Like a traveler sailing the Archipelago who sees the luminous mists lift toward evening, and little by little makes out the shore, I begin to discern the profile of my death.
With these words we are drawn into one of the great modern examples of historical fiction: a book which was first published in 1951 but which had been taking shape in the author’s mind for thirty years before that. It was a reread for me – a treat before Christmas – and in my opinion it ranks with Renault and Dunnett as an example of how magnificently a writer can immerse you in the conviction of a vanished age.
When I first read Memoirs of Hadrian, it became an immediate favourite. On opening it this time, I was amused to find the bookmark from my last reading: a business card from a hotel in Rome where I once stayed, with the receptionist’s handwritten directions to Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli. It’s the kind of book I can see myself coming back to again and again throughout my life, because I think it can only become more powerful over time. Strictly speaking this isn’t a novel. There are no conversations and no elaborate descriptions: it is, purely and simply, a meditation by a dying man on the progress of his life, an autobiography coupled with a philosophical sensitivity to the richness of human existence. I’m not reading it in the original French, of course, but in the splendid translation made by Grace Frick, Yourcenar’s companion, with her assistance.
Yourcenar’s ambition was not so much to write a story about Hadrian but almost to enter into his mind; to imagine what he would think and feel and understand. Her vision of the man is immensely sympathetic: scholar, philosopher, lover and traveller, he is driven by a thirst for understanding and a fascination with the diversity of the world bound together by the unity of the Empire. Tantalised by knowledge, he seeks to understand the motion of the stars and the structure of human life, in the hope of coming closer to the laws which govern both microcosm and macrocosm. And yet, although his humanism is attractive to modern sensibilities, Hadrian is not a modern man translated to the Roman Empire. His stoicism and fairness are coupled with a passion for the exotic: for the mystery cults of the Orient; for the rites of Mithra and Eleusis; and, above all these things, his conviction of his own inner divinity, as the head of state who draws on Jupiter’s reserves of divine intellect.
This all sounds rather serious, but Hadrian has a poet’s soul and, more importantly, a sense of irony. He is quick to fall in love and reveres the power of physical desire – ‘That red-tinged cloud whose lightning is the soul’ – but he is also fully aware that in his position his partners are more likely to be ambitious than genuine. He remembers his Roman mistresses, their husbands discreetly forgotten:
Their love … seemed to me sometimes as light as one of their garlands; it was like a fashionable jewel, or a fragile and costly fillet, and I suspected them of putting on their passion with their necklaces and their rouge.
Such irony also helps him deal philosophically with his approaching death, after a lifetime of being able to rely unquestioningly on his body’s strength and integrity. Now he concedes that this same body ‘may be after all only a sly beast who will end by devouring his master‘. The balance is beautifully maintained between insightful gentleness and the hubris of a man to whom it is given to rule the world.
Nowhere is that hubris most tragically obvious than in the most celebrated and poignant relationship of Hadrian’s life. Here Yourcenar’s writing reaches its apogee: an intoxicating mixture of austere elegance and sensuality. The arrival of Antinous is understated almost to the point of self-effacement: like the other characters who populate Hadrian’s life, we never hear him speak. He is silent and watchful, almost totemic. But the language becomes richer and more languid: Hadrian speaks of the boy’s Greek ancestry, enriched by its more exotic world: ‘Asia had produced its effect upon that rude blood, like the drop of honey which clouds and perfumes a pure wine‘. And Antinous is the only character of whom we get a good visual impression, in a celebration of the ephebe which I’ve only seen equalled in Death in Venice. The face so familiar from marble statues in the Louvre or Vatican gains flesh tints again:
A head bending under its dark mass of hair, eyes which seemed slanting, so long were the lids, a young face broadly formed, as if for repose… A week of indolence sufficed to soften him completely; a single afternoon at the hunt made the young athlete firm again, and fleet; an hour’s sun would turn him from jasmine to the color of honey.
Yourcenar’s explanation of Antinous’ fate is powerful, plausible and (for me) compelling. I would like it to be the truth, although we will never know one way or the other. For the rest of his life, Hadrian will be haunted, flattered and riven with grief over his blindness in this one matter and, even though in Yourcenar’s vision he is a rational and measured man, this is one area in which the mask threatens to slip and expose the raw, lonely soul beneath. The whole book shimmers with melancholy: a beautiful, elegant melancholy that seeps into your soul.
This book won’t captivate everyone as it does me, but it has a stark and grave beauty. It is an undoubted classic and if you have an interest in the ancient world, and if you have the time to sit and absorb this as you read, I hope it will work its magic on you. That magic is not so much in what is said, but in the meditative mood and the way it is said. By the end of the book you have the sensation of knowing Hadrian to the heart, both as a ruler and as a man: one who is open about his faults and strengths, and who (to me) must be one of the most appealing figures of antiquity. The end could not be more fitting to the spirit of the book as a whole, as it turns to the real Hadrian’s own poignant words. I adore this verse – I carried a copy of it with me to Tivoli and the Castel Sant’ Angelo when I was in Rome – and I’ve seen various translations of it, but Grace Frick’s strikes me as the most moving and elegant:
Little soul, gentle and drifting,
guest and companion of my body,
now you will dwell below in pallid places,
stark and bare;
there you will abandon your play of yore.
Anima vagula, blandula,
hospes comesque corporis,
quae nunc abibis in loca
pallidula, rigida, nudula,
nec, ut soles, dabis iocos