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Marguerite Yourcenar

By Maggie LewisStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / September 4, 1980

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!"

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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."