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Memoirs of Hadrian: And Reflections on the Composition of Memoirs of Hadrian (Penguin Modern Classics) [Paperback]

Marguerite Yourcenar , Paul Bailey , Grace Frick
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (24 customer reviews)
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Book Description

7 Dec 2000 Penguin Modern Classics

Framed as a letter from the Roman Emperor Hadrian to his successor, Marcus Aurelius, Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian is translated from the French by Grace Frick with an introduction by Paul Bailey in Penguin Modern Classics.

In her magnificent novel, Marguerite Yourcenor recreates the life and death of one of the great rulers of the ancient world. The Emperor Hadrian, aware his demise is imminent, writes a long valedictory letter to Marcus Aurelius, his future successor. The Emperor meditates on his past, describing his accession, military triumphs, love of poetry and music, and the philosophy that informed his powerful and far-flung rule. A work of superbly detailed research and sustained empathy, Memoirs of Hadrian captures the living spirit of the Emperor and of Ancient Rome.

Marguerite de Crayencour (1903-88), who went by the inexact anagrammatic pen name 'Marguarite Yourcenar', was a Belgian-born French novelist and essayist, the first woman to be elected to the Académie française. Her first novel Alexis was published in 1929; in 1939 she was invited to America by her lover Grace Frick, where she lectured in comparative literature at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. When Mémoires d'Hadrien was first published in 1951, it was an immediate success and met with great critical acclaim.

If you enjoyed Memoirs of Hadrian, you might like Robert Graves's I, Claudius, also available in Penguin Modern Classics.

'A timeless masterpiece ... every page is informed by her profound scholarship'

Paul Bailey, author of Gabriel's Lament

'Yourcenar conjures worlds. She can make us share passion - for beauty, bodies, ideas, even power - and consider it closely at the same time. She is that most extraordinary thing: a sensual thinker'

Independent on Sunday


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Memoirs of Hadrian: And Reflections on the Composition of Memoirs of Hadrian (Penguin Modern Classics) + I, Claudius (Penguin Classics) + Claudius the God (Penguin Classics)
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Product details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Classics; New Ed edition (7 Dec 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0141184965
  • ISBN-13: 978-0141184968
  • Product Dimensions: 1.7 x 12.8 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (24 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 31,869 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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First Sentence
My dear Mark, Today I went to see my physician Hermogenes, who has just returned to the Villa from a rather long journey in Asia. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
35 of 37 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A pellucid masterpiece 8 May 2004
Format:Paperback
This is one of the best historical novels around. I've read it both in the French and in the English translation by Grace Frick. The English translation really does convey the flavour of Yourcenar's measured prose. It helps that Grace was a very close friend of Yourcenar. I've also studied this period and Yourcenar was obviously steeped in the sources - just how far is clear in the notes included at the back. She conveys not only the philosophical tensions in Roman life but mundane things such as the quality of light, the treatment of slaves, attitudes towards Jews, Barbarians and Greeks. There is not a false note in the book, and it raises universal questions whilst acknowledging the different context of Hadrian's life. A beautiful piece of work.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
If you wish to have a quick, easy and even amusing dip into the era of the late Roman empire - this is not the book for you. If you want to know the facts of battles, constructions, bloodlines and courtly intrigues (which there were plenty, accession of Hadrian wasn't quite so straightforward as we see it through Hadrian's/Yourcenar's eyes) - this is not the book for you. There are other books to read if this is what you are after (say Lindsey Davies' Falco series).

