Flight from privilege

BOOK MEMOIRS: HOW MANY YEARS: A Memoir by Marguerite Yourcenar trs Maria Louise Ascher, Aidan Ellis pounds 20
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The Independent Culture
"THE being I refer to as me came into the world on Monday, June 8, 1903... in Brussels," Marguerite Yourcenar told us at the outset of the first volume of her autobiography, Dear Departed (published here in 1992). What preoccupied her in that book was a vision of herself - and by extension, of every human being - as a meeting-point in time and space. The ancestors that stretch behind us and contribute to our looks, our temperament, our drives, are ultimately incalculable, the sheer numbers of them being something we largely shrink from confronting. Like an astronomer adjusting a telescope, Yourcenar, having compelled us to acknowledge the human vastness behind each of us, turned her gaze on the nearer-to and nameable, to recreate for us her mother (who died giving birth to her) and her mother's Belgian family.

In How Many Years she repeats the process, first evoking generations both French and Flemish, remote and less remote, in Flanders and the Nord province of France, and then concentrating on her grandfather and father. But there is an important difference between the books: Yourcenar knew Michel, her father, who died in 1929, intimately; indeed it was he who concocted from their real surname of Crayencour her nom de plume. And through his reminiscences she knew her grandfather and grandmother, who play scarcely less important roles in the book than Michel de Crayencour.

The Yourcenar we may know from her fiction is not quite the same woman as we encounter here. Imaginatively daring, with a great capacity for empathising with differing view-points and situations across cultures and times, Yourcenar the novelist always has something of the mandarin about her. In her recreations of family, however, she shows a deep concern with the quotidian, with the ins and outs of relationships and domestic lives, as well as a fierce social sense and breadth of compassion. And this is the more remarkable considering the milieu she is dealing with.

She was born into the minor aristocracy (with major aristocratic connections). On both sides of the family were landowners, whose collaterals and heirs- in-waiting became rentiers, the rich and privileged scions of castles and estates in the flat, windswept countryside of northern France and Belgium. Yourcenar is of them and yet not of them. She knows them well; she can work her mind back into theirs, she can enter into their habits and values. But these last she does not share. She is in fact a dissident from them, just as in life she was an exile from their terrain, living for many years in Maine. And when she examines the lives of her grandfather and her father, what she most admires are their ways of departing from the norms of their class and times.

Her grandfather, Michel-Charles, emerges as the more sympathetic of the two characters. As a young man in Paris he experienced an extraordinary experience. On a day's pleasure trip to Versailles with his friends and their grisettes, he was involved on the return journey in a horrific railway accident of which he was the sole survivor. The mutilations, the deaths, the shrieks of fear and pain affected him profoundly. He returned scarred to his family and to a dull, more or less arranged marriage; only his affection for his son Michel relieved and redeemed his existence.

Michel, Yourcenar's father, was to become almost a pattern of the attractions and the moral inadequacies of the Belle poque. He was charming, imaginative, and, with his numerous, intense love affairs and his three marriages, less a prisoner of convention than his father. Nevertheless, he epitomises almost unbearably well that dark vacuum of pre-1914 upper-class Europe, with its perpetual struggles against boredom, its aversion of the gaze from the huge ranks of those it exploited, and its selfish motto, lived out in expensive hotel after expensive hotel, of carpe diem. The day that eventually came, and in the Crayencours' very homeland, was that of the unprecedented carnage of the Great War.

Yourcenar offsets her picture of human failings with an awareness of the creature-world, and even seems to judge her characters by their relationship to it. Throughout the book there are wonderful evocations of animals, and some of the most moving portraits of dogs in modern literature. Speaking of Michel-Charles' love for his little dog Misca and grief at her death, Yourcenar writes, "He is clearly my grandfather".

! Paul Binding's most recent book is 'The Still Moment: Eudora Welty, Portrait of a Writer'