The lady from Maine

Through the cloudy January of a Paris winter the great cultural event was the return of Marguerite Yourcenar and her installation as the first woman member of the French Academy. I had last seen Madame Yourcenar in the autumn at Northeast Harbor, Maine, where I am a summer visitor, she a year-round resident. She was preparing for the trip that would take her to England, the Scandinavian countries, her native Belgium, and finally to Paris at the year's end. Her arrival in the French capital created the excitement, the sense of glamour, usually reserved for royalty or for a famous stage star.

She was then largely unknown to the public. Her books, of course, had been widely read -- as the Memoirs of Hadrianm has long been a favorite in this country. But in person she was a mystery. Those who had worked for her election to the Academy were without knowledge of her as a woman or as a human being. When it was explained to her that candidates standing for election were expected to campaign discreetly on their own behalf, she demurred. She agreed with George Sand: ladies did not seek their votes from men.

Making a trip to Paris in late January, on some family errands and to attend the ceremony at the Academy, I found that Madame Yourcenar was no longer an unknown quantity. She had been reported on extensively by the press. She had been interviewed in depth on television. Everywhere I went I heard her praises sung. People marveled at the simplicity and candor of her speech. They were struck by the purity of her language; by the calm integrity of her view of life. How was it that this woman, in the glare of worldwide publicity, could show herself so completely unaffected and, in a strange situation, could be so miraculously at home?

The answer, of course, is that Marguerite Yourcenar has lived for many years the solitary life of the mind. Her world has been her books, and her books have been created, as by the slow accretions of a natural substance, word by word out of rigorous and lonely meditations. Modern existence with its fuss and clutter has passed her by. Talk of small daily things with her island neighbors, often with the least sophisticated of them, has been a spiritual food. The slang of city streets has not sounded in her universe. All the glittering artificial images of television for her are as if they never had been devised.

A year ago Marguerite Yourcenar was a recluse. She was a recluse as the inhabitant of a northern isle; as a searcher after mysteries; as the faithful guardian of a long- stricken friend. In an extraordinary metamorphosis she passed overnight from being a recluse to being a celebrity. Yet in a way she did not change at all. In both roles she has kept an inner reserve; she has controlled the volatile substance of life as if character and will and deep personal perceptions were indeed superior to outward circumstances.

So it was that when in January she mounted the tribune of the Academy to deliver the traditional "address of thanks," all present in the crowded hall knew the occasion to be unusual. It was not only that the President of the Republic was there in a rare appearance; not only that, for the first time, the entire two-hour proceeding was being televised live. Much had been made of Madame Yourcenar's costume -- dazzlingly somber in its plain black and white, contrasting with the green and gold brocade, and the glittering swords, of the male academicians. (The famed French designer Yves Saint Laurent, had conceived it; the white shawl subtly evoked the scarf she wears against the cold of a Maine winter.) All this was interesting. But it was Madame Yourcenar herself that was unique.

"Quite simply, a masterpiece," Le Monde said afterward of her speech," a superb example of lucidity, of compassion, of poetry and of wisdom." But then, even the speech was no more than its author. It was but a human being made evident. It was that durable spirit given momentary and fleeting fo rm.

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