Northeast Harbor, Maine — When I arrived at Marguerite Yourcenar's house here, the secretary of the first woman admitted to the ancient and prestigious Academie Francaise was painting the gate of the picket fence. She hopped up and introduced me to Mme. Yourcenar, and they both said, "Don't step in any paint!"
Zoe, the cocker spaniel, accompanied Mme. Yourcenar and me onto the veranda of the little white clapboard house for the interview. Dressed in a blue sleeveless shirt, slacks, and stout shoes, Mme. Yourcenar apologized for not looking like "the lady from France." What she looked like was an intellectual on a hot day, especially after she had been talking a while. She may dress casually and take it easy in the heat, but mentally she was making connections with the great thinkers and thoughts throughout world history, like a very competent switchboard operator.
She stays in touch. In the space of a warm Maine afternoon, she can put you through to Yukio Mishima, a modern Japanese poet she's writing an essay on, as well as Henry James, the Roman emperor Hadrian, and Thomas Hardy's thoughts on the Industrial Revolution as they relate to mechanized potato harvesting in Aroostook County. She refers knowingly to Confucius, and chats about misuse of natural resources in Athens in Plato's time while brooding about the barrier islands (Assateague and Chincoteague) of Maryland and Virginia, all with such ease I don't feel I'm being lectured, and I begin chatting about them myself as if they were old friends of mine, too.
Her writing has that effect, as well. "Memoirs of Hadrian" introduces the reader to Hadrian's ponderings on running the Roman Empire after the wars at such an intimate level that it's interesting, even urgent. She shows the whole man and all his turmoils, and you get an understanding of the whole empire without feeling overdosed with history.
She wears her short hair tucked tidily behind her ears, and her face -- and remarks -- are punctuated by bushy Gallic eyebrows that keep hopping up in intrigue and wonder, descending only briefly to frown at some grave point. Her fluty, French-accented voice rises and falls gracefully, and even when she makes pointed social criticism, there's a giggle hidden in it. A most refreshing voice in the middle of summer, and what it says not only takes you back through intellectual history -- it gives you something to think about which will last several seasons into the future.
I ask her why someone who writes historical novels ("Memoirs of Hadrian" and "The Abyss") in French and translates Henry James, Virginia Woolf, and Negro spirituals into their respective equivalent styles of French from English and the poet Cavafy into French from Greek would choose to live on Mount Desert Island instead of in New York or Paris.
Looking through the veranda screen into a yard shaded from brilliant sun by venerable trees, with more, thicker, trees in the distance, she says, "Well, I think you can answer that for yourself, especially arriving here on a hot day."
What she likes is the informality of life here, and what she calls the "simple people" who live here.
"There are also people who have lived the New York life, who in months of summer are here, but that is not the category that interests me." She prefers the locals when she puts down her books for a while and leaves the company of the great thinkers.
"I think, really, sometimes the simplest people are the most civilized. I make that experiment every day. They are less bound by prejudice, less bound by the fear of not doing what the group does."
She is also very fond of the land, and finds the change of seasons, varieties of brooks and forests, "charming." If she weren't living on Mount Desert Island she would be in similar country, Friesland in Holland, Baro Sund in Sweden, or in the south of Portugal -- she enumerates these places quickly. She knows her taste in landscape.
"Sometimes when I see a big meadow in an incline -- because I grew up on a hill -- I think, "That's my meadow.' . . . And those hills [near Flanders field in the north of France, where she grew up] were often covered with spruce. Now, less, because the spruce were destroyed during the two wars, and . . . always when there is a fire, what comes up is another type of tree. Now there are more oaks and so on. At the time I grew up it was spruce. And it reminds me very much of the type of tree here."
Other than that, Mount Desert Island has other than sentimental claims on her affections. She is involved in several ecological causes, though she admits she has little time to give them more than financial support. But she is very concerned about the precarious position she sees we have put ourselves in:
"We have arrived technologically to such a result that we can make war much more destructive, and we can make peace much more destructive. By greed, by destruction of natural resources. . . . But still it's the old problem the Greeks called hubris,m that is, a want of mesure,m a want of moderation, a want of wisdom, with the environment, with men, with everything."
Uncompromising as she is about our transgressions against nature, when she says, "Ecology means the species living together," you feel she remembers that one of the species is man. The old values of civilization, she feels, would solve our problems.
"Great ethos have been promulgated from the beginning. . . . The Chinese philosophers, for example, have gone very deeply into both the ethos of man and nature and man with his fellowman. The Taoists more man with nature, and Confucius more man -- a gentleman, as he calls him, man with other men. . . . We need to be kind, we need to be intelligent -- that is, to try to understand the other and what the other wants, and how much we can organize and compromise, so that both parties are reasonably satisfied.
