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Marguerite Yourcenar

Marguerite Yourcenar wrote the acclaimed novel Mémoires d'Hadrien and won the Erasmus Price in 1983.


"[H]aunting and vividly told tales which raise fascinating questions about human nature and its response to life and death."

– C. Robert Nixon



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Oriental Tales

Squarely in the Realm of the Transgressive, Where True Desire Abides


First published in France in 1938 and introduced to me by the wonderful Rikki Ducornet, the stories in Marguerite Yourcenar’s Oriental Tales do more than just confront the power of desire, they promote it to immense and terrifying dimensions.

In Kali Beheaded, the gorgeous virgin goddess Kali is massacred by jealous fellow gods, who re-attach her head to the body of a whore, and she roams the world in furious confusion, seducing and destroying everyone she encounters with vengeful innocence — a unity Yourcenar may have invented — the slave of her own craving to connect with other beings. Yourcenar writes, “. . . the liquefied fortunes of men clung to her hands like strands of honey.” For Kali, now goddess of sex and death, desire and destruction are the same, and she is just as much a prisoner of this binary as everyone else.

In Our-Lady-of-the-Swallows, a priest becomes convinced that nymphs are living in a cave and seducing his parishioners, so he blocks the cave’s small mouth and tries to starve them. But as he celebrates their death-song, the reader learns the nymphs are really swallows, who, indeed, are really starving.

In Aphrodissia, the Widow, the widow of a minister in what probably is Greece — a Greece abandoned by the gods, but not the passion that made them necessary—mourns the death of her illicit lover Kostis, a thief who terrorized a village full of hypocrites and cowards. Aphrodissia’s love for Kostis is both skeptical of love as social custom, and deeply, almost violently tender, and places love itself outside convention and squarely in the realm of the transgressive, where true desire abides in Yourcenar’s work.

Yourcenar sees the social realm as stifling and criminally banal; her characters are desperate for a vehement divorce from their communities and a union with the rage of their emotion. Aphrodissia rescues her lover’s head from the top of a spear and tries to run away with it, but she is chased, and, in a scene that is unbelievably moving, she slips into a canyon, where she dies.


If Oriental Tales has a flaw — beyond the way it uses an exoticized and mythical Far East as an environment for stories that transcend the banal, in an “everyone is crazy over there” kind of way — it’s the way her stories veer too easily into the fabulous. Wealthy servants give away their fortunes to benefit their masters, murder victims come back from the dead, imprisoned artists paint a flood and then a lifeboat to escape with, and all that from just one story: How Wang-Fo Was Saved, which Yourcenar adapted from an ancient Taoist fable.

Literary fairy tales have to find a way to navigate the pitfalls of facile magic. Italo Calvino does it by writing prose that slyly critiques the reader; Angela Carter does it by violently exploring latent assumptions about gender. When Yourcenar fails, her stories seem too formulaic or have no sense of the hassle of reality. Their endings read like punch lines.

In a way, Yourcenar is one of her own characters: a zealot on a fool’s quest to embody, in a story, that which cannot be contained. At her best, she’s like a physicist who briefly but revealingly controls the ineffable unseen before the operation blows up her collider. She writes as if she knows the edict from Blanchot that says that to toil with the elements in the only true realism.

Most of us grow out of the idea that life is either death by boredom or immolation in desire, but every now and then, as we look drearily out the window, we remember all our deepest loves and hates, all of the desires we’ve left unacted. Oriental Tales is for these moments, when the loss we keep repressed comes rupturing unbearably through our lives.

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