Thursday, January 01, 2009

Oriental Tales by Marguerite Yourcenar

Memoirs of Hadrian, Marguerite Yourcenar's best known novel, is in the form of a fictional memoir of the Emperor Hadrian, written to his successor Marcus Aurelius. There are some lovely passages here - wistful meditations on astronomy, history, the living of life, and sensual passion. This melancholy novel is mostly based on the biography of Hadrian from the Augustan History , but downplays the late Emperor's more vile characteristics, which were probably somewhat exaggerated in the original telling anyway. Fully deserving of its reputation as a 20th century classic.

Oriental Tales is Yourcenar's collection of ten stories, encompassing an "Orient" which stretches from the Balkans to China, in fantastic tales seemingly derived from folklore. Yourcenar has a way with a sensual phrase, and a sympathetic ear for the roguish seducer. Seduction is, in fact, a leitmotif of these stories, be it the artist Wang-Fo, whose superb paintings render pale the real world for a young Emperor (a seduction which carries an awful penalty, until the artist devises a means of saving himself), or the aging Japanese Don Juan, Genji, whose memory holds loving remembrance of all women save the one who loved him most deeply. There is a touch of the ribald in the sun-dappled stories of Greece and the Balkans (it is not a smile which almost betrays Marko Kraljevic in the story "Marko's Smile", feigning death until a dancing girl awakens his manly passion) and hints of the unearthly power of the feminine in "The Milk of Death", "Our Lady of the Swallows", and "Kali Beheaded", stories which seem to trace the beginnings of folklore and myth in anguished cries against patriarchal injustice.

Revised and supplemented from the original 1938 text, and translated lovingly by Alberto Manguel, these stories affirm Yourcenar as one of the premier (and most enjoyable) storytellers of the 20th century.

Not to be overlooked are two enjoyably diverse volumes of Yourcenar's essays - The Dark Brain of Piranesi and That Mighty Sculptor, Time.