Memoirs of Hadrian
Framed as a letter from the Roman Emperor Hadrian to his successor, Marcus Aurelius, Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian is translated from the French by Grace Frick with an introduction by Paul Bailey in Penguin Modern Classics.
In her magnificent novel, Marguerite Yourcenor recreates the life and death of one…
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It’s not Hadrian’s love affair with the beautiful boy Antinous that swept me off my feet, nor the way Hadrian makes him a god after his mysterious death and builds a city dedicated to worshiping him.
That’s only a small part of a book overflowing with the emperor’s interior life, his fears and doubts and dreams. Yourcenar spent most of her life on and off writing this book, her life’s work. Filled with the exhilaration and perplexity of achieving absolute power and then holding onto it, we experience Hadrian as a profoundly paradoxical genius from the inside out.
This amazing novel gets right inside the mind of Hadrian, a great emperor who ruled wisely over Rome’s Golden Age. In public, a statesman and soldier, in private he was thoughtful, cultured, and philosophical. He tells us much about his life, and about the empire he ruled. He is both credulous and sceptical, indifferent to and curious about pleasure, both eager and reluctant to rule. He muses about power, war, the arts, love, friendship, and much else. Perhaps the most moving episode is Hadrian’s grief at the death of Antinous, his beautiful young boyfriend, who he later deified.
This splendid work of fiction recreates the times of the Roman Emperor Hadrian. I list it as one of the perceptions I relate in my book is how when I began reading intensely from 12 on I did so first to escape the reality around me, and then, with growing astonishment, to explore how extraordinarily varied reality was, and that what seemed impossible, or fantasy, had in many cases and at other times, been real—as the life of Hadrian had been. This had the effect of reducing the force of the claims of those around me that our reality was…
Written as a letter from the dying Roman emperor Hadrian to his grandson and successor, Marcus Aurelius, Memoirs of Hadrian is in some ways a grand tour of the Roman Empire in its grandest and most peaceful era. You will learn a great deal (especially if Roman history is unfamiliar to you), but mostly it is Hadrian’s thoughts on the nature of society, empire, love, and philosophy that will stay with you. Memoirs of Hadrian is also one of the rare classic historical novels to explore, wistfully and honestly, the complexities of homosexuality and gay love in the ancient world.
This one’s a novel, a book that took Yourcenar thirty years to write. It doesn’t offer answers, but by having the main figure (the emperor Hadrian) reflect back on his life in the moments before his death, the novel brings before us the beauty and tragedy that is life itself.
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