As someone said in the comments below - this is rather a philosophy book set in historical era, an era that Yourcenar knew very well (I believe she spoke Latin and ancient Greek fluently). It's historically impeccable (even if it doesn't go on about battles) but you can sense the tensions and ideals of mid 20th century in the book set in the 2nd century. Writing a "ghost biography" limits how much you can say about a person so it limits how many different story lines you can keep going and limits analysis of different aspects of Hadrian (he was no saint) but this is not a flaw in the book as the biggest beauty of the book lies in Marguerite Yourcenar's prose. She worked on the book for 10 years and in the sentences became tense with meaning while appearing deceivingly simple. You want to slow down and absorb this book. It is like the most excellent wine you unexpectedly find (not to diminish the book or aggrandise the wine) - you just want to savour it until the end.
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35 of 40 people found the following review helpful
Format:Paperback
This book takes you back in time to the 2nd century and the memoirs of Emperor Hadrian. But it makes you feel as though this man could be talking to you, telling you his inner most thoughts on life and death. The book is totally compelling and you feel for Hadrian as a man. He talks about his love of life , nature, friendships and ultimately, his greatest love, the young Antoninous. The portrayal of this relationship and its unfortunate ending was very moving.
You also begin to see just how humanitarian and ahead of his time this man was. The birth of liberty, humanitarian values, democracy and provincialism all figure in his reign. The evidence and influence of Hadrian are still to be felt. This is a wonderful window into the 2nd century and the life of a compassionate and hugely dynamic man. I feel richer and wiser for having been introduced to his thoughts on life and living. It is a great introduction to Roman history, and history in general.
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18 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A book to be Treasured - a Masterpiece! 11 Jan 2003
By Kayee
Format:Paperback
This book is one the best books that I have read. It is actually a "ghost autobiography", of the second century Roman emperor Hadrian. The language is fluent and the descriptions of events and the life around him are both graphic and moving. If you are a philosopher and an emperor and you possess all that you wish to have, what would be your thoughts be? By answering this question this book suggests an answer to another: "What is the Meaning of Life?"
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22 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a master piece 15 Feb 2006
By A Customer
Format:Paperback
I usually don't write book reviews but in this particular case I think that i need to talk about one of the aspects of the book that is missing in the other reviews.
All the reviews talk about it as a historical book. Readers praised its language fluency and historical accuracy. They're not wrong, but I don't think that it is the essence of the book, the reason why the author wrote it. This memeoirs don't allow us to enter the emperor's mind and the roman philosophy and beleifs. No one can know what these were and the author doesn't pretend to do so. This book is rather a personal work that allow us to enter the author's mind and philosophy (because it is first a philosophical treaty) and to analyse our relationship with our roman past. Marguerite yourcenar isn't a historian, she is a philosoph.
She was the first woman to enter L'académie Française, and she's undoubtedly one the major french writers of the century.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful! 12 Jan 2014
Format:Paperback
This is perhaps the most complex book I have read in a while.
Originally written in French, the hebrew translation I read uses a language, while not archaic per se, but somewhat poetic, long sentences complicating further what are already deep and, dare I say, philosophical concepts.

The book is written as a series of letters from the Emperor Hadrianus to his adopted grandson Marcus Aurelius (yes, that one).
From the very beginning Hadrianus lays down his creed about human nature, explains his love for all things Greek and his own character as an eternal optimist - not for its own sake but for the feeling of freedom it provides.

He writes a bit about his childhood and youth spent in the army, and as soon as anything, he is already 40 years old, awaiting, without much patience or hope, to be adopted and declared heir to the throne, while fighting yet another war against Parthia. Caesar, Crassus, my favourite Ancient Romans, had an obsession with this country. It was nice to see it persist through the years.

Hadrianus was the lucky one - his rivals had the same chances at power as him, the same hopes and dreams. Had their ''autobiographies'' been written, they would have been filled with them, all unfulfilled.

He is lucky - the ultimate power was his at last, and while he himself claims to be a bit of a philosopher, a bit of a dreamer, his approach to politics is very realistic.
He wants, and works for, a universal peace and he wants a universal Rome (in the existing borders) and he believes that he needs to work with humanity and that, by application of comon courtecy, potential enemies will be such no longer.

I liked how Hadrianus is cynical and amusing.
It was after, but feels like before.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent
Easily the best value, it arrived promptly and It was as good as I hoped it would be. Thank you
Published 6 months ago by Sally-Anne Nicholson
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful.
The eerie prescience of that sublime line, "I begin to discern the profile of my death" hooked me into this astonishing book. A complete one-off masterpiece. Read more
Published 9 months ago by David Baird
2.0 out of 5 stars Not what I expected
I was really looking for the factual history of Hadrian,whereas this is more of a novel. ie. someones dreams of what may have been.
Published 11 months ago by e v graham
5.0 out of 5 stars a book that almost demands to be re-read
I had read this book many years ago and I remember it as very, very good. I bought it again now, in English, having read it in Greek first time round. Read more
Published 13 months ago by annastam
1.0 out of 5 stars Fiction posing as academic work
This is not a serious study of Hadrian in Egypt or a biography of the emperor,and certainly NOT his "memoirs". Read more
Published 18 months ago by dinner-lady
2.0 out of 5 stars Highly disappointed
I know many enjoyed this story, but "Memoirs of Hadrian" it isn't. So for what it is worth, if you are looking for a very well written book of literature you will enjoy it, if you... Read more
Published on 27 April 2012 by Snap
4.0 out of 5 stars An interesting read
The item was a little musty but this adds to the pleasures of old books. The tale is interesting, the thoughts and memories Hadrian might have had as a man as well as an emperor.
Published on 1 Sep 2011 by Marran Grey
5.0 out of 5 stars between paganism and christianity
This is one of the most brilliant historical novels ever written and you can tell that it is a labor of love. Read more
Published on 9 July 2011 by rob crawford
4.0 out of 5 stars Hadrian emperor and lover
Came across this by chance but now realise it is a French classic. The book wonderfully evokes the Roman empire of Hadrian and his passion for Antinous.
Published on 23 Jan 2011 by Nimbu
5.0 out of 5 stars Suggestion for future edition
A superb book, the outcome of a lifetime's work and reflection, and I don't intend to add anything to the other 5-star reviews here. Read more
Published on 31 Oct 2010 by Josquine
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