Sunday, February 6, 2011

The following is a quote from an interview with Margarite Yourcenar that appeared in 1988 in the Paris Review. I think her comments on Proust and Phedre are intriguing -- as is the characterization of the way the French think of "love" etc.


Proust had this idea that Racine’s Phedre could be indentified with a man as well as a woman. But Racine’s Phedre is much more French than Greek: You will see it at once if you compare her to the Greek Phedre. Her passionate jealousy is a typical theme of French literature, just as it is in Proust. That is why even in Phedre, Racine had to find her a rival, Aricie, who is an insignificant character, like a bridal from a popular dress shop. In other words, love as possession, against someone. And that is prodigiously French. Spanish jealousy is quite different: It is real hatred, the despair of someone who has been deprived of his/her food. As for the Anglo-Saxon love, well, there is nothing more beautiful than Shakespeare’s sonnets, while German love has produced some wonderful poetry too.


I have this theory that the French do not understand Baudelaire and never have. They speak of his rhetoric, yet he is the least rhetorical of poets. He writes like an Oriental poet—dare I say like a Persian poet?


Baudelaire is a sublime poet. But the French don’t even understand Hugo, who is also a sublime poet. I have—as Malraux also did—taken titles from Hugo’s verses: Le Cerveau noir de piranèse, and others. Whenever I am passing by Place Vendôme in Paris I recall Hugo’s poem in which he is thinking of Napoleon, wondering if he should prefer “la courbe d’Hannibal et l’angle d’Alexandre au carré de César.” A whole strategy contained in one line of alexandrine! Of course there are times when Hugo is bad and rhetorical—even great poets have their off days—but nonetheless he is prodigious.

You can read the full interview at:

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