"It seems to me the answers are simple. They are difficult to apply because [people] are all greedy, and they are fearful. Fear plays a very great part. In most wars, people attack because they are frightened, and the two fears together cause quite a conflagration."
Such conflagrations aren't just imaginary to Yourcenar -- she has childhood memories of World War I, and came to live in the United States in 1940 to get away from World War II. The first place she lived was Hartford, Conn., which she found less than charming. A munitions-industry town, Hartford was in high gear, and the bourgeoisie was at its most insular -- and most dismaying to Yourcenar. ("What is supposed to be culture and is not -- I mean, [what is] just the appearance of it -- very often spoils people more than it improves them , except if you see the very great culture, then I think it improves them again. But the midway is not so good," is how she explains her aversion to things middlebrow).
But she found great culture in Hartford's Wadsworth Athenaeum, an art museum, and solace in the plays and other antics of its avant-garde director, Chick Austin. For her, the museum -- and its works of art -- represented a "window open on the Europe [I] had left, a place of asylum at the door of which died the din of that epoch, and of a country to which I hardly acclimatized myself," she writes in the introduction to "La Petite Sirene," which is a retelling of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid," and dedicated to Austin.
Aside from the delight she took in Wadsworth Athenaeum, her other consolation was found by turning to a rich vein of American culture, a part often overlooked by Americans themselves. She translated Negro spirituals into French. She often visited the South the first year she was here, and read various collections of the slave songs. Her work with this simple, powerful medium and her visits to the Athenaeum's collections helped her avoid too much contact with "the midway."
"Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" translates "Descends, Doux Char de Feu," in her book, "Fleuve Profond, Sombre Riviere." She tried to keep the same spirit of spontaneity the spirituals have in the original, though she could not, of course , rely on a regional accent.
"The difficulty [in translating spirituals] is to find a language which is not topically patois, of this or that province of France, but just a kind of loose-limbed language, of ordinary people at the simple level. . . .Not too grammatical. Which is really charming to write, and in my opinion, if we used it more in poetry, we would have better poetry, because it offers more possibility of expression and condensation."
The deep spirituality she found in the songs, on the other hand, was easy for her to understand, and to translate. They express, she says, "that new Christian religion . . . [which] gave them a kind of focus, and then a feeling for joy -- because there are some Negro spirituals which are very gay -- and there's the infinite feeling of sadness. And at the same time, the feelings that seem to be reminiscent of a faraway African past, which was reinforced by the church. . . . Those famous rivers to cross, which of course is the River of Life and Death [of myths]. But it's also a realization that they are, even beyond the Mississippi, thinking of the Congo, and a long racial experience."
I ask her if she has similar longings for her old country. She immediately leaves the realm of myth and poetry, and says briskly, "No, I'm going to Europe for six months this fall. I'll be in France only one month, because, well, France for me represents business, publishers, interviews, and so on, so I keep a little away from it and I go to other European countries, where I find a little more peace. But no, I don't miss it. If I lived in France I would be living in Brittany or a place like that. . . . I would be living very much as I live here."
She holds both US and French citizenship, and as to the feeling of nationalism, she has no use for it.
"I hate anything that divides," she says. "A very great Frenchman and a very great Englishman and a very great American are not very different from each other, neither are the very simple ones. . . .
"Finally they all live and they all die and they all try to protect their own people and their own children, if they have any, or they are attached to their own animal or their own dog, and want to keep up a certain standard . . . and they all have their certain same questions that aren't answered, about the universe in general."
So they can benefit from the same literature. As a translator, she works to remove the divisions of language. Not only has she brought the songs of Africans yearning for the Congo to the French, she has also tackled the entirely different but equally complex prose styles of Henry James and Virginia Woolf.
"I try to give an idea, an emotion, as close as I can to what the author wanted to be felt by the reader. Even if we have to use another form, to reach the French reader by another channel, [I] still try to give his emotion, to give his feelings."
Even her historical novels are translations, of a sort. "Memoirs of Hadrian" brings the thoughts of a 2nd-century Roman Emperor to the minds of 20th-century readers with immediacy and color, and "The Abyss" unleashes the persecution and turmoil of the Huguenots in terms no one can avoid. You sense that, though it was hard personally for Yourcenar to move to America from France, she is able in her conversation and in her work to move from culture to culture and range among the different epochs of great thinkers with little trouble.
Thus, when discussing the barrier islands off Virginia and Maryland, and their fragility, she talks about Plato's noting the destruction of trees around Athens, and how the country there is barren and dry now. For her, the ivory tower is very much a vantage point on today's world.
When I asked her how she managed to be concerned with art andm world problems to such a degree, she said, with the air of someone selecting a favorite book from a beloved library, or perhaps a particularly tempting chocolate from a large box, "Well, there I prefer the Hindu answer.
