If I were making an alternative list of “100 greatest novels of all time” as with those drippy Modern Library and Time Magazine variations, the jaw-dropping, exotic, exalted Memoirs of Hadrian would be on it.
Its author, Marguerite Yourcenar, was a French-Belgian aristocrat writing in the 50s, who had love affairs with both men and women, but lived for most of her life with a woman, and often wrote in the first-person as a gay man. Here are two excellent and fascinating stories about her unusual life, which give a sense of her brilliant, imperious character, and make it less surprising that this woman was able to write a literary best-seller in the voice of a Roman emperor.
The book is, as the title suggests, in memoir format, written in the first person as a letter from the dying emperor to his successor. It brings alive the ancient world—sexually, religiously, politically—and is a thrilling act of voyeurism. Hadrian writes about his youthful pleasures in the Roman army, his tricky ascent to the throne, his theory of governance, and his love for a Bithynian boy for whom he eventually founds a religion. (Hot boy cult? The world would be a better place if there were more of those.)
The sections about ancient religion and philosophy are some of my favorites, starting when Hadrian, not yet the Emperor is, he writes, “temporarily won over” by the cult of Mithra, whose “barbarous rites…flatter the most secret aspirations of a young man impatient of the present, uncertain as to the future, and thereby open to the gods.” His initiation “took place in a turret constructed of wood and reeds on the banks of the Danube,” and “the weight of the bull in its death throes nearly brought down the latticed floor beneath which I lay to receive the bloody aspersion.”
That mixture of human insight and pagan strangeness runs throughout the book, which is beautiful in every line. Flesh is, “that amazing instrument of muscles, blood, and skin, that red-tinged cloud whose lightning is the soul.” On love, Hadrian writes, “To put reason aside is not indispensable for a drinker, but the lover who leaves reason in control does not follow his god to the end.” On old age, “Already certain portions of my life are like dismantled rooms of a palace too vast for an impoverished owner to occupy in its entirety.”
Clearly, the Emperor’s voice is a brilliant act of ventriloquism and can’t in any meaningful sense be said to be accurate, but the events and possible outlook of the man are all constructed from the historical record, and the text is enhanced with photography plates of statues, coins, busts and column-carvings of the major players and events. We can look upon their marble faces, and imagine their minds and souls.
Also, the title of the first chapter, in latin, “animula vagula blandula” turns out to be from some of Hadrian’s own poetry, (43 translations here).