Tag Archives: 1951

‘Memoirs of Hadrian’ by Marguerite Yourcenar (1951 Club)

The fictional Memoirs of Hadrian was published in 1951 but was first conceived by Marguerite Yourcenar in 1924 when she was only twenty-one years old. In the years inbetween Yourcenar must have done an incredible amount of research in order to write a book which is so convincing at times that I had to remind myself that this is a fictional account. The memoirs are in the form of a very long letter to the young Marcus Aurelius, who has been chosen by Hadrian to succeed to the throne after Antoninus Pius; Antoninus has been chosen to succeed to the throne after Hadrian. In this way Hadrian is attempting to steer the Roman Empire through the rough period ahead with Emperors that he can trust and whom he believes will do a good job. He sees Antoninus Pius as someone who will continue Hadrian’s reforms and Marcus Aurelius as the closest thing to a Platonic philosopher-king.

After a slight preamable Yourcenar describes Hadrian’s early adult life in the army and then the senate. For instance, he recalls being the one to first inform Trajan that he had succeeded Nerva. It is under Trajan’s rule that Hadrian realises that the Roman Empire is over-extending itself. When he becomes Emperor he puts a halt to most expansionist policies with one result being the wall across Britannia that is now known under his name. Hadrian hadn’t been named as successor to Trajan although he was probably the most obvious choice. This made his path to power a little tricky and Yourcenar has Hadrian being a bit equivocal over the details on this matter. Four conspirators from the Senate are killed by his servant Attianus. Hadrian claims to have written to him to ‘act quickly’ but then seems to be shocked that they were all assassinated. Although with most of the memoirs we get to see how reasonable and intelligent he is (after all wouldn’t we all portray ourselves that way?) this episode shows us that he is capable of being just as ruthless as any other would-be Emperor. He also claims that he ‘deserved to wield power’ and that the ends justifies the means.

Hadrian played by his own rules and was prepared to shake things up. He refused honorific titles, he disliked the brutality of the Games but endured them to keep up appearances, he travelled throughout the whole Empire, he relinquished undefendable territories that were won by Trajan and passed many legal reforms. Hadrian, although married, also had a passionate relationship with the young boy Antinous and the pages following his death at twenty demonstrate how much he cared for the boy; his grief over his death is real and lasting.

Hadrian is one of the ‘Five Good Emperors’ starting with Nerva and ending with Marcus Aurelius, these were ‘benevolent dictators’ who stood out in contrast to the other tyrannical Emperors. With the memoirs we get a sense of Hadrian’s idealism; he is in awe of the Greeks and feels that the Romans compare unfavourably with them but his idealism does not blind him to the practical measures that are required to run an Empire. Below is a brilliant, albeit long, quote from the book showing his idealism.

My ideal was contained within the word beauty, so difficult to define despite all the evidence of our senses. I felt responsible for sustaining and increasing the beauty of the world. I wanted the cities to be splendid, spacious and airy, their streets sprayed with clean water, their inhabitants all human beings whose bodies were neither degraded by marks of misery and servitude nor bloated by vulgar riches; I desired that the schoolboys should recite correctly some useful lessons; that the women presiding in their households should move with maternal dignity, expressing both vigor and calm; that the gymnasiums should be used by youths not unversed in arts and in sports; that the orchards should bear the finest fruits and the fields the richest harvests. I desired that the might and majesty of the Roman Peace should extend to all, insensibly present like the music of the revolving skies; that the most humble traveller might wander from one country, or one continent, to another without vexatious formalities, and without danger, assured everywhere of a minimum of legal protection and culture; that our soldiers should continue their eternal pyrrhic dance on the frontiers; that everything should go smoothly, whether workshops or temples; that the sea should be furrowed by brave ships, and the roads resounding to frequent carriages; that, in a world well ordered, the philosophers should have their place, and the dancers also. This ideal, modest on the whole, would be often enough approached if men would devote to it one part of the energy which they expend on stupid or cruel activities; great good fortune has allowed me a partial realization of my aims during the last quarter of a century.

With the planned succession of his power passing to Antoninus Pius and then to Marcus Aurelius Hadrian hopes to secure the dominance of Rome’s power but he is not always so optimistic as is shown with this quote where he envisages the downfall of Rome:

But other hordes would come, and other false prophets. Our feeble efforts to ameliorate man’s lot would be but vaguely continued by our successors; the seeds of error and of ruin contained even in what is good would, on the contrary, increase to monstrous proportions in the course of centuries. A world wearied of us would seek other masters; what had seemed to us wise would be pointless for them, what we had found beautiful they would abominate. Like the initiate to Mithraism the human race has need, perhaps, of a periodical bloodbath and descent into the grave. I could see the return of barbaric codes, of implacable gods, of unquestioned despotism of savage chieftains, a world broken up into enemy states and eternally prey to insecurity. Other sentinels menaced by arrows would patrol the walls of future cities; the stupid, cruel, and obscene game would go on, and the human species in growing older would doubtless add new refinements of horror. Our epoch, the faults and limitations of which I knew better than anyone else would perhaps be considered one day, by contrast, as one of the golden ages of man.

Although I’m glad to have read this book and I’m impressed with what Yourcenar has achieved I didn’t enjoy reading it as much as I thought I would. I have read other fictional accounts, such as Graves’s Count Belisarius or Gore Vidal’s Julian, that were more enjoyable to read. Yourcenar has gone for authenticity rather than readability which isn’t a bad thing but it did make it a bit tedious at times. I’m sure that anyone who knows a lot more than me about the Roman world will get a lot more from it, but still, I’m glad that I read it.

I read this as part of The 1951 Club where contributors all read books from the same year. This was organised by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book.

