Saturday, July 04, 2015

A Classical Tragedy

Coup de GraceCoup de Grace 
by Marguerite Yourcenar

“Nothing moves me more than courage: so total a sacrifice deserved complete trust from me. But she never believed that I trusted her, since she did not suspect how much I distrusted others. In spite of appearances to the contrary, I do not regret having yielded to Sophie as much as it lay in my nature to do; at the first glance I had caught sight of something in her incorruptible, with which one could make a compact as sure, and as dangerous, as with an element itself. Fire may be trusted, provided one knows that its law is to burn, or die.”   ― Marguerite Yourcenar, Coup de Grace

This short novel by Marguerite Yourcenar is a first-person narrative constructed like a classical tragedy; thus it is severely limited in time, place, and action. Erick von Lhomond, an elegant soldier of fortune approaching forty as the story begins, recalls an episode connected with his youth. Though the story begins in Italy as Erick is waiting to return to Germany after having been wounded at Zaragoza (presumably in the Spanish Civil War), the entire focus of his story remains on his experience in the Baltic regions of Livonia and Kurland as the Bolshevik army approaches Kratovitsy, the estate of his cousin and boyhood friend, Conrad de Reval. Erick briefly recounts his first visit to Kratovitsy. He is an innocent, little more than a boy, and the place seems almost Eden-like while he and Conrad become close friends. Sophie, on the other hand, is nothing more than a distraction.

In the wake of the Russian Revolution, Erick returns to Kratovitsy as a Prussian-trained officer fighting in the White Russian army and determined to stop the advance of Bolshevik forces in the Baltic states. He serves with his boyhood friend Conrad and eventually arranges to be billeted at Kratovitsy. Unfortunately war has brought a general neglect to the once excellently managed estate. He notices changes in his feelings for Sophie; her kiss makes him determined to view her as the sister he never had.
Erick does not love Sophie; rather, he views her as he sees himself, as a creature degraded by their circumstances. Sophie does not understand the complex workings of Erick’s ambivalent mind, and he never is willing, perhaps is not even able, to describe his feelings for her. She is puzzled and embarrassed when Erick does not respond to her advances; even so, she realizes that he never rejects her, merely that he does not respond. She cannot understand why Erick misses no opportunity to belittle her and is puzzled by the oblique ways he chooses to do this, registering his disgust when she wears clothing he does not think appropriate, when she dances with officers stationed at Kratovitsy.

Their fates nevertheless remain hopelessly entwined, and Yourcenar mercilessly leads Erick to the story's inevitable, horrible conclusion. Each has, in a sense, the upper hand; each does what is necessary -- but the result is, of course, the complete destruction of both these human beings. There's little grace to the final, shattering coup de grâce.
This is very much an anti-romantic tale and with the war setting and has a determinedly dark atmosphere. However, Yourcenar's writing and the tight structure of the short novel combine to make this another great read from her pen.  

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Brian Joseph said...

This sounds compelling as most things that you read seem James.

I like the idea of a Twentieth Century writer taking on a classical form of writing. Ironically, by going back and utilizing these old structures, it seems like another way for an author to be creative,

I have not read Yourcenar but like many writers I want to read her.

James said...


Marguerite Yourcenar (her pen name is an anagram for her birth name of Crayencour) is one of the greatest of twentieth century writers. Winner of the Prix Femina and the Erasmus Prize, she was the first woman elected to the Académie française, in 1980. She was born in Belgium, but lived in France and America.
I would recommend her best work, Memoirs of Hadrian. It is an historical novel in the form of a memoir of the famous Roman emperor from the first half of the second century AD. However all of her novels and essays are worth reading.
She died in 1987 before I discovered her writing, thus she became one of my "new dead authors" that, with a little help from a great independent bookstore, I discovered in the 1990s. Some other writers on that list include Par Lagerkvist, Knut Hamsun, Joseph Roth, and Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa.