Uderzo's Julius Caesar. Instead, he aims for peace and for people of different cultures to be able to life next to one another without the constant threat of death and destruction. He also recognises that "our great mistake is to try and extract from each person virtues which he does not possess, and to neglect the cultivation of those which he has" (p.47). It sounds similar to Einstein stating that you cannot judge a fish by how well he can climb a tree (or something like that).

Hadrian acknowledges a basic humanity and under his rule the laws pertaining to slaves and gladiators were changed because the emperor wanted everyone, be they Roman, slave or barbarian, to share an interest in having Rome prosper and endure. In the reflections by Yourcenar at the back of the book she writes that she was much influenced by a paragraph she found in a letter from Flaubert to La Sylphide: "The melancholy of the antique world seems to me more profound than that of the moderns, all of whom more or less imply that beyond the dark void lies immortality. But for the ancients that 'black hole' is infinity itself; their dreams loom and vanish against a background of immutable ebony. No crying out, no convulsions - nothing but the fixity of a pensive gaze. Just when the Gods had ceased to be and the Christ had not yet come, there was a unique moment in history, between Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, when man stood alone. Nowhere else do I find that particular grandeur."

This is no easy read, but worth the trouble of getting past the first pages in order to become truly immersed in the story. Sure, it is a bit strange to read a fictional memoir of a Roman emperor from 2 AD and which was written by a French lady in the 1940s. On the back cover the Independent on Sunday is quoted as saying that "Yourcenar conjures worlds. She can make us share passion - for beauty, bodies, ideas, even power - and consider it closely at the same time. She is that most extraordinary thing: a sensual writer."

And to see Yourcenar's words come to life in your imagination is magic.

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