andrez's review against another edition
Ah, what can I say about this book?
This consists of a (tremendously long) letter from the bed-ridden, almost dying emperor Hadrian to his successor, Marcus Aurelius. There, he narrates his life starting from his childhood, describes his ascent to power as well as his love for Antinous.
First of all, Yourcenar writes excellently. For a lover of prose like myself, this dialogueless work was a heavenly read. The writing is fluid, worth being savoured, and often beautiful. Not rarely, I wanted to grab a pencil and underline whole blocks of text just so that I'd find them quickly when I next flipped the pages.
This was recommended to me by my mother, and her description of the book was "it's not something you would usually want to read, but the main character's so interesting he automatically makes the story interesting as well." Ah, mom, wise as ever, I see. Hadrian certainly is a fantastic character. The way he expresses his ideas, his forward thinking and open mindedness, his points of view, the way he sees himself and the world that surrounds him, even the way he felt love, every single one of those things completely entranced me. For the duration of 312 pages, History, no, Hadrian, came alive to me.
Definitely a masterpiece.
crimpinglife's review against another edition
As I described it on my Tumblr a few years ago:
Is it slow in the beginning? Yes.
Can it be boring at times? Yes.
Is it worth reading? If you’ve spent four months hearing rave reviews about his Villa. YES.
In all fairness to Yourcenar - it’s a good book. I finally understand why so many people think half of this stuff is actually real. I had to remind myself on occasion that it’s not really Hadrian writing this stuff.
nacheetos's review against another edition
Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar
This book actually slowed down my reading progress for the month. It did have its good parts but I’d say I only enjoyed 20% of the whole book. I think it’s because the language used wasn’t the friendliest, though I’m sure someone else would love it if they didn’t have much trouble understanding it.
gastronauta's review against another edition
First of all, picking this book up right now - huge mistake. It's the sort of book that calls for reading every sentence twice. Though the kick-ass translation by Julio Cortázar did help with that, my brain has been too scattered lately to treat this book properly. It's a shame, really.
Memoires d'Hadrian is intended as a philosophical reflection on both history and individual human nature. Yourcenar covers just about every major issue you can think of - politics, sexuality and sensuality, mankind's relationship with culture, immortality. Of course, Hadrian comes across as a brilliant, sensible and cultivated man, so much that some of his opinions are suspiciously modern, even prophetic. I know, I know, Hadrian is more a literary device than anything else, and that's not the point and I should pretend like I didn't care. The truth is, his meditations are so engrossing in every other respect, I did forgive him - but I had to make an effort not to care.
I was heartbroken over (hardly a spoiler, but oh well
All in all, a very good read. Probably a masterpiece. I actually feel guilty that I didn't read it properly - then it may have gotten a 5th star.
how do you review your favorite book? like, your really really favorite book of all time ever? that book you think about every day, that book which ruined all other books for months, that book which sometimes you take off the shelf just to read a beloved passage that has been lately ringing through your heart? do you talk about it as you would any other book, or does it deserve some sort of special treatment? do you work really hard to make it sound supercalifragilicious awesome because you want EVERYONE to read it omg even if you know that not everyone will love it like you do? I don’t know, and that’s why I’ve been putting it off for a year. but at this point it’s getting rather silly, so I guess I’d better try.
I imagine part of the reason it’s so hard is that, on the surface, memoirs of hadrian doesn’t sound like much. it’s quite what it says on the tin: the fictionalized memoirs of the roman emperor hadrian, framed as a letter to his successor, written on his deathbed. I know, I know - yawn, how exciting. and no, it isn’t exactly a thriller. there is no dialogue; there are no scenes; there is no real order, except very very loose chronology, to the sequence of events recalled; there is, well, no plot as such—but not in the bad fanfic way, and not in the pretentious creative writing student way. in the authentic way. in the way that a life doesn’t have a plot—to put it in the novel’s own words:
“When I consider my life, I am appalled to find it a shapeless mass. A hero's existence, such as is described to us, is simple; it goes straight to the mark, like an arrow. Most men like to reduce their lives to a formula, whether in boast or lament, but almost always in recrimination; their memories oblingingly construct for them a clear and comprehensible past. My life has contours less firm.”
and I can say absolutely, in a way I can say very few other things, that it’s the best novel I have ever read, even if it isn’t traditional, even if it sounds boring, and even if to some people it is boring. it's slow, and ponderous, and it may take some time to get into it, but it's so, so worth it overall.
this is a book about time. about the oceans of it. about one man’s awareness of it, about our own awareness of it, and about the bridge between. I am, in fact, going to steal words from a little mini-review I wrote somewhere else: “you understand him totally as both a man of his time and as a great man of a great time, and also as a man haunted always by time, by history - his history, which I think we think of as being less heavy than our own history, but it isn’t, really - and by the future - his future, which is of course our past, but also beyond that, beyond our present time, into what is still the future, ‘centuries as yet unborn within the dark womb of time would pass by thousands over that tomb’ - and it’s like, sometimes you very much feel the two thousand years separating him from us, and sometimes you very much feel how close together we really are in the whole history of the world.”
so there’s that. and it’s also about humanity, of course, both individual humanity and the whole species of us, one man and all the rest of them in the world. on its most intimate level, it is about one man and his taste in books and poetry and art, of his joy and his grief, of his love affairs (and one especially, of course)—and also his wars, his empire, his vast lands and his vaster power.
which means that it is also about rome, as one would expect, although perhaps not in the way one would expect. a large part of yourcenar’s inspiration for this book came from flaubert’s quote about this period of roman history as:
“Just when the gods had ceased to be, and the Christ had not yet come, there was a unique moment in history, between Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, when man stood alone.”
and that is decidedly the lens through which we see rome. hadrian, on the other hand, whose lens is less meta than ours but entirely self-aware, sees it very fondly as a blazing civilization nevertheless in decay, perhaps inferior to that of ancient greece (he prefers the greek language to latin), and which will collapse, deservedly, into other civilizations, different sometimes and sometimes the same, remembered on occasion in certain laws and through certain traditions. “intermittent immortality,” he calls it.
I hope that I’m not making this all sound very bleak—it isn’t a bleak novel. it is melancholy, and every word is heavy with age and with long sorrows and with life lived, but I was never depressed when reading it. there is no hopelessness—only a sort of soft and weary resignation to the nature of time and the accompanying nature of humanity. but one made more gentle and more palatable by a great, abiding, reluctant love for both. hadrian is such a remarkable character here, who is even more remarkably well-realized. every instance of his life is tied together in every observation he makes—he feels so incredibly real, and this book like such an incredibly authentic memoir, that sometimes I had to very sternly remind myself that it is in fact fiction—albeit based in obsessive research and fact—and even then I would reply to myself, “are you sure?”
it is also fascinating, to see what yourcenar - or hadrian - considered most worthy of meditation. hadrian's wall, for instance, which is what most people probably know him for, occupies a relatively minuscule part of the narrative. there's a section after the main text called "reflections on the composition of memoirs of hadrian", and it is, to me, at least, just as profound and moving as the book itself - and just as interesting. it took yourcenar decades upon decades to write this book; the care and precision which has gone into it - a lifetime's worth of both - is palpable on every page, without ever becoming intrusive.
the simplest and likely the most accurate way I can think of to describe memoirs of hadrian is to say that it is like marble, alive. and as I mentioned earlier, although I want everyone in the world to read this book, I know that not everyone in the world would like it, and that fewer still would love it as I do. but I really think there is something in this masterwork for everyone to take.
in the end—what is there left to say about an acknowledged masterpiece published sixty years ago? if you want an opinion about memoirs of hadrian, I am really the last person you need consult; there are others much more famous and more talented and more respected than me who have written more beautifully on how this book is beautiful. but I suppose that one could ask, in the same vein, what there is left to say about an emperor two thousand years dead, and the answer, given here and well-defended, is “quite a lot.” so maybe it is worth something after all.
- Strong character development? Yes
- Loveable characters? Yes
- Diverse cast of characters? It's complicated
- Flaws of characters a main focus? Yes
I think my habit of putting this book down and then returning to it some time later diluted my reading experience. But I wouldn't be surprised if I keep returning to it over time, or if four stars become five.