"Do you know that the creator god in Hindu myth, who is not the supreme god [ the supreme god is the unmanifested, the one so great that they cannot even describe it] . . . but who is . . . only one element of that being, is called Brahma. And Brahma is in practical life the protector of actors, painters, dancers, musicians, and poets, because they also are creators. And the creation is called the 'lila,' the enjoyment of God. And also the painter, dancer, and musician work in creating an enjoyment, in adding to life a kind of new glory. And from that point of view [art] seems to me extremely necessary and important. I had a French interviewer here who told me that art is a luxury. I don't think that art is a luxury. I think it is the immediate expression -- like breathing -- of people who want to express their vitality."
Furthermore, she never feels she shouldn't, or can't, express her vitality. "Reflections on the composition," at the end of "Memoirs of Hadrian," is the story of 30 years of false starts and interruptions (like World War II) in the production of the book. Reading about all these troubles, it seems like a miracle that the book is actually sitting there, finished, published, and open in one's lap to be read.
When she moved to America, notes and manuscript were left behind. She thought of the book with discouragement during those times -- while translating the spirituals and writing "La Petite Sirene." A trunk full of old letters was sent to her eight years later, from Switzerland, and she was surprised when, she says in "Reflections," "I came upon four or five typewritten sheets, the paper of which had turned yellow. The salutation told me nothing: 'My dear Mark. . . .' Mark . . . .m What friend or love, what distant relative, was this? I could not recall the name at all. It was several minutes before I remembered that Markm stood here for Marcus Aurelius,m and that I had in hand a fragment of the lost manuscript. [The book takes the form of a letter to Marcus Aurelius from Hadrian.] From that moment there was no question but that this book must be taken up again, whatever the cost."
Sure enough, three years later, it was published in France, and three years after that, in 1954, it came out in English. A book first dreamed of in 1924 had survived the author's own admittedly inexperienced fumblings, a world war, and immersion in a new culture.
She doesn't find this as miraculous as I do, because she doesn't think anything can really stop an artist from working.
"The desire to create is like the desire to dream. You dream, I think for the same reason: to rest from the daily life into another world, good or bad." But as for daily life, "I think understanding of the world is everything. . . . It's a matter of happiness and balance. People are more happy and more balanced when they have that sense of contact with reality. Immediate reality."
Is she happy?
"I think I am rather happy. Only as much as one can be happy in a world which has so many problems, because one has to think, while one is happy, others are not so happy."
She doesn't make it a business to encourage young artists.
"So very often you create artificial intellectualism or art fashion, which I think is very bad." She admits young artists are faced with many problems, but no more than always, and "there are also many dangers for the older writers, because . . . people try to make an image of [them] with an aura which does not at all resemble the truth, and more or less there is a barrier created by his celebrity, between him and the public."
Speaking of celebrity, her new job as academician got her on the "People" page of Time magazine and the "Newsmakers" section of Newsweek last spring. What does it mean for her work?
She gives a chuckle like one of her favorite brooks and says, "It means nothing. That is, the Academie Francaise is a very venerable institution, it means that I will have under my name [on the title page] of my book, 'de l'Academie Francaise,' which I fought, because I say, 'This is one more line of print, why should they have that?' But they tell me everybody does it so I have to do it, but apart from that what does it mean? It means that a number, to be very exact . . . 20 against 12, voted for me, and . . . I'm very grateful, what else would I say? Yes, it's an honor, evidently, but some of the greatest Frenchmen have not been of the Academie." Just for good measure, she adds, "Some of the greatest have been. . . ."
"And all of the greatest French women haven't been," I say.
"I don't think they expected to be, at least before the 19th century. Many of them were hostesses and directing little groups into society, and writers coming to them, painters coming to them, they madem academicians."
The first woman who could have been in the Academie, as far as Yourcenar is concerned, is Colette, because she is the first who was really a "professional woman." When she was turned down by the Academie, Yourcenar points out, she was admitted to a smaller one.
Mme. Yourcenar also became an officer of the French Legion of Honor this summer, and was invested by the French ambassador to the US in a ceremony at the French Library in Boston in June.
She was admitted to the Academie Francaise in early March. There are only 40 members of the Academie, which admits a new member only when a current member passes on. Mme. Yourcenar will give her acceptance speech, as is traditional, about her predecessor, Roger Caillois, and is reading his works now -- with delight, because he was a naturalist and even traveled to Mount Desert Island for research.
As far as the Academie's mission, writing a French dictionary and generally preserving the purity of the French language, Yourcenar will not be involved in that, because, "I live here, and when I travel, I travel to other places. Which is more important for me and for the work I am doing."
She explains, "I don't think I would have been such an excellent worker on the dictionary." Contrary to the idea that the French are always fighting new words, "I am for accepting a new word, because generally they represent a new reality." Coming from someone who uses dictionaries as productively as she does, that's advice to be heeded.