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Filed under Fiction, Yourcenar, Marguerite

‘Hangsaman’ by Shirley Jackson (1951 Club)

Whilst looking through my GoodReads shelves for books from 1951 one jumped out at me—Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson. I’ve read a collection of short stories and a few novels by her including her first novel The Road Through the Wall which was an impressive first novel. Hangsaman was her second novel published three years after her first. UK readers may be interested to know that Penguin re-released most of Jackson’s works a few years ago so most are readily available in different formats.

Hangsaman is the story of Natalie Waite which is principally from her viewpoint and covers a period of less than a year as she starts college. Natalie is a seventeen year old living at home with a rather pompous writer father, a neurotic, possibly alcoholic, mother and a younger brother. The novel opens with a breakfast scene where right from the start we experience Arnold Waite declaring ‘I am God’ to the annoyance of his wife and Natalie sits quietly, but critically, observing. She’s about to go to college; a college that her parents have taken time to choose for her and one that is really too expensive for them. Natalie is quite fearful of going there.

In the first section we get to experience how Natalie feels about the rest of her family. There’s an intense bond between Natalie and her father, though this is intellectual rather than emotional. Her father likes setting her writing tests and it appears as if he’s trying to live his life again through Natalie. The Waites are having a Sunday cocktail party which means that Mrs Waite has to spend most of the afternoon in the kitchen preparing the food. Natalie prefers being in her room reading or alone in the garden, whereas Mrs Waite finds the kitchen the only place where she can escape the overbearing presence of her husband. Arnold Waite prefers being in his study and Natalie has no idea what her brother, Bud, gets up to when she’s not around. They all prefer being apart from each other. Throughout this first section Natalie imagines that she is being quizzed over a murder by a policeman. The beauty of Jackson’s work is that she can make the everyday world seem eerie; there’s a sense of foreboding hanging over everything even though the sun is shining, it’s breakfast time, or it’s cocktail hour. Although Natalie seems to get on with her father better than her mother she admits to liking her mother when she is in the kitchen; where she can be herself and talk freely. At the cocktail party while Arnold is socialising and flirting with the women, Mrs Waite is drinking herself into a state in the bedroom. Only Natalie shows any concern and her mother confides to her:

“It isn’t any single thing,” Mrs. Waite repeated earnestly, the tears on her cheeks, “It’s just that—well, look, Natalie. This is the only life I’ve got—you understand? I mean, this is all. And look what’s happening to me. I spend most of my time just thinking about how nice things used to be and wondering if they’ll ever be nice again. If I should go on and on and die someday and nothing was ever nice again—wouldn’t that be a fine thing? I get to feeling like that and then I think I’ll make things be nice, and make him behave, and just make everything all happy and exciting again the way it used to be—but I’m too tired.”

Mrs. Waite continues her drunken monologue and portrays Mr. Waite as a malevolent force from whom she is trying to protect Natalie. The whole cocktail party is written so well that it’s a shame it ends, and it ends in a suitably creepy and disturbing way—I’ll say no more about that.

And so Natalie attends her college. She’s a loner from the start, preferring to stay in her room working rather than attending social events. She’s optimistic at the beginning that this will be a new start for her but the optimisim doesn’t last long. She becomes socially acquainted with her English professor and his wife who seem to be copies of her own parents with Arthur Langdon as a rather pompous, cocktail-loving, English professor and Elizabeth Langdon, an ex-student of Arthur’s, as his neurotic, alcoholic, suicidal wife. The Langdons are also visited by students Anne and Vicki; Arthur is probably having an affair with Anne. Anne and Vicki are friendly to Natalie but there’s no close bond between them as Natalie remains outside all the cliques. Meanwhile events start to happen in the dormitory that become increasingly sinister and weird. There is a middle of the night initiation which ends up farcical rather than menacing; objects start to be stolen; Natalie discovers that some of the keys open some of the other doors and in one of the more frightening episodes Natalie is woken in the middle of the night by someone and is told to follow them. She’s led by another girl through darkened corridors to another room where the girl coaxes Natalie to listen at the walls to hear them. When this finally gets too weird for Natalie she leaves the building but bumps into a girl called Tony, who either is already, or becomes, Natalie’s friend. We learn nothing of Tony, who at this stage of the novel, appears to be a figment of Natalie’s imagination. After an uncomfortable visit to her parents things get even more strange where Natalie and Tony have become best friends, walk hand-in-hand around town laughing at others and talking in a quick-paced, humorous banter. I was going to include a sample of this but I felt it was too long and probably wouldn’t make much sense out of context.

I won’t reveal much more even though there’s little definite to give away as the whole novel is ambiguous. This ambiguity could be annoying in a less accomplished author but Jackson is a master of this form of everyday creepiness. Jackson’s books are similar to David Lynch’s movies in many ways, though less violent. In the end we are unsure just how much is due to Natalie’s fragile and fractured psyche. The great thing about the novel is that Natalie is intelligent enough to reflect on her own feelings and thoughts. At times she doubts her own existence.

Perhaps—and this was her most persistent thought, the thought that stayed with her and came suddenly to trouble her at odd moments, and to comfort her—suppose, actually, she were not Natalie Waite, college girl, daughter to Arnold Waite, a creature of deep lovely destiny; suppose she were someone else?

This was one of those books where I ended up rushing through the ending a little, curious as to how it was going to end. I knew from the start that it wouldn’t have a clean ending but I was not prepared for what actually happened. It’s one of those books that has grown on me since finishing it and while writing this review. If you’ve already read some of Jackson’s more well-known work then I would suggest checking out Hangsaman or The Road Through the Wall. I’ve certainly got a hunger for more work by her.

I read this as part of The 1951 Club where contributors all read books from the same year. This was organised by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book.

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Filed under Fiction, Jackson, Shirley