- Reviewed by
Marguerite Yourcenar is not among the best-known French writers in this country. Although a member of the French Academy since 1980, her work is still elitist, and popularity, for better or for worse, has eluded her. This Belgianborn French woman, residing in the state of Maine and now an American citizen, was eighty years old in 1983, and the Farrells' book was dedicated to her on her anniversary.
A few pages dealing with her life are supplemented by short chapters on her major titles: Alexis, Denier du rêve, Feux, Nouvelles orientales, and others. Some of the essays in the book had appeared elsewhere, and although the writers claim that they have undergone changes before transcription, this reviewer did not notice any significant revisions. A couple of the other chapters are based on papers read at scholarly meetings, and only two have been written specifically for this text.
The usefulness of the book resides in whatever potential it might have for the popularization of Marguerite Yourcenar. The authors' language is not burdensomely academic, summaries provide more than clues, and ample quotes in English introduce most characters directly to the reader. For the specialist, the focus on Yourcenar's earlier writings constitutes the text's most visible merit for such focus fills a lacuna that has persisted for too long. For the nonspecialist, the interest of the book is difficult to isolate, unless it be in the chapter entitled "From Siren to Saint: Women in the Works of Marguerite Yourcenar." Feminists may indeed be convinced that women play a major role in her texts, but, be that as it may, this neither adds to nor detracts from her opus, nor from the author's claim to glory.
The Farrells would have greatly enhanced their critical appraisal had they appended a bibliography of works consulted and an index. As it is, a format short of excellent and parts of contents previously in print make the overall value of the text rather questionable.
On the contrary, the brilliant questions and revealing answers in With Open Eyes leave little doubt as to the value of this book. The vast erudition of the critic Matthieu Galey is well known, and his ability to probe without seemingly doing so has led many of the persons he interviewed to confessions that might not have been made otherwise. Marguerite Yourcenar, accustomed though she is to the limelight, lets her hair down and, with utmost sincerity, speaks of her childhood, her education, her first attempts at writing, the influence of other writers, and of many other topics as well: love, money, drugs, politics, her adopted country, feminism, the search for the self, and the search for sainthood in the face of the death of God.
Over and beyond the many facts already known about her and her work, we learn much that is new: her support of consumerism in America, support [End Page 441] both moral and financial; her involvement in antinuclear demonstrations; her fear of pollution and of the depletion of our planetary resources; and, in general, her espousal of liberal, if not leftist causes. We learn, also, heretofore unknown or little-known facts concerning the composition of some of her books: her obsession with the myth of Icarus that is at the basis of her first title, Le Jardin des chimères, the book of poems she penned when only sixteen years old; her deep interest in sexual problems, such as those described in Alexis, where she had adopted a liberal point of view in tremulous, hesitant style (versus her opinion today, that sexuality is too much iri the news and an almost puritanical attitude is needed in order to...