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That Mighty Sculptor: Time.

Marguerite Yourcenar. Aidan Ellis. 18.00 [pounds].

Marguerite Yourcenar became well known to English readers when Les Memoires d'Hadrien was translated in 1954, thirteen years after its original publication. She was the author of several novels, often with historical themes. Although she was born in Belgium and spent much of her life in the United States, she is normally thought of as French. Indeed she became the first woman elected to the Acaddmie Frangaise in 1980 and she was granted French citizenship by Presidential decree.

In 1974 she published the first volume of her autobiography Souvenirs Pieux and once again it has taken many years for an English translation to appear. This excellent translation by Maria Louise Ascher appeared in America last year and is now published in England.

Like most autobiographies this begins with her birth in 1903. However, instead of moving forward it travels backward to took at her ancestors, most of whom were minor nobility or officials in Belgium. The account of her own birth, which caused the death of her mother, is unforgettable as she draws a powerful portrait of life among the Belgian bourgoisie. Although nothing in the book equals this, she uses her powerful historical imagination to recreate -- often with scanty materials -- the world of many of her forebears.

A serious historian would have to be very careful in taking all these family legends for historical facts. Yet this feat of imagination does work in Dear Departed and makes it a memorable autobiography. One cannot say the same of this collection of her essays, That Mighty Sculptor, Time. These range from a two page attack on the wearing of furs to a mildly enjoyable one on Andalusia. Many of them are slight and more are pretentious. Often she needs only one fact to leap to a theory. For example, when a guide in Vienna confuses a statue of Empress Maria Theresa with one of Empress Elizabeth, Madame Yourcenar concludes that Austrian schools do not know how to teach history. No doubt, some may be impressed by a dollop of Buddhism in an essay, but pretentious writing cannot obscure the fact that many of the essays are trite.
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Author:Mullen, Richard
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1992
Words:363
Previous Article:Dear Departed.
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