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Maine Writers Index - Detail   (Return to List)

Marguerite Yourcenar (1903 - 1987)

Image of Marguerite  Yourcenar
Marguerite Yourcenar
(1903 - 1987)
Genre: General Fiction

Born in Bailleul, Belgium on 8 June 1903, of a Belgian mother (who died soon after childbirth) and a French father, Marguerite Yourcenar (nee de Crayencour) was a poet, historian, world traveller, translator, essayist, and critic. She studied at Yale University in the 1930s and came to Mount Desert Island's Northeast Harbor in the mid-1940s; she had been visiting the U.S. when the Nazis invaded France and she stayed in the U.S., becoming a citizen in 1947 (later, her French citizenship was restored). Her home on MDI was called Petite Plaisance, and she lived there with her friend, lover, and translator Grace Frick for 40 years. Yourcenar also taught for a decade at Sarah Lawrence College, as professor of comparative literature from 1940-50.

Yourcenar's most famous book is a historical novel called Les Memoires d'Hadrien (1951, excerpted here), which became a world-wide bestseller. Her first published work was financed when she was 16 by her non-conformist father, who was her tutor and confidant; it was Jardin des chimeres, a poem in dialogue form based on the myth of Icarus. Her pen name was chosen then, an anagram of her surname. Yourcenar's novels' central figures are often men torn between duty and passion, with a focus on key moments in history.

An incomplete list of her other works includes:

  • Alexis ou le Traite du vain combat, (1929, in letter format; reissued in 1963 in France and for the first time in English translation in 1984, as Alexis)
  • La Nouvelle Eurydice (1931)
  • Pindare (1932)
  • Denier du Reve (A Coin in Nine Hands; 1934), which tells of a failed attempt on the life of Mussolini
  • La Mort Conduit L'attelage (1934)
  • Feux (Fires; 1936), a collection of poetic monologues based on classical Greek and Judeo-Christian stories
  • Songes et Les Sorts (1938)
  • Nouvelles orientales (Oriental Tales, 1938);
  • Le Coup de Grace (1939), about a Prussian solider who murders a woman who loves him because he loves her brother
  • Electre, ou la Chute des Masques (1954)
  • Les Charites d'alcippe (Alms of Alcippe, 1956)
  • Constantin Cavafy (1958)
  • Sous Benefice d'inventaire (1962; published in U.S. as The Dark Brain of Piranesi and Other Essays, 1984))
  • Fleuve Profound, Sombre Riviere: Negro Spirituals (1964), with commentary and translation by Yourcenar)
  • L'Oeuvre au noir (1968; first English translation as The Abyss in 1976; also published as Zeno of Bruges, 1994)
  • Yes, Peut-etre, Shage (1969)
  • Theatre (1971)
  • Souvenirs Pieux (Dear Departed, 1974), part of La Labyrinthe du monde;
  • Archives du Nord (Northern Archives, 1977), part of La Labyrinthe du monde, published in English in 1996 as How Many Years)
  • La Labyrinthe du monde (1974-1984), a 3-volume memoir which took her to the age of puberty!
  • Les Yeux Ouverts: Entretiens avec Matthieu Galey (1980; published in English as With Open Eyes: Conversations with Matthieu Galey, 1984)
  • Mishima ou la Vision Vide (Mishma: A Vision of the Void, 1980)
  • Anna, Soror (1981)
  • Comme L'eau qui Coule (1982; published in English as Two Lives and a Dream, 1987)
  • Le Temps, Ce Grand Sculpteur (That Mightly Sculptor, Time, 1984/1989), a collection of essays
  • Quoi?: l'éternité (1988), the 3rd volume of La Labyrinthe du monde, unfinished
  • A Blue Tale and Other Stories (1995)
  • Dreams and Destinies (1999)

After Frick's death of cancer, Yourcenar had a passionate relationship with a 30-year old American, Jerry Wilson, who died of AIDS. Yourcenar died soon after, on 17 Dec. 1987, in Northeast Harbor, some say of a broken heart.

Most of Yourcenar's papers are at Harvard's Houghton Library, although Bowdoin College also has some of her collection; she received a Litt.D. from Bowdoin in 1968. Yourcenar was the first woman to be elected to the Academie Francaise, in 1980. More biographical and bibliographical information on Yourcenar is available on line, written by Michele Sarde. The Kuusankoski Public Library (Finland) has a page about Yourcenar and her works. Print biographies and criticism include Subversive Subjects: Reading Marguerite Yourcenar (2004, ed. Judith Holland Sarnecki and Ingeborg Majer O'Sickey), Marguerite Yourcenar: Reading the Visual (2000, Nigel Saint), Marguerite Yourcenar: Inventing a Life (1993, Josyane Savigneau), From Violence to Vision: Sacrifice in the Works of Marguerite Yourcenar (1992, Joan E. Howard), Marguerite Yourcenar (1985, Pierre L. Horn), and Marguerite Yourcenar, A Reader's Guide (1987, Georgia Hooks Shurr).


Last Update: 05/31/2007


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