A COIN IN NINE HANDS by Marguerite Yourcenar


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Originally written in 1934, revised in 1959, and now translated into English for the first time, this short novel--""half-realistic, half-symbolic""--is set in 1933 Rome, where a ten-lira coin passes from one person to next in a series of evocative, depressing, politically-tinged vignettes. A middle-aged man whose young wife has left him gives money to a sympathetic prostitute. The prostitute, dying of cancer, buys a lipstick from a cosmetics shop. (""Lina Chiari was kept from despair by a thin layer of makeup."") The shopowner--a henpecked husband and disappointed father (his son-in-law is imprisoned activist Carlo Stevio, his little granddaughter is an invalid)--buys a religious candle from Rosalia di Credo, a miserable woman who broods on her family's lost, Sicily-estate past, drifting into a semi-suicide. And the coin then passes into the hand of Marcella Ardeati, the novel's center: platonic beloved of Carlo Stevi, estranged wife of a successful, Fascist-connected doctor, Marcella is planning to assassinate Mussolini--a scheme which will go tragically awry while the coin passes from the doctor-husband to an earthy flower-seller to an aged, memory-soaked, painter/bum. . . to a young revolutionary who has loved Marcella. Throughout, then, Yourcenar shadows the individual, lonely life-stories here with the fleeting relief of human contact (symbolized by the coin-passing, by coincidental encounters galore) and with the impulse to look beyond the personal to larger, political issues. Still, though the anti-Fascist theme comes through unmistakably, the best passages are the least didactic ones, the plainly atmospheric glimpses of frustrated, joyless, bruised everyday-lives; and the prose, which slides back and forth between the quietly descriptive and the more aggressively poetic, is strongest when least pretentious. A worthy, if minor, example of Yourcenar's work, then--of historical interest for its early anti-Fascist stance (though Yourcenar acknowledges that the '59 revision has expanded on ""the political evil"") and considerably more impressive than last year's English edition of the prose-poem, Fires (1936).

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 1982
ISBN: 0374519536
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux