According to John Ruskin, ‘in the work of the great masters death is always either heroic, deserved, or quiet and natural.’ Not so in Marguerite Yourcenar’s world. She is renowned for her timeless narrative gift and lucid style, and she regards her books as defining that unfashionable thing, an ‘ideal of humanity’. Yet death occurs in these fictions with what Ruskin would have seen as a morbid regularity and an unwholesome virulence. Her best-known novel, the Memoirs of Hadrian (1954), impersonates the Roman emperor on his death-bed, torn between his reminiscences and his attempts to prepare for the final agony. Her coldly brilliant essay on Yukio Mishimaculminates in a detailed reconstruction of the gruesome last rites of seppuku performed by the Japanese novelist. The body-count in the first twenty pages of ‘An Obscure Man’, the longest of the three novellas collected in Two Lives and a Dream, rivals that in the whole of Bleak House (which Ruskin denounced for its sensationalism). Yourcenar published a much earlier version of Two Lives and a Dream in 1934 as La Mort conduit l’attelage (Death drives the cart), a title that she now repudiates as too oversimplified: ‘Death does drive the cart, but so, too, does life.’
There is an impressive unity and consistency in Yourcenar’s work. Of her story ‘Anna, Soror ...’, first written in 1925 at the age of 21, she now says that ‘I feel as completely at home with this story as if the idea for it had come to me this morning.’ ‘Anna, Soror ...’ is set in the grim fortress of Castel Sant’ Elmo in 16th-century Naples, and tells of the growth of an incestuous passion between the son and daughter of the prison governor. So intense are the emotions of these young people that the other inhabitants of the fortress – suspected heretics and political prisoners rotting away in its dungeons – are dismissed in a single sentence. The lovers enjoy five days and nights of violent happiness and then Anna’s brother, Don Miguel, becomes a mercenary and sacrifices himself in a sea-fight against the Saracens. Anna lives on without response, outlasting her mother and father and three of her children. The second part of her life seems quiet and natural enough, but Yourcenar cannot resist telling us that her eventual death-agony is ‘long and painful’. Originally titled ‘After El Greco’ – the new title is taken from an epitaph – this is a love-story steeped in the baroque, with the pure flame of love defiantly pitted against brothel and inferno, prison-house and charnel-house.
Given her long career as a historical novelist, one might be excused for thinking that Yourcenar’s preoccupation with death reflected a parochially modern and bourgeois view of the past: that life was nasty, brutish and short but more colourful in those days. The suspicion is hard to dismiss altogether, though the author herself would strenuously deny it. ‘An Obscure Man’, set in London, Amsterdam and the New World in the mid-17th century, traces the life of Nathanaël, who stows away on a ship bound for Jamaica after committing a murderous assault on a drunkard. Soon one of his shipmates is fatally stabbed in the eye, while his father is killed by a fall from some scaffolding. In the Caribbean Nathanaël enlists on an English gunboat, which sails up the coast of Maine and opens fire on a defenceless group of Jesuit priests (this is based on a historical incident in 1621). Further deaths from shipwreck, scurvy and consumption follow. When Nathanaël hears of the barbarous practices of the Abenaki Indians he is scarcely shocked: ‘Nathanaël remembered the heads of victims of torture hung from the gates of the Tower of London, and he realised that men are everywhere the same’ (in the original French, les hommes sont partout des hommes). This is indeed Yourcenar’s belief, one which reunites the present and the past, nor is there any sense that she would give les hommes a feminist inflection. Gender and historical distance are, she holds in her ‘Postfaces’ to this volume, matters of indifference to the creative imagination.
‘An Obscure Man’ is a completely recast version of a novella originally published as ‘After Rembrandt’. Though Yourcenar has dropped the painterly titles, these stories are still imaginary portraits, Paterian evocations of a group of figures whose gaze looks out at us and whose sensibility speaks to us across the centuries. Nathanaël is strongly imaginative but scarcely articulate, and his experiences are obscure and unhistoric: nevertheless, in their variety and enterprise, they are not so much universal as inescapably modern and European. As a young man he spends two years marooned among primitive settlers on an island off the Canadian coast; finally he makes his home in a lone cottage in the Frisian Islands. In between, he frequents the great houses, the slums, the brothels and the Jewish quarter of Amsterdam. Having been taught to read by an English schoolmaster, he becomes a skilled proof-corrector in his uncle’s printing-shop. His life is shaped by the innovations of the mariner’s compass, gunpowder and the printing-press.
Nathanaël comes to understand his life, in very familiar terms, as a journey: but his is a journey without purpose, without steady companions, and surrounded with uncertainty. People ‘stayed with you a bit of the way, only to disappear without explanation at the next turn, fading out like ghosts’, he reflects. Once past, the various episodes of his life drop away, like melted ice or like objects thrown overboard. In ‘A Lovely Morning’, the brief sequel to ‘An Obscure Man’, Nathanaël’s son (who hardly knew his father) runs off to become one of a company of Shakespearean actors. Like his father’s, his experience is offered as representative of humanity as a whole; in his life he will play many parts. The cart conveying the company of actors is driven by a greasepainted figure with a scythe, old Father Time himself. These stories reflect, not only the afterglow of European expansionism, but the shock to the individual of liberation from any religious view of the significance of life. Nathanaël escapes from the pious Protestantism of his Dutch forebears to the New World, where, in a place known as Ile Perdue, he meets a consumptive girl who bears all the marks of the noble savage. She has ‘no more religion than grass or fresh springwater has’. In Amsterdam, he befriends a freethinking Jewish philosopher (evidently modelled on Spinoza), while a further unhappy love-affair convinces him that he must face his life in solitude. Himself sick with consumption, he crawls away to die in the lonely Frisian Islands like an animal.
Refusing all religious consolation, the achievement of this story is to make the life of a human being passing from oblivion to oblivion into the subject of the most consummate literary art. Nathanaël in the end has no use for books, which he sees as a kind of drug. But it is arguable that he needed his single (and abortive) brush with the life of the intellect to make him seem fully significant, in the reader’s and in Yourcenar’s eyes. His encounter with Leon Belmonte, the dying philosopher, will in the end serve to validate his own inarticulate and non-philosophical vision of existence. Nathanaël misses his chance to carry off Belmonte’s unfinished last work to the printer, so that it gets unceremoniously dumped in the canal along with his other worthless possessions. (Two of Spinoza’s major works, by contrast, were published posthumously.) The broody, sombre Stoicism of Two Lives and a Dream is meticulously rendered in the translation by Walter Kaiser and the author. The jingling phrase ‘among his host of ghosts’ for dans la troupe de ses fantômes is the one thing that may cause a raised eyebrow or two, but even this presumably bears the stamp of Yourcenar’s authority.
Marguerite Yourcenar is that rarity, a Stoic among novelists, but fiction is much more commonly a form for Epicureans. Outside the realist and naturalist tradition, the anxieties we feel about death (as Ruskin implied) are usually charmed away by the fiction. Death is kept waiting in the wings to the end of the volume, or if it must come on stage, it is dressed up as an angel of mercy or a clown. Nowhere is this more evident than in Post-Modernist fiction: here, under the sign of the fictive, the funhouse has absorbed the charnel-house. Surely the magic in so-called ‘magic realism’ consists, precisely, in the creation of an enchanted world in which death has no sting and the grave no victory? In which the characters are allotted not one life but nine? Hans Christoph Buch’s The Wedding at Port-au-Prince announces its magic-realist affiliations and kinship to folktale and melodrama in the title of its opening section, ‘The Cayman’s Nine Lives’. Since this is a historical romance set on the terrible island of Haiti, Baron Samedi, ‘lord of the graveyards’, is its presiding genius, and thousands of extras are dispatched with aplomb (‘The dead servant was carried away, the blood wiped off the marble floor; another slave girl was quickly produced, and she began to fan the air while Pauline resumed her interrupted siesta’). The point is, however, that Pauline and the other protagonists, or their mythic archetypes, survive, and so does the cayman.
Buch’s witty and engaging but ramshackle novel (comparable, according to its author, to a ruined fortress or castle) is in three parts. First we see the period of native rebellion which followed Napoleon’s attempt to bring Haiti into the French Empire. The cayman, a fearsome adjunct to Toussaint L’Ouverture’s guerrilla army, swallows and then generously regurgitates one of the invaders. It stays out of sight during the second part of the story, in which the events surrounding the dispatch of two hostile German gunboats to Port-au-Prince in 1897 are traced through a sequence of diplomatic exchanges and newspaper reports. The third part, ‘Pastimes of German Emigrants’, is a burlesque family chronicle (Hans Christoph Buch is himself of German-Haitian descent), punctuated from time to time by the sardonic crunching of the cayman’s jaws. This Tiresias of the swamps has seen and foresuffered all.
The title is something of a puzzle: there are no weddings portrayed at Port-au-Prince, only funerals. In fact, Buch is paying homage to a short story by Heinrich von Kleist, ‘The Betrothal at Santo Domingo’ (1811). Here a Swiss fugitive during the native rebellion mistrusts the half-breed girl to whom he has proposed, and shoots her dead before she has time to agree to marry him. Buch rewrites Kleist’s story of Gustav and Toni as one of his 20th-century episodes. His Gustav is a naval officer under Hitler, while Toni, the reincarnation of a Haitian water-nymph (the ubiquitous cayman lurks in her suburban swimming-pool), is an undercover Communist agent. True to the conventions of magic realism, Buch avoids the finality of the Kleistian melodrama. There is no terminal shoot-out, only Gustav’s mysterious disappearance in the middle of a showing of Frankenstein, with Boris Karloff, in the Port-au-Prince cinema. Nothing is left of him except a rusty dagger thrown into the harbour, and a small wet spot on the back of his seat.
There are other richly entertaining episodes, including some rather blatantly steeped in literary pastiche. Buch even has a blown-up condom episode set in Weimar, as if Porterhouse Blue had been transported to the Thuringian forest. The ending of the novel is downbeat: we are in the time of Papa Doc, and the Gothic narrative edifice must finally be revealed as ‘not really a castle but a prison, a pyramid of skulls’. Perhaps the cayman, the ur-narrator, has survived the Tontons Macoute and lives to chomp through another day? This poetic and memorable extravaganza must surely put an end to Graham Greene’s imaginative monopoly over the Haiti of the mind. The real Haiti, doubtless, is another matter.
One of Hans Christoph Buch’s potent images is that of a funeral at which the dead man revives, a funeral turned into a voodoo carnival. Similar things are not unknown in Ireland, where Terry Eagleton’s self-consciously carnivalesque first novel is set. Saints and Scholars begins with a drably journalistic reconstruction of the execution of James Connolly at Kilmainham gaol in 1916. The opening pages are clumsily written – Connolly’s green overalls ‘stand out against the red brick wall’ where he is shot, though everyone knows he was shot sitting down – and in the end we wonder if the clumsiness is deliberate, an attempt to estrange us from the realistic mode. What else are we to make of the seven British Army bullets whistling towards Connolly’s chest, ‘accompanied by one blank’? Not before time, the bullets – and presumably the blank – are arrested in mid-trajectory. Connolly is allowed a miraculous escape, only to find himself caught up in a sort of Shavian house-party consisting of Leopold Bloom, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Nikolai Bakhtin (the brother of Mikhail), and a trooper called Molloy, all of whom just happen to fetch up in a lonely Connemara cottage.
What follows is often highly amusing, since Eagleton is (as one had suspected) pretty good at the game of travesties. Wittgenstein and Bakhtin make an excellent double-act, with Bakhtin, a roly-poly ex-Marxist, stealing the show from the robot-like Wittgenstein. It is the former who, speaking like a character from Heartbreak House or Major Barbara, gives voice to his famous brother’s Rabelaisian precepts: ‘The state abhors only one thing in the end, and that’s the sound of laughter ... The people want carnivals, not collective farms.’ Connolly, who has to listen to this stuff, struggles manfully not to be impressed. (The novel contains no female characters.) Connolly knows that the Easter Rising was always doomed, except as a blood-sacrifice. He and his comrades fatally disregarded the Republican version of Vladimir and Estragon’s Law (‘Let’s go.’ ‘We can’t. We’re waiting for reinforcements’). When Eagleton lets his imagination go there are bravura descriptions of Vienna under the Hapsburgs (all tumescence and cream cakes) and of the leglessness of the Dublin proletariat (for which history, it seems, is to blame). The sound of laughter becomes more forced as the end approaches, and revolutionary piety comes back to the fore; James Connolly is again a dead man, all leave having been cancelled. But at least Leopold Bloom comes up trumps. On his own now that Molly has run off with Stephen Dedalus, he floors a British officer with a well-aimed though scarcely believable pistol-shot.
The solemn case against this cheerful farce would be that in it history is massaged and chronology muddled for a rather transparent end: Eagleton deftly increases the Easter Rising casualty figures, and goes to some lengths to disguise that in 1916, when the fictional events must be supposed to take place, there was a European war on. Bertrand Russell is cast as an amiable college man and Trinity don, humouring his fellow philosopher while sporting his oak and sipping his claret. We are given no hint that in 1916 his pacifism deprived him of his Trinity fellowship. In Saints and Scholars Connolly, as a political martyr, is appropriately portrayed with a degree of respect not given to the other characters. But there is an intriguing passage in which the Irish labour leader finds he can no longer believe the words he uses: his rhetoric, he realises, has lost all grip of reality. Here Eagleton is delving beneath the surface, questioning the firm distinction he otherwise draws between travesties and pieties.
That travesties themselves soon become pieties would, presumably, be the lesson of any history of historical misrepresentations. Alex Comfort’s Imperial Patient is a reexamination of the life of the Emperor Nero, who has suffered more from historical misrepresentation than most. A standard modern reference book will tell us that, ‘after a promising start’, Nero murdered his mother and two of his wives, and then may have caused the Great Fire of Rome. He also threw Christians to the lions. Comfort’s narrator, Callimachus, is a sophisticated Greek doctor whose gynaecological expertise and open temperament happen to win Nero’s confidence. Comfort portrays the Emperor as a vacillating, almost schizophrenic figure, but the most interesting things here are the diversions from this narrative in which the author’s own richly idiosyncratic preoccupations are indulged.
Callimachus, like Comfort, is impressed by the wisdom of the East and its possible bearings on medical practice. He learns to hypnotise his patients, and hints delicately at his initiation into the Eleusinian mysteries. He also has an intriguingly Blakean sex-life. His mistress, who like him is skilled in the healing arts, dies in childbirth after recounting a prophetic dream in which she reveals the name of her eventual successor. ‘It is an extraordinary experience, and a privilege rarely accorded by the Goddess, to be the lover of the same woman twice over: but I must admit that I am enjoying it,’ Callimachus confides when his new mistress appears.
Meanwhile, cornered by his enemies, Nero makes a daring escape from the annals of history after faking what has usually been regarded as his suicide. ‘May Asklepios guide you,’ Callimachus concludes, but once again it is Epicurus whose death-defying precepts the narrative vindicates. Old Father Time’s scythe has been blunted again.